I turned my rented Nissan onto a dirt lane with grass growing between the tire tracks. Up on a hill in the distance, I could see a truck at the far end of the lane. Through the cold Irish mist, I could make out the figure of a man closing a gate. He then got into the truck and began slowly driving down the winding lane in my direction.
It was October of 1994 and I was in the middle of a three-week solo road trip through Ireland. I had come with no particular itinerary, except at some point I wanted to see the village where my maternal grandparents had come from. I had crossed the border into Northern Ireland the previous day and made my way farther north to my grandfather’s home village of Portglenone in County Antrim.
I had never known John Blaney, who died two years before I was born. But I had heard stories of a hard-working, hard-drinking Irishman who had come to Boston at age 18 with his newly widowed mother Alice and younger brother William. Several of his older siblings had preceded him, seeking a better life in America than what they faced as poor Catholic farmers in a British-ruled, Protestant country.
Having found Portglenone, I had actually fulfilled my goal. I had visited the town where my grandfather had been born and spent his boyhood. The introvert in me was satisfied.
But then I began wondering if I might see the actual piece of land where the family had lived. If I never made it back to Ireland, this would be my only chance. So I forced myself to walk into stores and pubs and ask if anyone knew where the Blaneys had once lived. Finally, someone told me to go see the village butcher. I was told he was a good friend of the Blaney family.
It was the butcher who had directed me up to the dirt lane where I now sat as the truck occupied by two men headed in my direction. I wondered if they were the current landowners who might not be pleased with my trespassing.
Finally, our vehicles were side by side. I could see an older man in the passenger seat and a younger man driving. I introduced myself as I rolled down my window and hastened to explain through the now steady rain that I was from Boston and simply wanted to see where my grandfather, John Blaney, had come from. I said that the butcher in town had told me that all of the Blaneys had once lived at the end of this lane.
“Aye, that they did,” said the white-haired man in the passenger seat. “But you can’t go up there. Not today. You’ll be stuck in the mud for a week. Phone me on Sunday and I’ll take you there in my truck.” I took down his phone number.
As the truck started to pull away, I realized I didn’t know the man’s name. “Who shall I ask for when I call?” I asked.
“Patrick Blaney,” he replied.
I headed back to my room at the Beechfield Guest House in nearby Ballymena excited at my good fortune. I had already met a Blaney and on Sunday he would show me the actual place where my maternal ancestors had come from. It was only Wednesday, so I lay on the bed after supper trying to decide how to spend the next three days. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door.
“Are you Mark?” the owner of the guest house asked. “There’s a friend of yours downstairs.”
I was sure it was some mistake. No one on earth knew where I was staying.
When I reached the bottom of the stairs, a pretty young woman with long auburn hair asked if my name was Mark.
“I’m Clare Blaney,” she said. “I believe you spoke to my daddy today on the lane.” She invited me outside where her brother, Pat (the younger man in the truck) and sister Una were waiting in the car.
It seems that when their father had returned home that evening and told the family he had met a Blaney from Boston, his adult children were horrified that he hadn’t immediately brought the pilgrim home with him. Pat had remembered my first name, the make of my car and a partial plate number, so the three of them had driven to every guest house in Ballymena looking for the car and an American named Mark.
Needless to say, they insisted that I come home with them right then and that I stay at their home for the remainder of my trip. I spent the next week as the guest of the Blaney family. Various family members served as my tour guides showing me sights like the Giant’s Causeway and the Glens of Antrim.
On Sunday, they took me up to the end of the lane and Patrick Blaney pointed to the hill where my great-grandfather’s house had stood and where John Blaney had been born.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.