What would our ancestors have thought of this reunion, 150 years on?
100 of us, descendants of 12 siblings from Doonbeg, met in Co Clare for five days
Patricia Crotty (left) with relatives at the Cliffs of Moher: ‘We grinned in kith and kinship, and the joy at having discovered new friends with cousinly benefits.’
The word “interrelations” took on a whole new meaning at the Crotty Reunion in Co Clare last month in a whirlygig of long-lost and newly found cousins. My late father’s cousin launched the idea a couple of years ago after detecting “some interest from America”, and decided that the starting point would be a small farm near Doonbeg. This is where Peter Crotty and Mary Griffin had 14 children between 1857 and 1882, one of whom was my great-grandfather.
I was intrigued, but wondered who would come.
Cousin Peadar, blessed with the mind of a computer and energy of someone who has competed in every Dublin Marathon since the event was founded, set to filling in gaps on the family tree, cross-checking dates and stalking potential cousins. You weren’t safe if you happened to be descended from the original 14 (well 12 actually, two died in infancy).
His efforts paid off, and in the end there were at least 100 of us who were curious enough to participate in the five-day event. What were these cousins going to be like? Would we all be similar? Feel some kind of psychic connection? Our ‘grands’ and ‘greats’ were all sisters and brothers after all.
Headquarters were in Spanish Point, and a meet and greet was organised at the hotel for the first night with name tags and ‘who’s who’ booklets distributed. The name tags meant we didn’t have to peer surreptitiously at everyone milling around the hotel lounge to see if they could be classified as Crottys, but actually, were there any prevailing characteristics?
I cast my mind back to the ones I had known: short, blue-eyed, stubborn as mules, a certain charm, music lovers. Yes, I could see some small people here, but one fellow could be an NBA basketball player. There were lots of blue eyes, but all kinds of other shapes and colours too. Based on physical characteristics, they weren’t conforming to expectations.
The “so which sibling are you descended from?” games began.
“I’m from Tommy,” I said confidently (having sneaked a look at the life-saver booklet).
“Tommy? I’m descended from Peter James,” said cousin Kathy from Connecticut (who didn’t have to sneak any look). “What did Tommy do?”
“Well he lived in a small farm outside Kilrush his whole life until he died at the age of 93. I’m not sure if he ever even made it into Ennis, ha ha! What about Peter James?”
“Oh, he was a prominent businessman in New York, and ran a bar in Greenwich Village, but was killed under a cable car in 1911.”
These were two brothers, born in the same house. As far as I know, five of the brothers had emigrated to the Unites States in the latter part of the 19th century, with the others staying local.
These titbits helped build up a picture of our common ancestors, but as the ghostly 12 began to take on more shape, I realised I really didn’t know much about my great-grandad Tommy. Why had I never asked my father anything about himself or his family? Dad would have been sent to his farm in the 1930s and 40s to help with the hay and the bog in the summer. If only I’d had a bit more curiosity, I could be regaling the reunion with stories about our heroes. But I hadn’t and it was too late now.
Peadar told us he would take us to their homeplace. We all looked forward to seeing the place that had sent 12 humble people out into the world, but I doubt if they could have foreseen the convoy of cars snaking along 150 years later, containing people from Galway, Dublin, Kildare, Wales, New York, Connecticut, North Carolina, Arizona, Florida, Italy and Singapore.
Finally we turned down the road that they would have walked barefoot to school every morning, sods of turf and buttered bread in hand. The very one they would have taken as they left hearth and home to seek other lives. A shed loomed into view and we stopped.
“That’s where the house used to be,” said Peadar.
Crottys are nothing if not resilient, and when cousin Lily from Clare said “right lads, I’ll show ye how to foot some turf” we quickly forgot that our ancestral homestead was a shed.
Peadar had organised all kinds of other events, including a trip to Loop Head Peninsula, where one of the ancestors had been a pilot on the river Shannon. He earned enough from salvaging a deserted ship in 1843 to buy some land on Scattery Island, off Kilrush, the venue for another breath-taking visit courtesy of Scattery Island Ferries.
“Take a picture showing the old against the new,” said Lily as I fashioned a shot through an ancient church window frame, to feature the Moneypoint power station in the background.
A walk beside one, a seat shared with another, a pint with someone else over the next few days helped us learn more about the lives of these people whose small-farm ancestors had bifurcated out into a diverse group of teachers and managers, a hairdresser and a basketball player, doctors, lawyers and accountants.
All from a little house down a bog road.
As we lounged in the bar at hotel headquarters one evening, we heard musicians warming up from the back. “Oh right, that’s us!” An accordion, a flute, a concertina, a harp, singers, set dancing by Crottys and friends; maybe there was still a bit of music in there somewhere.
Everyone was in high spirits for the gala dinner on the last night, and we were joined by more cousins who just came for the night. There was a guy who was the splitting image of dad, and I wondered which one he was descended from. But I had come to realise that this reunion was as much about celebrating the differences that emerge over a couple of generations as much as acknowledging the similarities binding us.
As we posed for pictures with the spectacular Spanish Point Bay in the background, we grinned in kith and kinship, and the joy at having discovered new friends with cousinly benefits.
What would the 12 siblings have made of it all? As each one set off on his or her own life adventure, I doubt they gave much thought to their legacy, but I’d like to think that if they had been sitting around the hearth on May 29th, 1867 and someone said “lads, wouldn’t it be great if a rake of our descendants could get together in exactly 150 years time, have the crack together, take a few photos and put them up on Facebook”, they would have been very happy.