Pleasant Valley Sunday
Happy St. Patrick's Day to all of you! My association with the Historical Society has shown me how important family histories are to us. We want to start to collect these remembrances of longtime residents of Clarendon Hills as soon as we have the volunteers and resources needed to do the job. The importance of documenting these is not only the importance to the family and community, but to our country as a whole. We are a nation of immigrants and our stories blend together to create the tapestry of who we are as a people and a nation. They are fascinating to me and better than any piece of fiction.
Please allow me to indulge and share a brief part of mine with you that I think is appropriate for this St. Patrick's Day.
It is a story of a war bringing people together who never would have met otherwise. A little town in Ireland, the bonds of family that can never be broken, And a great movie that imitates life so well.
As a creative non-fiction writer, I have a mug reads, "You can't make this stuff up!" So, pull up a chair by the fire in your favorite pub, lift your pint of Guinness and listen to a true Irish tale on this St. Patrick's Day.
On a blustery rainy day sometime during the Great Potato Famine. My great-grandfather ran away from home and stowed away on a ship. Destination: New York City. He was 15 years old. Some of his brothers had already come over to America and a few stayed in Ireland. They were originally from Thurles in County Tipperary, but the family that stayed, ended up in an area of Galway called Connemara, one of the most scenic areas of Ireland, in a town called Clifden. This is where Tom Burke and his family lived, Tom was my paternal grandmothers first cousin.
Fast forward to 1949, and my father, mother, and sister were heading home from a trip to England to visit my mother’s family (that’s where the other half comes in.)
My father and mother had met during the war. His air base was near her home town of Attleborough, England. This was their first trip back since the end of the war (WWII). It was an emotional one for my mother. She cried as they departed England in the propeller plane. To their dismay, the plane was suddenly diverted to Ireland, where they made an emergency landing. They looked across at each other as the plane lowered itself close to the runway. Holding hands they wondered if they would make it home safely. They sighed with relief as the wheels touched down on the tarmac. The good earth of Ireland beneath their feet.
As an airline employee flying on passes, they were the first to get bumped off the flight to accomadate paying customers. They walked down the rickety stairs from the plane to the ground. Heading to the terminal through the fog that had developed. They realized they were alone in a strange country with no money, a three year old in tow and no flight home for who knows how many days. As my sister cried and my mother fretted, my father decided to call Tom Burke, the patriarch of the Irish clan he had met briefly during the war. Remembering his kind words as the parted. “If you’re ever in trouble or need help while you’re on this side of the Atlantic, me dear boy, call me, after all we are family."
Not long after the call, they were heading towards the little hamlet of Clifden, with its rustic charm and green, lush rolling hills. It felt a little like Brigadoon to them after the exhausting hours of travel with no food. They reached town and realized they didn’t know where the Burkes lived. With dismay, my father asked a passerby if he knew the Burkes and where they lived. “The Burkes?” he said with his Irish lilt. “Of course, you must be the American relations come to visit!” he said with excitement rising in his voice. The passer-by then stopped a police officer and said,” This is Tom Burke’s cousin from America!” The officer jumped to attention and escorted my family into his car where he immediately drove them to the police headquarters. My father thought he might be in some sort of trouble, or maybe it was because his wife was English. (In those days there was no love lost between the Irish and the English.) He told my mother not to talk until they could figure out what was going on. After a few grueling minutes, Tom Burke walked out of his office. It turns out Tom Burke was the Chief of Police of Clifden and greeted them with warm hugs.
After a long bath, some wonderful food and a rest they were treated to visits from the neighbors and town folk. They came to meet the American who was Tom Burkes cousin returning to his roots. Over the ensuing week, they were pampered like never before with breakfast in bed every morning in front of a roaring fire. My sister was coddled and spoiled, her feet probably never touching the ground of that good town.
“And that my dear children, is the true tale of how the American and Irish Burkes met many years ago…” my father would say to us as he ended his story.
Many years later, Dad found out through his Irish cousins that part of the movie, “The Quiet Man” starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, was shot in Clifden and the surrounding countryside. Watching the movie, he could point out some of the town's landmarks in the movie.
If you haven't seen the movie, it is about an American returning to his roots in Ireland where he meets and marries the lovely lass, Maureen O’Hara.
Art imitating life? True story and if you think that's blarney, I assure you I haven't kissed the blarney stone.
If you ever get the chance to watch, "The Quiet Man" it is a wonderfully Irish movie.
No matter what your heritage, share your family history with your family. Be sure to write down what you know, even if it is just a small part of a larger story. Because these histories are what unite us in our diversity as a people, a community and as a nation.
May you always have walls for winds
A roof for the rain, tea beside the fire,
Laughter to cheer you, those you love near you
And all your heart might desire.
Happy St. Patrick's Day!