Saturday, December 11, 2010

Who Do You Think You Are? (Part II)

I’m leaving Scotland temporarily and am on my way to Ireland (on the very swish Stena Line ferry that has free Wi-Fi in the middle of the Irish Sea).  Well, Northern Ireland, but as far as I’m concerned it’s all “Ireland” (I realize I’d probably offend some people in Ulster by saying that, so I’ll keep the opinion to myself while there).  I love travelling pretty much anywhere, but both Ireland and Scotland have special places in my travel heart; it’s an entirely different experience to travel somewhere that you feel some kind of connection to. 

There are other places I’ve been that I’ve loved —Machu Picchu, Morocco, Tuscany, Tikal to name but a few— but they don’t grip me the same way.  There`s more than a few drops of Celtic blood in my veins, so I feel like I`m coming “home” in a very real sense when I come here instead.  It’s not too many generations back that my great-(great)-grandparents left; these are my people.  Hey, they look like me (this is one part of the world where I blend into the crowd completely), and they know how to spell my last name.  I definitely feel at home.

(My karate instructor claims that my Irish/Scots heritage explains my attitude to martial arts; he used to marvel that, no matter how many times I got knocked down while sparring, I’d just get back up and plunge in again.  Whether this is a compliment to the Celts I’m not sure; it could mean we’re valiant and determined not to quit, or just too pigheaded or too stupid to know when we’re beaten.)

I`m most clear about where the MacLellan line of my family came from; I probably feel most like a "MacLellan", too, by virtue of carrying the name.  (Never underestimate the power of your name as part of your identity -- I am as much an O'Neill or Hefferan or King as I am a MacLellan, but what I call myself adds more weight to that name. In the unlikely event I choose to get married, I won't be changing it.)
Ferry from Oban to Mull, in Oban Harbour

I paid a visit to that part of the world after leaving Skye, and spent a few days in and around Oban.  It’s a pretty wee town, set on a snug little harbour on the west coast of Scotland about 3 hours’ journey north of Glasgow.  There’s not a great deal of tourist-y stuff to do, but there are a few ruins to wander around and see, and it’s a lovely place to just go for a walk.  (And I never, not once, had to spell my last name for anyone.)

I took one day to visit the islands off the coast, spending most of the time on Iona; it’s gorgeous and green even in the beginning of winter (warm air from the Gulf Stream, apparently) and has been considered a holy place since the 6th century, when St. Columba first landed from Ireland with the intent of Christian-izing the savage heathen Scots.  The famous Book of Kells (an illustrated 9th century Bible, now residing in Dublin’s Trinity College) was probably produced by monks here, but shipped to Ireland when Viking raids became a significant threat.  (The Vikings weren’t stupid; they knew that monasteries and convents had all the wealth in those days.)   The existing Abbey isn’t quite that old (parts of it date back to the 13th century, but most of it is 15th century), but it’s magnificent; the man on duty in the gift shop was quite thrilled to see me (I think he’s not seen many tourists for weeks) so he was quite happy to give me a detailed description of the Abbey`s history and architecture.

The MacLellans don`t go back in Oban quite as far as the Abbey, I don`t think; but it’s still pretty cool to walk the streets and think that, some time around the Clearances, three MacLellan brothers decided to leave (or fled for their lives, whichever story you choose to believe) and ended up in Canada.  Further back, however, there is a 12th or 13th century “MacLellan’s Castle” in Kirkcudbright (pronounced something like “kirk-COO-bree”) in southern Scotland, which is the ancient stronghold of the Clan Chief.  (I suppose the fact that it’s in ruins now says something about how far the family fortunes have fallen in the centuries since!)

For the O`Neills (maternal grandmother`s family), my parents tell me that great-great-grandfather Dominic O`Neill left when he was a child of 4, in 1841 (presumably with his parents, if they were still alive) —at the height of the Potato Famine as one of the hundreds of thousands who ended up in the New World.  I`d thought he came from County Tyrone in the north, but opinion`s divided (one cousin thinks they came from County Cork).  One day I`ll have to track down more details; in the meantime I`m going to wander around a bit of the North as I haven`t seen anything of it beyond Belfast.  (And I last saw Belfast in 1994, when “the Troubles” were still a reality and paramilitaries on both sides still set off bombs —so I imagine it’s changed quite a bit in the intervening years.)

Of the Hefferans and Kings (paternal grandmother`s and maternal grandfather`s families, respectively), I know not very much at all.  I`m assuming that Hefferan is also irish and they came from over here somewhere as well; King is probably English but I really don`t know.

I think this’ll be my project for next year, when I’m back at work and travel days are but a distant memory.  I don’t want to wonder; I want to know!  But in the meantime, I still feel like I’ve come home.  

P.S.  Glasgow people thought I was crazy for going ALL THAT WAY to Belfast in one day without flying.  Please, it`s only going to take six hours by bus and ferry; in Canadian terms, that`s practically next door.  My mother used to do that length of trip twice in one day (to Ottawa and back to pick up my sister from university.

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