Saturday, March 20, 2004

The first day of spring

Just back from The Blue Note, a seafood place, where I had tuna ala mercuria with cajan sauce and two glasses of wine. Stared out into the drizzly night, the red taillights of cars reflected in the wet pavement, eavesdropped on some fat face, ala John Brown, guy discussing politics with his real estate investor friend. Bush has the common touch, the stammering oh gosh gee folks stuff that Kerry lacks and the US, the fat faced guy informed his friend, is a big place and the midwest, well, enough said. Not wanting to hear more, I skipped dessert and walked in the drizzly rain home.

I went finally to Einstein exhibit. No googaw laser beam fractile sagging space/time grids can explain relativity--sorry, I'm slow, I know, and it always makes me rue my lack of math prowess. I get e=mcsquared--that math I can do and get that the speed of light is somehow interwoven with the structure of the universe, but how and how is it that time slows as you go faster yet the speed of light remains the same is no matter how fast you go.

Took the T to the exhibit. Rode with the city people, thinking how Boston and NY are as close to Europe as you get in this country. People who have lived on top of each other, learned to ignore and tolerate the "other", know that perfection is never going to happen, the big mansion on the hill where you never have to meet anyone but people like yourself unless they are servants--all that American dream is not an issue here like it is in the mid west and the west. Here you rub shoulders with the daft young man in dirty coat and homemade signs of oil comapanies stapled on a stick, saying we rule the world, and the asian student, the crippled old woman with shopping bag and the Bruins hockey team t-shirted fans going to the game, and the city faces, creased and lined, squinted against the reality of cinder covered snow and the garbage laden underground tunnels where you cannot chose who sits next to you or bumps against you.

I like these people. I am of course romantizing them, imagining them larger than they are. But I'll take them, trust them in some way I cannot the Californian, everything's gonna be ok, just be cool, man, sunshine denial of our human condition--the fact that everything is not going to be ok and the decision to live with that knowledge--I enjoy imagining that these people have made it. Making the best of a bad bargain, they ride to whereever they are going, stony faced, spaced out, talking with a friend, reading, not expecting it to be better than it is, not waiting for the millineum which after all has already happened, nor for armageddeon which is all around us.

But they are willing to live with you, you dark skinned or dirty or wigged out, or destitute or maimed or briefcase laden or backpacked or drugged as long as you ride beside them and keep your insanity contained. They are willing to coexist and so they are brave and give me hope for the future.

Monday, March 15, 2004

THe Search for Patrick Cronan continued

So off I went.

The weather in Ireland was good--so the Irish all said. I heard that over and over--”It could have rained every day”. It didn’t, although it rained a lot. There was lots of sun and blue skies and fresh breeze off the ocean. There were "soft" days when it misted. And "fresh days" when the wind blew and a sweater was need in July.

My first day there I was groggy from jet lag and I wandered around downtown Dublin which is really easy to walk around in if you’re not half asleep and lost. A man came up to me and asked me if I needed help and showed me where to find the tourist office. Then he asked me if I had relatives in Ireland. The Irish are very friendly, and I discovered they all ask whether you have relatives among the Irish. I told him about Grandpa Cronan and he said, “Oh, all the Cronans are in Cork”. Later in the day I see a tour bus which has on it, “The Cronins of Cork” I talk to the driver who said these people were all of the same family, touring Ireland.

My friend and I rented a car, not having any real agenda. We drove aimlessly at first and ended up in Donegal where we stayed in a bed and breakfast with a very sweet Mrs. Callahan--her house looked like Aunt Maud’s or someone’s of my grandfather's generation, filled with a hodge podge of ancient furniture, old covers on the sofa, worn blankets, doilies on the backs of chairs, knick-knacks everywhere, and pictures of relatives and children. We found out that her husband had just died. She had a very nice young man working for her, who had come home from college for the weekend because he missed his "mum" and his dog (my friend, Kathy, loved this and only wished her own son were like him). Her house looked out on Donegal Bay--a beautiful view which she never seemed to notice--the heavy lace curtains almost obscured it from us, but we could sit outside in the sun and walk down to the beach.

We began a circumnavigation of the country which isn’t hard to do--it isn't very big. We stopped for several days in Mayo county north of Galway. We found this lovely B and B run by an Irish woman and her British husband. It was on a lake near an 12th century church and a moss covered well that spoke of Celtic times and ancient spirits. There were horses and wide fields to walk through. The owners had traveled and so could talk about other places as well as the history of their own town and Ireland and they had tons of books to read and a wide windowed sun room to read them in. The wife joked that they had fought about everything in their married years and only agreed upon two things that neither of them liked--Christmas trees and flashing lights. He kidded her about having been raised by the nuns.

I found a book there with information on Cronans. There are two spellings as we know. The “Cronan” live around Tipperary and and “Cronin” live near Cork, but all Cronans are in southern Ireland and the southwest. These areas were the hardest hit in the famine. She had a books about the famine--it must have been horrible with whole families and towns wiped out, and sometimes no one to bury the dead. If we have Grandpa Cronan’s birth date right, he was born right after the potato crop had failed for several years in a row.

Cronan means “swarthy”. I found this fact annoying, but my friend thought it was funny. The Cronans are an ancient clan and of Celtic origin. I bought the coat of arms and description of famous Cronans.

It was here that I began to feel a connection between me and this man I never knew, but whose descendent I am. We Americans have so few stories about our ancestors because for the most part the immigrants wanted to forget where they came from and sever connections with the past for whatever reason. A new world. A new life.

I exporled the church yard where the earliest date was 1694 and I looked at tombstones hoping to find the name Cronin on one of them. It was a rainy, misty, "soft" day and my friend had gone to town to shop. Graveyards are quiet and peaceful places to explore. After wandering around, I sat on the stone wall and just stared. Then I noticed some plain rocks that marked graves with no name. In fact there was a whole area of the churchyard that was devoted to these nameless stones. It came to me that Patrick Cronan’s people would be in graves like this, unmarked and unnamed, if they had died in the famine and were buried at all, and that there was probably no hope of finding any trace of them--they had disappeared like the million others who died in that tragedy. That tragedy started the great Diaspora of Irish to America, and Patrick Cronan was one of a million who made it out alive. A wave a sadness swept over me there, I can’t explain it. Having just read the stories made it all so real to me. I felt the fragility of his young life--put on a ship in the worst conditions with hundreds of other poor peasants, leaving this green land to face the unknown in America. I felt grateful that I had returned to his native land to see it for myself. I felt some completion.

to be continued

Sunday, March 14, 2004

The Search for Patrick Cronan continued

He supposedly came to NY when he was ten. His tombstone says he was born in 1853, a few years after the famine hit. He would have come to NY in 1863 if the dates are correct. The Irish were still coming in droves then. A million of them in those hard years when whole villages were wiped out, when bodies littered the ground and there was no one with strength enough to bury them. It was a horror.

It became real to me during my trip to Ireland and was still in the consciousness of the Irish, though prosperity had come and new houses were springing up all over the country. I mentioned Patrick Cronan a lot in Ireland. And when I told his story, their faces filled with sadness--an orphan, how sad. I got a lot of mileage out of that story during the trip and enjoyed telling it. I felt connected and felt they felt a connection to me.

I imagine him on the orphan train, alone, or with his twin, looking out the window, watching at the stops, the other children being taken by the families who met the train. Maybe he watched his twin be chosen, maybe they looked one long last look at each other, not believing they would never see each other again. Maybe he had a buddy and they played games to pass the time. Maybe he sat in silence, his stomach churning with anxiety. Maybe he was excited and full of hope.

My aunt said he was one of the last to be chosen because he was too small to do the heavy farm work the older boys could do and too old to be a baby boy to some lonely or bereft mother. So he was on the train until Indiana when he is taken by a family. Who? We do not know. For what purpose? Not one story of the adoptive family and no clue as to whether it was hard work and crumbs or love and affection. And how did he get his 80 acres in Southern Indiana, or his wife, Eliza Clark. He had three children and four grandchildren, and five great grandchildren to whom he is a legend and a mystery.

Once when I said to Aunt Helen, “Well, he must have been Catholic” She replied in a tone used to squelch any threat of scandal in the family, “He always went to the 1st Christian Church his whole life. “Well, I continue, But we don’t know what he was in Ireland.”

Before I left for the trip to Ireland, I called my cousin to see what information she had about Patrick Cronan. She had none, but was full of stories about his son, Uncle Walt who had to change his last name to avoid the law. This was intrigue for us as children and earlier for Aunt Helen who remembers the excitement when Walt would come to town in a shiny new car--the thrill of it. They had to pretend he was someone else when he arrived to attend his mother's funeral. And sometimes Helen and the kids got to ride in the fancy car. Her own family had an old car for work only, and they walked everywhere else. It was a world where one could do that.

Uncle Walt did things we as children didn’t talk about, didn’t even know about--moonshine and stolen cars we later learned. Helen’s brother Lee quit college to work for him. None of that scratching out a living on red clay and rocky soil for them. Trying to grow potatoes, ha! Then there was the danger, the excitement of back roads at night delivering shine.

These stories follow the history of the country as we moved from farm to city, from the dream of a piece of land of to call your own, to till, to work and build a house and barn and feed yourself and maybe have some money to buy a penny candy at the crossroads store--all that changed to the dream of easy money, fast cars and glitter. The descendants of Patrick Cronan change as the world changes around them and they adapt to it, loosing their roots, letting go of the thin and fragile threads that tethered them to a way of life no longer tenable.

Helen remembers the phone call, telling them of the arrest of Lee in Kansas and her father, after making arrangements to get him out of jail, putting his head in his hands in the dark, his sobs wrecking the silence of the night.

He had tried to bring up a son righteous and honest. My mother told of Lee bringing a stick home and his father asking where he got it and on hearing it was from a neighbors yard, whipped him with it and made him take it back.

Of course, the son had rebelled.

And who wouldn’t have, especially today? Which of us could sit and feel “like the loneliest person in the world” and not run from it?

But this story is not about those questions. it is about the reason for the trip to Ireland. It was to see the country I knew was truly in my blood. My ancestor had been born there, had lived there until he was 10 and then come to America. All that was fact. One tie still unbroken.

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