Discovering My Irish Roots In Gortahork

I shook with anxiety as I drove a quaint Mitsubishi Space Star rental through the windy Irish mountain roads near Donegal. The beautiful lush pastures were not calming my nerves. Sheep were a common roadblock, and I had started to question if my ultimate journey of discovering my Irish roots was worth it. I was headed for my grandfather’s birth town of Gortahork, County Donegal, to meet with relatives I had never met who lived there. Donegal folks still spoke Irish. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to read the signs or find the relatives I was supposed to meet up with at a local pub. I made myself look at the hundred shades of green and took a deep breath.

I finally drove into town and started searching for The Shamrock Lodge, our set meeting place. The hand-painted white and green pub sign was written in Irish and English. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, stepped out of the now-dusty car, and started looking for relatives I’d only seen in a picture.  Within seconds, a jolly Irish couple ran up to me and gave me bear hugs. “Welcome to Donegal, love!”

I recognized them as Donnie and Mary from the picture. All my fears and jitters washed away in that moment. I was quickly shuttled to their favorite restaurant, which also doubled as the only hotel in the area. They greeted all the servers by name and excitedly told them about my visit. “She’s our relative from America looking for her grandfather’s house!”

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The servers in turn said how honored they were to have me in their town and hoped I would enjoy my stay. As I drank my obligatory Guinness, I enjoyed watching the interaction between the servers and four other tables. Our waitress excitedly chatted about her upcoming trip to Italy, telling us how her and her husband would be “eating lots of pizza and bread, and of course, drinking wine.” My relatives smiled and told her to say hello to her parents. My fish and chips arrived with a side of mushy peas, and I realized how hungry I was. I dug into the hot, greasy fish with pleasure.

After we finished our meal and my relatives said their goodbyes to everyone working, including the hotel staff, Donnie had an excited look in his eyes. “Our family’s graveyard is just up the road. Let’s have a look, yeah?”

Look at the graveyard? Now? Why not? I thought.

I didn’t realize he meant literally across the road. Sure enough, the graveyard was 50 steps away. It was the smallest graveyard I had ever seen, with only about a hundred tombstones and a small laminated index to find specific people. What struck me was the elaborate candle and ribbon decorations and how each tombstone was at least three-feet tall. We found three tombstones belonging to families related to me. They had fresh, red roses in front. It made me smile knowing someone was still looking after my family’s graves.

It was the smallest graveyard I had ever seen, with only about a hundred tombstones and a small laminated index to find specific people.

After we paid our respects, I was informed that there were other relatives very anxious to meet me. We drove about ten minutes south on the narrow road, and I spotted the blue-grey ocean peaking through the low clouds. We suddenly parked in front of a small house and walked up the hill. The door to the white two-bedroom wood house bursted open. “Hello, love. We’ve been waiting!”

Arms flew at me in a blur and hugs were exchanged with a handful of people so fast I couldn’t even see some of their faces. Regardless, I had never felt so warmly welcomed in a place. A glass of Pinot Grigio was immediately shoved into my hand. My father’s cousin, Betty, laughed at the shock on my face. “A good Irish girl can’t be empty-handed!”

I agreed. Laughing, I recounted our meal at the local pub, to which Betty seemed very interested. “Oh! Was it any use?” she said.

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Any use? My mind raced to figure out the phrase before asking for an explanation. She was simply asking if the meal was good.

As strange as it sounds, I felt “at home” in this new land with people I had never met.

“Tommy, you know, your father’s father’s cousin’s brother!” exclaimed Betty.

Tommy? I had no idea who Tommy was, but their enthusiasm made me smile. In that moment, I could not imagine being anywhere else. They listened as I talked about life in America and were equally enthusiastic to teach me a few Irish phrases “every good Irish girl should know.” As I stumbled over a few phrases, much to their delight, I felt for a moment I actually was from Ireland.

Sipping my second glass of wine and listening to everyone chatter away, I couldn’t fathom why I had been so nervous to go on this journey to begin with. I wondered if this only the beginning of discovering where I came from.

Header photo by Ingrid McQuivey  

Article photos by author

Marissa is a Seattle-based writer who specializes in travel and adventure. When she's not traveling, she can be found kayaking, snowboarding, or participating in any number of outdoor activities. You can read more about her here