John Liegl travels to Ireland to find his roots.
My adventure began 40 years ago when I discovered that my great-great-grandparents John Tobin and Elizabeth Dooley had emigrated to America from Ireland in the 1860s. They settled in Montclair, New Jersey, raised a family and as far as I know never made it back to Ireland for even a visit, but they never forgot where they came from. The headstone on the family plot — the first on this side of the ocean — states simply that they were “Natives of Kilkenny, Ireland.”
For years, I was unable to find out any more (this was before the internet), then I wrote a letter to the Kilkenny Archeology Society. As it happened, they had just finished computerizing most of the County records and they found the birth and church records of my great-grandmother and those of her three siblings, in Shankill, a small town near Kilkenny City.
By now computer literate myself, I went online and discovered that there was a place in Shankill called “Tobin’s Field” and that a family named Maher lived there. I wrote a letter to the Maher family briefly explaining my family history. I received a wonderful letter back from Maureen Maher saying that her husband, Jerry, remembered his grandfather showing him what was once the foundation of a house and saying it was “the old Tobin home.” But were they my Tobins?
When I checked the Griffith’s Valuation for 1851 which is actually a tax record, for Shankill, I found a John Tobin living on two acres of land and a John Dooley living on five acres of land — the names of my paternal and maternal great great-great-grandfathers. Next to their names were ordinance map reference numbers 44 and 38 respectively.
It was my hope that there were enough landmarks still around to find the location on a current map, and my luck held out. Map reference 44 was just north of Shankill Castle, across some railroad tracks. I knew that the castle was still there, but I was not sure about the railroad tracks. If map reference 44 matched the location of the current Tobin’s Field, I had found the actual piece of land my ancestors had once lived on.
There was only one way to find out. The Maher family invited my wife and me to visit, and so we planned our first trip to Ireland. Alter ten wonderful days traveling all over with an escorted tour group, we stayed three extra days in Kilkenny.
The Mahers, good as their word, picked us up at our bed and breakfast. On the drive to their house, we passed Shankill Castle, turned north and soon crossed some railroad tracks, apparently in the exact same location as those on the ordinance map. But when we stopped at their house, we were still about a mile south of the Tobin land on the map.
I held my disappointment to myself over a very pleasant lunch with the Maher family, until Jerry offered to take us to see the old foundation in Tobin’s Field. We drove north on a dirt road to an open field — Tobin’s Field. It was exactly the spot — #44 — on the ordinance map. Here at last was the actual land that my ancestors had lived on.
There was not much left of the foundation, only two sides about four feet high. It had been overgrown with vines and shrubs, but one of Jerry’s sons had cut away much of it so we could see the remains of a house — its stacked stones with no mortar and foundation size representative of a typical Irish cottage of the 1880s.
To further confirm that this was my Tobin land, Jerry pointed directly westward to where the Dooleys had lived.
No ghosts appeared and, in reality, no chills ran up my spine, I just stood there looking around and imagining my ancestors fanning the field, children playing by the cottage, and the family sitting down to dinner. But I did feel a sense of belonging, and sense of coming home.
I took two small stones from the foundation as a remembrance. ♦
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