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Reunion with the One Left Behind

My grandparents, Bernard and Bridget (Crossan) Gallagher, were born in County Donegal, Ireland. Married in 1924 while in their early twenties, they moved to Wales in search of work, with one-year-old Rosena in tow. There, my grandfather worked for a company digging and drilling through rock to lay a pipeline. But the project ended, leaving grandfather jobless.

Bridget’s brother and uncle had immigrated to America some years earlier, ultimately locating in Eureka, California. Confident of finding work in Eureka, Bernard and Bridget crossed the Atlantic, landing at Ellis Island in 1927, leaving the wee one, Rosena, behind. Despite the fact that her passport had been issued, my great-grandmother, Catherine Daly Crossan, insisted that Rosena remain in Ireland, certain that my grandparents wouldn’t stay in America. Heartsick at leaving “Rosie” behind, they took solace in the fact that Bridget’s brother, Hughie, would visit Ireland the following year, returning with Rosie.

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Once in Eureka, Bernard found work in the local lumber mills, eventually securing employment with North Western Pacific Railroad. Hughie didn’t return to Ireland until 1946. Bridget gave birth to four more children. Bernard passed away from cancer in 1950 at the age of 49. Rosie never saw her father alive again; can recall his face only from a photo.

Bridget didn’t see her daughter again until 1966 when she visited Strabane, Northern Ireland, where Rosie lived with her husband, Denis McElwee, and their eleven children. Rosie finally visited America for a month in 1982 with her son, Gary, and then again in 1992 when she surprised Bridget on her 90th birthday.

Growing up, I spent many days and nights with Nana Bridget. She would bake sugar cookies and Irish Soda Bread that we washed down with tea brewed in a pot she’d brought from Ireland. Rosie was lovingly talked about throughout the years, never far from our thoughts, and always in our heart.

As an adult I became interested in my Irish roots. I especially wondered what life had been like for Aunt Rosie. I wondered about my cousins living in Northern Ireland. What was their life like? Did they resemble me? Would we have anything in common?

In 2004, I decided it was time to answer those questions. Trafalgar Tour Company had a 12-day tour of Ireland, which just happened to spend two nights in Derry, Northern Ireland. Derry is only twenty minutes from Strabane where Rosie and her family live. I figured Cort and I could spend an evening and a day with them and that would give me my “Ireland fix.” So I arranged for us to break from the tour in order to meet the family, who graciously agreed to come to our hotel once we’d rested and eaten dinner.

They arrived earlier than expected. When I saw Rosie across the room, I knew it was her. She was the spitting image of my grandmother: the same beautiful, silver-gray hair and the same twinkling eyes. We both sobbed, releasing years of pent-up emotions for all the years we’d spent apart. Rosie introduced me to her second-born daughter, my cousin Josie, who is only seven months younger than I am. Within minutes we bonded like sisters. I have never experienced anything like it in my life. I cry now even as I write this, recalling the emotions of the moment as if it happened yesterday.

Josie’s husband Gabriel picked us up the following morning to spend the day getting acquainted with the rest of the family. Our first stop was to see Rosie’s home where she promptly served us tea with milk and sugar, along with ham sandwiches on white bread cut into quarters, crust removed. After tea, she and I spent some one-on-one quality time. She gave me a tour of her humble, two-story home, which was wall-to-wall with family photos; a small village of her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and other relatives. We sat on the bed in her room to chat. She said to me, “Now, Susan, the last piece of the puzzle of your life falls into place.”

I was speechless. I promptly ran downstairs to grab the book of my poetry I had autographed for her before leaving home in Benicia. I had written on the title page, “Dear Rosie, At last the final piece of my life’s puzzle has fallen into place.” We hugged each other hard, my tears streaking mascara down my cheeks.

The remainder of the day was spent at Josie and Gabriel’s house getting better acquainted. They live in a beautiful home overlooking the River Foyle outside Strabane. Strabane suffered extensive damage during the “Troubles of Northern Ireland,” from the early 1970s and continuing throughout much of the 1990s, with bombings and shootings a frequent occurrence. Strabane was once the most bombed town in Europe per size and was the most bombed town in Northern Ireland. Josie told me that one day when they lived in town a bomb exploded outside the building they lived in, knocking baby Glen to the floor. It is impossible for me to imagine the terror of it all.

Cocktails began at noon. A dinner fit for royalty was served in an elegant dining room filled with family photos. Dinner consisted of roast beef, vegetables, and three different kinds of potatoes, all prepared and served by Josie’s children. Much side-splitting laughter, many bottles of wine, and, oddly enough, on-key karaoke, made for a lively evening. But then it was time to leave.

The next morning I got back on the bus with one hellacious hangover, eyes red and swollen from crying. My heart ached so it felt as if it was splitting in half. I could hardly bear to leave the family I had come to love in a very short time. The visit of one day was not long enough. I vowed to return.

In 2010, I took my mother, my son Kevin, and my daughter-in-law Sarah, to Ireland. Having had such a life-changing experience on my previous trip, I wondered if it would be as emotional the second time around. Regardless, I felt it was important for Kevin to meet the rest of his family.

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I planned a week’s long journey of adventures that did not disappoint. We visited the seaside village of Ballycastle, Bushmill’s Distillery, Giant’s Causeway, and other “must-see” tourist attractions. A major highlight for Kevin was visiting Gallagher’s Oyster Farm on the Donegal coast owned by Edward Gallagher. Kevin and Sarah ate raw oysters fresh out of the bay. He was also able to traipse down the mud flats to gather four dozen oysters to bring back to Josie and Gabriel’s house for all to savor. While this Gallagher is not a relative that we know of, at some point, way back when, I’m sure we’re related. Interestingly enough, while passing through Edward’s kitchen, I noticed a loaf of white bread from Gallagher’s Bakery sitting on the counter. No relation either. Gallagher in Ireland is like Smith in the US.

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But mostly we hung out with family. Kevin and his male cousins bonded as if they had known each other forever, especially during their “down and dirty” paintball game. Thinking he would be cool, Kevin showed up at a party wearing a green sports jersey, the only one he could find that had a name on it spelled similar to his last name of Tracy ─ Tracey Concrete. Little did he know that we were in a county whose colors are red. After a bit of razzing, they provided him with a jersey in the proper colors. Ye can’t be wearin’ a green jersey when yer in red country!

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Josie and I picked up where we’d left off, as if I’d only been gone for a few months. I spent quality time with Rosie, and met a few more members of “the clan.” We ate, drank, and sang karaoke until the wee hours of the morning. They stay up late in Ireland because it’s light out so late at night. They don’t eat dinner until around 8:00 and a party doesn’t really get going until around 10:00. I’m usually in bed by that time, or near to it, but figured I could catch up on lost sleep at home.

All too soon, it was time to depart. Again, eyes red and swollen from crying at the departure, I vowed to return.

In February, 2012, Uncle Pat, who lives in Santa Rosa, called to say that Josie’s daughter, Melissa, was getting married on May 5th. The family wanted him to come to the wedding. Also, Rosie and Denis are now in poor health and this might be the last opportunity to see them. Pat said he would like to go, bringing along my cousin Casey, who lives in Long Beach, because he felt it was important for Casey to meet that part of his family. Sound familiar?

“I wanna go, too!” I exclaimed. So plans were made for another Ireland Adventure.

On April 27th I arrived at LAX at noon, planning to have lunch with Pat and Casey before we boarded the plane. As I approached our departure gate, I heard someone call my name. I turned around to find them sitting in the bar. I knew then and there it was going to be a “wet” trip. Each of them was sipping their second Bloody Mary, ready for a third.

Our plane trip was rather uneventful. We arrived in Belfast where it was … wet! Only a bit of drizzle and a tad gray but what the heck. We’d arrived. Gabriel intended to pick us up in his vintage 1972 Rolls Royce but figured we would have too much luggage. Instead, he picked us up in his Nissan 5-seater truck, with lots of room in the bed. We stuffed it to the gills.

The three of us stayed at the Fir Trees Hotel in Strabane, the town in which the majority of the family resides. This was the second time I’d stayed at this hotel so it felt like old home week. After freshening up, we went to see Rosie. It had been nearly twenty years since Pat had seen his sister, now 86 years old. Emotional doesn’t even begin to describe the feelings that poured out of their tear-filled embrace. Denis, now 88, has been bed-bound for three years. But he follows the ponies, sending his son, Gary, down to the bookie each morning to place his bet.

Josie and I picked up where we’d left off, as if we’d only been apart for a wee vacation. Casey was a bit overwhelmed by it all. I encouraged him to hang in there, assured him it only got better.

The Fir Trees pub is frequented by locals and serves a Guinness that goes down real smooth. Sunday nights a country western band plays classic country, everything from Patsy Cline to The Eagles, but no Toby Keith. The same band was playing there in 2010! The pub was packed. Casey and I got “in the groove,” stomping our boot heels into the wood floor, well-aged from years of party-hearty folks.

My blood has thinned considerably after eighteen months of desert living, so temperatures in the low 40s were tough to handle. I bought a wool pea coat at TK-Maxx, a twin to our TJ-Maxx. I’m not sure why the slight name change there but I didn’t care. I was warmer and that was all that mattered.

Like Kevin, Casey bonded with “the boys” unlike anything he’d ever experienced. He perfected the “pub crawl,” not to be outdone by his Irish cousins and nephews. They drank their way through local pubs named The Farmer’s House and Sweeno McGinty’s. Sweeno’s was a former IRA hangout. You could almost smell the mud, the blood, and the Guiness oozing from wooden floors, seeping from the mortar in rock walls. One night a traditional Irish band sang and played tunes on the bodhŕan, mandolin, hammered dulcimer, fiddle, and flute, belting out tales of the years of fighting in Ireland, including those relating to Bloody Sunday.

Bloody Sunday, sometimes called the Bogside Massacre, was an incident on January 30, 1972, in the Bogside area of Derry, Northern Ireland, in which twenty-six unarmed civil-rights protesters and bystanders were shot by soldiers of the British Army. Basically fighting between Catholics and Protestants, Bloody Sunday remains among the most significant events in the “Troubles,” chiefly because those who died were shot by the British army rather than paramilitaries, in full view of the public and the press.

Josie and Gabriel threw us a party one night as they’d done the last time I visited, with about 30 people attending. Fabulous food and liquid refreshment flowed freely. And of course, there was karaoke. Father Frank, the priest who was to marry Melissa and Andrew, is quite the singer and loves karaoke. He brought along with him two elderly nuns who had a grand time, or “good craic” as they say in Ireland. The nuns even danced with a few of the fellows that were there. One said she’d never danced before. She evidently had extremely good craic! After they left I found her rosary on the floor. It had come apart and slipped off her neck. You go, girl!

We didn’t just hang out in the pubs; we did some sightseeing as well. We started out in Letterkenny, visiting Bridget’s youngest brother, Eddie Crossan, who, at 95, is young-at-heart with a “bit of the mischief” in his eyes. Eddie’s son, Pacelli, or “Patchie” as they call him, was also there. It was about 9:00 in the morning and we’d caught him without his teeth in. But he didn’t miss a beat. He popped those chompers in his mouth and immediately brought out bottles of Heineken for everyone.

Then it was off to Portsalon in the Republic of Ireland, a beautiful little place in the northern part of County Donegal where Gaelic is still spoken. It is a picturesque area with a two-mile-long stretch of sandy beach and a little harbor situated on the shores of Lough Swilly where the ship’s bell of the bullion-laden “Laurentic” was sunk in 1917 by a submarine, later salvaged, and is now in Portsalon church.

In Lifford, the county town of County Donegal, we walked through the musty, mildewed hallways of the goals, housed in what is now the courthouse. Lifford in the Republic is bordered by Strabane in Northern Ireland. Shopping is not a challenge, however, as both towns readily accept Euros and Sterling. We visited the “old” Gallagher house in Lifford. We wandered the halls of the Castle at Glenveagh, pausing awhile in exquisite gardens of rhododendrons and tulips in full bloom, allowing our minds to drift back to medieval times.

We strolled through the Ulster American Folk Park outside Omagh, County Tyrone. Here you can walk through history, exploring the historical link between Ireland and America, focusing particularly on the lifestyle and experiences of those immigrants who sailed to America in the 18th and 19th centuries. There is also, Titanic: Window on Emigration. This exhibition looks at the stories of some of the Irish emigrants. Set in the context of European emigration, you can explore the stories of the steerage passengers and understand why they left for the New World.

Casey and I decided to explore the town of Strabane on our own one afternoon. We wanted a photo of the beautiful old church where the wedding was to take place, without all the cars and people in front. We got some great photos of the building and were quite proud of ourselves. Only problem was, it was The Church of Ireland, a Protestant church, not the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic church where the wedding was to take place. Oops!

And finally … the Wedding! At 1:00 p.m. it was 46 degrees outside; so cold I had goose bumps on my goose bumps. But everyone looked fabulous, all decked out in their finery and fascinators. The bride wore a stunning gown in layers of white satin and chiffon, attended by bridesmaids dressed in salmon-colored chiffon over satin. With shining black up-do’s and flawless, porcelain skin, they were drop-dead gorgeous. The men were just as handsome, all duded-up in their tuxedos.

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The ceremony took about an hour and a half, with Father Frank presiding. It was the first time I’d been to a Catholic wedding, or any wedding really, where the priest cracked jokes at appropriate times during the ceremony. It was a “mixed marriage” of Protestant and Catholic, but Father Frank welcomed one and all, saying that God wasn’t either a Catholic or a Protestant, he was a God of love, accepting of all, and we should do the same. I told him later that if I could find a Catholic priest like him in my ‘hood, I’d be tempted to go back to The Church!

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After the ceremony, Andrew and Melissa were driven in a horse-drawn carriage through narrow, some cobblestoned, streets of Strabane. Two hours of photos at Josie and Gabriel’s house, then it was off to the reception at the Villa Rose Hotel in Ballybofey, about 45 minutes away in County Donegal. Roughly 200 people attended the sit-down dinner, followed by dancing to a 5-piece band that played their music LOUD! But that is the way they like it. Uh, huh! Uh, huh!

The family spent the night at the Villa Rose because the party was to continue the following evening. Gabriel had hired Danny McNally, a fine and handsome Irish lad with wavy black hair and cerulean blue eyes, to chauffer Pat, Casey and I back and forth to the Fir Trees so we wouldn’t have to repack. Good thing, too. We came upon a DUI check, which are more frequent and harsher than ours. I would hate to write in my Desert Diary that I had spent a night in the goals of Ireland!

Again, too soon, it was time to head home. The departure scene was the same as the last two trips, with hard, lingering hugs, eyes red and swollen from crying. Josie’s son, Ryan, drove us to Belfast where we spent the night before catching an early flight home. It was fitting that on our last day it rained like the dickens, with dime-sized hailstones hitting the windshield, punctuating the finality of the trip.

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After three trips to Ireland I’ve become quite fond of Guinness, cod fish and chips, and mushy peas. I’m especially fond of my family there. Aunt Rosie, the one left behind, gave me the gift of a world I would never have seen, had she not remained in Ireland. Until I return, I have family photos … and Nana’s teapot steeped in memories.