Journey to The Past
As I followed the man in the little blue car, I was, as always, cognizant of the fact that I was driving on the opposite side of the vehicle. Minutes earlier I had knocked on the front door of this man's home, told him my name and my reason for being there. He suggested that I speak with his father and asked me to follow him. He drove about two hundred yards down a dirt road or lane as it is called in Ireland. I stopped my rented Ford behind his car in front of an old, generations old, stone farm house. I walked behind him into this house looking for my history.
In the kitchen, he introduced me to a couple, whom he identified as his parents, Angie and Paddy McDonnell. This room, like the house, could have been from the set of "The Quiet Man." That is except for the new vinyl windows, dishwasher and other modern conveniences. But this is the Ireland that I found in the spring of 1999. It is both old and new, coexisting side by side, in fact, complementing each other. And, although, I was here looking for my past, I found not only the past but also the present and even a glimpse of the future.
Paddy McDonnell, at 80 years of age, is a man of a medium height and slender build. He had white hair and wore a sweater and touring cap. And as he shook my hand, he looked to me like my American idea of an Irish Squire.
Paddy instructed me to sit in the light so he could see what I looked like. I, of course, did as I was told by this distinguished looking gentleman. When we were both seated, looking across his kitchen table at each other, he asked me a question. "Are you related to the plumber?"And with these words I knew I was in the right place.
I had been in Ireland about 36 hours at this point. Within hours of landing at Dublin Airport I was researching land records at the Valuation Office on Abbey Street. The next morning I drove to the town of Drumconrath in County Meath. My first stop was at the local Catholic Church. From marriage and baptismal records, I found the names of my ancestors, their siblings and their children. I then drove through the area asking locals about this family until I found myself having tea in this farmer's kitchen
But my search, quest may be a more accurate word, began 18 years earlier with a conversation with another white-haired man. This conversation took place in the livingroom of my father, John Clarke, in Brooklyn, New York. It was 1981, and I was making one of my regular visits to see "Pop". He was a great storyteller and soon began telling family stories. He had the tales that he had heard as a child still fresh in his head.
As we tried to figure out where the family came from, we realized that all we knew was that they had come from Ireland around the time of the Great Famine. And since all the Irish born in our family had died before my father was born in 1913, our information was at best sketchy and was all hearsay.
Thus began this search which took me to the New York offices of the United States National Archives and Records Administration, the New York City Municipal Archives, the New York and Brooklyn Public Libraries, Calvary and Holy Cross Cemeteries over and over again. I picked my father's brain often and when that seemed empty Aunt Catherine's and Uncle Chester's. I found two distant American cousins who had invaluable information that they readily shared with me. All in all I found about eight ancestors (on my father's side) who had emigrated from Ireland. But there was only one who had left enough information to lead me to a particular location within Ireland. In 1855 Francis Clarke emigrated from Cloughreagh, County Meath, Ireland.
Now after 18 years, here I was sitting in a farmhouse with Paddy McDonnell very near the Clarke family farm where the whole story started nearly two centuries earlier. Paddy, whose mother was Mary Ann Clarke, and my father are in fact second cousins. My father's grandfather Francis Clarke, who emigrated, and Paddy's grandfather Patrick Clarke were brothers. Their parents were Patrick and Mary Clarke of Cloughreagh and as I learned on this trip their grandparents were Patrick and Anne Clarke of Rahood Co. Meath.
When he arrived in America, Francis Clarke lived in Hudson City New Jersey, near the bustling waterfront known as New York Harbor. He managed to apprentice in the fledgling Coppersmith Trade, which was used extensively in nineteenth century shipbuilding. In 1862 he started his own business and later moved both family and business to Brooklyn, New York. As the business expanded it incorporated the related trades of steam fitting and plumbing into its success. By the 1890's Frank (as he was called in America) was a successful entrepreneur.
In 1893, Francis returned to his homeland for a visit. He documented his trip in a letter to his wife. This letter survives today and in fact contained an address in Ireland that led me to this meeting with Paddy McDonnell.
In 1895, with the memories of this trip fresh in his mind Frank Clarke bought a 55 acre farm in upstate Orange County, New York. He put his business in the hands of his children and retired to his farm, calling it "Meath Hill" in memory of the place of his birth.
Armed with this knowledge, I now sat across from Paddy McDonnell trying to put the pieces of my puzzle together. Although the Irish and American branches of the Clarke family had lost touch a hundred or so years ago, there were three stories in common that linked us together. First was the fact that we both knew that Frank had emigrated and became a plumber. Although the family in America remembers the business as primarily that of coppersmiths, it was known as "Frank Clarke and Son, Coppersmiths, Plumbers and Steamfitters".
Second, Paddy McDonnell told a story about Francis returning unexpectedly for a visit. When he knocked at the door of the family farm he was not recognized and had to explain to his brothers who he was. Francis had left home when he was about 17 years of age. It was nearly 40 years later when he knocked at that door. A young boy had turned into an old man. Paddy McDonnell thought there had been a letter sent by a brother stating that things were hard at home. Francis apparently returned to help without notifying them. As this story was being told to me, I reached into my folder and produced a copy of the letter that Frank had sent to his wife describing his journey home. It was this letter, dated July 1893, that contained the address of Patrick Clarke, Cloughreagh, County Meath Ireland. We had in fact different versions of the same story.
The third story, although somewhat vague, does have a version on both sides of the Atlantic. Paddy McDonnell was told by his uncle Owen Clarke that three girls from America showed up one day. They were the children of Francis on a world tour. Paddy who was born in 1919 had no direct knowledge of this and no further information. However, my father had told a similar story. His aunts, who were either widowed or single had taken a Grand Tour of Europe early in the twentieth century. Both versions are without specifics, but both apparently relate to the same incident.
I also heard new stories of this family, such as that Paddy's Clarke uncles -Frank's nephews- were, in addition to being farmers, stone masons. I was shown a particularly handsome stone building that was built by the brothers. And the stone family farmhouse, built by Patrick Clarke (Frank's father) about 1820 is standing today, albeit in disrepair from not having been lived in since the last Clarke brother died in 1966. The Clarkes on both sides of the Atlantic were apparently good with their hands. Paddy also told me that the Clarkes were a very intelligent group. And with my being a guest in his country and his home, I could hardly dispute this as being anything but fact.
One story did intrigue me more than the others. It seems that when Francis visited in 1893, he apparently offered to take his niece Mary Ann back to America with him. For whatever reason she refused to go. Mary Ann eventually married James McDonnell and raised five children including Paddy McDonnell, my host. Mary Ann's four brothers, Francis, Patrick, Owen and James, who worked the family farm until 1966, were either childless or single. The Clarke descendants are thriving in Ireland today- as McDonnell- due to this young girl's decision to stay at home.
Later that same day the McDonnells took me to an old graveyard in the nearby town of Nobber. Angie showed me two gravestones set together in the rear of the yard. They were both brown in color, about four feet high, with a rounded top. The one on the left was erected by Patrick Clarke, Frank's brother, for their father Patrick who died in 1874 at age 79 years, and their mother, Mary, who died in 1852 at age 42 years. The other was erected by Patrick Clarke, Frank's father, for his father-Frank's grandfather- Patrick who died in 1821 at age 71, and his mother, Ann,-Frank's grandmother- who died in 1824 at age 61 years.
My family's history had just been expanded from 1855 when Frank emigrated to 1750 which is the estimated date of birth of his grandfather, Patrick in Rahood, County Meath. I had indeed found the past.
The present continued. The following day I again visited with the McDonnell family. Their youngest daughter drove up from Dublin. Another afternoon was spent drinking tea, eating cake and talking family history. This time I filled in some of the blanks in the family tree that she was building . She was working on a family history of the McDonnell Clan. The Clarke branch included a caption for a brother named Francis, under which was written "went to America". There was no other information. I gladly filled in the missing information.
The future that I glimpsed into, of course, was in the next generation. Before I flew home, I visited, in Dublin, with the family of another son of Paddy and Angie. I had now met three of their seven children. I had also seen one grandson at the family farm and four grandchildren in Dublin- with more to follow. This family with whom I share a common ancestry grows and prospers.
During my brief trip to Ireland I found the land farmed
by the Clarke family since 1820; the house in which my great-grandfather
was born in 1837; the graves of my ancestors who were born as early as
1750; the church in nearby Meath Hill where the family worshiped; a thriving
Irish family who are second and third cousins to those of us in America;
and fulfilled a promise made, just prior to his death in 1996, to my father
to find the place where his grandfather was born.
John C. Clarke
Frank and Catherine
Meath Hill Site Map