By John F. Mahoney
I was in the army stationed at Bad Kreuznach Germany in 1966 when a letter from home informed me that my Godmother Agnes Daly was on a visit in Ireland. She was born and raised in West Cork. But she and two sisters had immigrated to America many years ago. They had settled in Charlestown. Another sister, my grandmother, who started out in Chelsea, got married, moved to Charlestown had died years earlier.
Every night the radio at home was tuned to Tommy Shield’s ‘Irish Hour.’ And every year I participated in the Irish plays put on by the nuns at St. Francis De Sales school. This kept the ‘spirit,’ if not the reality, of Ireland alive in Charlestown.
But being in Germany, and Ireland now closer than Charlestown, I saw the opportunity to make it a reality. In letters back and forth from family, I learned my Godmother was staying at her brother’s house in a town called Rossmore, which is about 200 miles south of Dublin. I arranged to get some military leave, and packed a suitcase. And acquiescing to my Godmother’s wish, I took my dress greens along.
I caught a military flight on a C-124 from Ramstein Airbase in Germany to Heathrow Airport in London. From London, I caught a commercial flight to Dublin. I intended to stay in Dublin for one day. After booking a room at a Bed and Breakfast, I went out for a stroll around the city. On my walk, I’d occasionally ask directions. Each time I did this, the person would ask, “Do you know where Nelson’s Pillar was?” And each time I answered, “No.” When I finally asked someone, “What happened to Nelson’s Pillar?” I was told it was blown up three months previous. It seems the English hero wasn’t welcome in the center of Dublin.
After a nice supper at the bed and breakfast, I went out to experience the city nightlife. I found a nightclub not far from where I was staying. The place was fairly crowded with what seemed an almost equal amount of guys and girls. The guys were bunched on one side of a dance floor and the girls on the other. When the music started, the guys moved towards the dance floor. The girls did the same. But both groups stopped at the edge of the dance floor as if an invisible shield held them back. A few couples did manage to break through the shield. When the music stopped, the couples left the dance floor, and the two groups went back to their waiting places. This scene played out a number of times with me in tow. Eventually, I tired of this ‘back and forth ritual’ and asked a girl for a dance. She accepted and proceeded to dance me around the floor, covering all sides in a kind of walk-dance. I told her she looked like Maureen O’Hara. She answered, ‘But Maureen O’Hara has red hair; my hair is brown.” I said, ‘It was dark in the club and I couldn’t tell.” She gave me a look somewhere between bewilderment and a laugh. Truth is, I didn’t know Maureen O’Hara was a red head because all the movies I had seen her in were black and white.
With the club about to close, I left with my Maureen O’Hara’ look alike and her friends. They were heading for another after hours place. They invited me along, but I declined the invite because I had to get up early and make my way to Rossmore.
The next day I caught a train to Cork City, then a bus to Clonakility. The bus was packed with rosy-red cheeked grade school kids, speaking with Irish brogues. I found this amusing because previously I heard only adults speak with the brogue. And red cheeks had been a bane of my childhood, flushing at the most inopportune times, like when accused of something I didn’t do.
Unfortunately the bus didn’t go as far as Rossmore. The rest of the way I had to make on my own. I didn’t consider taking a cab. A soldier’s salary is not grand. I decided to walk and try to hitch a ride.
I walked along a country road bordered by stonewalls, carrying my suitcase with no rollers, and my soldier dress greens slung over my back. Passing an occasional house off in the distance, not a person in site, and few cars on the road, I began to fret that my walk may be a long one.
The houses had big fields in front of them. At one, I saw a horse. I stopped and stared at it. The horse spotted me, and galloped my way. I took off up the road, hoping the horse didn’t leap over the wall. When I felt a safe distance, I looked over my shoulder and saw the horse at the wall looking after me. I wondered what the horse was doing alone in the field. The horse probably wondered what I was doing alone on the road. Continuing my walk, I marveled at the thought of being on a country road in West Cork, so far from Charlestown, running from a horse. For some reason, it all felt right.
Finally a car stopped and gave me a lift. The driver wasn’t going to Rossmore but he could get me close. And he did. When he dropped me off, he pointed and said, “go that way, it’s not far now.” His ‘not far’ was a country mile. But his directions were correct. A road up a slight hill brought me into Rossmore, a small town.
I didn’t know the exact address where my Godmother was staying, so I went into a local shop and inquired where the Daly’s lived. The woman behind the counter replied, “Delivering the uniform to the Yank, are ya?” Evidently she referred to my Godmother, who was as Irish as the shopkeeper.
It turned out, I didn’t have far to walk. The house was a couple of doorways down the road I just came up. When I knocked on the door, a woman I’d never seen before, answered with a big smile and a “hello Johnny.” The Irish are prone to say ‘Johnny’ instead of ‘John.’ Mary Keating, who I was to learn was my mother’s cousin, led me into the house. The first room we entered was a work room for a cobbler, her father. From this room, we went to the heart of the Irish home, the kitchen. There, seated with her brother Stephan Daly and his wife Margaret, was my Godmother. I had arrived.
The mythical Ireland of my Charlestown days was now a reality. It was the first but not the last of many visits to the old sod.