May 17, 2019
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
― Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
One of the things I enjoy most while leading tours to Ireland is the gift of witnessing someone having an “ah ha” moment connected to their ancestry. Because my role is as leader and guide, I don’t always get those moments for myself. But I did this time. It happened in a flash when I heard the words “took the soup.” Suddenly, an untold story emerged.
Last April, with my group, I finally got to visit the ancient Hill of Uisneach. (Roughly pronounced ISH-nok.) That’s where I had my “ah ha” moment. Uisneach is considered Ireland’s 5th Province as well as the burial place of the Irish goddess, Eriu, from whom Ireland got its name. It’s considered a sacred and spiritual ritual site with monuments and relics dating back over 5,000 years. Our private guide, a seasoned ceremonialist, squired us around the many hills while leading rituals and ceremonies connected with the four elements: earth, air, fire, water. During a walk between sites, I encountered a most interesting man.
Although he was clearly clean and put together, he had that look about him that said he might be a Druid who just popped out the woods. He did, indeed, pop up from time to time. We couldn’t figure out how he got ahead of us and would suddenly appear, one time sitting on the gate of a fence. That’s where we struck up a conversation.
As typical of Irish people, he inquired about my ancestry. I told him about my mother’s Connolly line, likely hailing from somewhere in the northwest of Ireland. These were areas particularly hit hard during the Great Potato Famine. I mentioned that we were Protestants way back to the late 1700s. “Oh, so your people took the soup,” he declared. Took the soup? I’d never heard that expression before. He explained.
During Ireland’s tragic potato famine, people professed to be the religion of the church that was serving soup to the poor. So, a Catholic would say they were Protestant, while a Protestant would say they were Catholic. Many were forced to convert. They betrayed their beliefs in exchange for food. My leprechaun friend fully believes that my Connolly ancestors were originally Catholic. Regardless, it was the thought process that ensued that got my attention.
Because my Connolly ancestor(s) immigrated before the Great Famine of the mid 1800s, I thought they were free from the trauma and despair of their homeland. Surely, they left behind many family and friends who literally starved to death. The Irish Potato Famine began in 1845 and went on for four years. It is estimated that between 500,000 and more than one million people died in Ireland during that time. Keep in mind that the potato, the staple of every poor Irish family’s diet, was the only crop that failed. Ireland’s beef, dairy, and lumber, as well as jobs, went to the wealthy British that ruled over them. Approximately two million Irish people left and immigrated to other countries, mostly the U.S. and Canada. That’s where my focus has been throughout my entire life. Thank God my ancestors were not impacted by the Famine! But that’s not true. My people who stayed in Ireland were innocent victims of a tyrannical ruling class and subjected to torture in the form of starvation. Like all people, I carry the stories—told or untold–of my ancestors. Is this why Ireland keeps calling me back, in search of the untold story? Is this why many in my family, including myself, are overweight? Is this why it’s been hard for me to declare one particular religion? Is this why any form of betrayal hurts so deeply? To my ancestors I say:
I’m sorry you had to suffer.
Please forgive me for forgetting.
Thank you for my new level of awareness.
I love you.
Some Irish men were imprisoned for stealing food to feed their young. This haunting ballad shares a story that needs to be told. When someone sings it in an Irish pub, locals stop what they are doing and sing along. I finally get why.
Ann Breen ~ The Fields Of Athenry