In 2019, Worldcon, the annual World Science Fiction Convention, happened in Dublin, Ireland. Beyond enjoying the convention, my time on the Emerald Isle represented a homecoming, an unexpected reunion of sorts, because I connected with my familial roots in a stunningly unexpected way.
The process began with my mother, who passed in 2004, and who indulged my strange reading habits and flair for the unusual. I can remember her picking me up from school when she still drove. Invariably, I’d hop into the backseat of our Mercury station wagon and find copies of one or two DC 100-page specials for sixty cents, or the latest issue of Creepy or Eerie, that she’d bought for me while shopping. One of my earliest memories involves sitting in her lap as she read to me the first issue of Charlton’s Ghost Manor featuring that comic’s host, the butler Mr. Bones. And then a few years later she’d pop the corn I consumed while watching Bob Wilkins on Creature Features. Mom accepted my weirdness. What more could I want?
Although not born in Ireland, my mother identified as Irish. Her mother was first-generation American, and I’d heard from both how my grandmother’s parents came from Ireland, how my great-grandmother died young, how my great-grandfather parked my grandmother and her sister in an orphanage in Iowa before heading off to South Dakota where he remarried and then was shot by his second wife’s ex-husband. Quite a story, but one lacking in detail since my grandmother wasn’t one to reveal much beyond snippets of her past. My mother, though, longed to visit Ireland but never found the chance. I decided to address that issue. I ordered special buttons, four inches in diameter, sporting Mom’s high-school graduation photo. By wearing that pin the entire time I was there, I guaranteed she’d experience Ireland at least in spirit.
After Worldcon ended, I headed west to County Clare, where I’d been told my ancestors roosted once upon a time. I’d done no research and carried absolutely nothing to guide me but old stories and my uncle’s middle name, Clare. Nonetheless, I felt it was vitally important to experience Clare, especially wearing that button. I toured Ennis and the surrounding area.
My first night wandering, I stumbled into Galway, finding a cheap hostel where I could escape the rain, but I couldn’t escape consciousness due to a roommate’s heavy snoring. Frustrated, I decided to surf the Internet for a while. Up popped a message from a cousin who lives in Salinas. “Hey, Chuck,” she wrote, “Grandma’s dad, Martin, was born in a place called Shinganagh, near Claremorris in County Mayo. So, Mayo, not Clare, then. He was christened as Martin Brett, although Grandma’s maiden name was Britt.” I typed “Shinganagh” into the Irish bus schedule but found nothing. I then entered “Claremorris” and, yes, I could be there in about an hour. I told my cousin, “Mission accepted,” and the next morning left for Claremorris, beginning the most important leg of my trip.
The bus stopped on the main drag in Claremorris, and, again, I was operating with no plan. I walked into a small hotel and asked the young woman behind the counter, Deirdre her name tag read, “How do I get to Shinganagh from here?”
“I’ve lived here all my life and never heard of the place,” she answered.
“Apparently my ancestor came from there,” I offered.
“How do you spell the name?”
I wrote it out for her. “No, no help there,” she said.
I thanked her and crossed the street to Phillip’s Men Store, since the rain started drumming hard and I needed an umbrella. I asked Noel the haberdasher, “Shinganagh. How do I get there from here?”
“Never heard of the place. Why?”
“Ancestors come from there, supposedly a town outside Claremorris somewhere.”
“What’s the family name.”
“Yes, that’s a popular name in these parts, but beyond that, I can’t say for sure. But tell you what. Walk up the street to the town library, an abandoned church — you can’t miss it. Ask for Thomas, a local historian. He’s your man, for sure.”
Upon finding Thomas, I repeated my question, and he scratched his chin. He looked up at me over his thick spectacles and said, “Never heard of the place. Which parish, however?” I, of course, didn’t know. He guided me to a table, went away, and returned a few minutes later with Griffith’s Land Valuation, a heaping tome filled with land valuations and censuses from 1847 to 1880. “Most records have been destroyed,” he explained. “Many people come looking for background information and find no result, so don’t get your hopes up.” Five minutes later, there it was: Shinganagh, not a town, but a tenant farm under the Baron of Clanmorris and worked by my great-great grandfather, Patrick Brett. The land went to Patrick after the aristocracy ceded control.
“May I use your computer?” I beamed at Thomas.
“You found it? You may! You may!”
Online, I bounced around an Irish history site before shifting to Google to search the local area. There it was, Shinganagh, an eleven-minute drive outside Claremorris! I thanked the very excited Thomas and hurried back to the hotel.
“Can I get a taxi from here?”
Dierdre looked up from her desk. “You found it.”
“I think so, but I need a ride.”
She phoned a local driver, Michael, and once he arrived, I explained my mission. The Google images showed a couple of old barns out in the countryside. I at least should go there, take photos, a couple of selfies to show the folks back home, and then he could bring me straight back to Claremorris.
We traveled up a muddy, wheel-rut road running across land filled with miserably wet sheep. Michael implored me to use Google Maps, but my signal was poor. I felt along for our destination by instinct. We found the turnoff, and there were the barns I’d spotted on Google. I snapped photos, and Michael suggested we drive up a touch more, because he’d noticed a second turnoff. Behind hedges, we found a modern house.
“Go knock on the door,” Michael commanded. I did, but there was no answer. We began to drive away, and a car passed us and drove behind the house. Michael swung his taxi around and followed. We pulled up behind the car.
I climbed out of the taxi and stood in front of an older gentleman, the hood on his raincoat up to protect him from what had become diluvian-level precipitation.
“Is this Shinganagh?” I asked.
His eyebrows raised. “It is?”
“I’m Chuck Serface, the great-grandson of Martin Brett . . .”
I paid Michael, taking his card to call for my return to town.
Inside, Joe introduced himself and his wife, Mary. We sat at their kitchen table, Mary offered tea or coffee, which I declined. “How did you find yourself here?” I recounted what I’ve described above about Martin. I continued with the illustrious history of the American branch of Bretts, or Britts as they were known. After too much drink, one great-uncle stole a crop duster that he crashed into a barn. Another great-uncle established a hobo encampment in what is now Britt, Iowa. Then finally about how scraps of information from my cousin in Salinas led me to Claremorris. My people were farmers, workers, the downstairs set if we’d been on Downton Abbey. Sure, ours is a history of abandoned children and stolen crop dusters, but I’m proud to say we aren’t any less the individuals for our trouble.
Once I finished, Joe nodded, and clarified, “My last name is Brett, and I figure we’re cousins.”
I morphed into the poster child for verklempt. “Cousins,” I stammered.
Joe nodded again.
Over the next few hours, Joe showed me photos of his father, John, and his grandfather, Joseph. He emailed me copies of census reports from 1901 and 1911. We then climbed into his car and surveyed the farm, rolling green hills that cousins maintained for Joe. Joe himself recently retired from fundraising for an organization that helped individuals with developmental issues. He showed me a plot of land surrounded by a short, stone fence. “The house in which your great-grandfather was born once stood there.” Finally, we went to Mayo Abbey Cemetery on the edge of the farm and visited the graves of my great-great grandfather and other antecedents. I’d expected to snap selfies in front of a ruined barn. Instead, I’d brought the lost branch of the Brett/Britt family back to Shinganagh.
Joe drove me back into town and relaxed with me in a café while I waited for my bus back to Galway. We discussed his children, a son and a daughter, each quite successful in their endeavors. His daughter works for Air Emirates and visits San Francisco from time to time. I promised to connect Joe with my cousin, Linda, in Salinas so she could forward what information she has on our family . . . our family . . . I’m still amazed.
Joe and I now converse online. I used to joke that should Donald Trump get a second term I might consider looking at real estate in Mayo, and Joe enthusiastically supported the idea. Trump lost, thankfully, but the Mayo idea lives on.
There are several Worldcon bids for venues outside the United States — Scotland, China, France, for example — but due to COVID-19 the Worldcon coming up in New Zealand will be virtual. If you’re even slightly curious about your familial background, support Worldcons in countries where your ancestors originated. I’d done no previous research, went into this small town with minimal information, and met with a hugely striking result. For me, a wonderful Worldcon provided an opportunity for staggering self-realization and discovery. If such an opportunity presents itself to you, take your chance. Unwittingly, I’d reached my specific Ithaca – Shinganagh. May your journeys prove equally fruitful.