Copyright Kathleen Ann Goonan
Publication in any form without permission of author is expressly
In Search of Tir na nOg
Kathleen Ann Goonan
There comes a moment in every journey when it
begins to gel, to assume a shape and form. Familiar framings of reality
fade. The boundaries of the self become permeable, and time becomes a
series of sharp, closely observed gestalts that cleanse the soul with
the power of the unique.
This is the omega moment, when impressions are
gathered and a new understanding forms, though it may come in the middle
of a trip, and resonate forward and backward in time, coloring what has
been and what is to come. When this sea change comes, I can say that I
have truly travelled.
I went to Ireland in search of a distant heritage
which my Irish ancestors completely disavowed, and on this journey the
omega point did not coalesce until my husband and I arrived at An Bunsop,
a compact gathering of restored pre-famine cottages, just outside of
At the end of our fifth day of hard traveling, as
I emerged at nautical twilight from a nerve wracking drive through the
Burren and turned onto a four-lane highway, I was relieved to join
traffic displaying a decided intentional bent. The Burren, on Ireland's
west coast just south of Galway, is a lonely stretch of limestone hills
laced with roads barely wider than our tiniest of rental cars, fenced
close on each side by rock walls. Around a blind curve might be a
mother pushing a stroller, a tour bus exactly as wide as the road and
making undue haste, or just your regular Irish driver, on the verge of
taking flight and trusting the post-curve road to be empty. The Burren
experience would have been enjoyable on a midsummer's morning, but it
was near-dark in late October, we weren't entirely sure of our way, and
we had been travelling for twelve hours.
The N-6 torrent of cars revealed that we were not
lost, but nearly at our resting place, and drawing closer to the hidden
world of pre-famine Ireland. We had reservations at An Bunsop, procured
through the Internet via a web page with a tantalizing glimpse of
thatched roof and whitewashed stucco punctuated by red geraniums. We
were promised "A Step Back In Time." I don't put much faith in
advertising, but it was what, in my heart, I wanted from Ireland.
But after I doggedly negotiated clogged
roundabouts on the outskirts of Galway, the place proved damnably
elusive. It was full night. Headlights glared. Everyone was on the
wrong side of the road and I wasn't sure which side of my brain might
take charge in a crisis.
We turned off the main road doubting our
understanding of the directions. Gravel crunched beneath our tires;
shadowy horses observed our passage, a woman glanced out her lighted
picture window, alarmed, as I turned around in her isolated driveway and
backtracked. After twenty minutes of this I put aside visions of
thatched cottages and cozy rooms, a vague approximation of something my
ancestors might have experienced, if they were lucky, ready to exchange
them for a meal, a hot bath, and a bed in the blandest of motels. An
Bunsop receded, hidden, perhaps, in a pocket universe forever out of my
reach, as was the world and reality of my great great grandparents,
refugees from a world I'd never know but wanted to peer in on.
It is curious, this desire to know one's
lineage. My husband pointed out more than once that these distant
Goonans--Thomas, and his wife Briget, vaguely from County Clare or
Galway, the borders of which have changed more than once--comprised only
one-eighth of my genetic makeup. But add in the more elusive Guinns,
from another line, and the Irish Percentage rises to a hefty
one-fourth. It's DNA made visible, I suppose, helixing down through the
generations. Tir na nOg, that mythical isle of eternal youth, is
somehow on the mind of more than one American of Irish descent. If we
are artists, we attribute our blessing--or curse--to a faint dose of
Irish DNA rather than the more sensible antecedent of nurture. This is
because the need to sing, or write, or paint, that pipes us into poverty
with imperative, distant strains, is often an ever-receding,
ever-beckoning, chimera invisible to friends and relatives. Best blame
it on lyric blood, with which it is difficult to argue.
Yet, given our time constraints, even I had to
wonder: What is this thing called geneological curiosity? I didn't
expect a lineage of royalty, despite the fact that some Goonans, like
practically everyone of Irish decent, claim the blood of Brian Boru,
the legendary first Catholic King. I was forced to give up the idea of
a misty green idealized Tir na nOg yielding otherworldly portals years
ago by the brute, unavoidable exigencies of reality that have a
tendency to bear down upon even stone fans of the Romantics. I admit to
a lurking pleasure in the fact that Goonan is an Anglicization of
O'Gamhnain. Supposedly this translates as "calf-keeper." This might
not seem a significant association, but in a society of farmers and
cattle-stealers (some of the most famous Irish legends are about
rustling), its etymology suggests that the O'Gamhnain tribe was strong
or clever enough to hold onto its property.
An alluring bit of information was all I had: a
tape I made of my grandfather, Russell Goonan, telling what he knew of
the lives of his grandparents, the aforementioned couple, who left
Ireland in the 1840's after losing two children, and settled in
Franklin, Ohio. They lived in Russell's household in their old age, and
he was a teenager when they died. Russell and his Irish grandfather
raised a field of tobacco one year and Russell cleared fifty dollars,
which he remembered vividly. "Ten five dollar bills. They lasted me
all winter." After Thomas died, kicked by a horse, at age 76, Briget
lived on with them. "When she got old, she got childish--they call it
senile now--and when she wasn't it didn't make much difference. She
talked about playing on Mount Shannon, so there must have been mountains
where she lived."
More extensive research was done by Dr. Bernard
Barrett, State Historian for Victoria, Australia, whose mother was a
Goonan. He visited Ireland in the 1980's and nailed down the Goonan
oeuvre in some detail as regards locality. His document "Searching the
Origin of the Goonan Family in Ireland" has fanned out among a network
of Goonans I grew up believing did not exist. "Grandpa always said we
didn't have any relatives left. He said there was nothing, and no one,
left in Ireland," Russell said more than once in his tape. But Dr.
Barret has thrown some light on the situation.
On the shore of Lough Derg, on the changeable
Clare/Galway border, is a village described in guidebooks as
"charming." The name of the village is Mountshannon. In the Griffith
Valuation, a tax survey from the mid-1800's, are listed, according to
Dr. Barrett, "7 households surnamed Goonane (with a final "e") in the
Parishes of Clonrush and Inishcaltra (around the towns of Whitegate and
Mountshannon, County Clare.) In some old documents, this border area is
shown as county Galway, not Clare. Some of these families later dropped
the "e" from Goonane or changed the name to Guinane."
It was but a small leap to suppose that the Mount
Shannon of which Briget dreamed when old, and an ocean and decades
removed from it, was actually the town of Mountshannon, and that she met
Thomas Goonan, or Thomas Goonane, at Church, or at the market. And that
the couple strolled the lanes, if lanes there were, of Mountshannon, or
walked the fields or boated on Lough Dergh. And perhaps, when famine
descended, their first two children died, of starvation or typhus.
Yet when I began to think about doing such things
as Visiting the Old Home Site, or at least the general environs, I
realized all I did not know: birth, wedding, baptismal dates. The
maiden name of Briget. Dates of immigration. All of these are probably
researchable, but with difficulty. Well before leaving, I knew that my
lead time would not allow me to know much more than the bare facts I
had. Galway/Clare. West Ireland, where the potato famine hit hardest.
I had visited Mountshannon earlier that same
day. But, driven inexorably by our Reservation, and our desire to see
the Cliffs of Mohan, I'd had no time to pause or reflect.
Just as we were ready to give up my headlights
caught a sign--THORNABRUCKY, one Deidre, the owner, had mentioned. We
drove through wrought iron gates into a facsimile of the past.
The young night was already frosty. A thread of
smoke rose from the chimney above a small enclave of cottages huddled
together in a dip below the road, and land we could not see nevertheless
made itself felt, falling away in a gradual slope toward invisible
Galway Bay, which the brochure had assured us we could see from An
Bunsop. We carried our bags past a garden like one in an old picture
book, nestled within stone walls, glimpsed through an ivy arch, and
entered a room of comfort and warmth.
Deidre, wearing casual clothes and tall riding
boots, welcomed us. I studied the room while she stepped into the
kitchen and it pulled tension from me. A blazed in the stone
fireplace. The walls, several feet thick, formed a wide windowsill,
which held blooming plants and gave onto the darkened garden. The faint
tang of woodsmoke mingled with the agreeable smell of a roast
simmering. Fresh flowers stood in vases.
Dierdre returned with a tray of tea, cookies, and
whisky and water. The chairs and couches, close around the fire, were
deep and comfortable. The whisky was sweet and smoky. Fatigue drained
from me with the help of Deidre's brogue, in which she mixed details of
the renovation of the cottages and the international life of herself and
her husband before returning to settle in Ireland.
I found that I knew little of the forces that had
driven Thomas and Briget Goonan, and two million others, from Ireland.
At An Bunsop, I had a taste of them, and they are hard and unpleasant
and sad. As I sipped my whisky, I relaxed into the legendary
hospitality of Ireland and perhaps ghosts in the shadows of the old
cottage prompted the day to give forth its images, interspersed with our
talk, and helped me link the present with the past.
That morning, we had been up before dawn for our
big push through County Clare and the Burren, but breakfast was not
served in Carigeen Castle until 8:15 prompt by the estimable, dryly
humorous, and very firm Mrs. Butler, the proprietor. "You'll put your
hurry in your hat in Ireland," she told us, and she made sure we had no
So the fine clear morning was somewhat advanced
as we retrieved our hurry from our hats , crossed the cattle guard at
Carigeen Castle, where two cows pulled up grass next to palm trees, and
headed in the direction of Limerick.
Now in our second day in Ireland, having crossed
the rolling terrain between Rosslare and mid-south Cahir, we were
definitely drawing near to Goonan Country. An Internet search often
turns up two Goonans in Limerick in the Ferris Limerick Directory of
1769. One is Cornelius Goonan, Haberdasher, address Thomond Gate.
Several years hence is one Anne Goonan, Draper, same address. I imagine
her to be the widow or daughter of Cornelius.
Long ridges ran alongside the road; the same
views that my Irish ancestors had seen in past centuries. Some of my
ancestors are German and Swiss. Why, I wondered, did I not try to
squeeze similar meaning from the Alps when we trained through them, or
wonder if relatives had trod the same streets in Zurich?
But because of time constraints I'd elected to
bypass Limerick--not realizing that there was a very good chance that
the same building, with the same address, still stood after two hundred
years. We struck off through rolling hills down one lane roads with
saving signposts at each lonely juncture, cutting northeast on roads
increasingly rural, surrounded by fields golding toward winter, though
the temperature was mild. Warning signs come thick and fast on most
Irish roads--DANGER-CHIPPING! SLOW! BAD CURVE! But we travelled these
remote roads free to kill ourselves. Trees had experienced a dull
autumn change and most were drab brown, with a few splashes or red or
We listened to Gaelic radio. The women did not
pitch their voices artificially high, as women often do in the United
States. Their low, careful words conveyed news, political commentary,
Irish music, in a twisted, sibilant cadence that somehow thrilled me.
It was like a conversation taking place in the next room, one that,
though you strain to eavesdrop, you can't quite make sense of. Gaelic
is a constant reminder of another, richer, ancient culture, in which the
Irish can remember that through all the horrors and vicissitudes they
have maintained their identity and their pride, even when Cromwell
reduced them to less than five hundred thousand, and through the years
when Catholics were forbidden by law to vote, own property, obtain
education locally or abroad, or to practice their religion. It was a
soothing river-voice of unknown history, present yet completely outside
our ken, as we shot down narrow roads in search of one elusive signpost
I was not prepared for the completely rural
nature of Ireland, though if I'd read my history more closely I might
have been. I've travelled fairly extensively in Europe, but mostly by
train, so perhaps it was my freedom to permeate the landscape that
brought the rural nature of Ireland home to me so strongly. So many
tiny roads, winding throughout the low mountains. As one wonders about
the lives lead by those whose million windows shine out through city
nights, forever unknowable, so I wondered about the lives of those in
small farms passed on narrow stone-lined roads. Ireland reminded me of
New England, possibly because of the roundabouts, but also because of
the sheer desertedness, reminiscent of the desertedness of certain parts
of Main, Vermont, New Hampshire, at farmsteads or villages once full of
lives long since removed to places of greater industry. I have a full
complement of imagineary lives for such towns in New England, based on
scores of romantic books of Old New England, like Sarah Jewett's, read
long ago. But I had few antecedents to release and inhabit and blanket
rural Ireland, and those were quite old. The lives remained mysteries.
After the familiar period of doubt concerning our
exact location, I honked to urge a napping dog to languidly rise from
his comfortable bed in the center of the road. We rounded a curve and
had our first glimpse of the River Shannon, not wide, but fast-running.
A family outfitted in rubber boots, vests decorated with flies, and
green cloth hats set out in a john-boat.
We were in Killaloe. I parked by the stone wall
that kept the river from the town and bought a Sunday Irish Times in a
small shop. From there we had a view of the low, centuries-old arched
stone bridge from which hung salmon weirs at regular intervals, accessed
by a low metal walkway. Hills pressed in on the pretty, ancient town,
doors painted bright primary colors as is the Irish wont, and on the
other side of the bridge a row of townhouses huddled beneath the hill
next to a narrow road that wound along the lake shore.
This is what Dr. Barnett says about Killaloe:. "7
households surnamed Goonan in the townland of Killeagy-Goonan (in the
Parish of Killokennedy, near the village of Kilbane, between the towns
of Broadford and Killaloe)." Broadford was Bradford on our map, and
Kilbane was but nine miles away. This was where the Goonan ancestors of
Dr. Barnett were from. They had most definitely trod the streets of
Killaloe, and set out on the silvery Shannon to fish. It might have
been fruitful to spend some time in the heritage center, but it was
I still wished to make for Mountshannon, and we
drove along the northwest bank of Lough Derg for another twenty minutes,
then stopped at a small park on the shore. Joseph read the Irish Times
and I watched a long boat pull out into the silvered lake. On a distant
shore sun washed low rounded hills, and nearby three joyful dogs chased
sticks flung in the water with a healthy din of barking. I did sense a
hint of Tir na nOg in the faint paths lacing the thin woods up the
shore, and up the low ridge behind us, but that was to be expected.
Brian Boru had spent a bit of time in this area, the guidebooks said.
So had the Goonans, who operated a tanning hole nearby, making leather
from the skins of the cows that gave them their name.
We reached Mountshannon about one p.m. and
stopped at the Catholic Church. Geneology books advise contacting
priests, who may still posess old records. The church was locked. A
heavy blue nylon rope, looking quite out of place, was stretched taut
from the belfry and wound round a cleat near the door. "If you ring
this I'm sure the priest will come," said Joseph. I had no doubt, but I
lacked boldness. If, by happy chance, Briget and Thomas had been
married there, or their children had been baptized or shriven there, it
might be possible to read it in the record. Unfortunately, this was not
to be the time.
The Ohio Goonans forsook Catholicism with great
finality generations ago and seem to have no regrets. One colorful
version has it that Thomas showed up at church one morning in the middle
of Mass. The morning was apparently simply an extension of a night of
imbibing. Thomas boomed out a hearty greeting: "Top o'the morning to
ye, Father," and passed out. Excommunication ensued.
It is hard to know if this is the truth, for it
comes from the same font as another colorful tale which I know to be a
fabrication: that Thomas Goonan was only twelve when he sailed from
Galway with his younger sister, their names and destination in Ohio
pinned to their clothing, and that they were helped to their destination
by priests, where they then had to slave for the distant relatives who
had paid their passage. This may have happened to some Goonan
relatives, but it is not Thomas' story. Which is why I must doubt the
other, though it is delicious. I am still not entirely sure of Thomas'
story, but Russell told me that Thomas left Ireland two years before his
wife, and sent for her when he'd saved enough money earned by working on
the canals that opened the rich famlands of Ohio to trade.
Mountshannon is indeed charming. There is a
harbor and marina chock full of pleasure boats and as I stood there in
the chill day, the brilliant blue of morning giving way to an afternoon,
autumnal gray, flocks of sails scudded far out on choppy water. The air
held the sere scent of autumn. The great tourist attraction is the Holy
Island; I saw that it was not distant. There, monks built towers
accessible only by ladder. Another favorite defense was to build a
causeway just below the surface of the water, so that enemies could not
see it. An old stone mansion stood back from the harbor on a hill, and
I was pretty sure that if it held any Goonan associations it had been
that of Irish tenant paying rent to the English landlord.
On Mountshannon's one street, I went into the
lobby of the Mountshannon Hotel, where at one time in my flurry of
preparations we'd had reservations. I asked the young woman behind the
desk if there were any graveyards nearby. "On the Holy Island there are
three," she said, and did not mention the one down the street we saw
later, perhaps because it was Anglican. At any rate I don't think the
Holy Island graveyards contain any recent deposits.
We ate in the attached bar, where seats were
available when we came in, though they rapidly filled, and soon we were
treated to the amazingly loud whine and buzz of car races. There are
bookmaking offices on every block in Ireland, and in every pub a
televised race, match, or game is the focus of attention. My meal,
simple fried plaice with tartar sauce, was some of the best food I had
Briget played on these streets as a child, I was
certain. I took some pictures of the near-empty village, backed by
fields and farms rising on the low hills. It was all I could do. We
retraced our path, heading for the coast.
After several miles we passed a graveyard by the
side of the road. I pulled over on a narrow verge. The gate was
locked. The graveyard, like the ruined castles at every turn, was an
artifact of an earlier age, the age I longed to fathom, a forest of
Celtic crosses taller than men. Perhaps, within, lay an O'Gaihman.
Cars whizzed past, making it a dangerous stopping place.
We drove on. The graveyard kept its secrets.
Passing through Ennis, I saw, with a bit of
shock, the first shopping mall we passed in Ireland. A small one. All
the towns and villages seemed little changed in hundreds of years save
now there were cars and tourists. We followed a crowd up the concrete
walks to view the cliffs, sheer and serpentine, in late afternoon,
pulling on our hats against the bone-chilling wind. It was misty and
the Arran Islands were blurs on the horizon. Sea caves were visible in
the cliff base. In a nearby hotel where we stopped for tea, some girls
in the lobby sang "Barbie Barbie let's go party." And then we pressed
onward, against the fall of night, through the Burren. We had certainly,
as they say, made a day of it.
Now, warmed by the fire and by whisky,
uncramping from the constraints of the viciously small car, and
surrounded by layers of visual comfort, I listened, being rather too
tired to speak. Diedre told us that there was a darkness about the
famine that no one wanted to think on, afterward. The survivors just
tried hard to forget it. An Bunsop was a familial "village" of thatched
cottages restored by Deidre and her sister in a capital venture that
seems to have paid off. Deidre's feeling for the place and its former
inhabitants is deep and genuine. "We found a huge heap of mussel shells
buried in the garden," she told us. "There was a girl living here born
two years before the famine, and her older sister. They were close
enough to the bay to be able to walk down and survive on shellfish. "
Before this An Bunsop venture, Deidre and her husband Mike, after years
working in the Middle East and Paris (they both do financial work)
opened a restaurant on the wild and lovely peninsula north of Galway,
where many still speak Gaelic. The restaurant was written up
internationally and was a great, if seasonal, success.
But Diedre said that the local people did not
understand their inclusion of mussels and lobsters on the menu. "That's
famine food," they said. The Irish's long disinterest in seafood is
variously attributed in guidebooks to the fact that it was thought of as
Lenten food, or only for Fridays. I think it is closer to the truth to
say that memory of the famine has been a long time seeping from memory,
and that when those who survived, three million out of eight million,
wanted to forget it in every form, they indeed meant it. Perhaps that
was why Thomas always insisted "There's nothing left in Ireland." When
he immigrated, that was quite true. I thought of small, deserted
Mountshannon. The population of Ireland has never reached eight million
since the famine; it now numbers about five million.
Mike, Diedre's husband, joined the conversation.
A big man, he is an accountant, but seemed most proud of his Clifden
restaurant. Deidre seemed to enjoy more her creation of An Bunsop. The
three cottages--the two others rent complete for about $3,000 per
week--were crowded together, she told us, because as land increasingly
fell into the hands of the English, the Irish were forced to subdivide
it among their children. The cottages had been in a state of complete
disrepair when they bought them. On hearing that my ancestors were from
the area, Mike grabbed the phone book: there were eight Goonans there.
We were nodding off, though it was only eight
o'clock, and went to our room upstairs, as charming as the living room.
Our bathroom, private but not ensuite, was a sybarite's delight. A
large claw-footed tub was equipped with the serious plumbing equipment
found in those environmens--a brass spray arrangement. On a shelf next
to the tub, amid candles of various colors, were bottles of lotions and
oils, and a bowl of salt, to which I helped myself liberally as my hot
bath steamed. A stack of massive fluffy towels and two bathrobes were
provided. Attention to visual detail extended everywhere. In a corner
where a person might rarely look would be a small painting on the wall,
or a vase of flowers. Our tiny slit window, only a few inches wide and
about a foot tall, created a windowsill that widened into the room, and
the light from a small lamp passed through bottles of blue glass there.
At the front of the room was a larger window looking out on the garden
below. In a built-in bed lined with a bookshelf holding about fifty
classics, I fell asleep reading Kipling's KIM.
The next morning we rose quite early, since our
internal clocks were still not on Irish time. No one else was up. We
strolled the narrow lane above An Bunsop, lined with the stone walls
characteristic of the west. We gazed down across misted fields where
grazed cows, but not many. Some stone-fenced lots looked as small as a
tenth of an acre. A collie and another dog, less well delineated, stood
above us on a small tor. I called to the collie and she picked her way
down and came towards us, wagging her tail. Below, Galway Bay became
gradually visible, taking sprawling shape in patches of gunmetal sheen
barely distinguishable from land. The air was chilly. As we turned to
walk back a tiny dog rushed from a shed wearing the unlikely necklace of
a brick. He was also muzzled, but barked like the demons of hell, and
clearly wished to kill us. The collie and the other dog also lived
here, and presently a woman in a nightgown, with long grey hair, opened
the door and scolded the dog. He desisted with great reluctance.
When we returned to our cottage, we could see
Deidre through the kitchen window getting breakfast ready. I took some
pictures in the dawn of the tiny windows like eyes, the thatch above
curved like eyelids. "Houses were taxed by the number of windows," said
Diedre, who chatted as she served breakfast, "so most houses didn't have
any. We've added windows and a second floor where there would have been
After a vast breakfast of cereal, eggs, sausages,
toast, juice, and coffee, we drove into Galway. It was Monday, but a
holiday, and most shops were closed until well after noon. This was to
be our day of rest. We wandered round the small streets in search of
Nora Barnacle's house and the adjoining museum, but when we found them
they were closed for the season. During the 1921 rebellion, Nora made
her first--and last--visit home, but left when the cottage became a
machine gun nest. Most shops were closed, but the pubs were open. We
had our first Guinness and I had some oysters.
We crossed the Corribe, the swift river that
flows through Galway, and followed the concrete walk toward the bay,
where a flock of thin swans pressed against a girl scattering bread.
The boats tied up were small wooden craft, looking dangerously small to
put out in along the sometimes rough west coast. The sky was overcast,
but during our four days in Ireland we had no rain and heard remarks
about "the good weather."
By afternoon, the shop doors were flung open and
people crowded the narrow sidewalks and spilled into the streets.
Passers-by spoke Gaelic almost as often as English. Hearing arguing
voices across the street, we stopped and watched a bit of a one-man
punch and judy show. On the next block a pure white being played
statue, moving only in small jerks to change pose. The bookmaking shops
on Eire Square seemed to be doing a booming business.
I had thoughts of trying to find shipping
manifests but the heritage center was closed. Thomas Goonan had shipped
out of Galway, so I knew that at least he'd walked where I walked and
had seen much the same town, less the cars and the few modern
additions. Unlike many immigrants, who at the height of the famine
crowded onto "coffin ships" that led mostly to death, he had a
destination--the distant relatives in Franklin, Ohio. And he knew he
could find work there.
At the Tourist Office, I bought a book, THE GREAT
HUNGER. As dank evening came down we had cream tea at the Great
Southern Hotel. Sated, we returned to An Bunsop and retired to our
room, though it was only six. Joseph fell asleep. As night drew on, I
opened THE GREAT HUNGER and read.
I realized that my knowledge of the potato
famine, its causes and ramifications, had been very slight indeed. I
had not before envisioned the scenes set forth in the book, the reports
written by British observers, many of whom cooly evicted Irish and
burned their cottages even when they'd paid the rent. The countryside
was filled with roaming band of starving ragged people. "There's a mass
grave of a thousand people less than a mile away," Diedre told us.
Ireland was a rich country. Unfortunately, it
was owned by the British and used as if it were an inexhaustible
resource. The Irish were less than human to the British and were
treated accordingly. When the potato crop failed, wheat was being
exported in record quantities, and had to be guarded from starving mobs
by militia. Waves of typhus washed through the populace. One of the
coldest winters in history contributed to the death rate. The biology
of the potato blight was not understood until quite recently, but though
crops were large and the potatoes sound and good when dug, they rotted
within days, engendering reports in the second famine year that the crop
was fine, so that what scanty help there was was withdrawn. The Irish
were eventually given pitiful quantities of hard corn to eat. Public
works programs attempted by the British failed for various beaurocratic
reasons. Eventually many Irish, deathly ill and starving, boarded
"coffin ships," on which sufficient food and water was not laid in.
These ships were not allowed to land in many ports in Canada and the
United States. The British hoped that the Irish would emigrate to
Canada, but hatred of the British was so great that most Irish fled
south into the United States as soon as they could, though the Americans
soon grew alarmed the quantity of the Irish, and the health threat they
imposed. Many thousands perished on small islands in the St. Lawrence
river and were buried in mass graves. It seems almost like a genocide.
And though it was the hired army of Irish that won most of the great
British military victories for centuries, the Irish declared themselves
neutral during the World Wars, declining to help the British. I
recalled Diedre's story of how her grandfather owned a department store
and was ordered to make uniforms for the British and also made them
secretly, for free, for the IRA ("a proper army," says Deidre, "not the
hoodlems that call themselves an army now.") and who would have been
hanged if discovered.
As I gazed out at the dark garden through the
bedroom window, I realized that Thomas Goonan must have been very lucky,
very talented, very resourceful, and probably all three. I realized all
I do not know about him. I do not know the exact year he emigrated.
The date is important, because conditions in Ireland changed so
radically in so short a time. Did the two Goonan children die during
the famine years or earlier? In the ravaged countryside described in
THE GREAT HUNGER, how did Briget survive those two years her husband was
gone? It seems likely he sent back money, yet apparently there was
often no food to buy even if one did have rare money.
Having discarded the tale of Thomas crossing the
Atlantic as a child, I realized that the true story of Thomas and Briget
is likely just as dramatic. They came across under their own economic
steam, and had more children. The first were named after the children
who had died in Ireland: Thomas and Margaret. "I guess they had no
imagination," I've heard. On the contrary, after all they must have
suffered, I find this a gesture of hope and faith. They were truly
beginning anew. The hell that Ireland had become, a land of rotting
potatoes and rotting people with no help from any quarter, lay behind
them. Tir na nOg, if they'd ever seen glimpses of it when rounding a
bend in the road, alone, as autumn set in, or in a green glen near a
spring, or even in a certain wealth of cattle, was burned completely and
they rose from the ashes as did thousands upon thousands of Irish
immigrants. In new Ohio they would build their future, as laborers and
And what of the town mentioned by Briget when she
was old, and childish, and the memories and pleasures and lost people of
childhood gathered round her? She may have been less taciturn than her
husband, who gruffly declared that there was nothing left behind. She
may have illogically yearned for Tir na nOg, pre-famine, the long green
summers of girlhood, the Gaelic language, and her lost friends. She may
have wished, those long years in Ohio, forced to leave home knowing she
would never return, to visit her parents, or their graves--although,
after reading of the deluge of the famine, it seems likely to me that a
high percentage of those who perished lay in unmarked graves, their
deaths unrecorded. If she was there during that time while Thomas saved
money in Ohio, she must have seen unspeakable horrors. Yet, unlike
Thomas, she yearned for the past. Perhaps she'd left more family behind
than him. When she became old and "childish," she went, in memory,
through the fire of the famine years, and dwelt again in small
Late that night I closed THE GREAT HUNGER. In my
narrow wash of lamplight, the whitewashed walls encircled me like the
unknown history I was trying to trace. As I heard Deirdra and her
daughter talking in the living room below, the lilt of their words
seemed to issue forth from the romanticised cottage itself, refocusing
my sense of time, bringing the twin streams of time into a single
Since returning from Ireland, I've uncovered
another bit of information--Thomas Goonan was indeed born in Whitegate,
a mere ten miles from Mountshannon. Far from satisfying my curiosity,
Ireland only inflamed it.
There is only one way to atisfy this hunger.
On a July afternoon, I settle into the
Mountshannon Hotel. Is there a view of the marina, the lake, the Holy
Island from the back? If so, my view is one of changing patterns of
bowed white sails, like an audiogram of bird calls I saw in a science
magazine, sound rendered into visible patterns of curved light. The
ferry to the Holy Island plies to and fro. The air is soft with
summer. The town is full of tourists.
I visit the heritage centers. I visit the
priest. He has records held back from the Dublin Library, where most
everything burned in 1921. This must have been convenient for the
British, wiping out as it did wills, deeds, births and deaths of
I imagine, in the bowels of the church, vast
books of faded print which, when open, induce sneezing. In one book, we
find the name O'Gaiman; in others, the name Goonan, and Goonane; perhaps
Guinane. I see the date of my great great grandparent's wedding, in
One morning I make the trip to the Holy Island.
I know Briget's maiden name; perhaps even her mother's; perhaps the
maiden name of Thomas' mother. So on the island I will have more names
to find among the forest of tall stern Celtic crosses, mossed and
stained and almost washed clean of indentation by centuries of Irish
rain. It's not likely that I find names I recognize anyway, since it is
an old, old site. They may even be in Gaelic, and so I need to translate
O'Gaihman into an older script. I explore the countryside, the
surrounding parishes. I build a family tree.
Over a span of days not predetermined, I make
phone calls to Goonans in the area. It is repeated in the phone book
several times, following Eamonn, Patrick, Thady, Thomas, that odd name
I've seen before only singly in directories.
Some of them are Goonans by marriage, or don't
know anything, or don't care. Some might be descended from Goonans who
refused to talk about the past.
But perhaps one will have heard the old stories,
and be ready to pass them on.