I just received an excited e-mail from my youngest brother concerning his recent trip to Ireland where he discovered that our great, great grandfather, Austin Joseph, was baptized in Kilkee, a village in County Clare on the island’s western shores. Steve has put someone on the spoor of Austin Joseph with the hope that our knowledge of our antecedents will be greatly increased.
The atavistic impulse is strong in Americans, not least in those whose roots are in Ireland. Some might find it odd that members of this affluent generation should look back with longing love at the impoverished stock and famine-struck land from which they come. The other day a young man stopped by and told me of taking his family to Ireland for a year, where he did research on his great grandparents and their manner of leaving Ireland and then being reunited with romantic implausibility in the United States. He had made much money in business, then sold out, and was now devoting himself to writing the story of these distant, and doubtless poor, relations.
It takes a kind of act of faith, certainly an act of imagination, to connect oneself to unknown men and women who lived a century and a half ago. Under an imposing stone emblazoned with “Mclnerny” the mortal remains of our great grandfather lie in Lake City, Minnesota, on the banks of the Mississippi. Beside the stone there are smaller stones identified only as Father and Mother. It was Steve who informed me of those graves. I stopped there with my own family to say a prayer for a man and woman I never knew and, of course, who never knew me. Austin Joseph traveled from the western shores of Ireland to the western bank of the Mississippi, where he died at an advanced age. It is the mysteriousness of it all that brings the sense of awe.
When one descries in one’s children a suggestion of their grandparents, when something a sibling says or does prompts a sudden memory of one’s mother or father, there is the realization that more than biology is at work in the wild growth of a family tree. We now know so much of genetic codes and the transmission of traits through generations, requiring us to see the unique against a frieze of inherited givens. It is as incomprehensible as Original Sin.
Once on our way to Europe one of the kids had an attack of appendicitis. We got off the ship in Halifax, where I rushed her to a hospital while someone looked after Connie and the other kids. When I joined them I found that they had been put up in an immigration shed, just a port in the storm. We would find lodgings in town the following day and wait out the ten days of convalescence. But that night I lay awake, haunted by the thought of all those who had spent their first night in the New World in those surroundings. It was all too easy to imagine that with my family I had come to settle in a new country and to begin a new life, with all its nameless fears and wild hopes. I wrote my impressions of that sleepless night in my journal.
It might have been there in Halifax that we Mclnernys began this new phase of our existence; my great, great grandfather came to Minnesota via Canada. Necessity rather than the spirit of adventure brought him across the sea. How could he have known, lying there in a sea of immigrants that he would eventually find himself at Lake Pepin, that bulge in the Mississippi, where he would meet and fall in love with an Irish maid accompanying her employers from Louisville. He followed her to Louisville, wooed, and won her, bringing her back to Lake City. What if she had said no?
It is all the things that might not have happened or might have happened otherwise that sends an existential shiver through one. That and the thought that all those dead still exist and await us in a great immigration shed in the sky. Meanwhile, they are with us in other ways, coming alive in gestures: the jut of a jaw, a more-than-sufficient nose, a tone of voice. It seems an Irish imperative to put it into verse.