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Gathering a pivotal moment in Mary Ellen’s life

ONLY in recent years did Mary Ellen Cardenas (née Finucane) discover that she had Lissycasey blood coursing through her veins. Currently living in Cary, North Carolina, Mary Ellen, a retired teacher and university lecturer, returned to her family’s old homestead in Lissycasey last October for the Finucane Family Gathering.

“Our Gathering attests to a love of the land, musical tradition, a reverence for family and a welcoming spirit by showing a disregard for both distance and the passage of time. It was the first attempt to reassemble family in the old homestead since six of the 12 began their independent migrations well over a century ago,” is how Mary Ellen put it when explaining how the Finucane Gathering came about.

The family home is in Leamnaleaha, Lissycasey and that was the focal point on October 6 when the event was held.

“I can honestly say such a gathering was a most significant and profound experience, a story not to be forgotten but rather re-told often and in gratitude,” Mary Ellen, who lived for many years in Columbia, reflected.

For four decades, the concept of tracing her family’s roots resonated.

“Forty years ago, I promised my father to help find ‘his people’ in County Clare. My grandfather, Martin, formed part of the diaspora that carried the love of country and memories with them onto the ships across the Atlantic bowl of tears and my father was proud of his Irish ethnicity,” Mary Ellen noted.

On her first of three visits to Ireland, armed with a scrap of paper bearing her grandfather’s name and date of birth, Mary Ellen headed for Corofin.

“I would have been lost but for the help of the Corofin Genealogical Centre and a bit of Irish luck. I can only lament having postponed my search for so long, as our Finucane roots in Clare are beyond alive and well,” she enthused.

All of this research culminated last autumn when around 30 of the extended Finucane family, including Geraline and Aidan Halpin, gathered in Lissycasey.

Aidan and Geraldine Halpin outside the old Finucane homestead. Photograph by John Kelly
Aidan and Geraldine Halpin outside the old Finucane homestead. Photograph by John Kelly

“The misty rain, early autumn chill and whistling wind would have been reason enough to gather four generations within those hallowed walls, where the wind shamelessly whistles through. Yet, we were unmistakably drawn by something more,” Mary Ellen felt.

“As if on cue, the appearance of a butterfly out of season led the way through the door, hovering for hours over the newly swept space and causing even non-believers to pause in wonder. A kind and thoughtful neighbour had cleared the cow dung from the very large, original flagstones and provided an oil lamp for the occasion,” she recalled.

The Finucane gathering then lit the centuries-old hearth before lighting each other’s candles.

“We huddled with bowed heads to hear the names of all those born within the walls called out one last time. For the benefit of the youngest generation, one among us recounted the realities and hardships of previous generations, while others spontaneously shared personal memories of the ‘old ones’,” Mary Ellen, who has completed the Camino Way Pilgrimage from Russia to Santiago de Compostela, recounted.

Old concertina reels again echoed throughout the house in Leamnaleaha.

“Undeniably, we mysteriously harked back to the Celtic festival season of Samhain, signalling the end of harvest, the ritual of bonefires and the crossing over of times, seasons and ancestors. Having intended to ‘walk the way they went’ between home and the cemetery of Kilcreest, we resorted to cars for transport since such a full programme had outlasted the light of day but not the rain. Reassembled for a bit more music, a prayer and a good dousing of good old Irish whiskey at their graves, together we admired the recent refurbishing of the old tombstone,” Mary Ellen said.

Of course, no true Irish gathering would be complete without a visit to the local.

“Though no-one in the room any longer carried the Finucane surname, we were indisputably all Finucanes of the same branch and my grandfather tended bar in Fanny O’Dea’s well over 100 years ago,” Mary Ellen revealed, before adding that The 2013 Gathering was a pivotal event in her life.

“For me, the Gathering has been no less than a poignantly symbolic culmination of great adventure, complete with three trips to Ireland, a brand new Irish passport, an ever-growing family tree and strong ties that now bind us into the future as family and friends,” Mary Ellen concluded.

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