From Ireland to Oreland…or from Pillar to Post…or Perhaps from Pope to Pope!

The McDermott family gathering in their hometown of Oldcastle, County Meath.

By Norbert McDermott

I was prompted to “put pen to paper,” as my dear mother would say, when I bumped into one Jane Duffin a few months ago – whom, despite me being a month-in month-out reader of the Irish Edition for almost three decades, I hadn’t seen in almost 20 years.

“Where are you off to next?” inquired Jane…“I’m headed to the airport tonight,” says I “because next weekend we have a family gathering in my hometown in Ireland to celebrate the life and times of my Mom (and Dad)”…“Well then” retorted Jane “you will kindly write up a short feature on your visit when you return as we’d like it for one of our columns in the Irish Edition.”

Well many weeks later, indeed a few months later, and following several prompts and emails from Madame Jane I was eventually cajoled into tapping the keyboard – whatever about putting pen to paper!

It is almost 30 years since my wife Catriona and I emigrated from Ireland as I had a job opportunity to come to work in Philadelphia. After some debate we agreed to come for five years – so by now you can guess the rest.

And of course it was easy in our day compared to the émigrés of old – communications were excellent, we had a very good idea of what to expect, one could pick up the phone and call home as needed and, most important of all, was that the folks could come and visit – what a change versus what those who came this way 50 and 100 years previously faced.

We rented for the first year so as to get the lay of the land – we had two little kids, a daughter and a son, just 3 and 1 year old respectively (we subsequently had another son in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave – our only real “Yank”!) so we needed a small house.

I came a few months ahead of the wife and kids, and although it was like sticking a pin in the map, I had the good fortune to sit next to a nice guy at a Sixers basketball game one evening – he was from Ambler and had just inherited a small house from his grandfather in the Stotesbury Estate in Wyndmoor. So he rented it to us and that became home. We liked the neighborhood and also the schools in Springfield Township – so within the year we had purchased our own house nearby in Oreland.

Ireland With An “O”

“Ireland with an O” declared my Mom when she first visited – and quite bizarre that we had never thought of it like that – hence my headline at the top of the article. She and my Dad, Eileen and Mattie, made several other trips to Oreland where they really enjoyed seeing our children grow up – but for no more than 10-15 days in any year as inevitably my Dad would get itchy feet to be back at home base – by the end of the first week my Mom would observe “look at him now – only one cheek on the edge of the chair” (as distinct from settling back into the seat) which meant “it was time to saddle up” and we’d organize a trip to Lancaster County where he would happily sit and watch the Amish ply their skills, long lost in modern day Ireland, to expertly coax a team of six or eight horses in ploughing or tilling their fields.

Fast forward by 25 years and both are gone to their eternal rest, RIP, but the clan now tries to pick a weekend every year when all eight of their progeny plus spouses and grandkids get together in our hometown of Oldcastle, in County Meath but in the north-west corner very close to County Cavan and County Westmeath.

I know many readers will be able to relate to this, when I say that my Mom and Dad were completely different people; chalk and cheese; in somewhat typical fashion in Ireland in those days (not any longer!) she never smoked nor drank, but the Old Boy made up for both of them. Yet she predeceased him – so go figure the fairness of that!

Mom was an inspiration to all eight of her kids. Rather unusually in a small rural town in Ireland in the 1930’s she graduated “high school” (our hometown of Oldcastle had the distinction of being an endowed school as a former resident had emigrated to London in the previous century and left a large bequest to the local school system – whereby to this day local school children enjoy free books etc.) and obtained the second highest score in accounting in Ireland in her Leaving Certificate. She put this to good use in subsequent years by using her skills to be a moving force in several community organizations in our local area. Specifically she trumpeted the role of the ICA – the Irish Countrywomen’s Association – for their work in adult education where they encouraged women, and particularly housewives who didn’t have the opportunity of formal education through their teenage years, to attend evening and weekend classes to enrich their lives, but also to have them in turn encourage their kids to place a high value on high school graduation.

In addition she was a prime mover in establishing the credit union movement in our small town – because she saw the correlation between a “savings mentality,” which in turn could lead to financial independence, and the long term value of education for all.

So back to Jane’s question – we had a lovely weekend, we organized a hike on the Saturday, followed by a barbeque that evening (picture attached), then a night on the town in one or two of the local hostelries that my Dad would frequent, anniversary Mass on Sunday morning celebrated by our parish priest, Father Ray Kelly of weddings and “Hallelujah” fame (see, then a big lengthy sit-down lunch before we once again dispersed to the four winds for another 12 months.

It’s always a highlight of the year – and to any readers who struggle to have extended families cross paths, I’d recommend the format – even if it can only be done at three year or five year intervals.

I’ve already breached my word-count, so I’ll have to explain the Pillar to Post and the Pope to Pope connections when Jane twists my arm to “put pen to paper” for some future Edition.