On the trail of ancestors: an Irish journey

On the trail of ancestors: an Irish journey

It starts with an incidental lead picked up in Essex, from where Marion Bull journeys via Dublin to County Meath in search of long-lost family members.

Trinity College Dublin by Marion Bull
Trinity College Dublin by Marion Bull

After the tourists had left Trinity College for the night, I watched a solitary dark figure hurry across the moonlit cobblestones of the quadrangle to the massive wooden front gates. You could almost imagine the ghost of Samuel Beckett or Oscar Wilde, or, given the atmosphere, Bram Stoker, walking through here.

Outside, Friday night and Dublin was brimming with life. Everyone sits around barrels – they serve as pub tables, spilling onto the side streets.

I could hardly have found a more central place to stay – Trinity’s lovely Georgian rooms overlook the elegant architecture of Parliament Square. Accommodation is available during student summer holidays, and guests can use the refectory on the ground floor. The old buildings don’t have lifts, but the modern block is accessible.

Dating from the 16th century, Trinity exudes a hunger for knowledge. Tourists are drawn to its collection of medieval manuscripts and treasures in the Old Library with its magnificent Long Room, and the Book of Kells – the ‘Turning Darkness into Light’ exhibition.

Finding a Fox in Oldcastle, Meath

I was here on a wild quest, to find a Fox. Quite how I got here, from a casual glance at an old Essex Ancestor newsletter that happened to be open on top of a pile of papers destined for the bin in London, is more than an Irish tale. But to find by chance that someone was looking for descendants of the Fox family (my Mother’s maiden name) who left County Meath in the 19th century for Stepney, seemed too much of a coincidence to ignore, and I didn’t need much persuasion.

A couple of days in Dublin is not enough, but I had to get to Oldcastle, Meath. I stepped off the bus just as the sun was illuminating the square in a singular light. It seemed to happen every evening. This is inland, but nearer the West than England, I reasoned – the Atlantic even, an island I’d never seen before, but one where subtle colours scud across the sky, streaming through the street, and everyone you meet says hello.

Pub at Oldcastle by Marion Bull
Pub at Oldcastle by Marion Bull

The red painted façade of the Dublin announced: Meath Pub of the Year, 1992. Opposite, Caffrey’s restaurant, and just off the square, Traynor’s a grocers, with a hidden bar at the back. There was a Fox the bookies, a Fox Electrics, with fairy lights spelling Merry Christmas nailed to its wall (this was August). There may have even been a Fox Social Club, but nobody was related to me.

Beyond the village, gently undulating fields lead to the legendary Slieve na Calliagh – Hill of the Witch and the site of Loughcrew Cairns, Neolithic burial mounds with passage tombs. These too were being transformed by the light. But go there during the Spring and Autumal Equinoxes and something truly spectacular happens. Abstract and solar symbols carved some 5,200 years ago into the interior of the rock chamber are perfectly illuminated by a beam of sunlight at dawn, channelled into place by megalithic rocks at the entrance.

You have to get the key from the nearby visitors’ centre (also a campsite, gardens, and converted cottage hostel) to enter the passages. The hilltop, reached by uneven ground, is not accessible. When I told my B&B host, Michael Curran, I was going there, he took one look at my shoes and said, “And they’ll bring you down on a stretcher.”

Fore Abbey by Marion Bull
Fore Abbey by Marion Bull

South west of here in the fields below the mystical Moylagh Hill near Milltown, with its ruined castle and remains of a church tower and cemetery, farmers have been growing flax for centuries. I knew from documents that my ancestors had rented land here. “You need to tread the ground,” I’d been told by the genealogy people. Instead, I found myself slipping down a wet hillside, stopped only by medieval tombstones half-buried in long grass, their dedications no longer visible. Some were simple unmarked stones. A Celtic cross appeared, and a sombre plaque stands in memory of the Great Famine victims of Oldcastle Workhouse in the 1840s. Still no sign of a Fox.

Westmeath and Lough Bishop House, Derrynagarra

On to Westmeath for some sightseeing and Lough Bishop House, Derrynagarra, a Farm B&B, with its peat fires, sweeping views and organic food. The owners, Helen and Christopher Kelly, breed Irish draught horses and moiles, Europe’s rarest breed of cattle. These gentle animals, with their singular appearance – rust with a generous splash of cream, didn’t so much as flinch as I whizzed through the muddy field on a quad bike.

Clare, Albert and their lovely niece Ann, who plays the harp, took me to the extensive ruins of nearby Fore Abbey, on the grounds of a monastery founded by St Feichin in 630AD. There are two holy wells, a circular dovecote the size of an arena and 18 ancient crosses in fields and paths along the pilgrim trail near here. The entire complex looms up impressively on both sides of the country road. Then Albert got a call to say that the Fox family I was looking for had lived in rural Milltown for centuries, and a farmer still lived there.

There’s nothing more promising than travelling along a rural track with grass growing in the middle – it means not many people go down that way. In this case, the grass was so long you could have mowed it. Usually flanked by low dry stone walls, these remote roads are called boreens in Ireland. This one petered out by a house with two foxes carved on the gate posts. The farmer invited us in, but after looking at documents, we didn’t think we were related.

As we spoke I suddenly looked up to see the iconic Moylagh Hill and its two ruins framed by the farmhouse window. Seeing it from the opposite direction, like a vision in the middle distance beyond the fields, I stood mesmerised. It was a sign, as they say here. Now convinced that I was in the right place, evidence no longer mattered. Earlier I’d sat for three hours deciphering handwriting and ink splashes on 18th century parish records in the priest’s house in Oldcastle (not knowing this was the famous Father Ray Kelly, the Singing Priest, with 40 million hits on You Tube), and got nowhere. But in Moylagh I had trodden the ground. I had even fallen down it. And I had met some of the friendliest and nicest people anywhere.

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