A whole new world: finding my family in Ireland

Derryvegal Lough, County Cork

When her husband passed away, Kathleen undertook a journey to Ireland that taught her more than she could ever have imagined about herself, her family and her place right here, on a little island at the edge of the Atlantic

Like many a dreamer, Kathleen had always had a special slot for Ireland on her bucket list. “As a proud Irish American,” she says, “I had an unexplainable feeling deep in my soul to go to the place where my story began.”

My entire childhood, my father told me about Ireland

As a little girl living in New Jersey, Kathleen grew up surrounded by the green glow of her parents’ Irish heritage. Each year as the St Patrick’s Day parade marched down Fifth Avenue in New York, her father would point to the County Leitrim banner, proudly announcing, “Remember, Kathleen, that’s where our people are from”. His Aunt Annie had emigrated to New York from the Wild Rose County in the early 1900s – and it was armed with her birth record from 1885, and a photo of her own father, that Kathleen left for her first trip to Ireland.

“I couldn’t believe what I was looking at!”

After a chance encounter in a Galway pub with a local whose geographical knowledge was sound, Kathleen headed for Leitrim and the town of Cloone, from where her father’s ancestors, the Creegans, hailed. Strolling through the graveyard of the church listed on his aunt’s birth record, Kathleen spied a gravestone inscribed with a familiar name: her great-grandmother’s. A flurried heartbeat and a few hurried photos later, and Kathleen was ready to sit down and take it all in. But the day’s surprises were just beginning…

She walked in and looked at me and said, 'Oh yes, you’re one of ours – I can tell by looking at you'.

Just down the road from the graveyard sat a bright little pub, right at the village’s edge, with a family crest swinging gently beneath a single surname: Creegans. Kathleen made a beeline and was greeted by a man who introduced himself as the owner, Tommy.  “I showed him Aunt Annie’s paperwork and he called his sister Dolores over,” remembers Kathleen. Dolores took one look at her flame-haired visitor and wasted no time in announcing – “You’re a Creegan red!”

As it turned out, the Creegans were the first of many soon-to-be-discovered cousins. For Kathleen, that sense of belonging is irreplaceable. “Even though I’ve never met my grandparents and great-grandparents, now I know who they are and I’ve seen where they came from. They belong to me and I never imagined the peace and fulfillment that would bring me.” 

Later on, another cousin, Mossi, took Kathleen to the site of the old family homestead. “Seeing where my grandmother played as a child was a dream come true. I took stones from the land and when I returned home, I placed them at my father’s grave in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and my grandmother’s grave in the Bronx.”

Kathleen with cousin Tommy Creegan; Mossi, Kathleen's father's cousin.

“I’d gone to Ireland just for a vacation, and when I left, I had new family.”

It wasn’t just her blood relatives that made Kathleen feel at ease in Ireland, either. “I felt looked after and cared for – I’ve travelled throughout Ireland by myself and always felt safe. It’s actually a great place to come if you are travelling alone, because everyone is so friendly… There was not one person that I met, old or young, who didn’t make me feel welcomed!”

Bring your parents, take your parents home. You think it’s difficult to do – it’s not!

It’s this characteristic friendliness that has already led Kathleen to 26 of the island’s 32 counties. “The Gap of Dunloe is stunning and I’ve also enjoyed the political tours in Belfast and County Londonderry. Kenmare and Kinsale are beautiful – next on my list is the Donkey Sanctuary in County Cork!”

As for making another trip? “It feels like I’m going home when I go back to Ireland,” says Kathleen. “When you walk around, you get that feeling: my ancestors walked here, my ancestors saw this view. The mountain is the same. The fields are the same.”

She pauses. “I’ll always come back.”

Find your own family