Story and photos by Kayte Deioma
Some travel writers make a career out of developing an intimate knowledge of a single destination. Others are known for never visiting the same place twice. As much as I love a new adventure, some places keep calling me to return.
It’s not always just the places that draw me back to favorite destinations. It’s the people. Many of my international relatives and friends are now on Facebook, so I at least get a peek into their lives. But it doesn’t compare to sharing life stories over a cup of tea, and there are plenty of hold outs who just don’t do social media.
The decision for me to revisit Ireland was made for me. I bought a few raffle tickets from Passports with Purpose, an annual fundraiser created by travel bloggers, and won a nine-day tour of Ireland. Clearly my Irish family and friends were going to get company.
An Irish Tale Takes Its Time in the Telling.
Irish heritage was not emphasized or talked about particularly in our half-Italian household. However, it was there in subtle ways I didn’t realize, like the habit my mother and grandmother had of bursting into song or poetry at the drop of a hat. I just thought they were eccentric, until I visited Ireland, where it’s common practice.
My great-grandmother, Margaret McCaughan, came to the US with her sister Catherine in 1900 from the beachfront town of Ballycastle at the upper tip of Northern Ireland. My grandmother was pen pals with her Irish cousin Patricia for many years, but never had the chance to meet her.
I met her cousin Pat when I traveled to Ballycastle in 1998 with my mother, brother and sister. You could say we were some of those annoying Americans who “found” our Irish relatives, but that branch of the family was never really lost; and they were happy to see us.
Pat still had the letters and photos my grandmother had written to her, as well as the ones from my great grandmother. My great-grandma’s Irish lilt reached through time to describe the ocean crossing and the two sisters arriving in New York City to New Year’s Eve fireworks at the turn of the last millennium.
We met Pat’s daughter Patricia and son Hugh, and her son Declan, who gave us a grand tour of “the Rock,” the ruins of the old stone homestead high on a hill where my great-grandmother grew up. To get to the hill Declan drove us across a small river in a giant tractor. “My grandfather used to cross this river on stilts every day to go to school,” Pat told us, echoing a story I had heard my grandmother tell so many times about her own mother.
The Other McCaughans
A decade earlier, when my mother was researching the family tree, a friend traveling through Ballycastle brought back the McCaughan page from the phone book. Mom wrote to each of them to see which ones were descended from our common ancestors. In addition to hearing back from Patricia, she got a letter from 8-year-old Melanie Brown, whose mother was born Mary McCaughan. Melanie had moved to New Zealand by the time we visited, but we met Mary, her son Shane and some of her McCaughan siblings. Each one exclaimed when they met my mother – “You look just like Bridgid!”
We didn’t get to meet Bridgid, who had emigrated to England, but from photos, there really was an uncanny resemblance. I too seemed to evoke the familiar response when meeting new members of the clan, young or old. “You look like my sister (or aunt) Bridgid. It’s in the eyes.” The resemblance to Mary was pretty striking too.
When Mary, and later her daughter Melanie, visited me in LA, my friends also commented on the family resemblance. The strange thing is that our connection is so many generations back that we’re not quite sure where it is. McCaughans have been in Ballycastle so long that there are multiple branches who can’t trace their common history, but know from family tradition that they are somehow related.
One thing is sure, and that is that you can’t turn a corner or walk into a bar in the town of Ballycastle without running into a McCaughan from one branch of the family tree or another. I experienced this again when I visited Ballycastle on my own in 2004 and stayed with Mary and her partner Gerry. It was such a phenomenon that when I got back to LA, I wrote a song about it.
Every time I sang my song about Ballycastle, I fantasized about going back to sing the ballad at a Ballycastle bar.
I’m a little sad on this visit that cousins Pat and Mary are no longer around, having gone to join the fairies. Melanie and her Scottish husband Ruairidh have returned from New Zealand to live in Mary’s house with their four-year-old twins, Eddie and Jack. At Melanie’s suggestion, I am here in time for the nearly 400-year-old Auld Lammas Fair, one of the oldest festivals in Northern Ireland.
Visiting during the Lammas Fair has the advantage that some of my relatives who don’t live in Ballycastle are in town for the Fair. Pat’s daughter Ursula, who lives in England most of the year, is in her summer house not far from Melanie. A couple of other recently rediscovered relatives are staying with her – 89-year-old Auntie Jane and her daughter Lesley, also over from England.
I’m staying with Melanie and Ruairidh. I fall instantly in love with their red-headed offspring, who are not only great photo subjects, but brilliant conversationalists at four. They willingly participate in all my sing-alongs and adventures. Like any true Irishmen, they already know a song for every occasion.
Ballycastle Ballad – Take 1
Melanie and Ruairidh are both musicians who sit in on local “trad” music sessions whenever they can. Informed in advance of my goal of singing my Ballycastle Ballad in a Ballycastle bar, Melanie has big plans for my first night in town. It’s Thursday, the most promising session for the week at O’Connor’s Bar. Unlike some instrumental-only sessions, at this one singing is encouraged.
As we step in the door of the pub, Melanie greets a woman at the bar who turns out to be another member of the McCaughan clan. About a dozen musicians are sitting around a wooden table in the front of the bar covered with twice as many half-empty glasses. The room has been expanded and remodeled since the last time I was here, but I recognize some of the faces from photos I shot at this session back in 2004. They seem frozen in time, barely aged.
Melanie settles in with her fiddle, joining the strains of jigs and reels. I add my voice to the numerous choruses of the Belle of Belfast and enjoy a hot whiskey to warm up my vocal chords. The crowd is larger than usual due to the Auld Lammas Fair. There’s a roar of chatter behind the music.
I’ve been on the road since the day before, but the music is uplifting and even in my bleary-eyed state, I’m just where I want to be. After about an hour, I’m feeling pretty mellow when Mel stands up and makes introductions, passing me the microphone. The conversation level is still pretty high, but I can hear people shushing each other as I start to sing.
My ancestors came from a small beach town
‘Tween the Northern Ireland glens,
Just a stone’s throw from Scotland
Where the Irish and Scottish brogues blend.
Ballycastle, your blood runs though my veins.
Though a hundred years may have come and gone,
you’ll recognize me once again.
Ballycastle, the land of my roots and my dreams
Though a hundred years may have come and gone,
you’ll always be home to me…
I appreciate being in this place, in this moment with my roots planting me in this soil and connecting me to these people. I can feel the emotion in the room relating to my words, and my story. Even if this turns out to be my only opportunity to sing my song publicly in Ballycastle, I have fulfilled my dream of letting the people of Ballycastle know how strongly I feel that connection.
New Family Connections
The next day I meet cousins Ursula, Jane, Lesley and Patricia over lunch at a little cafe called Thyme and Co. I learn that Jane, now 89, was separated from her Irish family (including her sister Pat) as a child, left to be raised by relatives in England when her mother couldn’t afford to maintain all her children. She exchanged years of letters with her mother, but was never able to return to Ballycastle and her siblings. Her daughter Lesley reestablished the family ties a couple years ago and brought her mother back to visit.
As we wander the nearby shops after lunch, Patricia and her Auntie Jane discover they share a love of shoes and handbags.
A sliver of a boutique called K.Co, has just a few racks of colorful dresses, skirts and slacks and a wall of fun hats. As Jane explores the handbags and Patricia tries on the perfect skirt, a young woman comes up to me. “I heard you sing at O’Connor’s last night,” she says. “It was lovely. It made my mum cry.” Which, of course, makes my heart sing.
Ballycastle Ballad – Take 2
I have another opportunity to make that connection Friday night at the House of McDonnell, also known as Wee Tom’s. As we’re introduced, Wee Tom remarks spontaneously that I remind him of Ursula (the other side of the family).
Mel and Ruairidh add their violin and flute to the guitar, accordion, bodhran and another fiddler gathered around a tiny table in the narrow main room.
I chat at the bar with Paul, who occasionally joins in on “bones.” After a while, I once again have a chance to share my Ballycastle ballad.
When I go to Ballycastle,
Any stranger there can see,
The eyes of a McCaughan
That my great-grandma passed on to me…
As I finish the song, another McCaughan who happens to be in the bar comes over to say hello. Of course, there had to be one.
We’re about to head off for the night when my new friend Paul comes over to say goodbye. He references my sung sentiment…”Glad to have you home.” And I’m happy to be home.
On Saturday, Melanie and I take the boys on their first visit (my second) to the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge just up the coast. The 66-foot bridge is suspended almost 100 feet above a steep expanse of water to what is basically a big rock outcropping known as Carrick Island. The boys make the long trek down the trail to the bridge in the sprinkling rain with barely a complaint. The plank and rope bridge has been stabilized since my first visit, so it no longer sways wildly. That makes it much easier to cross with a four-year-old, but not as gleefully trepidatious as before. It doesn’t faze the boys in the least.
On the walk back, we see a rainbow over the sea, and I sing my song about My Friend Rainbow. Eddie then sings his own version where the sun and rainbow come out to play in the rain. Of the fraternal twins, Jack is more the adventurer. Eddie is more contemplative. But they both have their poetic side; they’re half Irish after all.
Girls Day Out – Glenshesk and Ballintoy
On Sunday Ursula invites me to join her and Auntie Jane on a driving tour of Glenshesk, the local glen where the family farm is located. Cousin Declan has been having some health issues, and Ursula tells me he’s not up to having visitors at the moment, so we don’t actually stop at the farm, but drive up to the top of the glen to admire the view back down toward the town.
We stop at the ruins of Bonamargy Friary. The roof of the building is long gone, but we explore the stone walls and small graveyard that remain. The abbey is also Hole 3 of the local golf course. We pause to admire the golfers in action. Auntie Jane’s infectious grin and her jokes about golf bums remind me of my own mischievous Irish grandmother.
By mid-afternoon we’re getting peckish. In order to avoid the weekend chaos of pre-fair crowds in Ballycastle, Ursula suggests we head to Ballintoy Harbour for a late lunch. A few miles west of Ballycastle, the tiny harbor is just below the village of Ballintoy, with a population of less than 200 people. The cafe in the harbor is bustling on a Sunday afternoon, but we manage to find a table to enjoy a hot bowl of vegetable soup with some good Irish wheaten bread. After a stroll along the stone jetty, Ursula and Auntie Jane settle on a bench with take-away cups of hot tea to watch the kayakers and enjoy the scenery.
I head off down the rocky coastal trail a bit to explore the caves, stone arches and craggy landscape. As much as the trail draws me, I don’t want to leave Auntie Jane and Ursula sitting too long on the cool summer afternoon, so we head back to town.
The Auld Lammas Fair
Unlike many festivals, celebrated on weekends so people are off work, the Lammas Fair has taken place on the last Monday and Tuesday in August since it began as a trade market almost 400 years ago. As the big day dawns ,we all walk down the hill from home into the throngs at the center of town and meet up with Gerry, the dear man who was with cousin Mary until the end. They visited me in Long Beach; I stayed with them in 2004 (when we faced the local Garda together after I took an unauthorized photo); and it was Gerry’s smiling face that greeted me at the Belfast airport when I arrived.
Gerry has been telling me since I got here how the Lammas Fair has turned all plastic and kitsch. I see what he means as we pass rows of vendors selling plastic toys made in China. There are still hand-knit Irish sweaters and a few artisanal foods and crafts, as well as antiques and collectibles, but mostly a lot of cheap imports.
In a far corner, near the Ballycastle Livestock Mart, horse trading still goes on. Yellow signs command “No Trading Permitted on Street” and “No Tethering of Horses on Street.” A poster on a giant police tractor implores: “Let’s Stop Rural Crime Together!” as police officers in Kevlar vests chat with passers-by.
Vendors of “home-made burgers” are everywhere, but Irish specialties are harder to come by. That is, except for the traditional Lammas Fair novelties, Yellowman and dulse. Yellowman is a neon yellow hard toffee broken into chunks with a hammer. Dulse is a dried seaweed snack – an acquired taste I haven’t acquired. The odd combination of flavors, usually sold side by side, seems to be everywhere. We skip the snacks and opt for a pub lunch to rest our feet.
Rather than a central entertainment stage, every block of the Lammas Fair has a booth where someone is singing, hawking their CDs and hoping to land wedding gigs. There are more performers singing American-style country music, pop songs or lounge music than traditional Irish tunes. I find the Irish music I’m looking for played by small groups of children and teens scattered with their instruments along a stone wall on Quay Road near the carnival rides – a bit of local tradition carved out among the Mylar unicorns, bejeweled cowboy hats, Greek pastries and Native American dream catchers.
The Lammas Fair is popular with Irish travelers, the home-grown gypsies who live a nomadic life criss-crossing the country. Some of them work the carnival or trade livestock. The young women come out for the festivities dressed for clubbing mid-afternoon. They’re not sure about me, walking around with two cameras and a long lens. Looks of distrust turn into smiles when I ask them to pose for a picture. They didn’t come out dressed like this not to be noticed.
After dark we run into another McCaughan I haven’t met before, Melanie’s teenage nephew Connor, who came in with some friends from a few towns away.
My final evening in town we gather for an impromptu family reunion at Ursula’s house. Melanie, Ruairidh, the boys and I join Ursula, Lesley and Auntie Jane, Patricia and her husband, Patricia’s brother Hugh and his wife, and I am thrilled to see that Declan is well enough to join us. He was such a gracious tour guide on my other two visits that it would have felt incomplete not to have seen him. “I never thought I’d see you here again this lifetime!” he greets me with a twinkle.
We spend some time catching up over a traditional dinner of bangers and mash. Then Lesley pulls out her laptop so I can show her the family tree website that my mother and sister created. There, among all the historic photos of interesting-looking ancestors that my sister painstakingly scanned, are photos that I took on my first visit to Ireland in 1998 of my mother and their mother, Pat, poring over old photos and letters together. Full circle.
Before we break up the party, there is one last thing I need to do – sing my Ballycastle Ballad for the cousins who inspired it.
…If you go to Ballycastle
And step into any bar,
You’ll find a McCaughan,
And you’ll know just where you are.
In Ballycastle, the land of my roots and my dreams
Though a hundred years may have come and gone,
you’ll always be home to me…
Thanks to all the McCaughan clan who make me feel so welcome in my ancestral home. You have to love a family that doesn’t mind a tribute song that ends up in a bar.
Stay tuned for tales from my 9-day tour of the Republic.