Join me in a journey to the past—a hunt to solve some family mysteries.
Lough Erne looking east from its western edge near where it changes to the River Erne. Some of you may know what a rare thing it is to have such beautiful weather in northwest Ireland. It seemed an existential metaphor, adding to the mystery of discovery.
(Caveat lector: This is a long post with many images and of course is mainly for the benefit of family and friends.)
It’s a complicated story that I found the Irish relatives so late in my life. I love my late father, but he was a bit of a scoundrel and my prodigal return to Eire was due in part to his life-long predisposition for dissembling. But that’s a story for another time.
He emigrated to the States from Ireland in 1951. And of his seven siblings, only Aunt Carmel now remains. Emigration can rip extended families apart; it can dim collective memories and render mute the narrative songs that span generations. Happily, there is still a large contingent of Dublin cousins who, along with my aunt, welcomed us with open arms and we quickly set about mending the family web.
Before leaving for the reunion we had already decided that we would take a side trip to Northern Ireland to track down another part of my family history. But it was the non-Irish side of the family, my English grandparents on my mother’s side, who had retired from London to an area near Belleek in County Fermanagh soon after World War II.
And we had clues! My mother had given me several small photo albums over the years. It was the style of the times to have these small albums as photography hobbyists were ubiquitous in the time between the wars. Maybe the cryptic hints in one of these albums would be enough to help us find that part of the family history. One possible tip in the album was the name Magheramenagh, but we had no idea what that meant. We found a map in a Dublin bookstore, and set out without a time table, which was just fine—we figured on just going to see what could be found.
From the top: My grandfather’s small photo album from 1948; inside the front cover; and a picture of the retirement cottage “Omar” with “A view from the lounge.” (Magheramenagh is pronounced Mah’-hera-me’-nah.)
My grandfather’s name was Oscar Marvyn Reed. He went by the self styled near-acronym Omar—and Omar was the name he gave to their little retirement cottage.
So a few days after all the meet and greets of long lost cousins, we rented a car and three of us set out from our cousin’s house in southwest Dublin—our two older kids decided to hang out in town with their first cousins twice removed.
The map was an ordinance survey map—similar to the USGS topo maps here in the States—and had quite a bit of detail. The clues in the photobook took us northwest, to the western edge of Ulster.
There is a larger rendition of the map found here.
We rolled into Belleek and the first logical stop was the Visitors’ Centre. There we found Michelle. We showed her the album and explained our quest. It’s a sleeply little town and slow moving. The area is a mecca for salmon fishing and Belleek is world famous for the exquisite and beautiful Parian China still hand-crafted by local artisans. Its lacework and paper thin brilliantly translucent designs are beautiful.
Michelle was excited on our behalf, but could not recognize any of the pictures. She directed us to the nearby hotel where we booked to spend the night. Meanwhile, she said she would make some inquiries on our behalf. Shortly after settling in and trying to decide what to do next, she appeared and told us that her parents would be happy to help us and act as our guides.
Michele’s parents, Vincent and Rosemary, picked us up from the hotel and first showed us the Castle Magheramenagh. They dropped us off to explore the grounds and went off to arrange the rest of our discovery. They knew of my grandfather’s cottage, though it now had a different name, and knew the current occupants.
From the top: It was an impressive residence in 1897; the castle wall in ruins—the arched gate, now filled in, was the entrance and exit for horse-drawn carriages; our entry point, through a caretaker’s cottage that was built into the wall; and pictures of the ruins showing a brilliant day beyond.
Vincent and Rosemary gathered us up and said the current owners would be delighted to meet us.
We were getting close. A tiny unused cottage marks the corner of the drive to the cottage Omar. As it turns out, Helen and Frank O’Shea lived in that abandoned cottage before buying the Omar from my grandmother a year after my grandather’s death in 1963.
They were delightful. We spent a lovely hour with Helen and Frank and then came the gifts. Helen disappeared for a moment and then came bearing two treasures found: a framed photograph of my aunt Joan left in the attic and a drawing of the cottage Omar my mother had made as a young woman that was then made into a Christmas card.
We weren’t done; we had a further surprise. Vincent asked a question that I had not even considered. He heard that my grandfather had died in Belleek which then led to my grandmother selling and then returning to her family in England. “Was your grandfather Catholic or Church of Ireland?” He was not Catholic I replied. “Well, I may know where he’s buried. Let’s go find out.”
From the top: The Church of Ireland chapel in Slawin parish, just across the Lough from Omar; my grandfather’s grave; the headstone reads OMAR In loving memory of Oscar Marvyn Reed who died 22nd June 1962 Aged 75 years.
I offer again my sincere thanks to Michelle McCauley, Vincent and Rosemary McCauley and to Helen and Frank O’Shea.
If you made it this far—congratulations! I hope you enjoyed the journey with me and to the family mystery solved through help from new friends lovingly offered.