“343: A Number You’ll Never Forget”

“343: a number you’ll never forget.”

Our tour guide, Dermott, challenged us to guess the significance of “three-four-three” while en route to Cork City. He promised us that once we discovered the answer to “343” we would never forget. We were approaching the town of Kinsale, so our guesses were centered around that small city, which boasts a great food scene as well as a historic (and very large) 400 year old fort called Charles Fort. Everyone on the bus took guesses; the number of soldiers at Charles Fort, the original population of Kinsale, the number of towns and cities in Ireland, and on and on. Not even Mom, the ultimate brains behind this vacation, knew where we were headed. As we pulled up to our destination we were all surprised.

We had arrived at a unique and deeply touching 9/11 memorial. The significance of 343 was the number of FDNY firefighters killed in the line of duty on 9/11. And the memorial Dermott had taken us to contained 343 trees, each planted for a fallen firefighter. It was called the “Kinsale 9/11 Garden of Remembrance” and its founder, Kathleen Murphy, was a Kinsale native and friend of Father Michael Judge, the FDNY chaplain who was killed on 9/11. Kathleen Murphy had been working in NYC as a Lenox Hill Hospital nurse on September 11, 2001.

The memorial was beautiful in every way. Trees were planted in rows which offered a sense of thoughtful order. But within that order, each tree was unique; a variety of species, sizes, and shapes. And affixed on each tree was a placard containing a firefighter’s name. Many trees were adorned with mementos, including t-shirts, hats, FDNY pins, and even pictures. The memorial swept out towards a downward sloping hill, offering expansive views of the gorgeous countryside.

In the center of the site was a small statue and plaque, commemorating the firefighters who had died; this itself had become a living memorial, adorned with hats, shirts, pins, and patches from civil service organizations from across the world, many from America. Almost like visitors who happened upon the plaque decided last minute to donate the hat or pin they were wearing, a spur-of-the moment tribute.


It was striking and for me a bit haunting to see how much space is taken up by 343 trees; like an echo of the scope and depth of what was lost on 9/11.

Kathleen Murphy died in March 2011 and there is now a memorial garden devoted to her in the middle of the site, with a stone explaining her role. Her memorial to the 9/11 firefighters lives on.

Milleennahorna, Our Ancestral Home in Skibbereen, County Cork

In 1929 Mom’s dad, John O’Sullivan, left this 2-story farmhouse (picture below) to emigrate to New York City. He wouldn’t return for 30 years. John left behind his parents, Cornelius & Johanna, and seven siblings: Julia, Ellen, Gerard, Timothy, Mary, Lilian, and Katherine.


The home is called Milleennahorna, and it’s located near Skibbereen in County Cork, Ireland. It now sits on about 130 acres of farmland that mostly produces grass. In 1929 it would have been a self-sustaining farm with cows, pigs, chickens, and other livestock.

John, called Jack by his family and friends, was 21 when he left Milleennahorna. It was a rough start when he landed in America; he nearly died of appendicitis on the steamship voyage across the sea and then, six months later, the stock market crashed setting off the Great Depression.

But John found his footing.

He would study for and pass exams to earn employment as a stationary engineer at St Joseph’s Hospital, apprenticing in exchange for room & board. He earned extra money by gardening the hospital grounds, infusing some of his prior life from the Irish farmstead into urban NYC. Upon completion of his apprenticeship he worked at General Diaper Company, a cleaning service where he helped operate and manage the heavy machinery.

In 1940 he married Mary Foley, who had emigrated from Glenbeigh, County Kerry in 1928. Within a few years Mom and her sister Joan were born.

John and Mary built an impressive new life in America; despite arriving in the late 1920s with virtually no wealth or property to their names, by 1943 they owned their own home in Woodside, Queens, and by 1947 they had purchased a dry cleaning business on Broadway in Elmhurst, Queens. They later purchased a new, larger and single family home closer to the business in Elmhurst. It was in this house, decades later, where we grandkids would visit him.

All told, John returned to Ireland only three times after emigrating in 1929; first in 1959 with his family and twice more in the 1970s on his own. The 1959 trip is when Mom first met most of her family; aunts, uncles, cousins…that trip would be formative in creating the transatlantic family bonds that would be strengthened over the years, continuing into today.

John’s immigrant journey was like so many others; it was full of hard work and determination. He survived a grueling journey across the Atlantic, re-skilled himself at least twice over, got married, owned his own home and successful small business with his wife, and started a family. He left many family members behind in his home country that he later revisited; I imagine it was extremely difficult – bittersweet, truly – to have a foot in two countries for so long, especially when neither communication nor travel were as easy or accessible as compared with today. He passed away, at home in Elmhurst, in 1988 at the age of 80.

This past Saturday, 89 years after John departed Milleennahorna, five of his great-grandchildren – Kate, Brooke, Ethan, Indira, and Arjun – returned. The great-grandkids were treated to a special horse and carriage ride by generous O’Sullivan family friends who drove out from Cork City for the day with their show horse just for the occasion. John’s nephew (and Mom’s 1st cousin), Sean O’Sullivan, arranged it, and then hosted the adults in the kitchen with tea, scones and conversation. It was a short but very meaningful visit back to our ancestral home. Milleennahorna is a home that connects us to many of the cousins we’ve met on this trip; our cousins’ grandparents were John’s siblings, and now – nearly 90 years later – many of us are having kids, stretching out a new layer of branches on the family tree with the great-grandkids.

I was only 12 when Grandpa died in 1988. My memories of him are limited but I remember the way he talked, laughed, and I can picture his face when he smiled. I’m struck by how I can see my memories in some of my relatives faces and hear my memories in some of their voices. The cadence or sound of speech or the way eyes crinkle when a person smiles. It’s a really happy surprise, quite frankly, to be reminded of Grandpa through this visit with his nephews and nieces on this trip, and even with some of the grand-kin. And it’s a reminder of the power of staying connected with family and understanding not just where your roots are….but who the other branches are on the family tree.

Good Luck, Breakthrough, on the #RingOKerry Cycle Ride!

The Leddy’s and D’Souza’s are sending best wishes to Breakthrough Cancer Research! Breakthrough is one of many teams cycling around the Ring of Kerry today in an effort to raise funds for local charities.

Breakthrough is the legacy of Mom’s first cousin Gerry O’Sullivan, an esteemed surgeon who founded Cork Cancer Research Centre, which is at the cutting edge of immunotherapy research in the aim to cure cancer. Gerry passed away in 2012 but his legacy and mission live on through CCCR and Breakthrough Cancer Research Centre, which now serves as charitable fundraising organization for the cutting edge research. Breakthrough is a family mission; Gerry’s son, Gearoíd worked for Cork Cancer Research Centre as a research scientist in the early 2000s, his other two children, Orla and Eoghan, work for Breakthrough and were part of the team today in the cycling event, and his wife Breda assists with many of the events and fund raisers as well, including the #RingOKerry cycle ride. 

We Leddy’s did a quick well wishes video in Skibbereen…a bit of a jumble at first but in the end we got down the all-as-one cheer!!  We were sending our love to our family, and our best wishes to the entire Breakthrough team!

We later visited a memorial to Gerry in Skibbereen – it is in progress, a life-size bronze statue of Gerry is still to be added to an 8-ton stone that currently sits in the middle of the park – but it was amazing to visit and see what is planned. What a testament to Gerry and his legacy. The planned memorial includes a large green/open-space park with the bronze statue in the center. The statue will be surrounded with stones in the ground engraved with quotes that speak to Gerry’s memory and impact on the world.

One stone contains a quote from James Watson, one of the co-founders of DNA. Watson said of Gerry:

“He was so unique standing strong above those who worshipped his first surgical skills and then his determination to move from treating, to truly curing cancer.” – James Watson, Nobel Laureate & co-founder of DNA.


Learning about the Great Famine (an Gorta Mór) at Skibbereen Heritage Centre

Learning more about Ireland’s mid-19th century Great Famine at the Skibbereen Heritage Centre was one of the most impactful experiences on our recent trip to Ireland.vJ0KSVT8RpuXHfEy7HWozA  It was historically fascinating and emotionally wrenching. Before we left for Ireland, I knew I wanted to learn more about the Famine; it is a history I felt I didn’t know enough about.

So in late June, before we departed on our vacation, I took the kids on a day of NYC touring about their Irish heritage. I took them to the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan, which gives context about the “Why” of migration from Ireland in the mid-19th century:

Later that day we visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, joining a neighborhood walking tour then visiting a tenement “frozen in time” to illustrate life for “Irish Outsiders” Joseph and Bridget Moore:

A week later, we were in Ireland. On Day 4 of our family tour we visited the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, which is close to Milleennahorna, where Mom is from.

As we drove to the Centre, our tour guide Dermott recounted basic statistics about the Famine which are jarring in scope:

  • Over 1 million Irish died between 1845 and 1852.
  • Over 1.25 million Irish fled Ireland to Europe, America, and other locations during this timeframe.
  • All told, Ireland saw a 45% reduction in population from the 1840s to the 1890s.

Skibbereen, termed “ground zero,” was particularly devastated by the Famine.  The Skibbereen Heritage Centre recounted this history, chock-full of information, exhibits, and context. Team members were on hand to give context to the exhibits, explaining the power structure between tenant and landlord in early 19th century Ireland, land use policies, policies around potato cultivation, and the subsequent horrors that unfolded when the potato crop failed so completely. There was so much to unpack from what we learned, but I was struck in particular by these observations:

  • The Famine was a “before and after” event in Irish history, re-shaping Irish culture, including the role of women and that of the Catholic Church in the 1850s and beyond.
  • The Famine was followed by a “great, eerie silence”, what the Centre guide described as akin to “cultural PTSD” that would ensue for over 150 years.
  • The Famine as a subject has been resurrected within Ireland only in the past 25 years, catalyzed in part by 150th anniversary commemorations in the mid 1990s.

The Centre did an excellent job of laying out the cultural, political, and economic context that led to the Famine…and then the aftermath, including personal accounts from that time period: witness accounts of men, women, and children dead in the streets, of systemic evictions of the poor, of failed bureaucratic programs that killed the vulnerable. I was taken aback both at how little I’d known and how much I now wanted to learn.

These are pictures of placards on display at the Skibbereen Heritage Centre:

As I spent time reading and listening at the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, I felt a deep desire to learn as much as possible about the Famine, in part because it is our heritage history, but also because past can so often be prologue, and migration due to famine, climate change, and other factors continues in 2018, albeit in different areas of the world, with different effects.

I purchased “Skibbereen: The Famine Story” which is an excellent, highly accessible and relatively short read about the famine’s local impact.  Then when I got home to Jersey City, I purchased the much larger “Atlas of the Great Irish Famine” which I’m reading now.

All told, the Skibbereen Heritage Centre is well worth a visit and I hope one day to return.

I wanted to share in case anyone else was interested:

Atlas of the Great Irish Famine“, by John Crowley, et al. New York University Press, 2012.
Skibbereen: The Famine Story“, by Terri Kearney and Philip O’Rgan. Macalla Publishing, 2015.


Annie’s Home-Made Ice Cream in Sneem – A Must Stop on the Ring of Kerry!

Yet another gem offered by our tour guide, Dermott, was Annie’s homemade ice cream shop in Sneem. Dermott not only brought us to Annie’s; he also helped with some of the re-painting of the pink tables that Annie was doing when we arrived (that’s Dermott to the left…crouched down, he’s applying some beautiful pink paint to that table stand 😀 ).

Located on the southern end of the Ring of Kerry, Annie’s Home Made Ice Cream Shop is a small shop with big personality. Annie herself was there to help scoop the ice cream, explain the flavors, and then take our family photo commemorating the stop! Annie’s shop is located on Facebook here. Definitely check her out if you’re in the area while on tour!


Hello from the Ring of Kerry! (And the Skellig Island Experience)

On our 2nd day, we drove the Ring of Kerry. The entire ring. It was long, intensely beautiful, and…well, intensely beautiful. Pictures and words simply don’t do it justice.  I wish I could do it justice because my feelings attached to this experience feel trapped inside of me…like an aching drumbeat. I want to return to the spot and time of standing at land’s edge, looking out over the choppy waters of the Atlantic.

The Ring of Kerry features the Skellig Islands, which were featured in “The Force Awakens” Star Wars movie.


When Rey discovers Luke at the end of the movie, Luke is on one of the Skellig Islands.  Ok, end of spoiler.

While currently enjoying renewed fame and popularity thanks to Star Wars, the Skelligs are ancient tourist attractions in Ireland, serving as the site of a monastic community that was built over the course of centuries, starting in the 6th century. We enjoyed the “Skellig Experience,” a museum about the Islands, which provided the history of the monastic community, the wildlife inhabiting the islands, as well as the sea life in the waters around the islands. It was wonderful — the scenes were breathtaking, and the Skellig Experience Visitor Centre put it into such wonderful perspective.

Our tour guide Dermott drove us up to the most advantageous viewing point of the islands so we could hop off the bus and click a few photos. One of them is below. The Skellig Islands are the small dots of land in the very back horizon, near the upper right of the photo. The distance from land gives some sense of how profoundly isolated the islands are, particularly for 6th century monks.

Sheepherding in Glenbeigh, Ireland

On this trip we are visiting my grandfather’s family who mostly live in Counties Cork and Waterford. But his wife – my grandmother – was named Mary Foley and she also emigrated from Ireland, from a town called Glenbeigh in County Kerry. We aren’t in touch with her family to the extent that we’re in touch with my grandfather’s family, but we did make a point to drive through Glenbeigh so that we could see where she came from, which for me was very meaningful.

I never met my grandmother, who was called Nanny, as she died a few years before I was born. But the way she’s talked about by those who knew her – from my older sister, my parents, my cousins in Ireland – is that she was full of life, laughed often, and was a consummate hostess. By many accounts, she and my grandfather were an immigrant success story; they moved to Ireland (separately) in the late 1920s, met and got married in America, and by the mid 1940s they owned their own home in Woodside and a dry cleaning business in Elmhurst. I wish I could have known her, though I’m grateful to at least visit where she came from.

Nanny emigrated to America in 1928, one year before Grandpa. She came from a sheep herding family in Glenbeigh.  Our tour guide, Dermott, knew this and made arrangements for us to make a stop with a sheep herder in Glenbeigh who has created a side tourist business for himself, explaining to his visitors how he uses sheep dogs to herd his flock of sheep. His name was Brendan Ferris and he was wonderful. Brendan invited us visitors to glimpse into his daily routine of herding the sheep via sheep dogs.  These canines are all work and no play (though it looks like they truly enjoy the work)!

It was fascinating to learn how Brendan directs two dogs at the same time.  He uses a basic set of commands, like “Go”, “Stop”, “Right”, “Left”, and so on.  And each dog is taught its own language for these commands; in effect, a different set of words for each dog. This is to ensure each dog understands only that set of commands that Brendan intends them to follow. Brendan helped us understood what he meant by highlighting the fact that we, the visitors watching him, were bifurcated into English and German speakers (there was a German-speaking tour group watching this along with us). Brendan would explain himself, then pause, and wait for the German translator to explain what he had just said. Brendan highlighted to us taht those of us who understood English made sense of what Brendan was saying, but those of us who didn’t know German (myself included) tuned out the German translation and only focused on the English. And vice versa, the German speakers likely made no sense of what Brendan said, but they could understand their translator.  The dogs act similarly: they listen for and obey only the signals they’ve been trained to understand.

Brendan explained it takes about 6 months to train the dogs, and they don’t start training until after a few months of age.

It was so enjoyable to get a glimpse into the daily life of a shepherd and his dogs…a recommended stop if you are ever traveling through or near Glenbeigh.  You can learn more about Brendan here.