I had a vary (South Kerry for ‘notion’ or ‘idea’) to go down to Aghadda (pronounced ‘aw+gee+aw+dah’) near Cahersiveen in rural County Kerry on the Iveragh (pronounced ‘ee+ver+ah’) Peninsula to see my cousins. I told my mother I was planning to visit them and she reminded me we didn’t really keep in contact with those cousins. I hoped it wasn’t for a bad reason, as the nearest village (population 300) was a 10-minute drive, the nearest town (population 1,300) was a twelve-minute drive, and the nearest train station was an hour’s drive along winding roads through the Ring of Kerry.
I was good and stuck in rural Kerry with my cousins, and I couldn’t be happier. The house I stayed in has been the family home since it was built in 1939, with indoor bathroom facilities and ‘modern’ kitchen added some years later. Before 1939, the family had lived in a two-room cottage for 50 years, and before that it had been a one room cottage for at least 10. That cottage still stands behind the house now and I was lucky enough to explore it and see where my great grandmother was born and her father before her. The cottage and house are nestled between the mountains of the Ring of Kerry and a tidal river, the Atlantic Ocean just beyond the property line.
My cousin John Paul took me to explore the area in the afternoon. The aqua-coloured waters of the Atlantic contrasted against the dark sharp rock faces that dropped down to the water from spectacular heights, the two divided sometimes by a thin stretch of sand that they call a beach or strand. I’m not sure I’d say beach. I explored a restored stone ringfort that overlooks the bay and the ruins of Ballycarbery Castle. The rain held off as my cousin showed me the family plot of my great-great grandparents in a graveyard where half the headstones are covered in grass, sunk into the ground, and any inscription on them has faded away.
That night we went out for drinks and live music in pubs where everyone was known by name and certain patrons, who weren’t famous celebrities of any kind, had their pictures hanging on the wall simply for being regulars. Our taxi driver (for the short ride home along the winding roads) was a neighbor of another cousin of mine and knew exactly where all the passengers lived – taking them home without any questions asked. It was she who told me I would fall in love with the area and I’ll not want to leave Aghadda. I went to bed that night and woke to have more tea and an Irish breakfast of bacon and sausages.
John Paul and I spent the next day visiting different family members, leaving me with the challenge of discerning their accents. County Kerry accents tend to be the gem in the crown of Irish accents. I couldn’t tell what one cousin was saying, partly due to the accent, the rest due to his missing teeth and being almost 85 years old. He was a lifelong farmer: his hand was strong and rough when he shook mine, he pulled off muddy wellies, his face was red from the wind, and he offered me whiskey instead of tea due to the cold wind. The mountains of the Skellig Ring in Kerry swept down into his back yard where the tractors were parked and sheep wandered about. Their front door faced Valentia Island, where the first telegram cable was laid between the Europe and the U.S. in the ‘New World.’ From Valentia Island one can look out to the Skellig Islands (one of the Irish filming locations for “Star Wars,”) jutting out of the blue Atlantic.
The world around me was stunning and beautiful – in a harsh way. Boulders, sheep, and heather clung almost impossibly to the sides of mountains as the wind cuts through a person like a knife. Yet, if one waits ten minutes, the clouds may clear and a brilliant sun will make the bright waters of the Atlantic sparkle. Absolute silence surrounded me and I loved it. How could my great grandmother leave this place? It was beautiful, but for her it held nothing; it held a number of years shared with nine siblings and her parents in a two room cottage. If their part of Kerry was rural now, try to imagine how lonely it was 100 years ago. My great grandmother left that small cottage at the age of 15 for Scotland and didn’t look back. She was nearly 75 when she returned for the first and last time. The tall buildings of Chicago and the mountains of Kerry both held places in her heart. My great grandmother may have made her way to the States and found love there, raised two children, and gotten a bit of education, but she’d always find her roots back in County Kerry – she cherished her old photographs and letters. “You’ll not want to leave Aghadda,” I was told, and I can only imagine she felt the same way sometimes.