Northern Ireland: Walking in Ancestral Shoes

Derrick Coyle

Derrick Coyle

The young woman tending the Budget Car Rental counter at Belfast City Airport was delightfully Irish. After basking in the alluring lilt of her small talk—as she established where we were from and where we were headed in Northern Ireland – I was putty in her hands.

I asked how long it might take to get from the airport to our hotel, every bit as much to prolong the oratory as to learn the answer. “Oh, it’s but a five minute drive, so it is,” she assured me with melodic tone and captivating inflection.

“Could I see a wee motor permit?” she inquired with the confident expectation that makes an accent-envious car renter determined to win praise with an affirmative response. Like a third-grader eager to impress his teacher, I nodded enthusiastically as I fumbled through my wallet to triumphantly produce, not just an Ontario driver’s licence, but the international driver’s permit I secured in preparation for the trip (which in contrast to website instruction was deemed by the local counter staff to be entirely unnecessary in Northern Ireland).

“And do you have a wee credit card for me?” came the sweet finale to an enchanting and hypnotic itemization of charges and fees profoundly dissimilar to our on-line quote. “Absolutely,” I gushed, in obsequious compliance as I mindlessly turned over my wee card seconds before my wife intervened to right the charges and snap me out of my infatuation.

Thankfully, two of the rental car upgrades we chose were automatic transmission and a GPS unit. It was difficult enough negotiating the left side of the road from a right-side driving position, without having to add left hand gear shifting while making last-second directional corrections. Thirty-eight minutes later – after two dead ends exiting the airport parking lot and several catapults out the wrong spoke of roundabouts in the Belfast rush hour swell – we completed the five-minute drive to the hotel where we checked in and reported directly to the lobby bar to treat frazzled nerves – so we did.

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Belfast

IRE Belfast1It was evening when we arrived in Belfast and after savouring my first pint of Guinness at the hotel, the next order of business was to find a traditional Irish pub to deal with a fierce hunger. The hotel concierge was more than accommodating as he led us out the main doors for a literal pointing of directions. He rhymed off a few dinner options in thick Irish brogue. “There’s Fubber Magay’s down the way, or if it’s entertainment you prefair, go through Fubber Magay’s ’til you come across The Croin.”

“The Croin?” my wife asked, tentatively.

“The Croin,” clarified the helpful concierge.

Having some experience in deciphering Irish accents, I thanked the friendly chap and with a pretty good idea of what we were looking for, followed his directions until we came across a narrow but lengthy establishment called Fibber Magee. This pub was sparsely populated with what I suspect were regulars. The handful of patrons were either deeply engrossed in conversation or focused intently on TV monitors broadcasting a World Cup match.

BelfastBrennansBar2We opted to follow the concierge’s advice to go through Fibber Magee’s. Cleverly concluding that through did not involve finding a back door from which to exit, we left the way we came in and quickly spotted The Crown a short distance beyond Magee’s. The Crown was packed and hopping with a raucous pub atmosphere, but also came with a long wait for a table. We crossed the street to find an opening at a great little pub called Brennan’s Bar where I ordered my second Guinness and the Beef & Mushroom Pie.

In my exuberance to share a bit of the experience with my brother – the only other family member to set foot in Ireland since my Dad left the country – I wandered up to the bar to snap a photo of the menu board featuring assorted Irish dishes, the texting of which would provide pictorial evidence of where we were. I hardly noticed the two Irishmen in rapt conversation on bar stools in the foreground. At least, not until the flashing of my camera snapped their heads in my direction with looks of mild annoyance – presumably in relation to why they were being photographed. “Uh, sorry guys. I was just shooting over your heads … at the menu behind you,” I explained. A well-intentioned clarification that, in hindsight, may not have been ideally phrased, for a Belfast pub.

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Antrim Coastal Route

IRE Coastal2Our drive up the coast from Belfast on route to Derry was stunning. Apart from short periods of white-knuckled terror driving on the opposite side – of pavement and car – and competing for limited space on a ribbon of road winding perilously between solid rock and raging sea, the trip was spectacular. We came across great settlements with names of Irish/Gaelic origin that describe the landscape: Carrickfergus, Ballygalley, Glenarm, Carnlough, and Ballycastle. Where carrick portrays rock, bally is homestead, glen depicts valley, and lough means lake. It was a gorgeous coastline speckled with picturesque towns.

IRE Coastal5We paid a visit to the Old Bushmills Distillery before winding up at Giant’s Causeway for some breathtaking views. The weather and timing didn’t allow for a full tour of the Causeway, but what we did see was outstanding. We got the first blast of heavy rains, since we launched our holiday in Scotland, on the way from the coast to our next overnight stop in Derry.

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Walking in Ancestral Shoes

IRE Drumquin1aThis was my first visit to my father’s homeland of Northern Ireland and I was just the second of our family to visit since Dad left for good, 61 years ago. I’ve always felt a connection to Ireland and have enjoyed great friendships with some of its expatriates. With an Irish father and a Scottish mother whose own maternal bloodline connects us to the Duffy clan, I suppose the affinity for things Irish comes honestly.

I was interchangeably excited and melancholy as we drew closer to Drumquin, the nearest village to my Dad’s childhood home, about five miles out of town. The thought of sharing the space and seeing the sights he grew up with, was surreal.

IRE Drumquin2When we got to town, we walked the main street snapping pictures of old buildings that had surely seen little change in the past six or seven decades. It was 1:00 p.m. but the doors of a string of pubs lining the main drag were locked on account of “the hard times,” as we would hear later. We eventually pulled a door that opened to a dimly lit room, with a middle aged women tending bar and a couple of men showing signs of having been well tended to.

“Would any of you have heard of a Jimmy Coyle who lived out on the Glen Road before moving to Canada 60 years ago?” I asked after my wife and I, under curious gazes, slid onto a couple of bar stools and ordered a beer.

“Quail, is it?” came the response from a customer who I’d guess was in his mid-40’s.

“No, Coyle,” I clarified.

Oh, Jimmy Kyle, then?”

“Yes, Jimmy Coyle,” I confirmed.

IRE Drumquin3The next half hour or so was a remarkable showing of small town hospitality as the three locals started talking amongst themselves, firing us assorted questions, and making every effort to assist in locating the home my Dad was raised in and the school he attended as a child. “Sure, it’s the old Laughmulharn School on the Glen that’s now lived in as a home,” one of the customers concluded.

One of the men called someone on his cell phone and was relaying the information I had shared. When he finished his call, the other man said, “Big Jimmy who lives on the Glen would know of the Coyles. Big Jimmy knows everything there is to know of the Glen.” The man who had made the call glanced at his watch and said, “Oh, ye don’t want to be callin’ on Big Jimmy now, he’ll be fulla-drink, so he will.”

As we finished our pints, the men tag-teamed to give us precise directions, in alternating snippets, from the first right turn at the crooked bridge to the Glen Road, and suggested we visit McLaughlin’s store at the turn to the Glen and talk to the proprietor who may be able to help.

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IRE Drumquin4a

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IRE Drumquin5The visit to McLaughlin’s was fruitful. It was now about 2:00 p.m. and the fellow behind the counter was chatting with several customers when we walked in to explain who we were and what we were looking for. After I said that I had heard the old school my Dad had attended had since been converted to a home, the man behind the counter said, “I know well the old school that was converted to a home, for it is I who live in it.”

The Coyle name and the names of the three mates my Dad emigrated with were known here. One of the customers shared the news that one of those mates had passed away in Canada a year ago, which ironically was news to both me and my Dad.

IRE Drumquin6IRE Drumquin7Though we didn’t see my Dad’s house, the shop owner provided a good idea of where it once stood and allowed us to visit his own property to photograph and spend as much time as wanted at the old schoolhouse. We did just that. I walked the grounds and pictured Dad walking up the steep hill towards it. Of taking his place at a table in the tiny building. Of walking back home to help on the cattle farm.

After 56 years of living with a fantasized version of my paternal roots, I am proud and grateful to have now seen the real one.

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42 comments

  1. Karen McNair says:

    Oh, I enjoyed reading this! One day I want to make the same sort of pilgrimage to Scotland to see where my paternal grandfather grew up. Not sure I am brave enough to drive there, though, which could be a problem.

  2. During Leithwood says:

    Derrick it must have been a wonderful feeling t be standing where your dad grew up iam sure your dad wishes he had been with you. Your story was wonderful to read and say hi to mom & dad for me. I wish I lived closer it would be so nice to see them and have a few laughs about the old times.

    Keep up the wonderful stories.

    Durine

  3. Arleen says:

    Some of your encounters along the way brought back memories. You can get caught up in the moment and forget what your wee credit card is paying for. We usually get a stick shift car of which I am not wild about because I do help in the driving. We did a similar thing and went to find my husbands ancestor’s in Whales. It was an awesome experience.

    • DC says:

      Thanks Arleen. You’re a brave soul tackling the stick shift! Yes, it’s great to trace the trail back to the roots. Definitely a bucket list check mark!

  4. Donna Janke says:

    This story was a delightful read. I could hear the Irish accents in all the dialogue you quoted. What a treasure to see your fahter’s old home.

    • DC says:

      Much appreciated, Donna. It’s amazing how a place I’d never been could feel so homey. The Irish accents and rhythmic phraseology were a treat and it was incredible how accommodating people were in guiding us to our goal.

  5. Tom Smith says:

    Ok Derrick, I think I’m up to date now. Another great read. I hope the next one is in the presses. What a great step back in time for you and Sue. Now, I didn’t get you avoiding the shift what with the kms you must have put on the old green Rabbit. ;o)

    • DC says:

      Thanks for coming along on the nostalgic ride, Tom! Given that the Rabbit was the last stick I have driven, I think the entire motoring population of Northern Ireland would have been grateful for my decision to rent an automatic.

  6. Kerry says:

    I saw the title of this post and had to read it. I love Ireland. I was there. I am drawn to it and I am not even related. My days in Belfast and Derry were some of the best of my life. I love your story and your need to retrace your family origins

    • DC says:

      It was so beautiful in the North. We could have used more time to cover more of Belfast, Derry, and the coastal tour, but it gave us a good taste and a keen desire to return. Thanks very much for your comments, Kerry, and nice to know you’ve witnessed it all yourself!

  7. William Rusho says:

    Everyone talks about the green of Ireland, but look at that coast. That is incredible, thanks for sharing.

    • DC says:

      The ride up the coast was incredible, William. There were lots of greens to be seen looking inland, but the sights at Giant’s Causeway were stunning! Appreciate your having a read.

  8. Susan Cooper says:

    That was a very heart warming story for me. I could feel the and hear the whispers of your Irish ancestors throughout your story. I loved that. Having the ability to return to your father’s home must have been very special for you.

    • DC says:

      Thanks so much, Susan. It was an incredible experience and I am still shocked at how comfortable it was to be in that space and talking to people who provided a reflection of what life was like in my Dad’s stomping grounds.

  9. Tim says:

    Walking in Ancestral Shoes and finding your heritage is an amazing feeling. Your story was full of humor and I think the Irish in you should be proud. I think it’s been long enough for a comment regarding the taking of a photograph not to be met with the glare of topics that are out of bounds.

    • DC says:

      Thanks Tim. It was a trip that has found a permanent place in the heart and head. The instant kinship with complete strangers was amazing.

  10. Don Purdum says:

    Hi Derrick,

    What an amazing trip. I would love to do that some day. My family originates in the 1600’s in Pembroke Shire England.

    I too am captivated by some British accents as well as Irish and Scottish, as well as New Zealand and Australia.

    I absolutley love your pics and now I’m feeling like I’m left out, lol…

    I hope you have a great week!

    ~ Don Purdum

    • DC says:

      It took me a long time to accomplish the trip which has been percolating on the bucket list for years, but so nice to have done. I hope you get a chance to do the same in England. Thanks for your comments, Don.

  11. Beth Niebuhr says:

    Oh what a lovely adventure. My family came from Scandinavia and I fear that it is too late to trace them. Also my Danish and Norwegian is non-existant. I really enjoyed hearing about your successful search.

    • DC says:

      Thanks very much for your kind comments. Some pretty good ancestral tracking tools and services nowadays. A little Rosetta Stone language tune-up and you could be all set, Beth! 🙂

  12. Ken Dowell says:

    Sound like great trip Derrick. Also sounds like a young woman with an Irish accent could sell you anything.

    • DC says:

      Thanks Ken. Outstanding trip! And yes, I’ll need some desensitization work before I get into a used car negotiation with an Irish lass.

  13. maxwell ivey says:

    Hi Derrick; thanks for sharing your trip to see where your family came from. I’m glad to hear that you weren’t disappointed with the visit and what you found there. It sounds like the locals did their best to do the chamber of commerce proud. 🙂 I hope the rest of your trip goes well. hoping to travel some myself soon, max

    • DC says:

      Much appreciated, Max. The locals were unbelievably accommodating. It was like we became their personal mission! Hope you can break away for some travel of your own.

  14. Jeri says:

    Sounds like a great trip. I have Irish ancestry and hope to make it that way someday as well, but first I’m headed to Oktoberfest!

  15. Giant’s Causeway is simply gorgeous! I’m so jealous of you!
    Consider yourself fortunate you are able to travel and see so many sites. Not everyone is able to…

    You must have had a blast!

  16. Lenie says:

    Hi Derrick – what a wonderful trip and what memories you will have stored up. The pictures of the cliff and sea were gorgeous, very powerful. Thanks for sharing.
    Lenie

    • DC says:

      Great memories for sure, Lenie. The coastal route offered pictures at every turn, but the roads were usually too narrow to stop! Thanks for having a read.

  17. Hi Derrick,

    I’m so glad you had an enjoyable time in Ireland! You do a great job of capturing the accents in your writing. This was a really enjoyable read! 🙂

  18. Carl says:

    This was a really cool read. Ireland is not within my own heritage but your descriptions of the people and places really make me want to visit. I hope you get to go back again. Looks like a beautiful place.

    • DC says:

      Appreciate your comments, Carl. I certainly plan to return to Ireland in the not too distant future and would highly recommend it should you ever have the chance!

  19. What a beautiful journey so wonderfully shared! I an hear those conversations through your little snippets. I dare say there is something quite inviting about the melodic way the Irish speak How amazing that you were able to find your dad’s school and make that special connection! I’d love to visit Ireland. I’ve heard nothing but good things and I can see from your photos it is beautiful country!

    • DC says:

      It’s incredibly beautiful, Valerie. We could have used a much longer time there, but I guess that just means we need to plan for a return! Thanks for having a read and I appreciate your comments.

  20. Christina says:

    What great hospitality and that you were able to find people and places to connect you with your roots.

    • DC says:

      Thanks Christina. It was amazing that people could make that connection from a couple of generations ago. It was a wonderful feeling to be treated so warmly by people we had never met.

  21. gerard says:

    just stumbled across this. i was reared in drumquin all my life and know the pub and shop you visited well. big jimmy would know all the history of “the glen” well and would no doubt have traced back your family. i am sure your dad was looking down on you as you retraced his steps. i am so proud the people of drumquin made you feel welcome

    céad míle fáilte

    • DC says:

      Thanks so much for your comments, Gerard. What a pleasure to hear from someone from my dad’s home town. It’s been close to a year since I was over but have very fond memories of the visit. My wife and I never felt more at home than while chatting with the good folks of Drumquin. In case there is any connection, the local mates my dad came away with 60 years ago were: Jimmy Gallogly, Barney Byrne, and Foncey Kane.

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