An Irish homecoming

17Mar22

A cold October rain was falling as I turned my rented Nissan Sunny down the dirt lane in the village of Portglenone, Northern Ireland. The road was barely wide enough for one vehicle and had grass growing between tire-worn tracks. Up on a hill in the distance, I could make out a pickup truck. A man closed a gate behind the truck, then got behind the wheel and began driving down the long, winding road in my direction.

One of us was going to have to pull over into the tall grass along the side to let the other pass. Having no idea if I was on private property, I wondered if this could be the land-owner who might not appreciate my trespassing.

It was 1994, and I was in the middle of a three-week solo road trip through Ireland. I had come with no particular itinerary, except at some point I wanted to see where my maternal grandparents had come from. I had crossed the border into Northern Ireland the previous day and made my way farther north to my grandfather’s home village of Portglenone in County Antrim.

I had never known John Blaney, who died two years before I was born. But I had heard stories of the hard-working, hard-drinking Irishman who had come to Boston at age 18 with his newly widowed mother Alice and younger brother William. Several of his older siblings had preceded him, seeking a better life in America than what they faced as poor Catholic farmers in a British-ruled, Protestant-majority country. Years after arriving in Boston, John Blaney married Rose O’Hara, also a Catholic from Northern Ireland. The couple had five children, including my mother, Rita. While I hadn’t known my grandfather, I did know my grandmother, who came to live with our family in Wakefield in her last years.

Having found Portglenone, I had actually fulfilled my goal. I had visited the village where my grandfather was born and spent his boyhood. The introvert in me was satisfied.

But then I began wondering if I might find the actual piece of land where the family’s house had stood. If I never made it back to Ireland, this would be my only chance. So I forced myself to walk into stores and pubs and ask if anyone knew where the Blaneys had once lived. Finally, someone told me to go see the village butcher, Mr. Kearney. He was a good friend of the Blaney family, I was told.

It was the butcher who had directed me to the dirt lane where I now sat in a rented car as the truck occupied by two men headed in my direction.

As the truck approached, I could make out a white-haired older man in the passenger seat and a younger man driving. Finally, our vehicles were side by side on the dirt lane. When the elder man rolled down his window, I introduced myself and hastened to explain through the raindrops that I was from Boston and my grandfather, John Blaney, had grown up in Portglenone before leaving for Boston around 1900. I said that the butcher in town had told me that all of the Blaneys once lived at the end of this lane.

“Aye,” the man in the truck said, “They did.”

I told him that I just wanted to see and perhaps take a photo of the land where my grandfather had lived so long ago.

“Well, you can’t go up there,” the man replied. “Not now. You’ll be stuck in the mud for a week. Phone me on Sunday afternoon and I’ll take you there in the truck.”

I wrote down his phone number as he recited it through the Irish mist.

“Who shall I ask for when I call?” I asked.

“Patrick Blaney,” he said.

It was only Wednesday, so I headed back to my room at the Beechfield Guest House, the bed & breakfast establishment in nearby Ballymena where I had registered that morning. I went out to dinner, then returned to my room and stretched out top of on the bed, excited about the prospect that in a few days I’d be laying eyes on the land where my grandfather had lived his youth. I pondered how I would fill the time until Sunday when I was supposed to contact Patrick Blaney.

At about 9:30 p.m. there was a knock on my door. It was the owner of the guest house.

“Are you Mark?” she asked. “There’s a friend of yours downstairs.”

I told her it must be a mistake. No one in the world knew where I was staying.

“Well, she says she’s a friend of yours,” the owner said.

I told her I’d be right down.

When I reached the bottom of the staircase, there was a fair-skinned woman in her twenties with long auburn hair.

“Are you Mark?” she asked. “I’m Clare Blaney. I believe you were talking to my daddy down on the lane today.”

I tried to process what was happening. “How on earth did you find me?” I asked.

“There aren’t many guest houses in Ballymena,” she explained. “We went to each one and asked if they had an American guest named Mark.” She said that her brother Harry, who had been the driver of the truck on the lane, had remembered the make of my rental car and a partial license plate number, which helped them in their search.

“Would you like to meet the others?” Clare asked. “They’re out in the car.” I went out to the car and met Clare’s brother Pat and sister Una. They explained that when their father came home and reported the he had met “a Blaney from Boston” earlier in the day, they were appalled that he hadn’t brought me home right then and there. So they decided to track me down. Now they wanted me to come back with them to their house in nearby Ahoghill for tea and to meet the rest of the family.

When we arrived at the house I sat in the living room with Patrick, the man from the lane, his wife Trea and their grown children Pat, Colm, Una, Dympna and Clare. It turned out that Patrick, a cattle dealer, owned the land at the end of the lane and used it as pasture for his cows.
To my amazement, the family knew the names of all of my grandfather’s siblings who had left for Boston almost a century earlier.

They insisted that I stay at their house for the remainder of my time in Ireland. The next day, I checked out of the Beechfield Guest House and drove back the Blaney’s home, where I stayed for the next week.

Members of the family took time off from work to show me the sights, like the Giant’s Causeway and the Glens of Antrim. One night, we went to hear traditional Irish music at a pub at which, I was assured, they poured “the finest Guinness in all of Ireland.”

On Sunday, they took me back to lane where I had first met Patrick, and showed me the hill where my great-grandfather’s house would have stood in 1882 and where my grandfather was born.

[This column originally appeared in the March 17, 2022 Wakefield Daily Item.]



3 Responses to “An Irish homecoming”

  1. 1 Polly H Foley

    What a wonderful story.

  2. 2 janice violette

    Thank you Mark for this article. I could feel your experience reading this. I felt like I was there with you. Your favorite cuz

  3. 3 Una Lynch

    Hi Mark

    I remember this like it was yesterday, it was amazing meeting you and filming our father Patrick Blaney provide an historical overview of our families. This is all the more precious now that our father has passed away and something we would not have had only for your visit.

    Many thanks your Irish cousin Úna


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