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.

“Rock Sans Sean”

Yesterday, Dermott stopped the tour bus on the side of the road along the ring of Kerry and ascended about 25 feet up a slate rock (but not dangerous) hill to capture photos of the vista…it was absolutely stunning (pictures #1 and #2, below).

Here’s another picture, of Minyoung taking a photo. Again…absolutely stunning. This scenery is breathtaking.

Then Minyoung turned, and said to Bernard, Ann, and I: “Pose there, I’ll take a photo.”

Behind us, the rock. In front of us, the breathtaking vista.

Sean wasn’t there as he had opted to hang in the bus while we galavanted above. Bernard objected to the rock behind us; he gave us running commentary about the rock background versus the vista foreground; why were taking a photo with a big rock in the background while on the Ring of Kerry, how it’d make more sense to use the vista as a background, etc etc. Ann and I were laughing, as was Minyoung, who patiently waited for us to pose while we giggled.

Ann and I caught laughing at Bernard’s running commentary of a Ring of Kerry photo with a rock background.
…and the final photo.

When the photo was finally clicked, Bernard titled it … “Rock Sans Sean”.

Unexpected Surprise at the Westlodge Hotel

The fun continues…we arrived at the Westlodge Hotel Bantry in County Cork  on Friday evening.  All was OK; we had each checked in…all of us except Mom & Dad that is. When Mom approached the front desk and provided her name, the woman behind the front desk had trouble finding it.

“I’m so sorry,”, she said, blushing.  “I just can’t find your name in the system. I’m so sorry.”  She was clicking the mouse repeatedly at this point, her eyes locked on the computer screen in front of her.

“It’s so ironic,” Mom said with a smile that broke into a small laugh. “Everyone else is here because of us. It’s our 50th wedding anniversary!”

Another attendant came over to help to help the woman at the computer screen, who was now blushing, and who looked as if she wanted to crawl under her desk when my mom mentioned the 50th wedding anniversary. Both ladies focused on the screen, and then quickly adapted to the situation, finding a suitable contingency plan to the lost booking.

The Bridal Suite was available!!!

Sharing a photo of Mom & Dad from June 15, 1968: 💕

The Cliffs of Moher

We departed Shannon Airport for the Cliffs of Moher, which offers unbelievably striking views of the Atlantic. You truly feel as if you’re on the edge of the earth (and you quite literally are on the edge of Ireland in some spots).

The drive was a long one – over an hour from the airport – but we were fortunate to have the tour bus, and we were quickly learning how much value Dermott, our driver and tour guide, would add to the trip. He was personable and kind, and allowed us to settle into our new daytime mobile home for the following week.

The bus was indeed comfortable; leather bucket seats, outlets for our phones and devices to charge, clean, large windows out of which we enjoyed our first views of the Irish countryside. The views were stunning, making the time in transit go by more quickly.

We arrived at the Cliffs and Dermott gave us a sense of how much service he would provide over the next week; he told us where exactly he was going to park, how we should approach the Cliffs, where to walk and not walk, and pitfalls to avoid, tourist trap-wise.  He made it very easy for us, by taking the thinking out of the logistics and allowing us to simply focus on enjoying the aesthetic feast we were about to behold.

We ascended to the very top of the one cliff, to a plateau on which, in the 19th century, local landowner Cornelius O’Brien built a tower to serve as a viewing spot. It’s now called, aptly, O’Brien’s Tower.

Then…back down, all of us a feeling the weariness of the flight starting to wear, thankful we had a bus and driver to take us to the Old Grand Hotel in Ennis.

Bunratty Castle, 50 Years Later

We had a wonderful experience at Bunratty Castle & Folk Park last night…

In 1968, Mom & Dad honeymooned in Ireland and, while there, enjoyed a medieval banquet feast at Bunratty Castle. There is a picture below of Mom & Dad there, enjoying the communal feast.

Last night – 50 years after Mom & Dad’s first trip, we all returned.  Our tour guide, Dermott, called ahead and was able to book/reserve Mom & Dad “Earl & Lady” of the evening, resulting in them being given the prime seats in the banquet hall. As Earl & Lady they also were given the first tastes of food and other fun “privileges’ that is part of Bunratty’s program. About 100 guests dine together in the banquet hall.

The communal feast is like stepping back in time…Staff dressed in medieval clothes who serve everyone food, refer to guests as Lords & Ladies, and provide singing and musical entertainment throughout the night. There are also fun breaks in the meal, whereupon each course is introduced. One guest was even thrown in the dungeon; he was forced to sing a song to the crowd before “the Earl” gave him a reprieve to return to his meal. All great fun.

At the end of the meal, the main host of the evening, the “Butler” named Jim who couldn’t have been more hospitable or gracious, toasted Mom and Dad and the entire dinning room erupted into cheers and applause, many standing for Mom and Dad congratulating them on their 50th. Also wonderful: another couple were in attendance at the banquet who were on THEIR honeymoon…they were also toasted. The presence of newlyweds in 2018 – 50 years after my parents honeymooned at Bunratty – was a sweet blessing of coincidence that put an exclamation point on the evening’s celebration. I was in tears, on my feet along with many others, clapping at the conclusion of the toast.

As guests left the hall at the conclusion of the meal, many stopped by Mom and Dad’s table to wish them congratulations.  I was so happy for Mom and Dad, and I was so grateful that our entire family was present for the occasion.

Before we departed Bunratty’s banquet hall, we had Mom and Dad pose in the same place they sat in 1968 – you can see the rifle in the background on the white wall.

A truly memorable evening!

First Glimpses of Ireland

Our flight from Newark was about a half hour delayed, but no matter. We flew the five hours and change eastward towards Shannon Airport, the kids sleeping most of the way.

It was an easy flight, with Indira, Arjun, and Devanjn on one side of the plane, and I across the aisle in the same row. As we began our descent into Shannon, I clicked this photo of Indira looking out the window.  And I was struck by a single thought, grateful and humbled by how meaningful the moment was: “in 1929 her great-grandfather emigrated to the USA on a steamship. Today, she’s flying back, about to land in Ireland and visit his country, hometown, and relatives.”

Would he ever have imagined this?

On Our Way!

We departed for Mom & Dad’s 50th wedding anniversary trip on July 4th; a fitting date to depart the U.S. for our ancestral homeland of Ireland. We congregated at Mom and Dad’s house and enjoyed the 4th together: Sean, Mel, Kate, and Brooke drove up from Maryland; Dev, Indira, Arjun, and I drove in from Jersey City; and Ann drove in from Manhattan.

The day was a typical 4th of July; barbecue, beer and wine, and plenty of salads at Mark’s annual Independence Day party.  The weather was hot, but sunny, with a sprinkling of rain while we ate an early dinner under the cover of one of Mark’s tents.

Then, 5:45pm.  The van arrived. The 14-passenger van that would take us to Newark Airport where we would depart for…IRELAND!

We took a selfie before we departed, as well as the van, and shared our status with Irish cousins on Facebook.