By Mike Faricy
Touching Family History
On previous trips to Dublin, I’ve been able to spend time at the National Archives, scrolling through miles of micro-fiche in search of family baptismal and marriage records. This time I was venturing South and West, to County Cork and the village of Enniskean, from whence my forefathers came, the very place the records were written almost two hundred years ago. The village has always seemed the starting point of the odyssey that eventually arrives at Minnesota, me and the two generations beyond me. It’s roughly a three and a half hour drive on the N8 from Dublin down to Cork city, and forty minutes from there to the town of Bandon, where I spent the night.
I stayed in Bandon’s Munster Arms Hotel, a very lovely place with nice pubs just across the street. The hotel is the site of the last known photograph of Michael Collins alive, a framed, grainy, sepia print of Collins seated in the back of an open automobile as he is driven past the hotel entrance hangs in the lobby. It was on the Earl of Bandon’s lands that my forefathers lived, perhaps renting an acre or so. Like millions of families scattered throughout the world with Irish heritage, these were famine people, eking out a subsistence life until the potato blight brought it all crashing down. If you overlay a map showing the severity of the potato famine, one of the worst areas from 1845 to 1850 was this region of County Cork. If County Cork was hard hit, Bandon and Enniskean were at ground zero, my people left in ’46 or ’47. It was more than a little strange reflecting on this and reading the menu in Bandon’s lovely little Italian restaurant, ordering a tasty starter, a delicious main course and a favorite wine just a few miles from where the family and scores of others fled because they were literally starving to death.
Enniskean is somewhere between twelve and sixteen miles from Bandon on the R586, depending on which mileage signs you believe. I drove directly to the church serving the parish of Enniskean and Desert Serges. I know from my Irish pals that a half parish, usually a country church, is not uncommon even today in rural areas. My family, although listing the metropolis of Enniskean as home, were actually from the area, or half parish, of Desert Serges, and it was information on this half parish I was after. Entering the door of the sacristy, I met Mr. Paddy Murray, sacristan for the church and font of information. I explained why I had come, told him of the microfiched records I’d seen in Dublin dating all the way back to 1816. “Oh yes, the books, would you care to see them?” he asked, turning his back to me, not waiting for my answer.
Now in Dublin, at the Archives, I had to produce a passport just to enter the building, sign three different cards to get a booth to view the microfiche and then sign for the microfiche once an archivist brought it out to me, one roll at a time. Paddy didn’t stand on that sort of ceremony. “Here,” he said, his back toward me as he pulled open a drawer and tossed three books onto the counter. “It’s what all you Yanks want to see, sit down, take your time and find me when you’re finished.” The leather bound books were the original parish records, written in that ink of the early 1800s that’s now faded brown, a gorgeous flowery penmanship that’s difficult for me to read. The book I paged through had the original parish record of my great, great, great grandparents’ wedding in 1816, Patrick to Betty Woods, and some pages later the baptisms of their children, beginning in 1817. Their wedding was just two years after the Battle of Waterloo and I held the actual parish record book in my hands, and, when I’m not holding them, these books are simply kept in a wooden drawer in the sacristy of a small town church.
Eventually, I sought Paddy out and explained to him my search for the half parish, thinking the land on which the family lived would be in the vicinity of the church. “Oh, the half parish, it went Church of Ireland, back in the 1840s. But it’s still there, the church, graves in the churchyard, Catholics on the right, Protestants on the left.” In the 1840s, to qualify for any famine relief, Catholic parishes often had to switch allegiance to the Church of Ireland, an Irish version of Anglicanism, and that’s what had happened here, food always working as a fairly strong incentive.
The church was about four miles out of town, a short drive by car but a long round-trip walk. There are large stones serving as steps built into the four foot high stone wall surrounding the site and I climbed these to enter the churchyard. From what I could see, the Catholic side of the cemetery had its last burial about fifty years ago, and on the left, the Protestant side more recently in 1988. Most of the grave stones were so old that literally all letters and markings were completely weathered and worn away. My family, if they were even in this churchyard, would most likely have had a wooden marker, long gone. But it’s a solid little country church of dressed stone, complete with a hole in the roof and a beehive tucked just underneath the slate tile. Ivy covers a good portion of the cemetery and the farmland around was green and peaceful on this sunny day. It must have been unbelievably horrible for them to leave this area. The Bandon river flows about a half mile away, you can just see it from the churchyard, it’s supposed to be good trout fishing, maybe one of my brothers will give it a try sometime. It’s nice country, not as good for farming or families as 160 acres homesteaded in Minnesota, but nice. I’ll never really know how close I came to where they lived or now rest but this little country church nestled on rolling hills seemed to bring me at least a little bit closer.