On St. Patrick’s Day, everyone’s a little bit Irish. And like many Americans, I actually have some Irish blood.
My mother’s father’s mother was named Naughton, a common surname in western Ireland, and the name of the town our Naughtons came from is Ballinlough, in County Roscommon. That’s more information than most Americans have, so I thought I’d put it to good use while I was studying for a semester at the university in Galway. Armed only with those names, an incomplete family tree, and a mental picture based on old photographs of the Naughton homestead, I hopped on a bus one Saturday to see what I could find.
Three hours, one missed connection, ten minutes of thumbing for a ride, and one kind lady driver later, I arrived in tiny Ballinlough. The streets were empty, and the shops were quiet. This being Ireland, I knew I’d find someone in the nearest pub to point me in the right direction. Inside, the barman told me some folks named Naughton lived just down the road.
So off I went, hiking away from the small cluster of buildings into the countryside. I turned left onto a gravelly road that stretched southward. The rolling green fields were partitioned by ancient stone walls. Tall, leafy trees lined the road and dotted the scene, and low-slung bungalows appeared sporadically as my feet carried me closer to—well, to what exactly I wasn’t sure.
Who were these people, these supposed relatives I was seeking out? Were they even anyone I’d want to meet? Maybe they were IRA militants. Maybe they spoke only Irish. What if they were bitter about having had to stay and tend the family farm while other Naughtons scuttled off to live the easy life in America?
Lost in these thoughts, I almost went right past a woman in a track suit power-walking toward me. But she greeted me cheerfully and fell right in with my mission. She said her friends the Burkes were the Naughtons’ cousins and lived just down the road. She’d take me there.
With that, we power-walked to the Burkes’, and Tom Burke agreed to drive me up in his car to see the “Naughton boys.” “They might be a bit drunk,” he warned. It was eleven in the morning. Great, I thought, and I bet they make bombs in their toolshed.
But then I saw the house through a light scattering of trees. There it was: two stories, red roof and trim, larger than most but not pretentious or imposing. This was the house my grandfather’s grandfather, James Naughton, helped build by sending back money from the modest fortune he made in the States. Just a few hundred feet farther up the road was the original Naughton house, the squat stone cottage, built a century and a half ago, where James was born. I recognized these places.
We went up to the main house and knocked on the door. “Mikey!” Tom shouted. “It’s Tom Burke.” There was no answer for a few seconds, and then a large, older man in boots and gloves came around from behind the house. He had my grandfather’s eyes.
Mike Naughton was sober, as far as I could tell, and he spoke English perfectly well, though with a thick brogue. He seemed delighted to have an American visitor. Mike, Tom, and I sat down in the kitchen with Mike’s brother Tommy, four cousins with two names among us. (We’d see lots more of both later, along with Jameses, Johns, and Patricks, at the parish graveyard up the road.)
We soon figured out our relationship: The Naughton boys were my second cousins twice removed; their great-grandfather was my great-great-great-grandfather. Mike and Tommy brought out their family pictures and told me their father was an accomplished accordionist. I related the death of a cousin they had known when they were much younger and I had met as a child after he moved to America. The hour we spent telling stories and cracking jokes flew by. I hope I can see them again.
Not far from the Naughtons’ house, a ruined church sits atop a hill called Moigh. Locals told me that St. Patrick once stopped to pray in that spot when he was a young man walking across Ireland. As we drove past Moigh, I said a little prayer myself. Even thousands of miles from my family in the States, I was home.