Thursday, February 10, 2011

Choosing Rooster Scratches instead of County Louth

When I am in the midst of a research trip, not all my choices work out the way that I have planned. For example, on my last day in Dublin this time round, I arrived at the Valuation Office with a list designed to fill my last three hours before I hopped on a bus, only to find out that the office was closed for renovations. The contractor had decided that it was necessary to close the office to public access only the night before. There was no earthly way I could have known about this in advance. Fair enough.

It is even more galling though, when I choose between two paths, and choose the wrong one. On the Monday of my last week in Belfast last December, the weather was dodgy - snow warnings and such – and I had to choose between spending the day with a microfilm of Drogheda’s St. Peter’s church register – a register which goes well back into the early 1700s - or else busing down to County Louth and enjoying a custom tour under the guidance of Eugene Lynch of Cavananore. I regret to this day that I chose the microfilm.

Why did I choose it? Well, it was easy to get to, and it held great promise for teasing out the roots of some Jacksons who have so far evaporated when it comes to pre-1700s sightings. As I threaded the film into the machine, I could almost taste success. I believed that I would find traces of the Jackson family links in Drogheda, which in turn would mean that I could finally solve the mystery of why our Jacksons had erected their family crest at Drogheda City Hall.

My heart sank when I scrolled past the first few title frames. The register had been filmed with a black background, and white writing – my least favourite kind of microfilm. Page after page reminded me of what I used to do in school when I was bored. I would crayon black all over a sheet of paper and then use the end of a paper clip to etch sketches and words onto it. In this case, there was no trace of artistry or clarity, no sense of a mind with any discernible intent holding the end of a paper clip. Rather, it looked as if two bantam roosters had been tossed onto such a sheet. No amount of staring could transform the results of the scribbling talons into anything resembling names and/or places.

Fortunately, I had not totally missed out on Co. Louth, having made two brief forays there earlier in the trip. The first, I will talk about in a subsequent post, but in the latter, Christine had driven me down, and we had ended up at Eugene’s. He lives in a bungalow just past the old Cavananore house and farm. It had been both inhabited and farmed by his recently deceased brother. The sun was setting as we arrived at the base of the hill of Cavananore, and was slicing through a slit in the clouds. The entire hill was shimmering in gold - a moment that is now filed forever in the snapshots of my mind. Photos don’t do it justice. One of the stabs that people take at decoding the origin and meaning of the name of Cavananore is that it might have meant Round Hill of Gold. Now, I can see why.

After taking a number of photos of what is left of the old house and farm at Cavananore, Christine and I warmed up over tea at Eugene’s, and talked about the view from the house. The old Cavananore house has a perfect 360 degree view of much of County Louth and County Armagh. On a clear day, it is possible to see all the way to Dundalk Bay. Until the train stopped its run to Greenore in 1953, it was possible to see the puff of its steam on the horizon. The walled gardens had been planted with all sorts of fruit trees, many of them espaliered against the brick wall to benefit from the residual warmth from the sun. They bore fruit for successive generations, and fresh greens were also cultivated in heaped beds. Now, only the dying limbs and broken bits of this old  abundance survive.

Entrance to the walled garden at Cavananore

Since photos are sometimes all that we have when it comes to memories of such places, I have created a new page of them which combines both some of the old ones that I transposed from negatives found at Gilford Castle, as well as some new ones.

Next time, believe me, I won’t choose to spend the day with a microfilm. Somehow, I plan to find my way back to County Louth. Perhaps Eugene and I will go for a bite at Darver Castle, where a lunch can be had for 25 Euros for a four course meal. And perhaps, I will also visit Roachdale, which is being renovated and reclaimed, as is Silverbridge. Maybe too, I will have the privilege of being able to pick the brains of a local historian who I have yet to meet who lives at Shortstone, as well as Anne Finn who recently published a local history focused on her family. The beauty of these kinds of trips is that they take place not only in space, but in time -  better than frame after frame of rooster scratches any day.

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