Though it was still very cold last weekend, I felt the hope of spring. Maybe it was the angle of the sun, the heat from which was melting snow and ice, even when air temperature was well below freezing. As I ran along the waterfront at Bug Light Park Sunday morning, there was no activity in Portland Harbor. Only one ferry to Peaks Island was moving and that had docked by the time I began. There was a quiet I seldom perceive down there. Very few people were stirring, only a couple dog owners out for a walk. It was cold, but the air wasn’t moving and the sun felt warm on my face. That hope of spring is an ancient thing for people in northern climes.
I just booked my fourth trip to Ireland, the land of my ancestors, which is amply sprinkled with prehistoric stone formations everywhere going back five millennia. No one knows for sure who built them, but archaeologists are slowly piecing bits of evidence together which indicate that many, if not most, of the curious structures are oriented according to the solar calendar — to confirm that, yes, the sun is getting higher each day and spring will indeed return. People around the world are familiar with Stonehenge, which is the largest of numerous other stone circles all over England, Scotland, Ireland and the Atlantic coast of France.
Human remains, sometimes cremated, have also been found around these stones in Ireland. Some such formations are enormous, like Newgrange in the Boyne River Valley that predates Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. We don’t know for sure who built Newgrange, but whoever those people were, they were skilled at working in stone. As with Stonehenge, they moved stone from many kilometers away to build it and we don’t understand how they did so. Unlike Stonehenge, Newgrange (and two other huge mounds near it) was also a passage tomb built with corbeled stones and covered with still more stones to make a tumulus covering more than an acre. Like Stonehenge, it was oriented to sunrises on the solstices.
Other stones the size of automobiles are arranged all around Newgrange and inscribed with spirals and concentric circles, the meanings of which no one knows. When I visited there, I was told by officials on-site that they were close to an understanding and a report would be issued within months. I’ve been waiting 10 years and there’s been no report.
There are similar concentric circle designs carved into stones on the Isle of Doagh on the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal, which is the northernmost part of Ireland. When I was there on my first trip, I wasn’t aware of those stones, but I’ll be spending several days on Inishowen again because it’s the land of the McLaughlins where my great-grandfather was born. I’ll be sure to look for them this time.
My great-grandfather, James, whom I never knew, was born in a little village called Cloontagh, but he emigrated to Boston from the nearby Isle of Doagh. My brother Paul and his girlfriend will be with us for a few days. He’s going to Scotland first and we’ll meet up in Donegal after he flies in from Edinburgh. It’s his first trip to Europe.
After Paul flies back to the U.S.A., my wife and I will head south to County Cork where other branches of my family originated — the Sullivans and Mahoneys, also on my father’s side. I’ve discovered where and when some married and where and when some died, so if I have time maybe I can find their homes. Maybe not though, because they were Roman Catholic and, as such, they wouldn’t likely have inherited real property since it was illegal for a Catholic to own property in Ireland until 1792. They were born in the early 1800s.
On the way south from Donegal to Cork I can pass through Limerick where John Fitzgerald, great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side, was born July 4, 1836. That information should be specific enough to perhaps find data on his parents, Patrick and Catherine, about whom I know nothing but their names. The further back I go, the more names there are, but records become harder to find, so perhaps I will reach dead ends during this trip. Knowing a few things about ancestors who lived and died there will help me feel connected to the land as I explore it.
The ancestors I’ve learned of so far were all poor. The McLaughlins couldn’t afford stones to mark their graves in Donegal and I may not find any for the Sullivans or Mahoneys in Cork, either. However, I will see plenty of the standing stone circles erected 5,000 years ago to mark passing seasons — and the graves of more distant ancestors. Those are everywhere.
Tom McLaughlin lives in Lovell, Maine. He can be reached on his website at tommclaughlin.blogspot.com.