Somewhere along what is now called the Wild Atlantic Way, between Galway and Westport, my ancestors Ellan Moran and Ulick Walsh were born and later lit out for America. Like so many millions of others who have left their homes and crossed seas and oceans in search of different lives, they never returned to the shallow, rocky shores of the west of Ireland, to the shadow of Croagh Patrick rising through the fog over Clew Bay. So at first, standing on the shore of that bay with that same mountain rising behind me, felt like closing a historical and genealogical loop in a way I’d never experienced before. They left, and I, their descendant, college-educated and then some, with enough time and disposable income to be overseas, stood where they might have stood.
From our guesthouse on the bay we walked up the long Quay Road, lined with a low stone wall and tall lush trees, into town, spotting Walsh’s Pub (a coincidence, or long-lost relatives?) and planning our evening around making it into Matt Molloy’s for what promised to be some of the best traditional music on the west coast. We had time to stroll through the middle of the town of Westport, a town known for being so truly and famously charming and bustling despite (or because of) its small size that it was named as the Best Place to Live in Ireland a few years back. And right down to the petunias that blossomed from planters situated on the side of a small stone bridge over the River Carrowbeg, it certainly is charming. The mini-market across the street from said bridge was painted in teal and lime green; other storefronts popped in lavender and bright blue and fuchsia. I ate a creamed cheese and seafood pie in a pub called The West across the street from the mini-market, and walked the perimeter of the town square (called the Octagon), and as the evening went on, I began to put my finger on a more familiar feeling: the sharp edges of small places, the loneliness of the towns where everyone knows one another. Older women gathered under the portico of St. Mary’s beside the river, chattering quietly before going inside for the evening Eucharistic Adoration; locals couldn’t go much more than a block down the main street without being met and greeted by neighbors. When the whole of your world is closed within eight town blocks and a half-mile stretch by the water, what feels charming to some is claustrophobic to others— when you know it’s you they’re chattering about under the portico, when the neighbors’ news is all anxiety and grief, when the petunias aren’t in bloom.
Then, too, what is it to grow up in the shadow of a holy mountain? The legend of Croagh Patrick is that Saint Patrick climbed it barefoot, as the hardiest of pilgrims still do today, and fasted at its summit for forty days and nights. To look on the mountain every day might be a source of inspiration for some— perhaps for the ladies gathered outside St. Mary’s— or might be a constant reminder of the ways in which one’s own devotion falls short.
I don’t know why Ellan and Ulick left the west of Ireland. The nineteenth century, of course, saw a tidal wave of immigration from Ireland, with over four million Irish arriving in the United States by 1930, and certainly the vast majority of those were economic and political migrants. (Worth noting, as always, that the Potato Blight was not merely a natural disaster but a political one; the Irish were so dependent on potatoes as a staple crop because much of the rest of Ireland’s agriculture was garnished to pay exorbitant rents and exported to England.) And because the western part of the country was especially hard-hit by the Famine, it’s certainly reasonable to assume that they, like so many others, simply looked for a better life on the other side of the ocean, and to honor their hope and that fortitude by continuing to welcome a new generation of immigrants and offer them a place to rest their own hope.
But I wonder what else there might have been to it. Leaving the only place you’ve ever called home, never to return, is in fact a choice— if an obvious one, a necessary one, a life-or-death one. Ellan and Ulick chose to live. Whether they thought of their homeland with regret or relief, I’ll never know. But living in the shadow of a holy mountain, in eight town blocks and a half-mile by the bay, can comfort or circumscribe. I looked up at the mountain and also chose not to climb it, in favor that night of seafood pie and Guinness and music at Matt Molloy’s. And then I left for the next destination on our itinerary— the north, the open water that begins at the edge of the Giants’ Causeway— the next opportunity, the unfamiliar, the new.