When the Ancestors Whisper…

Sometimes you can’t make this stuff up! I was at my first (outdoor) gathering with more than five people last night. Droímín Creatives Cavan has been having a literature and arts celebratory weekend. My creative colleague and I were invited to the Saturday evening event. It was outdoors; tables and seats were socially distanced, dotted around the grounds of Cavan County Museum in Ballyjamesduff. Droímín Creatives is an intiative to create literature and arts experiences inspired by the Cavan landscape. You can find out more and see my profile on https://droimincreative.ie/

It was a bit freaky to be in a large group of unmasked people for the first time in seventeen months. I have been bubbled with my creative colleague, being one of the handful of folks that we have seen at various socially distanced meet ups in between lockdowns. There was live music, albeit in a slimmed down group – a trio that included The Cavan Man Martin Donohoe himself, Philip Clarke and Hannah O’Reilly, an All Ireland Fleadh Singer Winner. It was The Cavan Man’ssecond gig in sixteen months. We sat at picnic tables with cloths made of a collage of artwork and quotes from Cavan writers.

I sat down at the picnic table to eat the delicious light supper provided ; Cavan County events have the best hospitality on principle. I moved my paper plate aside to see a quote of one of my poems published on this website. You can see the quote here

An Accidental Place Card at the Picnic Table

Over supper I struck up a conversation with a woman who was puzzling over my accent. The answer to the question, “Where do you come from? ” and my answer “Dowra, in the far west of Cavan” didn’t entirely satisfy. We unwound my complicated accent history – an Northern Irish husband, time in London and Leeds, all the way back to my birthplace in New York City. It turned out that she had spent twenty-four years in Queens. “Where?” I queried. “Elmhurst,” she answered. I replied that many of my father’s family lived around 82nd Street in St. Adalbert’s parish. It turns out that that was HER neighbourhood for many years. She even used the term “going up the hill”, which is what my father’s mother said when she set out to visit her parents and sisters who lived near St. Adalbert’s Church. I mentally dropped my jaw. In Ireland there never seems to be even three degrees of separation between us.

Later on I was chatting with poet Rita Kelly and the Cavan Arts Officer, Catriona O’Reilly. We paused our conversation politely while Hannah O’Reilly gave us a song that had the rather jocular refrain that went something like…”sure we’re all related by marriage or birth…” I broke into a grin. I was suddenly reminded that both my sister’s Ancestry DNA reports and my own My Heritage DNA reports had noted that we share DNA with people who emigrated from Cavan and North Leitrim. Indeed, according to Ancestry we had a couple fourth or fifth cousins knocking around North Leitrim now.

We do not know my paternal grandfather’s paternity. My surname Smith is a bit of a fiction, which many other unrelated Smiths share across the world where registrars note that ‘John Smith’ was the father in cases where the mother was unmarried to the biological father.

As of Autumn Equinox this year I will have lived in County Cavan for twenty years. That is the longest consecutive residence I have any anywhere in my nearly 65 years. If you had suggested this to me as a teen that this would be the place I felt most as home I probably would not have known where to place it on the map of Ireland. When we decided to come to Ireland in 2000 I dowsed the map of Ireland and the pendulum swung over Cavan and North Leitrim. As far as I was concerned we were heading to Clare. Yet, by another series of synchronicities here we are and here we stayed. Even when you do not trust them, sometimes they have a way of over-riding the best laid plans and scripts.

You really can’t make this stuff up. The synchronities that cropped up – first mention of my father, then the locality where the family lived for decades and the song lyrics – all seemed to point to a nod from the ancestors. We may never know Joe Smith’s dad’s name, but the ancestors seem to have pulled at some of the threads of his back story and may have brought me back to the landscape that spawned his own paternal lineage.

Joseph Smith with his fiancée Barbara Muller in 1910