By Charles McKenna
I can't wait for Sundays. Not the weekend, just Sundays. Monday through Friday is the work week grind and Saturday is packed with "honey-do". (Not the melon, but my wife's checklist of things to do around the house on Saturday.) More often than not, Saturday has as much work crammed into it as the entire previous work week.
Sundays are the best. Everyone up early, me, my beautiful bride of twenty-three years, and the children, five in all, a girl and four boys. Showers run, blow dryers hum and the sound of feet, which seem to outgrow their shoes monthly, running up and down the oak stairs and hardwood floors. Everyone is getting ready for church.
Together, off we go to the chapel at St. Charles for mass. Walking into church, the landscape beauty of the blossomed cherry trees and the daffodils bursting out with golden trumpets are only paled by the crystal clear skies and the fresh crisp air. This Sunday, after church, we are going for a drive.
Mass seemed especially good on this Sunday morning. The lectors read with passion, as though the words were familiar to them. The priest was spot on with his homily and I am sure it is a message that I will try to carry with me all week.
Leaving the church, there is a palpable giddiness in the children. They can sense it. The day is just too lovely to leave alone. We are going on a car ride. They have come to look forward to these ad hoc road trips, because they almost always lead to something special and unexpected. Maybe a ride on the ferry, maybe a stop at the Saint James General Store and cinnamon candy sticks, if really lucky it would be a stop at Granny's house which is always packed with goodies and treats.
Not today! Today we are heading east on Long Island. We are heading to where the air is fresh and clear, where the farms seem to go on to touch the sky. This Sunday it didn't take long to drive out to the North Fork of Long Island. I am sure it wasn't because there was no traffic, but rather there was so much to look at and so much to see. The sod farms were an iridescent green, as the brilliant mid-day sun streaked through the azure blue sky.
"To the very end we shall go on this Sunday boys, to the end of Long Island" I said, as we drove past the farm stands and the rows upon rows of grape vines to Orient Point. In jest, I told the younger ones that it was called Orient Point because if you went any further east you would be in Asia. As young as they were, they didn't think it was as funny as I did.
On the way back from Orient Point the traffic seemed to be slowing up a bit on Main Road in Greenport. I knew of a road that would take us off of Main Road and up to the North Road, a four lane thoroughfare. Well at least it was four lanes, two in each direction, until the far side of Mattituck. From Main Road I turn right onto Albertson Lane. It had been a long time since I drove on this bucolic road full on both sides with farm land or open space. You can imagine my surprise when a massive horse in a field on the left caught my eye. I have seen large horses before, but this was different. Rigged in a harness, leading to a man with a plough, the horse and man were one working the land.
I quickly called to the children to see the sight, but their gazes were already fixed on the horse. Along the roadside, running north was a beautiful stone wall, stacked dry about four feet high. Across the field was a white washed cottage with a roof unlike any I have seen in America. The roof was made of straw, a thatched roof. To the right of that, about 30 yards away, were two more cottages and from the roof of one came billowing smoke.
Driving the car at a snails pace, we crawled along, soaking in everything there was to see. The stone walls made paddocks in the field that looked like a quilt. My daughter quickly spied a little white lamb chasing after a small flock of sheep as they grazed on the green grass in the field. Only feet away were cows with blotches of color, but not as large as the cows I have seen out west. A young lady walked across the paddock from the cottage with the billowing smoke carrying a wooden pail. Something was very different about her. She wore clothes of neither the time nor the place.
At a break in the wall along the roadside and I found a cobblestone entrance to a gravel driveway. A large carved sign was swinging from a timber arm which looked as though it was the beam of a tall ship. The sign simply read: DAN O'HARA'S HOMESTEAD, CONNEMARA. Connemara, I thought this was Southold? I turned in and parked.
We all jumped out of the car and started walking in different directions. We each had something different catch our eyes. My daughter and bride approached the young woman to see if it would be alright to get a closer look, or perhaps even touch a lamb. I went toward the incredible horse to get a closer look and my youngest two came along with me. I felt a little bad when, at the end of a row, the man stopped and put down the reins and began to walk toward us. He reached into the breast pocket of his worn tweed jacket and retrieved his pipe. From the front pocket he pulled out a pouch of tobacco. From his pants pocket came a match, which he lit on a stone in the very wall on which we were leaning.
He said that his name was Dan O'Hara and he welcomed us to his farm. He said he didn't own the place, but only rented. He called himself a tenant farmer. "I live there", as he pointed to the cottage with the smoke rising, "with my wife and seven children." He asked if we would like to look the place over. We gathered the family together and walked with Dan. He was a big, strong looking man with a dusting of gray in his beard. Big as he was, there was a gentleness to him. He wore a tweed cap and his clothes were historic and well-worn, but sturdy still.
Dan brought us, along with his daughter, the girl with the pail in her hand, towards the beautifully simple, white washed thatched cottage. As we walked, the chickens that surrounded us scattered in noisy protest. The door and the shutters were covered in a welcoming red paint, brilliant against the white washed stone cottage and honey gold straw which thatched the roof. Dan opened the door to his humble, but quaint, three rooms. Inside was a woman peeling potatoes at a timber wood table, alongside a large hearth. In the heath hung a big black pot on a hook and chain, which hung from a swinging iron arm over the sweet smelling fire. "Peat!" said Dan, "Peat from the bogs is what makes the fire warm and sweet!"
It was Dan's wife at the table, she looked earth worn, but well for a woman with seven children. We were all amazed that Dan and his family, their dog and the occasional newborn lamb all shared this tiny three-room cottage.
Dan then took us to the cottage next door. Along the way he told us how the peat came from the bogs and how important it was on the farm. Inside the next cottage was his oldest, his son Dan, who was cleaning the tools and at a forge. It was a dark space, walls and ceiling blackened by soot from the smithing fire. The boys each took a shot at striking the anvil with the hammer. Dan said that when neighbor farmers would stop by they would often gather around the smithy's fire to talk and keep warm.
He then walked us out the front of the cabin and around to the back. My son had noticed that there was a second door inside the blacksmith cottage which led to the back area and he asked Mr. O'Hara why we just didn't go out the back door. Dan turned and said, with a smile, "Always go out the same door you came in laddie, the same door you came in!"
In the meadow, beyond the cottage, were wonders to see. There was a stand of cattle with spotted markings on them, some lying on the ground and others grazing as they walked along. Dan said that they were "moiled", but I thought that he said that they were spoiled. I asked him, "How are they spoiled, is it because of the lush meadow?" Dan kindly corrected me and said "No Sir, they are Irish Moiled cattle, that is their breed." He went on, "And over there you shall find the hearty Kerry cows." Off to the side was the young woman again, along with her brother, and they were gathering up the sheep and moving them beyond another stacked stone wall to a fresh meadow.
Dan said he had to go, but that we were welcome to walk about the place. He said that he had to get back to his plow work in order to get the seed potatoes in the ground. As we walked him back across the farm he explained how vital a crop the potatoes are to the tenant farmer. Crossing back over the farm, we came upon the first field we had seen when we made that turn onto Albertson Lane. There, waiting patiently for him, was his Clydesdale tethered to the plough and ready to work with him on the field. The horse felt his presense and was happy to have him back.
We thanked Dan for his hospitality and walked to the car. It was then that we saw a quaint, but empty, farm stand on the edge of his homestead. We made it a point to say that we would be sure to stop by again in the summer and fall. As we exited the drive, my daughter was the first to notice the colorful building with doors of different hues. From the roadside, it looked like a row of shops in a picture postcard from Cork, Ireland. We came upon another break in the wall with a sign that read, IRISH CULTURAL CENTRE OF LONG ISLAND. Below that was a second sign that read, THE GREAT HUNGER MEMORIAL. Obviously, our day was still far from over.
Out of the car once again, we stayed together as we walked toward the building with the Irish store fronts. It was a large building fronted with bright primary colors and shop names reminiscent of Innisfree and the Irish film classic,
The Quiet Man
. We expected Maureen O'Hara to turn a corner at any moment. This place was bustling with activity. The first shop was a gift shop with traditional wares and folk art from Ireland and souvenirs and mementos from the Irish Cultural Centre itself. At the next entry, we found that the remaining shop doors opened to a shared and vast, common space. A couple of dozen youngsters were being taught how to step dance in the Irish tradition. We quietly walked across the back of the room to another set of doors beyond which we could see was an information desk. On the desk were fliers for upcoming events and brochures about the Irish Cultural Centre and other area attractions. Behind the desk, there was a large board on the wall which had a list of classes. Offered for all, were Bodhran, fiddle, bagpipes and dance, Irish language and history too.
The room was vast - like the inside of a barn. Square windows, high on the walls, let in the glow of the soon setting sun. A staircase to the right wrapped around an elevator lift to the second floor where classrooms were to be found. Back on the first floor, to the left side of the information desk, was a sign that read, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES. Clearly, this place was a true find, well planned and well used.
Exiting out the doors by the information desk, we felt like athletes emerging from a tunnel that let to a stadium's vast expanse. The earth rose up of both sides of the building, held back by stone walls the likes of which I have only seen at New Grange in Ireland. When we cleared the tunnel area and turned around, we could see that the back side of the building was actually a great potato barn half-buried in the ground.
To the right, my bride caught site of a sign that read, THE TRAIL OF WANT AND EXODUS. She called me away from the buskers, who were playing harmoniously the traditional Irish tunes. We ventured down the winding road with stacked stone walls lining the way. The setting sun danced through the trees along the route, each of them with a lovely plaque dedicating the tree to a loved one.
Then we came upon the trail,
The Trail of Want and Exodus, the Great Hunger Memorial
. There were 14 stops in all- life sized, detailed, bronze vignettes, each telling a story which needed to be told. It started with the fairly happy setting of a tenant farm family, desperately poor, but joyful in the company of each other despite their lot in life. Each stop along the way became more and more desperate, detailing the darkest times in Irish history,
An Gorta Mor
, The Great Hunger. There was a scene in which a family was being evicted; still another more tragic was the one with the people wandering, skin and bones, looking as if they were at death's door. Perhaps the most poignant was the scene of a family burying a small child who had died from starvation. Along the walk, we learned that more than a million Irish died from starvation and disease during
An Gorta Mor
. We learned that a million more fled Ireland with the hope of starting anew in a foreign land with little more than the clothes on their back.
The most magnificent sight along
The Trail of Want and Exodus
was the last vignette cast in bronze. It was truly a sight to see, a wonder unto itself. It was a full size replica, from midship to bow, of the Irish emigrant ship, the
. Standing on the bow was the ship's captain, Castletown born James Attridge, and the very experienced ship's physician, Dr. Richard Blennerhassett. A gangway led from the rail of the starboard side to the ground below and along it were huddled families making their way from the ship to the land...America! Some were bent over on their knees, kissing the ground of their newfound home.
We learned that the
, as part of the fleet of "coffin ships" in the service of the great emigration from Ireland, made 16 voyages. Each trip across the Atlantic lasted more than forty-five days in conditions that are unthinkable today; yet, the
never lost a soul. She safely brought more than 2,500 people from Ireland to North America during
An Gorta Mor
. Not a single lost soul was a remarkable statistic, accredited to the brilliance of Dr. Richard Blennerhassett who had the knowledge and the wisdom to insist on having the ship scrubbed, top to bottom, inside and out, at each port. This essentially disinfected the ship to some degree, including the cramped quarters in which the passengers endured their six week journey.
Although a somber and quiet walk back to the car, this was the best Sunday drive ever. We experienced life on the Irish farm before
An Gorta Mor
and learned so much about one of the darkest times in human history. We learned that we are blessed to be here in the greatest country in the world. We learned that human horror like
An Gorta Mor
could happen again and that we cannot let it. We learned that we are a great and resilient people with a love of life and a great desire to live every minute of it with a celebration in our hearts, on our minds, and from our lips.
I drove along through the farmlands and vineyards of the North Fork feeling the rhythm of the rise and fall of the road. I felt the gentle breeze and tasted the salt in the air and then I awoke, swinging gently in the hammock of my own back yard. You see, it was all just a dream, there was no drive. After mass we came home and had a hearty Irish breakfast, after which I simply fell asleep while reading the Sunday paper.
However, this doesn't have to be just a dream.
Dan O'Hara's Homestead
needs to be re-created and his story needs to be told. Dan O'Hara was a real man, with a wife and seven children. They lost their farm during the dark decade of An Gorta Mor. They were evicted from their home and found their way into the belly of one of those "coffin ships." On the harsh journey to America, Dan lost his beloved wife and three of his seven children. Dan arrived broken, broke and homeless with four children and no wife or mother. Dan realized that he could not, try as he might, care for his remaining children and he reluctantly and tearfully gave them up for adoption. Penniless and destitute, he ended his days selling matches on the streets of New York, far from his beloved Connemara.
On Long Island more than 20% of the more than five million people claim to be of Irish or Celtic heritage. Long Island needs the Irish Cultural Centre! Long Island needs the Great Hunger Memorial! Long Island needs Dan O'Hara's Homestead. We need it to keep the story going, to keep our rich culture alive, to remember
An Gorta Mor
and to make sure it never happens again.
Help us make it more than a dream! Go to
and do what you can to make it a reality. Then maybe, just maybe, one day you will take that Sunday drive and say hello to Dan O'Hara.
Charles McKenna is the Executive Director of the
Irish Cultural Centre of Long Island(ICCLI)
. Founded in 2007, the mission of the ICCLI, is to promote and organize Irish cultural, educational, sporting and social events. We aim to establish and sustain a facility where current and future generations of the Long Island community can participate in activities that promote Irish culture and heritage.
Working in collaboration with Irish organizations and the Irish government - as well as with the region's educational, arts, and cultural institutions - the ICCLI is poised to expand current programming and to actively support Irish cultural activities throughout Long Island.
Your membership and financial contribution play a crucial role in developing the breadth and depth of ICCLI's regional cultural initiatives. For more information about upcoming events, making a donation or joining the Irish Cultural Center of Long Island, visit