by Rich McIlhenny
When my wife Marissa asked me if I wanted to go to Ireland over Thanksgiving with our boys, Jesse and Daniel, and friends Deb and Daniel Matefy, I agreed as I had never been there and wanted to connect with my Irish side. Even though I have an Irish last name, I am mostly Italian, and most of our close and extended relatives I grew up with were Italian. I felt it was time to embrace my Irish heritage. With the passing of my father in early October after a long illness, I also felt that the trip would bring me some more closure.
The day before we left, Marissa, an ancestry.com expert, surprised me with the wonderful news that she had found the villages that my great-grandparents were from and that we would be going there to look for their homes and churches and whatever else we might find.
In 2011 we had visited Casalanguida in the Abruzzo region of Italy, which was the hometown of my father’s grandmother, Irene Colantonio And in 2012, we took my father to his grandfather Vincenzo Sonzogni’s village, Somendenna, in the Bergamo region in the beautiful foothills of the Alps. Vincenzo and his brother are notable for having done the beautiful mosaic tilework in the entrances of the John Wanamaker building in Center City.
We took a red eye and got in at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday, and after dropping our bags off at our hotel in Dublin and having an early breakfast, we toured Kilmainham Gaol, the historical prison, and then struggled to stay awake while touring Trinity College as a possible option for Jesse in a couple of years.
We turned in early that night, and on Thanksgiving Day we had Don, our guide for the day, drive us to the west to see the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher and the charming town of Galway, where I had the most delicious fish and chips I’ve ever had in a restaurant called Kings Head.
The next morning we were picked up by Michael Cooper, our driver and guide for the next two days He was from Derry (don’t you dare call it London Derry) in the North. Derry is the port town that my great grandfather, Jack McElhinney (he changed the spelling after arriving in the States), and great-grandmother Katherine Rushe sailed out of on their way to America in the late 1800s.
Michael is a politician and a member of the Irish Republican Party, Sinn Fein, which is dedicated to the reunification of Ireland. His knowledge of the area and the history of the country, it’s conflicts, “The Troubles,” the IRA and “Blanket Protest” and subsequent hunger strikes was astounding.
He first led us from Dublin into Ulster, the province in the North of Ireland, where we found the farm town of Kelleevan in County Monaghan, where my great grandmother Katherine Rushe lived. There was a large gothic church above a beautiful stream on one side of the road and a few houses on the other. We had the address of the house she lived in, but none of the structures had addresses on them. We thought it likely, though, that she lived in an abandoned and falling down house that we could not venture too far into because of the condition.
After touring the church graveyard and trying unsuccessfully to find Rushe’s in the cemetery, we decided to head further north to the town of Dungiven, which is between Belfast and Derry and which is where the McElhinneys came from. Marissa had somehow connected with a town historian named Seamus O’Kane, who was also a noted maker and player of the Bodhran, an Irish drum that pre-dated Christianity and was a native drum of the Celts.
We met Seamus in Dungiven alongside the River Roe (more of a stream in that area about as wide as the Wissahickon and noted as an excellent salmon and trout fishery), and as we were greeting each other and making pleasantries, a couple drove up in a car, and the man and Seamus started talking about the McElhinneys. Seamus asked the man if he knew where they lived, and he pointed to some homes on a hill above us that we had passed on our way down. He said that the land up there was theirs many years ago, We thanked him, and Marissa and I jumped into Seamus’ car and drove up to see the houses, one of which coincidentally his nephew and his wife lived in. After taking in the beautiful views of the valley and stream below and the nearby mountains in the setting sun, we decided to make our way to Saint Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church to see if we could find any McElhinneys in the cemetery.
Fortunately, there was a map and chart with the names of the dead and the numbered plots in the middle of the cemetery, and Marissa quickly saw the names of John and Bridget McElhinney, my great-great-grandparents. We all rushed over to the area where their family plot was supposed to be and spread out trying to make out the names on the dozens of markers in that section, using our phone flashlights as it had now gotten dark. Jesse shouted out that he had found it, and sure enough, there was the impressive grave marker with John’s and Bridget’s names who died in 1907 and 1911, respectively. John’s sister, Martha, and John and Bridget’s son, also John, were buried with them as well.
I was overcome with emotion as I thought of how the people buried before me bore a son, and he and his soon-to-be wife braved getting on a ship out of Derry to come to the U.S. for a chance of a better life. At around the same time, Vincenzo Sonzogni and Irene Colantonio made their way from Italy on separate ships in 1894, and the chances were astronomical of all of them making these choices and then meeting and marrying each other and giving life to my grandparents, who met in their tight-knit neighborhood of Fairmount.
They then gave life to my wonderful and recently departed father, who I hoped was watching from above and whom I miss more than anything in the world. And I thought of the same thing happening on my mother’s side when her grandparent came from Monetella and Sicily and all of the things that had to happen for me to exist, and below me lay two of the people responsible from generations before. The tears flowed for a while as I came full circle with my father’s heritage and my Irish ancestry.
After a brief look inside the church, we thanked Seamus profusely and made our way back to Dublin that evening, The next day we went to Giants Causeway, a stunning coastal area with ballast columns formed by volcanic eruptions 50 million years ago, and then on to Belfast and learned of its and Derry’s extensive political history. Derry was a really beautiful city, where we stood at the emigration center alongside the River Foyle, where my great-grandparents sailed up to the North Atlantic on their way to the U.S.
On the way from Derry back to Belfast, we approached a small town called Limavady, where I learned that many McElhinneys had lived. Michael casually told us this was the town where the ancient Northern Irish ballad “LondonDerry Air” came from. In 1913 the lyrics for the famous song “Danny Boy” were applied to the music by an Englishman who was introduced to LondonDerry Air by his Irish sister-in-law. Hearing this filled me with more emotion as this was one of my father’s favorite songs, and my sister Lisa’s good friend, Eve Thomas, sang a beautiful rendition at his funeral.
With tears running down my cheeks, I knew that my father was present with us on this trip. There were signs all along — from the Batman figure perched on the building across from our hotel (he played Batman at company Christmas parties back in the ’60s and ’70s) to the Immaculate Conception Church a couple of blocks away (his parish in East Germantown) and, by chance, to being told the history of this beautiful song that came from towns once inhabited by his and my ancestors
Thank you, Marissa, for helping me understand and connect with my heritage overseas and here at home. And thank you, daddy, for coming along with us and for being there with us and for us throughout our lives.
Rich McIlhenny is a lifelong resident of Mt. Airy and a realtor with Remax Services. He can be reached at Rmac88@gmail.com or 215-275-6303.