On this St. Paddy’s Day- an old Irish tale


Hat_CaneOne Thousand years is a long time to be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day and nobody loves to celebrate more than the Irish. It was started as a religious feast day of the Patron Saint of Ireland which was capped off with drink, dance and of course corned beef and cabbage. When we are sitting down to eat our boiled dinner and soda bread, my kids always ask me to tell them about the Burkes of Ireland and our family reconnecting with their Irish roots. It goes something like this:

On a blustery rainy day sometime during the Great Potato Famine it is said,  my Great-Grandfather ran away from home and stowed away on a ship , destination New York City, he was 15 years old. Some of his brothers had already come over to America and a few stayed in Ireland. They were originally from Thurles in County Tipperary but the family that stayed, ended up in an area of Galway called Connemara. One of the most scenic areas of Ireland, in a town called Clifden.

The families distance across the vast ocean meant that correspondence and staying in touch was hard to do, so the families heard from their counterparts in America only infrequently. My father had briefly met his relative, a second cousin, Tom Burke in Ireland during WWII when he was stationed in England. That visit was initiated by my father’s mother reaching out to her cousin to ask him to check on her son, “Jimmy” to make sure he was all right.  The elder Burke set up a meeting, but as an American G.I. my father was not allowed to go to any countries that were neutral in the war. Tom Burke, who was from Southern Ireland travelled to Northern Ireland to meet up with my father, since Northern Ireland was  under British rule. My father always longed to go to Southern Ireland someday to see where his grandfather grew up.  In 1949, although not planned, he got that chance. As it was, my father, mother and sister were heading home from a trip to England to visit my mother’s family.

My father and mother met at a local dance in her home town, Attleborough, Norfolk, which was near his air base at Doepham Greene.  This was their first trip back since the end of WWII and it was an emotional one for my mother. Sadly as my mother cried on the plane missing her family already, they departed England in those days there were no jets only propeller planes, which often times suffered from mechanical problems and always had to stop in Iceland to refuel.  On that day, they didn’t make it to Iceland because suddenly, they were told they must be diverted to Ireland and make an emergency landing. They looked across at each other holding hands and wondering if they would make it home safely. They sighed with relief as the wheels touched down on the tarmac and the good earth of Ireland came into view.

As an American Airlines employee flying on passes, unfortunately, they were the first to get bumped. As they headed to the terminal through the fog that had developed they realized they were alone in a strange country with no more money, a three year old in tow and no flight home for who knows how many days. As my sister cried and my mother fretted, my father decided to call Tom Burke, the patriarch of the Irish clan he had met briefly during the war, who had said, “If you’re ever in trouble or need help while you’re on this side of the Atlantic. Call me; after all we are family, my lad.”

Not long after the call, they were heading towards the little hamlet of Clifden, with its rustic charm and green, lush rolling hills everywhere, it was quite breathtaking. It felt a little like Brigadoon to them after the exhausting travel with no food. They reached town and realized they didn’t know where the Burkes lived. With dismay, my father asked a passerby if he knew the Burkes and where they lived. “The Burkes?” he said with his Irish lilt. “Of course, you must be the American relations come to visit!” he said with excitement rising in his voice. The passer-by then stopped a police officer and said,” This is Tom Burke’s cousin from America!” The officer jumped to attention and escorted my family into his car where he immediately drove them to the police headquarters. My father thought he might be in some sort of trouble, or maybe it was because his wife was English and in those days there was no love lost between the Irish and English. He told my mother not to talk until they could figure out what was going on.  It turns out Tom Burke was the Chief of Police of Thurles and greeted them with warm hugs.

After a long bath, some wonderful food and a rest they were treated to visits from the neighbors and town folk coming to meet the American who was Tom Burkes cousin returning to his roots. Over the ensuing week, they were pampered like never before with breakfast in bed every morning in front of a roaring fire. My sister was coddled and spoiled, her feet probably never touching the ground of Ireland.

After telling the family story, I would close by saying as my father did to me, “And that my dear children, is the true tale of how the American and Irish Burkes met many years ago…”

Years after their unintended stop in Ireland, my father got a call from his Irish cousins telling him excitedly about the filming of the movie, “The Quiet Man” starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara which was shot in Clifden and had many of the residents in it as extras. We would watch the movie and he would point out some of the town landmarks to me in the movie. It is about an American returning to his roots in Ireland where he meets and marries the lovely lass, Maureen O’Hara.

My father was 6’4” inches tall and my mother was a beautiful tall woman with long dark hair who held a striking resemblance to Maureen O’Hara, except for the red hair. Talk about life imitating art. My parents talked often of that time and how the unexpected trip opened the friendships and bonds of the families and enriched their lives with many more visits after that. I hope to someday carry on the tradition and visit the home of my great-grandfather.

In the meantime, I leave you with an Irish blessing for all of you Irish and for all of you who are only Irish on St. Patty’s Day.

May you always have walls for winds

A roof for the rain, tea beside the fire,

Laughter to cheer you, those you love near you

And all your heart might desire.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!




About Diane Hiller

Diane has lived in the suburbs of Chicago for twenty-five years. While raising her three children with husband Jon, she has served as village president and now supports historic preservation with the Clarendon Hills Historical Society. Diane’s blog “Pleasant Valley Sunday” appears on TheHinsdalePatch.com. and chlife.wordpress.com.
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