Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The British Isles Part 2


We took the first ferry of the new day from Cairnryan Scotland, to Larne Ireland. We pulled over next to the Olderfleet castle ruins, and finished breakfast. I listened to The Pogues sing Dirty Old Town... Twice, and then we drove south and into Belfast.

Carrickfergus Castle that guarded the approach to Belfast. Originally built by a
Norman adventurer in 1177 AD. 

You can see where the guards sharpened their spears and swords in the rock
It certainly makes history come alive when the day to day moments are visible

Remember Jimmy Robinson? 

He and I were hitchhiking north in 1991 and were stuck on the side of the road in the pouring rain holding a cardboard sign that read “Drumquin”. A truck driver pulled over, and though he wasn’t going to Drumquin he promised he would drive us there on his day off. He cussed a lot and we couldn’t understand much else, but we were wet rats and he was offering a warm place to stay. We jumped in the lorry and headed to Belfast. 

It was the early 90's. Can we get a break on the fanny packs?

Sean Cullen

We must have stayed at Sean Cullen’s house for about a week. One day there was a knock on the door. 2 thugs blacked out the daylight and demanded to see Sean. He stepped outside and closed the door behind him. A few minutes passed and the door opened again. “Give me your passports.” “What for?” “Give me your fucking passports!” It was the IRA (remember – this was 1991 and the heart of the troubles in Northern Ireland) and they wanted to know who these 2 strangers were staying in their neighborhood. The USA passports proved it wasn’t our fight and we were allowed to be voyeurs.

Our kind benefactors from 30 + years ago: Jane and Sean (AKA: JJ) Cullen

Their daughters Anna and Jacqueline throwing us a 4th of July party

True to his word, on his day off Sean made the long drive to Drumquin in County Tyrone to help me find my family roots. On the way he said, “Look lads, I’m a Catholic and we are headed to a Protestant stronghold. If you call me Sean, I’ll never make it out of there alive. From this point on, you only call me JJ. Start practicing.” JJ it was, and we all made it back safely. But what we found in Drumquin would stay with me. 

Drumquin 1991

James and Lena Patterson were my great grandparents and they immigrated from Ireland to the USA in March of 1914. Lena was about 8 months pregnant with my grandma Mae. 

That's my gramma Mae, who is the oldest of 8 kids. Her brother, my great uncle Jim Patterson fought in WW2 and lived to be 101. He died last year and was the last of them all. Photo taken about 1930. Lena and James had been in the USA for about 16 years

In 1991 there was no internet so JJ’s brainstorm was to find the postmaster and ask him about my family names, since he’d know where everyone lived. It worked. We found Bertie Gordon and he showed us the old cemetery and the houses that James and Lena were born and raised in. We finished the day in the pub and I have the pictures to prove it. 

There's JJ on the left (as he's known in the Protestant districts) behind the bar with the lads

L to R: Bertie Gordon, Jason Thompson, Harry Hemphill, Me & Jimmy Robinson

See the lad with the silly hat? That’s Harry Hemphill. Bertie saw him on the other side of the bar and explained to me that he was thinly related to me as well. We called him over and I changed his life for good. Before we parted I gave him my mom’s address in Phoenix and we then drove back to Belfast. 

About ten months later our European adventure was over and I was working in Westminster California selling Indian jewelry in a mall – worst job ever. My mom called me and said “2 Irish boys showed up at the house. They say they’re our relatives and now they are staying here. What’s going on?” That Drumquin afternoon came rolling back into my mind. Sorry mom. They came out to California, stayed with me for a couple nights and I never saw them again. 

We’ll get back to Harry in a bit.

Belfast 2022

Aleja and I parked in a motorhome camp on the outskirts of Belfast and took the bus into the city center. I was hoping to find the Cullens but I didn’t have much to go on. It had been 31 years and all I remembered was that while Jimmy and I were staying at their place a bomb shook the ground and we felt it very strongly. It had exploded at the Mountpottinger barracks. I remembered that name. I knew they couldn’t be too far away from that police barracks. 

Black and white Belfast during the troubles. This is the Mountpottinger Barracks

I thought it was odd that I couldn’t find it on Google maps. On the bus I asked an older guy who explained that it had been torn down with the Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998. But he remembered it, and said that it was located in a part of town known as the Short Strand. We got off the bus and walked into it. I saw a nice lady helping kids across the street and approached her. 

The jackpot crossing guard who made my month

I thought it was a one in a million but I had to start somewhere, “Excuse me, this is going to be a very strange request but I was here 30 years ago and a very nice lorry driver picked me up and took me to stay with his family. His name was Sean Cullen. Is there any chance you’ve heard of him?” “Oh sure. You’ll find him on the second street on your left. Just walk to the end and back up 3 doors.” There’s no way it can be this easy. I explained that maybe it’s a common name and we aren’t talking about the same man. She rattled off all his kids and I’ll be damned if we didn’t nail it on the first try. 

3 of Jane and Sean's 6 kids

Jane Cullen answered the door and I explained that my friend and I stayed here 30 years ago after Sean picked us up hitchhiking. We were invited in for tea. As we waited for Sean to come home, 3 of the kids came around to say hello. They all work together in the family business and are doing quite well. It was great to catch up on the long gap in-between. 

Back to Drumquin 2022


I found Harry Hemphill because the grave diggers were his school mates

“Sure we know Harry. We all went to school together.” 

I tracked him down and I’ll let Harry Hemphill tell the story himself

He lived in the USA for 12 years completely illegally and loved it. He finally got caught and had to go home. He convinced his younger brother to come while he was still there (instead of joining the army while the troubles raged) and after 30+ years he still lives in California (legally). Harry is disabled now due to a bad heart but says with fondness, “I got 12 years in California and it was wonderful.” And all because I scribbled down my mom's address on a scrap of paper in a drunken haze.

Basil McCormick

Even the grave diggers said that Basil McCormick would be the crux to understanding who was related to whom and if anyone was still living. I knew the last name McCormick was related to us somehow but I didn’t know exactly. I almost missed catching him but before the daylight dimmed too much, we saw a car in his drive that wasn’t there before. His wife invited us in and Basil regaled us with the following story: 

“In 1980 when I was 31, I made a trip to Nebraska to see the relatives who had immigrated. I went to church one Sunday and the pastor introduced me. After the sermon a few people came up to me to meet this stranger in their town. I felt a hand on my shoulder and a nice old white haired lady asked me where in Ireland I came from. I told her County Tyrone, a town called Drumquin. She lurched a bit, I saw her shoulders shake and she broke down in tears. She was your granny Lena.” 

I did the math. She would have been about 85 that year and she was 18 when she left Drumquin, never to return. Chokes me up to think about how emotional that must have been for her. 

Basil piled us in his car and we set out to see the old farms before the sun dipped lower. He took us to where my great grandfather James Patterson was born and raised. The farm has changed hands many times since 1914 and the house that was standing when I took this picture in 1991 has been replaced by a barn that you can see in the second photo

He also took us to Barravey (I realized I had been spelling it wrong all these years which is really embarrassing since I named my boat after it: Barraveigh), which is the farm that Lena Gordon was born and raised on. The Gordon’s still own it but the house you see below in the first picture from 1991 is now uninhabitable and just used for storage

Bertie Gordon and I in 1991. Sadly - he's no longer with us

Barravey the ruin. The home where my great grandma was born.
She used to play where these bails now lie

We then went to Basil’s old farm and he pulled out the one flow chart that would finally make everything crystal clear. Turns out some distant relatives from Nebraska, who I haven’t ever heard about came to Drumquin and laid it all out for Basil. He was kind enough to share all he knew with me

Please let me know if anyone knows these people. Maybe my Nebraska relatives can help. The bottom row of the flowchart might be a clue

Here’s the flowchart. You can see Lena right in the center

Lena was born a Gordon and her mother was Margaret, and was born a McCormack. 

You can see that both Basil and I are direct descendants of this man: John McCormack who was my great great great grandfather. Wild huh!!!

Most of the people in that era had a 6th grade education and spellings changed. It's why McCormick is spelled a couple different ways. Sometimes Patterson was spelled with only 1 "T". Maybe this explains why I thought it was spelled Barraveigh? Maybe I saw it printed differently 31 years ago? 

Just to balance it out - this is the gravesite of my great great grandpa Patterson

One More Stop

It was 9pm and nearing the end of a very emotional, yet fulfilling day. I was exhausted, but the phone rang and it was Harry Hemphill who said we should put our shoes back on and go to the O’Cahan Arms for a pint to see what the town is like in the evening. Upon walking in I announced, “"I know our accents aren't the same, but my family dates back to this town from hundreds of years ago." All heads turned and then the barkeep, whose family has owned that pub since the 1700’s asked for my family names. I proudly announced with my newfound knowledge: “Patterson, Gordon and McCormick” there was general nodding all around. Patrick, the kind barkeep took an old ledger down from a shelf and brushed off the cobwebs. After a few minutes of searching, he showed me this from 1913. 

That’s my great grandfather’s brother’s tab from 110 years ago. Isn’t that incredible? I bought the pub a round and thought I’d never make it home with the returned hospitality that was flooded upon us. A sweet old man even offered his card and said if we needed any help, he was just a phone call away. Who doesn’t love the Irish?

Your man on point,

Irish Bobby

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