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Cornelius Downey left Ireland for America in 1894.
He wrote a modest, but longing, poem of his homeland — of the people and places of his youth. His poem closed with:
“It is with my heart and my soul, I bid thee adieu — dear old West Cork, and the parish of Kilmoe.”
I’m a Downey on my mom’s side, and Cornelius is my great-grandfather.
Two weeks ago and about 118 years after Cornelius left, I walked the lands of West Cork with that poem that’s been in our hands for decades.
I’m not one for profound experiences. From burgers to beers to battles, experiences just “are” — and I roll from one to the next, striving for an even keel.
Going “home” was as close to profound as I get, and it left me with some lasting feelings:
America, while imperfect, is still a magical place. You see that best when it’s reflected off the eyes of people from other lands.
The bond of blood can run pretty deep, no matter how distant.
And lastly, we are so, so small.
Goleen, Ireland, is as tiny as North Lima and Beaver Township. It is also mighty, beautiful and harsh. It carries a distinction of being the last church parish in Ireland. The next parish to the south is in America, locals like to say.
Around cliffs that rise more than 300 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, vessels of many sorts have crossed and crashed. German and British ships clashed there. The Titanic sailed past. Fastnet Rock sits a few miles off shore. It’s called “Ireland’s Teardrop” as it was the last bit of Ireland emigrants saw as they headed for new lives in America.
Two emigrants were my great-grandfather, Cornelius Downey, and my grandfather, Michael Downey.
I should explain now, as it’s quirky: Both Downey men lived in the same tiny Goleen area, but they were not related. “Downey” scatters like “Smith” in that region. Cornelius came here first, to Boston, and had a daughter who would become my grandmother, Mary. Mike left for Buffalo in 1927.
While unrelated, they were connected — a link we still can’t explain but do know, because somehow, Mike Downey from Buffalo married Mary Downey from Massachusetts, and they had my mom.
My mom’s family, and subsequently hers (mine) are not overly nostalgic. We would shrug off our Irish heritage simply with “Cornelius landed in Boston because it was cheaper fare than sailing to New York.” My mom and her three siblings had no aunts or uncles around to tell old tales.
So Ireland was a mystery to us, but always a draw for me. That draw, meshed with my and my wife’s 20th wedding anniversary, committed us to this trip a year ago.
It was aided by my wife’s passion for Ancestry.com. She would find documents of Michael’s and Cornelius’ lives — birth records, ship logs, census data, siblings, occupations, etc. She built a very textured portrait of them.
Combined with Cornelius’ poem, we had a good outline of our trip. For our anniversary, we would essentially walk the poem.
And that’s when a great idea got better.
We always wondered, “Do we have family over there?”
In March, I blindly emailed any “Downey” in the Goleen area. I also emailed the small churches and the heritage centers. Maybe 15 emails total.
Three people replied with no help. But the fourth person connected me to Goleen residents Jimmy and Kathleen Downey. We talked and traced ... and within 15 minutes of chatting, it was clear: Jimmy’s father and Michael were brothers — making Jimmy and my mom first cousins.
And they never knew each other existed.
Well — almost. The Irish know so much more of America than we know of Ireland. Or maybe that’s just me?
As much as we wondered if we had family there, Jimmy and Kathleen always knew, without doubt, they had family in the States. Jimmy, 76, wondered for years: Who are they? How did they live? Would they would ever come home?
That last wonderment is truly precious to experience. Eleven percent of Americans have Irish in them. And to Ireland, we’re always welcome home.
Kathleen, who had plenty of relatives in the States, would always assure Jimmy:
“Some day Jimmy, some day, they will come. And when they do, we’ll be here for them.”
As it was our anniversary trip, my mom said she did not want to go. Her stubborn Irish maintained that as we peeled away her family history. On Mother’s Day, I conspired with my newfound cousins, and we arranged for my mom to talk on the phone with Jimmy, who knew his job was to convince her to come.
Twenty minutes of talking to a cousin she never knew, and a few minutes afterward to let the call sink in, and my mom said she was going.
It was good news for us, but great news for her brother. My uncle really wanted to go, but not as a third-wheel. Finding his dad’s home was a bucket list item. With my mom in, he was in.
The connection, from the first hours, was immediate, deep and sincere, as if we were just together for Christmas. Five days passed too quickly. But they allowed lessons of a lifetime.
They live such great lives with such simple standards.
Jimmy, 76, just started driving 12 years ago. He rode a bike to work all those years.
Kathleen, 72, walked the mile or so to town daily for years — working, shopping, tending to family and friends.
They raised four great kids who work in tourism, finance, accounting and engineering. Two are in Dubai and Australia. Two sons were prolific Gaelic football players, with one playing for various Irish clubs in the U.S.
An amazing and inspiring existence.
My name is “Franko,” and that Slovak side of me comes from the coal mines of western Pennsylvania. I would shrug off my drive, determination and competitive streak to that gritty life I knew more about.
I’ve been half-wrong for 45 years.
Everyone has a drive of some level in them. Some more than others, which is inspiring to see. In those people are tipping points for all of us.
I met 1980 Miracle Team captain Mike Eruzione Friday night at a Lake Club event. With the opening London 2012 ceremonies playing on a TV just across the room, you heard in his tales the drive of 20 or so young men 32 years ago.
Years ago, I heard a World War II veteran say my generation could not pull it together to sacrifice and achieve like his did. I kind of believe him.
And to see the drive in Michael and Cornelius Downey, and others like them, is humbling. What they did 100ish years ago still happens today with other populations. But it’s certainly impactful to see it and walk it.
I’ve moved a few times in my career, and had a cousin, ironically a Downey cousin, once say “I don’t know how you do it; Land in a new town; start over. I could not.”
I can say more proudly now than I ever could:
It’s the Irish in me.
Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes e-mails about stories and our newspaper. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs, too, on vindy.com.