According to the U.S. Census, over 33.3 million Americans claim Irish ancestry. Like most of those 33.3 million, I’ve always taken my Irish ancestry for granted. Other than one poorly attended Irish dance class in kindergarten, I never made much of an effort to connect to the Irish culture. However, when my choir went to Ireland last week, I couldn’t help feeling connected to my roots. With each new tune, church, dance, and meal, I felt more and more linked to the Mackeys of Limerick, the Kennedys of Tipperary, and the Shays of Clare. More so, however, I felt thankful for their sacrifice. If I had a hard time leaving Ireland after only a week-long visit, I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for each of my ancestors and their families. Departure is a strong part of Irish history. Among Dublin’s many monuments of martyrs and patriots are memorials for those forced to leave their beloved country. The Jeanie Johnston sits poised on the River Liffey, a memory of all the passengers it carried across the ocean.
Without the courage of Hugh Kennedy, Bridget Mackey, and Mary Ellen Shay, I wouldn’t exist. However, I also owe much of existence to someone who didn’t make it across the pond, Molly Mackey. If Molly had made it to America, Bridget’s life and the life of her descendants would’ve been very different.
The Mackey clan of Limerick was notorious for their hurling skills. A three-hour Gaelic Games workshop gave me the chance to test me own skills. We started off with Gaelic football. After a few drills, we held a somewhat successful game. There was even talk of starting a Gaelic Games club at our high school. Then came the hurling drills, and we began questioning our burgeoning skill. After a hopelessly scoreless hurling game, I concluded that the Mackey hurling gene didn’t make it to America.
The Mackey family of Gooig were farmers. On my trip I visited a working sheep farm. The tour included tea and scones, a sheep-shearing demonstration, and a chance to feed the lambs. It all seemed very quaint and enjoyable… for someone much shorter than me. My tour guide said the Vikings introduced height to the Irish population; apparently the Vikings never visited this farmhouse because every door was less than six feet high.
Despite her great impact, according to the Irish census, Molly Mackey led a fairly quiet life. In 1911 (20 years after her sister left for America), she was unmarried and lived on her family farm with her mother and brother. There are no accounts of her after that (the 1926 census won’t be public until 2027), but I still felt her presence throughout my trip. The meals I ate, the songs I sang, the people I met, they were all thanks to Molly, so I brought her along with me in stories, and toasts and candles. It wouldn’t have been the same without her.
Tom the tour-guide singing us the Limerick anthem.
The choir singing The Road Home at St. Patrick’s Cathedral