Finding My Irish Roots

14Mar13

A cold October rain was falling as I turned my rented Nissan Sunny down the dirt lane in the village of Portglenone, Northern Ireland. The road was barely wide enough for one vehicle and had patches of grass growing between tire-worn tracks. Up on a hill in the distance to the left, I could make out a pickup truck. A man closed a gate behind the truck, then got behind the wheel and began driving down the long winding road in my direction.

One of us was going to have to pull into the tall grass along the side to let the other pass. Having no idea if I was on private property, I wondered if this could be the land owner who might not appreciate my presence.

Patrick BlaneyAs the truck approached, I could make a white-haired older man in the passenger seat and a younger man driving. When the elder man rolled down his window, I hastened to explain that I was an American from Boston and that my mother was a Blaney. My grandfather, John Blaney, had grown up in Portglenone before leaving for Boston in 1900. I added that the owner of the village butcher shop had sent me here, telling me that all of the Blaneys once lived at the end of this lane.

“Aye,” the man in the truck said, “They did.”

I told him that all I wanted to do was to see and perhaps take a photo of the land where my grandfather had lived so long ago.

“Well, you can’t go up there,” the man replied. “Not now. You’ll be stuck in the mud for a week. Phone me on Sunday afternoon and I’ll take you there in the truck.”

I wrote down his phone number as he recited it through the rain drops.

“Who shall I ask for when I call?” I asked.

“Patrick Blaney,” he said.

It was only Wednesday, so I headed back to my room at the Beechfield Guest House, the bed & breakfast establishment in Ballymena where I had registered that morning. I went out to dinner, then returned to my room and stretched out top of on the bed, excited about the prospect that in a few days I’d be laying eyes on the land where my grandfather had lived his youth.

John BlaneyI had never known John Blaney, who died two years before I was born. I knew that he had grown up poor and Catholic in Northern Ireland. After his father, Henry Blaney died in 1899, Henry’s widow, Alice O’Neill Blaney sold the farm and headed for America with her two youngest sons, 18 year-old John and his younger brother William. Several of John’s older siblings had years earlier departed for Boston, eager for a better life than what faced them as poor Catholic farmers in a Protestant country.

Rosetta O'Hara BlaneyYears after arriving in Boston, John Blaney married Rose O’Hara, also a Catholic from Northern Ireland. The couple had five children, including my mother, Rita. While I hadn’t known my grandfather, I did know my grandmother, who came to live with our family in Wakefield in her last years.

Lying on the bed at the Beechfield Guest House on Wednesday evening, I wondered how I would fill the time until Sunday when I was supposed to contact Patrick Blaney. I had arrived in Ireland about a week earlier for a three week vacation with no itinerary and no lodging reservations. My plan was to tour the country by car, booking rooms each night along the way. My one specific goal was, at some point on the trip, to visit Northern Ireland and the area where my grandparents had come from.

At about 9:30 p.m. there was a knock on my door. It was the owner of the guest house.

“Are you Mark?” she asked. “There’s a friend of yours downstairs.”

I told her it must be a mistake. No one in the world knew where I was staying.

“Well, she says she’s a friend of yours,” the owner said.

I told her I’d go right down.

When I reached the bottom of the staircase, there was a fair-skinned woman in her twenties with long auburn hair.

“Are you Mark?” she asked. “I’m Claire Blaney. I believe you were talking to my daddy down on the lane today.”

I tried to process what was happening. “How on earth did you find me?” I asked.

“There aren’t that many guest houses in Ballymena,” Claire explained. “We went to each one and asked if they had an American guest named Mark.” She said that her brother Pat, who had been the driver of the truck on the lane, had also remembered the make of my rental car and a partial license plate number, which helped them in their search.

“Would you like to meet the others?” Claire asked. “They’re out in the car.” I went out to the car and met Claire’s brother Pat and sister Una. They explained that when their father came home that day and reported the he had met “a Blaney from Boston” earlier that day, they were appalled that he hadn’t brought me home right then and there. So they decided to track me down. Now they wanted me to come back with them to the house in nearby Ahoghill for tea and to meet the rest of the family.

Lisnagarron CowWhen we arrived at the house we sat and talked with Patrick, the man from the lane, his wife Trea and their grown children Pat, Colm, Una, Dympna and Claire. It turned out that Patrick, a cattle dealer, owned the land at the end of the lane and used it as pasture for his cows. To my amazement, the family knew the names of all of my grandfather’s siblings who had left for Boston a century earlier.

They insisted that I stay at their house for the remainder of my time in Ireland. The next day, I checked out of the Beechfield Guest House and drove back the Blaney’s home, where I stayed for the next week.

Members of the family took time off from work to show me the sights, like the Giant’s Causeway and the Glens of Antrim. We went to hear traditional Irish music at a pub at which, I was Lisnagarron, Northern Irelandassured, they poured “the finest Guinness in all of Ireland.”

On Sunday, they took me back to lane where I had first met Patrick, and they pointed out the hill where my great-grandfather’s house had stood in 1882 when my grandfather was born.

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2 Responses to “Finding My Irish Roots”

  1. 1 Teresa Devine

    My mother was Margaret Blaney and was related to your mother


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