Mary Mac pictured at Niagara Falls in 1972.
I’ve been long enough away from Ireland now that as I planned for a recent trip, I wondered that I might feel like an outsider. A stranger to my own people. But I didn’t. I found it easy to slip back into the half-speak, the nod that says everything, the shrug that says even more. Often there was no need for words at all – everyone was on the same wavelength, and I could still tune in. Thank God.
I was in Ireland to celebrate the life of my friend John who passed away in New York. The send-off took place in his hometown of Bantry, County Cork. There was music and stories, and a few drinks, good company – old friends and new – all making merry in one of the most beautiful spots in Ireland – a place I had never been before.
My connection to Cork had been through friends, John, now gone, and a girl named Mary Mac.
Years ago, it was Mary Mac who had sold me on the idea of leaving Ireland and spending a summer in Atlantic City. After that wonderful couple of months (and the first tan I ever had in my life), our summer extended into a trip around the States.
At Mary Mac’s instigation, we each purchased a $99 Greyhound bus pass that allowed three-months of travel. We went all over – four of us. Mary Mac, myself, and two girlfriends of Mac who were also from Cork. Fermoy, to be exact.
We went as far north as Montreal and as far south as New Orleans. We went west to California, passing through places with names like Medicine Bow (we were in love with The Virginian, the TV series starring James Drury that was set in this Wyoming town), and Walsenburg, Colorado (where our picture was taken for the local newspaper because we were “real Irish”). We traveled thousands of miles and met wonderful people – some of whom said they were “Irish too,” though they had never been to Ireland. I didn’t fully understand their longing to belong back then, but they are the very Irish Americans I think of now when I’m putting this magazine together. People like Dan O’Day’s ancestors, and their descendants, who moved across the country working in mines and oil refineries and passing on the love of their Irish heritage to their children, who in turn passed it on again.
When we reached New York in November of that year, weary, but full of stories of cowboy dances in Texas, and our first Mexican food in San Jose, we had a new appreciation for America and Americans. Mary Mac and her friends soon went home and I stayed on in the Bronx with my brother.
I lost touch with Mary Mac. I even forgot her last name. McNulty, McDonald? But I didn’t forget her spirit, and the know-how that made her the leader in all our travels. I wondered sometimes how I might find her. I even contemplated putting an ad in the local Fermoy paper, saying I was going to be in Cork and asking her to get in touch. I didn’t do that, but she got in touch anyway.
On the ferry to scatter John’s ashes in Bantry Bay, I chatted with the woman sitting next to me. She had traveled from Leitrim for the occasion. John had often mentioned her and her husband, and their daughter, who he always referred to as,“Nessa my goddaughter.”And as we talked I learned that she had grown up in Fermoy, which prompted me to mention Mary Mac. After a pause, her hand pressed to her heart, she said, “Mary Mac (McDonnell) was my best friend.” Was?
“Mary passed away ten years ago,” she said softly. I was sad to learn this. I regretted that I hadn’t tried harder to find Mac sooner. But as we talked on, we smiled and told stories, and said how lucky we were to have known her. I learned that her life had been a good one. She had found love and had a son. She was larger than life, a cliché I know, but true. “Kind of like John,” I laughed. “They knew each other. They met many times.” Catherine my new friend informed me. I was stunned. John, whose ashes we were scattering, had known my Mary Mac! How was it that we had never connected the dots in our many talks? I pictured them together, those two friends of mine, on the other side, having a laugh at the sheer serendipity of it all.
There was something otherworldly about the experience on the boat that stayed with me for the rest of the trip, that is still with me. Ireland is a place that is full of connections, stories, rainbows, sky and ocean, and sometimes, magic happens when you least expect it. I left with the feeling that there’s more to life and death than we will ever know, something beyond our knowledge – something good. And there’s great comfort in that.
My heart was sore when I started out on my trip, but there was so much healing at play at John’s wake that I came away renewed. In the words of Van the Man, I felt healed “right down to my soul.” If you’ve been putting off that trip to Ireland, you should go. And if there’s an old friend you’ve been thinking about, get in touch. Do it now. Let them know. I owe my life in America to Mary Mac, and I so wish I had told her so.
Back home in NYC, I put on Van Morrison’s “Did Ye Get Healed?” I looked through my photos of that long ago trip around the States. Images, faded now, that still capture Mac’s style and sense of fun. I will share them with her son. ♦
Brid Long, SSL says
What a beautifully written piece, Trish. I was touched by your memory of your friend Mac and by how John’s death brought her back into your life again.
John McDonnell says
Thank you for that lovely piece about my late sister Mary. It has brought back many memories of that summer of 72 in Atlantic City. I was there also and was a little bit put out when my big sister showed up with her friends!
But I soon got over it. I remember Mary and co showing up at a few parties we were having in our apartment, maybe you were there also .
Again my thanks for your kind words and lovely memories of Mary.
Geraldine O' Sullvan says
I would like to thank you for the beautifully article you wrote about my larger than life sister Mary. I am delighted to hear that she had a very positive impact on your life, like she had on so many others.
She is sorely missed but your piece has brought back some brilliant memories.
Thank you again for the wonderful memories of Mary.
Sean O'Connor says
I’m Mary’s son Sean. Firstly, it was great for you to share some of the memories about your time spent with my Mother. I was probably too young at the time to fully appreciate some of these stories growing up, but I’m all too aware now about how important they can be. Secondly, myself and my Father, Martin appreciate the piece you’ve written. It’s touching to know Mary (Mam) had an impact on someone’s life in such a way.
Mary MacDonald says
Just had this forwarded from Ireland by Catherine one of the other friends and I am the fourth of the friends on the trip
I now live in Australia and this article has brought back the warmest of memories for me. We had a fantastic time and I thank you Trish for renewing the memories. It is a very fitting tribute to Mary Mac and our American adventure
patricia Harty says
Hello Mac’s friends and family. It’s really nice to hear from you all. I met another friend of Mary’s (Mary T. I lost your contact details!) on November 30 in Aras an Uachtarain. It was another incredible coincidence that made me think that Mary was joining me at the dinner (you know how she loved a party) for the Distinguished Service Awards given out by President Higgins to the Irish diaspora. I was honored to be one of the recipients — and of course, I probably wouldn’t have ended up in America and thus have been honored, if it wasn’t for Mac.- Patricia