Monday, October 6, 2014
Coffee Break and Coincidence
It was a simple coffee shop in the County Clare village of Killaloe which became my office away from home during this journey back through the generations of Irish ancestors. Mainly, the coffee shop served as wifi haven, owing to the unfortunate difficulty of the wireless connection at our bed and breakfast accommodations being uncommunicative with the only computer still accessible to me.
On account of that, it was the Derg House which became our daily writing stop—Derg being the name of the lake above the historic bridge spanning the River Shannon between the twin towns of Killaloe and Ballina. Stumbling in the door from the afternoon rain which eclipsed our plans to wander the local cemeteries on our first full day here, I settled in for a hot mocha and the chance to connect to my online notes.
It wasn't a simple effort to drag ourselves in those doors, incidentally. By now, it was three in the afternoon—just about time for school to get out. We were already aware of the snarl of traffic that locked up the road over the bridge, and consequently all traffic on the main roads leading through both Killaloe and its twin town across the river, Ballina, at the close of business each day. In addition, our host had warned us that traffic tended to get heavier just after the close of the school day. We had already completed three laps around Killaloe's twisted, narrow roads and alleys in a vain attempt at locating the library, and had given up on the search as we once again came to a dead stop at the road leading up to the bridge.
Stuck in the stopped traffic about to cross the bridge, I looked up and saw the coffee house sign, decided to snag the opportunity and hopped out of the car with my daughter. My husband, promising to join us as soon as he could manage to find a parking space in the tangle of vehicles, kept his word within the hour.
Just kidding. It wasn't that extreme. This is, after all, only a village, not a metropolis. But we did have several laughs over the Keystone Cops nature of our circles around the alleys, trying to find our way to a non-existent road. I won't even begin to tell you of the narrowness of the alley across which a Volvo dump truck attempted its delivery—straddling the alley right in front of our oncoming car—or the cavalier manner in which local drivers address the hazards of the road. Somehow, it's still hard to shake that sense of driving on the wrong side of the street. Sometimes, it was we who became the hazards.
By the time the three of us had congregated in the coffee shop and warmed ourselves up with some coffee—like my nerves actually needed any more caffeine—I was well on my way to pulling up some of the historic maps I had lost in the episode of the disappearing iPad. We talked for a while with the proprietor about our quest to return to my husband's roots in Ireland, and then began writing.
In typical small town style, one of the customers seated at a nearby table overheard our conversation and decided to come over to chat. She had just been wandering the cemetery at the Killaloe Cathedral—that building on the other side of the river captured by my husband in photographs the first night of our arrival here—and shared details on some of the old grave markers she had discovered. Astute observer that I am, I sensed her excitement at sharing family history research, and listened to her stories with relish.
What I failed to notice, however, was the fact that her accent didn't quite match that of the locals. It was an accent, all right—at least to me—but face it: even I had an accent to those others seated in the shop. All the different sounds accosting my ears had blurred the distinctions, and I was oblivious to what, exactly, I was hearing.
I asked this other researcher which surnames she was seeking. One never knows: perhaps two people have returned to the same place at the same time for the very same purpose. None of those she named matched the ancestors I was following. Most of them sounded so far from the realm of possibility that I only could remember one in the recounting of the episode: Doyle.
The worst of it was that she had not been as successful in her quest as she had hoped. She complained, "to think I've come all this way to find nothing—six thousand miles!"
Wait a minute: you're not from here?
Finally being struck with the obvious, I realized it was an Aussie accent regaling my ears, not an Irish one. This woman had come all the way from Australia to do the very thing that had only cost me slightly more than five thousand miles to do, myself. Of course, I had an added bonus to my quest: my husband and I got to spend time with our daughter, who is currently a student at the University in Cork. But from the sounds of it, I was prepared for considerably more success in my search than she was for hers.
Still, we were on the same page. We were attempting the same quest: to find our family in the remote villages of Ireland. And our very different surnames had led us to this very same—albeit tiny—place. It's astounding to realize how such very different current homelands had drawn us for the same purpose. A kindred spirit wraps this task, and transforms strangers into long-lost friends, even if they turn out not to be related. Even distantly.
Fellow pilgrims notwithstanding, I had to amend her math: if it was Australia which was her starting point, hers was a journey of well over ten thousand miles. For that, I have to hand it to her: the length of such a journey would have given even me second thoughts about my research commitment.
Photograph, above: The Derg House Bed and Breakfast and coffee shop in Killaloe, County Clare, Ireland. Just over the River Shannon from Ballina in County Tipperary, this picture captures the building's exterior during the rare moment when the street just outside the door is not lined with stopped cars, awaiting the light to traverse the one-way road across the bridge. Photograph courtesy Chris Stevens.