My dad brought me to Athenry and showed me the family farm
My Dad, Francis Higgins, was a lover of jokes, history and family stories. So it came as a shock to me to realize, after his death, that he’d rarely talked of his childhood or his ancestry in Ireland. Only on St. Patrick’s Day were we notably Irish; wearing green and listening to old John McCormack albums.
This situation was not uncommon here in the United States. The pain of the famine, forced immigration and the ﬁrst difﬁcult days of ‘No Irish Need Apply’ in Boston, led many to bury their Irish identities. Children were given anglicized names, customs were abandoned and the stories stopped. In one generation the families were American, only privately acknowledging pride in their Irish blood.
It was my father’s idea to visit Ireland in the summer of I967 when I was thirteen. We travelled ﬁrst through England, visiting all those places I’d read about in my history books, and then ﬂew to Ireland. My parents fell in love with Dublin. They wandered through bookstores, strolled on St. Stephen’s Green and took in plays at the Abbey Theatre. I admit to being stumped at their rapid assimilation into Ireland, as I’d heard so little about it at home.
But then we came to Athenry. My father was determined to find the town. We must have stopped ﬁve times to ask directions. When at last we arrived, he strolled around the town for only a few minutes before asking for directions to Lady’s Well. My mother and I just looked at each other and shrugged. Off we went. I imagine we must have passed by the Castle, the Abbey and the North Gate, but my father didn’t pause. He was a man with a mission.
At last, we arrived at the shrine and my father spoke- ‘This is it, just as I remember. In my grandmother’s kitchen there hung a picture of this place. She showed me it often and told me stories of Athenry. She told me to come here stand facing the well and turn. Her land would be before me.’
We did as he said and saw the farmhouse set up on the hill. Could that possibly be the land of my ancestors?
Once more on his mission my father jumped into the car and rode right up to the house. I was mortiﬁed by his boldness. He knocked on the door and a lovely woman, Mary Morrissey Connell, answered. My father explained about the picture and she asked our family name.
‘My grandmother was a Clasby, Ellen Clasby, who married a Ryan’. ‘Oh yes,’ she said, as if this happened every day, ‘That’s our family.’ That moment remained with me for thirty years. The discovering of family on ancestral land was an amazing thing to a young American.
Two years ago my father died and my son was assigned a family history project in school. We gathered what little information we had and found my Irish side wanting. So, I started a search into my heritage. I wrote to relatives, dug through Massachusetts’s record books and followed the family back through the US census.
Then I turned to the more difficult part of the research – Ireland.
My ﬁrst letter was to Father Anthony King. He told me that the Athenry church records did not begin until 1858, too late for my family, but suggested I write to Eamonn Madden. I did and promptly received a response full of memories of the Clasby family.
I ordered microfilms through the Family History Center and found John Clasby in the Tithe Applotment book with land in South Kingsland. The 1821 census for Ireland showed my James and Bridget Hession living in the townland of Park with their six children.
Through this Hession listing I was able to connect with a distant cousin over the Internet and we worked together on the family research. Thread by thread I put together the family history. John and Bridget Clasby had six children in their home at Brittain’s Gate. Their son Stephen married Bridget Hession and had a daughter Ellen, my great-grandmother. This family and several of the Hessions left Ireland in the post-famine years and settled in Waltham, Massachusetts, in a community of Athenry families. Their neighbors included the Cloonans, the Glynns, the Corcorans, the Logans, the Hennellys and the Healys.
I began reading Irish history and developed a great pride in my heritage. I learned of the hardships in my own family’s history. I found my great-great-grandfather Daniel Driscoll, of the once mighty O’Driscolls, sharing a small farm in Kilroan, Co. Cork with 13 other families in the 1830s. I learned about my mother’s grandfather John Leahy who went to work as a young teenager to support his mother, grandmother and sister. He would later become a well-known public speaker in Boston and would raise seven children, two of whom became lawyers, one a priest and one an author and historian in Boston. And I learned about Ellen Clasby who left Athenry alone at the age of 16, traveling on the Daniel Webster into Boston.
The year after my Dad’s death I decided to take the family to Ireland. Money was tight with college right around the comer, but we managed a week’s touring of the south and west of Ireland. Our ﬁrst stop was Athenry. We did a bit more sightseeing than my father had allowed, getting a wonderful tour of the newly restored castle, before heading for Lady’s Well. I repeated my great-grandmother’s directions to identify the family land. Cows grazed peacefully on the ﬁeld before the house. My children stood enchanted.
We continued on to Clonmacnoise and Clonfert Cathedral before returning to Athenry for the Medieval Pageant in the evening. A truly wonderful day!
I have no doubt that the pageant will remain my children’s favorite part of the trip. The magic began at the front gate where we searched for the correct coins to pay our way and were passed through by the kindly guard. In the festival crowd we felt we belonged, no longer tourists. The music began to play and the stands began to shake. It took me a moment before I realized it was the tapping of feet that was causing the vibration. Something we’d never experienced in the US. The pageant began and we were treated to an evening of rats, witches and a wonderful little piglet.
As we sat before the castle that evening, I could almost see my Clasby, Hession, Ryan, Glynn and Higgins ancestors sharing the revelry with us.
Our last stop in Ireland was the Bunratty Folk Park. An elderly man working in one of the cottages described life in Ireland in the 1800s. He told us of the evenings of song and stories in front of the large hearth and of how happy the children in these houses were. After the crowd left, I told him about my father and his trip to Athenry. He smiled, turned and said to my daughter – ‘And one day, God willing, you’ll bring your children to Ireland and say, “My Mum brought me to Athenry and showed me the family farm.
Genealogy is addictive and I’ve continued searching for threads. I’ve had great success on the Internet, connecting with distant cousins all over the world. Recently I discovered the Carnaun National School Website and was quite impressed by the work done by these young scholars. I wrote to Finbarr O’Regan to congratulate him and was rewarded by research suggestions and a copy of the Athenry Journal. His suggestion to write to Ann Healy for a copy of her Athenry History led to another friend. Thanks to all for your help and your interest!
Amy Higgins Tull, Southbury, Connecticut, USA
Feature photo – “1967 – Francis Higgins and cousin Mary Connell”
Note: Amy Higgins Tull, 28.08.22 – “This summer my youngest daughter took a family trip to Ireland. Listening to her plan her travel brought back memories of my trips to Ireland, first as a teenager and years later when I brought my kids. Though we visited many gorgeous locations, both trips focused on the town of Athenry in County Galway. My great grandmother’s stories of this town were our U.S. family’s last connection to our Irish ancestry”. My daughter had an extraordinary week in Ireland and enjoyed visiting Athenry again. Next time I’m coming along!
Check out the Travelling Tulls website!
Written by Amy Higgins Tull
Published here 07 Sep 2022 and originally published 1998
Ladys Well, Kingsland Athenry, County Galway, Ireland
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