Julie, along with her mother and sister, took part in the Ireland Reaching Out Week of Welcomes 2011
How did your visit to Ireland come about?
My cousin in Ballinakill heard about the program through his Parish. He emailed me the link and as soon as I read the article, I picked up the phone, called my mother Kathleen (Keane) O'Brien and said "Mum, you HAVE TO go to Ireland with me for this program!"
My mother had been to Ireland with my father in 2005 but they did not know the area where our family came from. So, the tour they went on gave them a wonderful highlight of the tourist locations Dublin's Temple Bar, Waterfordﾒs crystal factory, Blarney Castle, the Claddagh in Galway - but they never really saw the Ireland that her grandfather used to talk about.
In 2008, I looked at some old documents that my grandfather had left me before he passed away in the early 1990s and I was able to locate the area where my great grandfather and great grandmother came from. He was from Ballinakill and she was from Portumna ﾖ just miles away from each other but had it not been for that trans-Atlantic boat trip from Cobh to Boston they would have never met each other!
With limited knowledge I put together a family tree with some photos of my grandfather when he visited Ballinakill in 1926 at the age of 10. I mailed it to families in the Southeast Galway County area who shared the same last name to investigate whether we were related. It was sort of taking the ﾑneedle in the haystackﾒ search approach, and I wish the Ireland Reaching Out program would have been around at that time three years ago. It would have been such a resource for locating my cousins. A few weeks later I received letters from very excited relatives confirming that I had indeed reached the Keane family descendants.
Were you aware of your Irish heritage before the visit?
Yes. As a child I would listen intently as my grandfather, who we called Grampy, told us stories about how his father Martin Keane (1879-1963) grew up in a cottage on a farm in Ireland. Over the years, I became the family historian. In 1992, I interviewed my grandfather and recorded all the stories on audio tape. I never regretted that because later that year my Grampy suddenly passed away the day before my 23rd birthday. If I hadnﾒt taken the time to record those stories with him, they would have been lost forever.
In 2008, I revisited the audio tapes and immigration papers that my grandfather had left me and I decided to write a book of family stories for my relatives and future family generations. After locating my relatives in Ireland I made a trip to Ballinakill and Portumna in 2009 with my husband David to meet my cousins for the first time. It was an amazing trip but entirely too short. I came back to America, wrote the book ﾓStories Grampy Told Meﾔ and vowed to take my mother back to Ireland on a future trip. When the Week of Welcomes program was brought to my attention, I knew this was the chance we had been waiting for.
The Week of Welcomes program was ideal because it combined two very important areas ﾖ family history and local history. I was able to show my mother the homesteads, grave sites, and other significant family locations, and at the same time see historic sites like the Portumna Workhouse, Portumna Castle, Coole Park and the ruins of Kilmacduagh Monastery. These are amazing historical landmarks with fascinating stories that I never wouldﾒve known about if I had just visited the area on my own.
It is not an exaggeration to describe our local tour guides as expert historians in regard to their respective areas. They were a wealth of knowledge ﾖ beyond dates and historical facts. They brought these places to life for us with local stories and took us back in time to what it would have been like to live in this area with my great grandfather over 100 years ago.
I guess you could say our tour bus became a time capsule of sorts. Taking us back in time to places that we never wouldﾒve experienced otherwise.
What did you find out during your trip?
Ireland is my home. My great grandfather used to say that when my mother was little. He would say ﾓAmerica is my country and Ireland is my home.ﾔ Itﾒs hard to explain but coming to this area where my family came from felt like coming home. I felt so connected to this place and its people. I left with the feeling that I wanted to make it my home.
What was the highlight of the visit for you?
Thatﾒs an impossibly difficult question to answer. Every day seemed to bring a new highlight. Seeing my mother visit the family farm where her grandfather was born and raised was very special. Our cousin Linda now lives on the family homestead and came out to greet us when we arrived. ﾓWelcome homeﾔ she said to my mother, and it was a moment none of us will ever forget.
Another highlight was attending Trad on the Prom in Galway. The musicians are all from the Ballinakill area where my family is from so it felt like another family connection. The music and the dancing were incredible. We couldnﾒt believe that we were watching so many world champion dancers on the stage at the same time. It was almost surreal.
What did this experience mean to you?
Iﾒm a writer and yet I struggle to capture the experience in mere words. Perhaps my mother Kathleen OﾒBrien said it best when saying goodbye to all her new friends at the Farewell Ceremony at Kilchreest Castle. With tears in her eyes, she simply said ﾓThis trip has meant the world to me. It has been the trip of a lifetime. Before this trip, these places were just names on a map, and now they are a part of me.ﾔ
Ireland Reaching Outﾒs Week of Welcomes made a tremendous impact on my familyﾒs life. It helped connect my family with our Irish relatives, re-establishing a family bond that had over time faded away many years ago.
Did you enjoy the trip? Will you return to Ireland?
It was the best trip we have ever taken. It will be something we talk about for years to come, and sadly someday when my mother is no longer with us, I know that my sister and I will smile knowing that we were able to share this with her. You canﾒt put a price on an experience like this. It was truly life changing.
We will return to Ireland again. My sister Kristine Davis is anxious to return for a visit with her husband Joe and their children Patrick and Erin. This is excellent news for the Irish economy. We joke with my sister because she likes to shop a lot, and we told everyone if she had an extra shopping day in Galway she probably would have single handedly halted the recession in Ireland.
My husband and I have plans to buy a cottage in Ireland and are looking forward to seeing our Irish friends and family again soon.
The Keane Family History, compiled by Julie, can be found here: http://www.juliefennell.com/index.htm