It felt like having instant cousins. The kind you're glad to see. But it must have confused our innkeeper, to get online reservations for...
What happens when you Google your own name one day, halfway through life, and find someone two states away with exactly the same first, middle and last names? And though it appears you’re not directly related, you discover your fathers shared a first name, along with a startling number of other coincidences in your family backgrounds? Eventually, you learn that you’ve each traced your ancestry to Ireland, to the same small town in County Kilkenny (which neither of you has visited). What do you do?
You decide to meet one day, for the first time, in that Irish town.
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CASTLECOMER, Ireland — It felt like having instant cousins. The kind you’re glad to see.
But it must have confused our innkeeper, to get online reservations for the same three nights from two Brian Joseph Cantwells. Me and my family from Seattle, and the other Brian and his family from Palo Alto, Calif.
Four years after meeting by e-mail, we two Brians met for the first time in person at the doorstep of Mary Farrell’s centuries-old farmhouse B&B on the edge of this small Irish town that produced our great-grandfathers. Flower boxes splashed color beneath every window and the pungent smell of cow wafted on the August evening breeze.
“You must be Brian,” said the stocky stranger with the friendly face and thick swatch of snowy hair.
“You must be Brian!” I replied.
And with a smile and a warm handshake, we were friends.
It wasn’t entirely expected, this instant bond. But we shared much in tribal heritage, and likely a distant link by blood.
And there’s something very basic about answering to the same name and signing the same signature all your lives. Meeting someone with exactly the same name — and it’s not a common one — felt like looking in a mirror to find a different face looking back. Me, a journalist from Seattle. He, chairman of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University. At 61, his hair is pure white; at 50, mine is still on the way there. But we looked enough alike that we could be cousins.
In the midst of summer travels, our families would spend two fascinating days together on the trail of our Irish heritage.
With, happily, time for a few sips of Guinness along the way.
Lots to talk about
Tourism Ireland provides visitor information on the Republic of Ireland as well as Northern Ireland: 800-223-6470 or www.discoverireland.com.
Over Mary Farrell’s full Irish breakfast the next morning, at a table groaning under plates of home-baked scones, marmalade, eggs, bacon, link sausage and — gulp — black pudding (usually made with congealed pigs’ blood; sort of the haggis of Ireland), we all chattered like high-school friends at a 30-year reunion, trying to catch up on a lifetime.
Around the table: The Other Brian (TOB, as I came to refer to him in my notes), his wife, Ruth, and their sons Kevin, 29, and Thomas, 17 (who shares a name with my brother). Plus me, my wife, Barbara, and our daughter, Lillian, then 14.
We were curious to discover any blood relation between our families, we agreed, but we were also simply eager to see this place that grew our ancestors.
Castlecomer, pop. 2,000, about two hours by car southwest of Dublin, was formerly a coal-mining town, producing some of Europe’s best anthracite from the 1700s until the 1960s. The other Brian’s Irish great-grandfather, Patrick Cantwell, had worked as a miner, and after emigrating took up that profession in Pennsylvania. My Irish great-grandfather, also a Patrick, left Ireland to become a founding settler (and one-time mayor) of Le Sueur, Minn. (which gained notoriety a century later as hometown of the Jolly Green Giant — a quirky footnote for a man from the land of leprechauns).
No mines now
Tracing your roots
Find some cousins, distant or near, and share the adventures of your own heritage quest. Whether to Ireland, Mexico, Asia or wherever in the world, some of these same rules apply:
Know before you go. Long before booking a trip to the “old country,” research your family history. Talk to older family members and gather information from family documents, marriage certificates and burial plots. Web resources such as rootsweb.com and ancestry.com can help, including online access to federal census records indexed by surname.
Gather your string. If possible, go with this information in hand: 1. Name of your ancestor who immigrated to the United States. 2. Their approximate date of birth. 3. Their town, district or church of origin. 4. Their religious denomination. 5. Names of your ancestor’s parents. 6. Name of your ancestor’s spouse and date and place of marriage.
Hire some help? If you don’t wish to spend your entire vacation on research, hire a professional research service. Professionals can carry out all or part of your research before you leave the U.S., allowing you to plan your itinerary in advance, visiting places associated with your family. In Ireland, Irish Genealogy Ltd. (www.irishgenealogy.ie) is the umbrella organization for professional research services. For other countries, try a Google search of “genealogical research” for that nation, or try contacting the nearest consulate for referrals.
Ask a librarian. In Dublin, the National Library of Ireland’s Genealogy Advisory Service is a good place to start. It’s a free service if you visit in person. Visitors are provided with an overview of Irish genealogical records, offered expert advice on their specific family research and given access to reference material, such as microform copies of “Griffith’s Primary Valuation of Tenements” (land valuation records from the 1800s), Tithe Applotment Books (like a tax record of farmland fees collected by the Church) and most Roman Catholic parish registers up to the year 1880. More information: www.nli.ie/new_what_res.htm.
For the record: Records often of use in researching family history include civil records (marriages, etc.), church records, census records, and land and property records.
Sources: “Tracing Your Ancestors in Ireland,” pamphlet published by Fáilte Ireland and Northern Ireland Tourist Board
Castlecomer today feels anything but industrial. A small plant on one edge of town makes brick (the Irish still build homes with it), but otherwise the countryside is mostly narrow roads lined with high hedges and rich, green fields.
After breakfast, we drove in and parked on the tree-lined town square where, as in many Irish towns, pubs are the predominant business.
We strolled over a low, arched bridge spanning the tranquil River Dinin, looking like something from a Thomas Eakins painting, to the church we’d seen along the winding highway. This was the first of many cemeteries where we’d look for Cantwells.
The pretty stone church with a locked red door bore no name. And, we soon discovered in peering at tilting, lichen-encrusted gravestones, its churchyard was distinctly lacking in Cantwells.
Inset in a stone wall was a marker, placed in 2001, commemorating lives lost in the Battle of Castlecomer, a 1798 uprising against the British that left the village a smoking ruin. It was a stark reminder that the conflict between the island-nation neighbors is still fresh in Irish hearts and minds.
A Castlecomer comeback
Strolling back toward town, TOB and I chatting easily about topics such as how we met our spouses, we turned in at a long, low building of ancient brick: Castlecomer Estate Yard.
In the 1700s, these were stables for coal-mine ponies. Adjacent were the farmyard and kitchen gardens for the Wandesforde family, the landlords of Castlecomer Demesne, a 20,000+-acre estate that included the mine, the town and surrounding farmlands.
Today, art studios have replaced ponies. We chatted with potter Hilary Jenkinson while TOB’s son Thomas, an art student who specializes in pottery, took up her advertised offer to create his own pot in exchange for a donation to a charity.
Jenkinson told us that coal-mining jobs had made Castlecomer the second-most densely populated rural area of Ireland, supporting novel experiments in agriculture. “Right outside here were 10 acres of garden where they grew pineapples and tropical fruit in coal-heated greenhouses in the early 1900s,” she said.
Today, restoration of Castlecomer Demesne as a tourist attraction — including the recent re-creation of two stocked fishing lakes — has put the town “on the verge of taking off,” Jenkinson said.
We dropped in on Harry Everard, a government overseer of the restoration. He told us the manor house had burned in the 1970s: “a bit of Anglo-Irish politics.”
He captured our interest with photos from the early 20th century of the mine’s workers crawling on their bellies between coal seams, a work practice that never changed from the days when TOB’s forebears worked there until the mine closed. “That was medieval mining,” Everard said.
We told Everard about our heritage quest. He said he knew there were Cantwells buried at the church. We told him we’d already looked, just up the road.
“But wouldn’t Cantwells be Catholic?” he asked. “That’s the Church of Ireland up the road. The Catholic Church is the other side of town.”
Oh. Dumb Yanks, he must have thought. What kind of Irish were we, not knowing Protestant from Catholic!
Seeking dead relatives
After lunch at Bollard’s Pub, including “half a Smitty’s” (the barman’s term for my glass of Smithwick’s Kilkenny-made ale), TOB’s wife Ruth guided us to the nearby village of Clogh (say “Clock”), where we heard we’d find Cantwells.
And we hit paydirt in the graveyard of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. Wandering beneath clouds like mildewed dishrags, we found a John Cantwell, a Richard, a Martin, even a Maria. No way of knowing if they were our bloodline, though. (Washington’s U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell traces her family to Clonmel in County Tipperary.)
TOB soon called me from across the cemetery. Not one easily discouraged, Ruth had knocked on the rectory door and persuaded the priest to let us comb his records.
We soon sat around a table with Father Tim Bollard, a kindly, gray-haired man in navy cardigan and wire-rimmed spectacles.
“Now, these are marriages from the 1800s onward,” he told us, thumbing through computer printouts.
We searched for names from family-tree charts we’d brought. But it was like looking for a shamrock in a sheep pasture. Few records exist from prior to 1800. Too many churches and courthouses burned in accidents and uprisings.
And, as I was to hear from a researcher for the Kilkenny Archaeological Society: “Often, how much you can find depends on the parish priest and how conscientious and organized he was about keeping records — or whether he just didn’t care!”
Father Tim seemed the caring type, wishing us “Safe journeys, safe journeys!” in a lovely brogue as we left. And we didn’t go away empty-handed: Ruth discovered a baptismal record for one of her husband’s ancestors.
Meanwhile, in the churchyard, Kevin had met a man who told him some Cantwells were hanged after the 1916 Easter uprising, a pivotal revolt against the English, and buried behind a nearby pub, formerly called Cantwell’s. Now we were talking! How’s that for a family legend!
So we piled back into our rental cars and zigzagged through narrow lanes till we found the pub — closed. We knocked and persuaded the owner to give us a tour. Out back was a lovely yard and flowers. The owner, Mr. Kavanagh, knew nothing about graves in his garden.
As my wife, Barbara, summed it up: “Ireland has an amazing and long history, and some of it is even true!”
On our way back through Castlecomer, we found more Resting-In-Peace Cantwells in the Catholic churchyard. That night, in the nearby city of Kilkenny, we enjoyed a rousing evening of Irish music and free-flowing beer at Andrew Ryan’s pub. Happy to be among the living.
Another Brian found
The next morning we climbed the Rock of Cashel in neighboring County Tipperary. The ancient hillock and castle is one of Ireland’s top archaeological sites, and Ruth had scouting reports (from a relative’s prior visit) of Cantwells buried there — and a Cantwell’s Pub nearby.
And did we score. Among throngs of tourists, TOB and I got our pictures taken at the gravestone of another Brian Cantwell, just outside the Rock’s 12th-century chapel.
Then, looking for lunch in town, we stumbled on our eponymous pub.
“We’ve got to have a Guinness here!” TOB declared.
We had traditional Irish pub sandwiches (toasted cheese with ham and onion) prepared by proprietor Mick Cantwell, a veritable mountain of a man at some 300+ pounds — our visit’s first (and, it turned out, only) living, breathing Cantwell. His grandfather opened the pub in 1910. Nice fellow; no direct relation.
From Cashel we drove back to County Kilkenny and Thomastown, named for Thomas de Cantwell, variously described as a Welsh mercenary of the 13th century and as one of the lords of nearby Kilfane. (Thomas, the son of TOB, was jazzed.)
At Kilfane a tiny sign pointed into quiet woods to our final destination: the ruin of Kilfane Church, home of a famous stone effigy known in Gaelic as the Cantwell Fada (“Long Cantwell”).
In a bit of Irish magic, we had the place all to ourselves.
Inside a roofless structure stood the startling 7 ½-foot stone figure of a lone knight, reputed to be Thomas de Cantwell himself. Standing with one leg crossed over the other, he held a shield bearing the Cantwell coat of arms, unknown to me until that day: four large rings next to five pelts of ermine, the latter representing nobility. (Go figure.) The crossed leg is believed to mean that a knight went to the Crusades.
We were amazed to find a knight bearing our family name. It’s an artifact of such importance that a plaster cast is in the National Museum in Dublin, yet here stood the real thing unguarded and unprotected from the elements. Ireland is like that; too much history to be contained by museums.
We photographed the modern-day Thomas posing next to the 13th-century version. Then Lillian led us on a giggling climb up a claustrophobic spiral staircase to the top of the church tower.
As we strolled back to our cars, Kevin declared, “We’ve had a good day of Cantwell sightings!”
Barbara chimed in. “Yes, we’ve found the Long Cantwell and the Large Cantwell!” Everyone laughed.
Added Ruth, “You know, it’s been fun visiting all these Cantwell sites with someone else who cares!”
And everyone agreed.
Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or email@example.com