During the height of the Great Famine from 1845 to 1850 one million people emigrated from Ireland. Afterward, conditions in Ireland remained desperate enough that the stream of emigrants continued through the turn of the century and beyond. My grandmother was among them. The best we can determine about my grandmother is that, as a single woman in her twenties, she sailed to New York City from Queenstown in Southern Ireland sometime during the first decade of the twentieth century. Queenstown has now, thanks to Irish independence from the Queen, reclaimed its original Irish name, Cobh. Specifics about my grandmother are hard to come by. We don’t know the precise year she emigrated. We don’t know exactly how old she was. Her year of birth as it appears on my father’s birth and baptismal certificates doesn’t jive with the year of birth that was listed for her in the 1915 American census. We don’t know her parents’ names. We aren’t even sure of her name. Her first name was Anna or Annie (one document even records her name as Amna). My father was quite sure that her maiden name was Downy, and in her memory he named me George Downy Freund. Lois took Downy as her last name when she and I married. Yet it’s a name that I can find no trace of in Ireland, past or present. We think her name was actually either Downey or Downing. She died when my father was four or five years old, and her death at such a young age always haunted my father. After we were grown, a few of my siblings and I accompanied my father to New York City to try to find out where his mother was buried. Our research eventually led us to an old cemetery in the Bronx. My brother Mike was able to take my father to visit his mother’s grave before my father died. Still, we know so little about her life before she sailed to America, and since Lois and I have been in Ireland, one of my projects has been to discover something about her life here. Who was she? Why did she leave Ireland?
My father’s recollection was that his mother was from Cork. Cork is both a city and a county in southern Ireland. In early June Lois and I did a two-day ‘Servas’ homestay in the city center of Cork with our hosts Nicholas and Siobhan. Nicholas showed us how to access the 1901 Irish census data. Those data produced at least a half dozen possibilities, but none matched the information my family had gathered in the States. Lois and I visited the Heritage Center in the town of Cobh to try to get more information. We got a good deal of information about the ill-fated Titanic and Lusitania, both of which departed from Cobh, but nothing about my grandmother.
We temporarily suspended our quest and drove to Toehead nearly the southernmost point on the coast of Ireland in West County Cork, where we would stay for a week as part of a home exchange with Danny and Marian Smith. We first met them in Derbyshire, England, where they have a first home. They had bought a vacation home in Ireland a couple of years back – an old, uninhabitable stone structure which they’d been attempting to make habitable over the past couple of years. They showed us photos of the project and apologized profusely about its condition; Lois and I started gearing up for a week in an Irish ruin.
We made our way toward Toehead during the second week of June in an Irish downpour. There have been many of these since we’ve been here, despite Danny’s claim that Toehead has Ireland’s sunniest weather. Toehead is not a town; it’s a geographical feature, the tip of a peninsula that juts southward into the Atlantic. Danny and Marian’s house is in the town of Gortacrossig, but there are no signs that say, ‘Welcome to Gortacrossig’. Lois and I have the most highly recommended road map of Ireland, and this town doesn’t even appear on it, perhaps because there really aren’t what we’d ordinarily call ‘roads’ there. I once worked at Muir Woods National Monument, and our footpaths there were wider and better maintained than these roads. Nonetheless, the locals (including the Irish policeman whose car nearly obliterated ours on a blind curve) drive them as though they are freeways. Fortunately Lois was driving, and, given her background in anthropology, she has a greater capacity to tolerate the quaint and terrifying customs one might encounter in other cultures. I’m content to do the navigating; I was calling out Danny’s directions as she drove. Despite following them perfectly, we turned into the driveway of what was clearly the wrong house.
We started to back out of the driveway and move on, when Danny and Marian came out of the front door to welcome us. They had done a masterful job of lowering our expectations. This was not the dilapidated and funky thing we’d seen in the photos. The house was beautiful. The walls had been repaired and painted; there was a new roof, and a nearly completely refurbished interior. From the south side of the house, you can just see the Atlantic between the trees that border the property.
Danny and Marion and their sixteen-year-old daughter Katherine served us a wonderful dinner, and afterwards the adults tried out some of the Irish whiskey Lois and I had picked up on our tour of the Jameson’s Distillery not far down the road in Middletown. Katherine had just taken her exams in philosophy and ethics, and she tried to explain to me the relationship between those exams and the coursework in 6th Form in the British system. I found myself wishing that I hadn’t sampled the Irish whiskey so liberally after dinner.
The next morning Danny took us on a tour of the ‘hood.’ He is principal of a secondary/’further education’ school in England….and one of the most enthusiastic tour guides we’ve had in Europe. He led us on a four-mile circuit of the territory that had us climbing fences, walking through soggy pastures and along ocean bluffs, and learning about local lore and the current homeowners in the neighborhood. He absolutely loves Toehead
Two doors down the road
The potato famine hit especially hard in this area. The word “gorta” in Gortacrossig means famine in the Irish language. There are roofless stone cottages scattered across the countryside. The roofs were made of thatch or wood, which decompose rapidly in Ireland’s soggy climate, but the stones remain standing for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years.
Over the next week we also met some of the local inhabitants
Jim with Lois. Owns property in the neighborhood, sometimes camps here in a 6’ by 6’ hut on his property.
He calls it the hotel.
‘Neigh’bor just across the street
Irish beauty. Toehead
If you pick up a guide book on Ireland, you’ll read about the breathtaking drive around the Ring of Kerry, the spectacular Dingle Peninsula, maybe the Beara Peninsula as well. You will not see anything about Toehead. Consequently there are no tour buses, no gift shops, no pubs, not a single store of any kind. No more than a few souls hike the bluffs on any given day.
Mum’s the word, but this is what Toehead looks like.
A few miles down the road on the Toehead Peninsula there is a beautiful and unusual salt-water lake, Lough Hyne. It’s the only lake in Ireland in which the stream that flows into the lake actually becomes the outlet when the ocean tide rises, causing the lake water to flow back into the inlet stream.
Lois and I hiked the trail overlooking the lake and the southeast coast of Ireland beyond.
It is impossible to travel through Ireland without being reminded again and again of its tragic history: conquest and oppression by everyone from the Vikings to the English; civil wars; poverty so profound that ¼ of the population once subsisted on nothing but potatoes, leading to the loss of a million human lives when that crop failed. This history is an undercurrent in every tour of an Irish heritage site. Late at night in any traditional Irish pub, all conversation subsides and all instruments fall silent when someone rises to sing an Irish lament. Nearly 50 million Americans have ancestors who left Ireland, as do millions of Canadians and Australians. Now that the booming ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy has gone bust as a result of the recession that began in 2008, the Irish are emigrating again at a rate higher than any since the days of the Great Famine, although few are choosing America this time. As a child raised in a family only a generation away from Ireland, I was aware of an undercurrent of sadness and longing in the family; part of me has always felt it without understanding it. Now that I see what my grandmother once saw — these brilliant green hills that fill your eyes to overflowing, these coastlines carved so exquisitely that you want to fall to your knees — I can begin to understand how heartbreaking it must have been for her… for anyone…. to have left a place such as this.