My family name, Enright, is Irish. And this week I have been exploring the spectacular countryside of the Emerald Isle, in search of deceased ancestors and spectacular photo opportunities, not necessarily in that order. (We also spent several days in the wonderful city of Dublin, which I will attempt to chronicle in a future story.)
The Enrights are ethnically Gaelic in origin. That might seem obvious, but this week I learned that only about 60% of the modern Irish are Gaels. The Vikings, Normans, English and many others have contributed to the Irish mosaic over the centuries; the venerable Irish names Fitzgerald and Fitzpatrick are in fact Norman.
Back in the day, my Gaelic forbears were named mac Ionnrachtaigh. I’m really not sure how it was pronounced, though some of the earliest English translations give a hint: it appears as Kinrechtan, McEnrachty, Erraught, and later Enright, Enwright, Henright and Hanratty, among others. The earliest written record of the name is the account of one Father Maurice Kinrechtan/Enright who was chaplain to Earl Gerald Desmond in the late 1500s. The Earl of Desmond was a rebel, and when Elizabeth I cracked down on his activities, our man Father Maurice was thrown in prison and ultimately got his head lopped off for sneaking out to say Mass one Easter.
Thus our travels in Kerry this week took us to the rebel earl’s castle, Carrigafoyle, where they put up a valiant fight against Elizabeth’s crew. There was a beautiful ruined chapel across the way and I wondered if Father Maurice had worked there—I thought of saying Mass myself but my cassock was in the laundry.
Touring these castles and farmlands and graveyards, I tried to weave together a narrative of these early Enrights and where they lived. It’s a question that has been unanswered for a long time: fast forward a few hundred years to 1835, and my Irish ancestor Dennis appears out of the blue in Lanark County, Ontario with no immigration records, no birth certificate, nothing. His great grandson, my father, spent a fair bit of his spare time trying to track down Dennis’ story, and I think my travels in Ireland this past week were a way of trying to complete all the hard work Dad did before he died. I often wish Dad had survived to do his genealogy in the age of the Internet; the resources we have now would have amazed him. I enjoy leafing through his notes, reading the hand-written letters he sent to various parishes in Ireland. At one point Dad writes to a Sister Rita asking for her help and including a $50 cheque for her troubles; a few months later she returns the cheque as she has turned up nothing.
It turns out that there are very few written records from the pre-famine era. One of our mysteries has been why Dennis emigrated at all, since it was well before the potato failure of 1845-52. All we know about him comes from a letter from one of his sons, saying his dad was from County Limerick, and he emigrated alone at the age of 21, and later sent for his widowed mother and a brother and sister. I imagine at that age Dennis would have been a burden to his mother, and had no choice but to move out and make his fortune one way or another. Canada would have been quite attractive at that time.
Dennis doesn’t show up in any Irish census; most of the early ones have been lost (or blew up with the rest of the archives in Dublin in 1922). But the trail is not completely cold; we have a good idea of where the Enrights lived. The Irish have traditionally been a sedentary lot, and where the families show up in the 1911 census is likely where they’ve been for hundreds of years. From that census, it’s possible to deduce that the Enright country is the spot where western County Limerick meets northern County Kerry along the river Shannon. I spent four days there, at a beautiful cottage near Ballylongford, poking around graveyards (“burial grounds”, the Irish call them, even the modern ones), and seeing the spectacular sights of coastal Kerry.
Based on my own research, there were two spots I needed to investigate. Although Dennis left no trace behind, he did leave a dead father in the ground somewhere. I’m fairly sure I know his father’s name. The Irish at the time had a tradition of naming their children along strict conventions. Your firstborn son was named after his paternal grandfather; your first daughter was named after her maternal grandmother. Son number two was named after the maternal grandfather, and onward it went. Both Dennis and his brother named their first sons Richard, so Dennis’ dead dad should have had that name. And, lucky for me, Richard is a surprisingly rare name in that era.
I had a bit of a breakthrough a few months ago, looking through one of the only surviving records of the day: the tithe applotment of 1825. This was a kind of inventory of all the Catholics’ material worth, to calculate how much they had to tithe to the Protestant clergy. (You can imagine how that went over.) I was elated to find a “widow Richard” in the records. The only problem was that she was in Kerry, not Limerick, contrary to our family history. No matter; this week we made our way to her beautiful town land, called Glencullaire near Tarbert, Kerry, and walked through green, rolling farmlands within sight of the great river Shannon. It was quite moving for me, to imagine all the generations of poor farmers there that make up my ancestral background. (Well, a part of it. I have ancestors from Ireland, Scotland, Luxembourg and Alsace, and I have now visited all four homelands.)
There is one other candidate site for our Dennis’ home, a bit further east in county Limerick. Its story is a bit more complicated. From my reading, I discovered that Dennis, his brother and his sister were all very tight with a Sullivan family. They lived close together in Ontario; Dennis’ sister Ellen married into their family, and they all emigrated together to Minnesota less than a generation later. These Sullivans were from a spot in Limerick called Lisready Cripps; did my Enrights and the Sullivans know each other from the old country?
Further evidence: there was one more family in that Ontario-Minnesota clique, a group of Enrights who were from Kilcornan, in that same region of Limerick. I still don’t know how my Enrights fit with this gang, who also married into the Sullivans and eventually intermarried with my Enrights (cue sound of banjos…) But it seems possible that my Enrights, the Sullivans and these other Enrights all came from the same area. I needed to visit that part of Limerick, about 50 km west of Limerick City.
Traveling through Limerick, it was odd to see my family name everywhere. At one point I was spelling my name for the man who was renting me a car, and my partner leaned over and said, “You don’t have to spell it here.”
So off we went to Kilcornan, and spent part of an afternoon driving down impossibly narrow country roads (me at the wheel of a left-handed stick shift) looking for a very old cemetery we never found. It too was beautiful country: lush and wooded and overgrown with ivy and oak. We fancied it would be a perfect spot for a leprechaun sanctuary.
Did I find anything concrete? Alas, no. But I now have a much clearer picture of where I need to focus my research. And, most importantly to me, I have a feeling for the place, for the land and the skies and the sweet-smelling deep green fields of the Enright homeland. I have a feeling I’ll be back.