It was fitting. The driving Irish rain, the cold wind, the pervasive damp. “Now you know why they left!” I said to my father as we headed away from Gort and into the countryside. It wasn’t true (or maybe it was). I drove back and forth along the narrow lane, stopping periodically to peer over a fence and take a picture. “Could it be this one? Maybe here?”
We were looking for what was left of my father’s people, or really…what was left of the Burke homestead. The people are long gone. I’ve been on this search before, in Gort, with a list of names and a vague outline of family history. My sister had since filled in the blanks, researching rumor into fact and filling in missing lines on the family tree. Census forms and land records vaguely outlined the family property and I held a soggy Google Earth screenshot of an overgrown lot and a collapsed stone cottage. The “homestead” was somewhere along the lane between the lake and the hedgerows.
It was surreal, standing in the middle of a field mentally trying to recreate a life you know nothing about, imagining what was so hopeless about a place you would walk away from everyone and everything you’ve ever known? What finally drove the family to scatter, each in a different direction like seeds in a harsh wind? The dates of emigration suggest they left during the Great Famine, which claimed the lives of many and the future of most. Most headed to America, as did ours, but one family member was left behind. Rumor has it he was “different” and was left behind to be cared for my neighbors. There are stories about him, most too sad to think about. It’s hard to really know.
We took one last picture over the field-that-might-have-been-ours and headed back to the car. A woman nodded hello over the fence. “Can I help you?” We explained our story. She nodded. ” I wasn’t born here, but my husband…my husband would know. You can also try the old Missus up the road. Her boys went to America. She’ll know about the Burkes.”
We apologized for bothering her, climbed back into the car and contemplated finding the Missus Up The Road. As we pulled onto the lane. we looked up to see the husband walking up the drive, waving. “I heard you were looking for your people. The Burkes, is it? Yes, we know about the Burkes. They’re gone now, last one lived just down the lane across from the cottage. They knocked the house down last year as it ’twas fallin’ in. They live in America now, the Burkes.”
We chatted for a few minutes about the area, the weather and the neighbors before he headed down the drive to the house. He paused, turned around and shouted ” God Bless ya…and welcome home.”