Yet it is was from here in 1850 that my great, great (great?) grandfather, Michael Downes, emigrated to the United States. I am his 259th descendant.
If you have more than a dash of Irish blood in ye, chances are that someday youll travel to the Emerald Isle in search of your roots. The place is teeming with American visitors, packed into tour buses.
We Americans mob Ireland searching for clues to our past in the picturesque pubs, which are as lacquered and ornate as antique music boxes. We look hopefully to the heather, the occasional thatched-roof cottage, and the rocky walls of the old country, seeking signs of our roots. Its an impulse we Irish-Americans have, similar to the need of every good Muslim to visit the holy city of Mecca at least once in a lifetime, or the quasi-expectation of every American parent to take their kids to Disneyworld.
Maybe we have that inbred, instinctual need to return because there is so much pain in Irelands past. When Michael Downes left Ireland in 1850 as a man still in his 20s, it was at the tail end of the five-year Potato Famine that killed one million people, with another million fleeing the country.
Irelands British overlords actually shipped large amounts of food out of the country during the famine so as not to coddle a starving people they considered to be lazy, and perhaps even subhuman.
Many peasant farmers were also evicted from their homes at this time so that the land could be used to raise profitable cattle -- tossed out like unwanted animals with nowhere to go. Thus, writer Jonathan Swift wrote that the roads across Ireland were strewn with corpses, their mouths stained green from trying to live by eating grass.
It was an early form of ethnic cleansing from which Ireland has never really recovered. The scenes of countless crumbling stone houses which we find so charming today once housed scenes of utter desperation. How many of these green fields are riddled with bones?
Needless to say, Im grateful that my distant kin chose to bail on Ireland for a new land. He arrived on American shores in a coffin ship, risking, cholera, typhus and drowning, and worked on a river boat on the Grand River before finding a job on a farm outside Grand Rapids (an area which looks much like Westmeath, by the way). His brother, James, made it to Buenos Aires in Argentina, where today I have a relative named Juan Downes.
The Irish who emigrated to America were scorned and reviled on these shores, the same as Mexican migrants are today by many. They were considered lazy, shiftless, ignorant Micks. They were persecuted by an anti-Catholic, nativist political party called the Know Nothings. No different than the Mexicans today, they were given the dirty, dangerous, scut work -- they were cowboys, miners, canal diggers, farm workers, factory hands and soldiers, flooding America with a million immigrants. No doubt, some of the ancestors of those persecuted immigrants look down their noses at the Mexican migrant workers today.
Thirty years ago, African-American writer Alex Haley celebrated his own beginnings with the publication of Roots, accompanied by a television miniseries. Haley had spent 10 years researching his slave past, and even journeyed to a village in Gambia, where his ancestor Kunta Kinte had been abducted in the 1750s. Apparently, there was quite a celebration when he showed up.
Im sorry to say that I didnt share my own Alex Haley moment with a return to Moyvore. After a week of bike-camping along the hideously narrow roads of western Ireland in early September, I took the cowards way out and elected to forgo dodging more cars and trucks on the extra 50-mile trip to my ancestors homestead.
I had hoped to ambush my distant relatives with a write-up of what happned to their lost kin Michael and James -- the internet tells me there are still family members in the town.
Instead, I contented myself with the scenery, passing by a few miles to the south on the train from Galway to Dublin. Moyvore -- maybe I‘ll see you next time around.
Robert Downes is on a four-and-a-half month trip around the world. Look for more foreign dispatches in upcoming columns.