ALTHOUGH born and bred in The Bronx, New York, Michael Waugh feels a deep attachment to his late grandmothers home in Trinaderry, Barefield. In practical terms he is using his emotional link to Clare to help further develop US based Wild West Irish Tours which he operates with his wife Trish. Now living in Richmond, Virginia, Michael called Sligo home for five years but is hoping to spend a sizeable portion of 2015 in Clare in the company of his various tour groups.
“We have tours from April right up to November 1. Around this time of the year I’m normally over in the US promoting our tours and going to Irish festivals. Then around April 1, I’ll be in Ireland and the tours start. We’ll pick up the people, who signed up over the winter, at Shannon or Dublin.
Then we show them the real, authentic Ireland that I know from living here. The thing is while I do have family and have some friends in Clare, I’m very keen to meet more people and get more involved in Clare and Ennis,” he explained during a visit to the county last week.
Michael first visited Clare in 1992 and felt a pang of emotion when he visited his late grandmother, Margaret Hassett’s homes in Barefield and Ruan. She emigrated to the US in 1992.
“I felt there was something, in a way, calling me. When I first had a chance to get back here, it was the most emotional thing. The family still lives in Barefield in the same house. The first thing I did was I went to the church in Barefield. I wasn’t even sure if that was her church or not but when I walked in the door, I just started crying. I just felt that this was home somehow,” he reflected.
While a child Margaret was partially raised in Ruan.
“Just today I went to the place where she was farmed out to in Ruan. This was almost 22 years ago to the day when I first came back to Ireland to find my grandmother’s farm. Her mother was Healy from Ruan. If you had told me 22 years ago that I’d be doing tours in Clare, I’d say you were crazy,” he said.
Margaret passed away in 1982 so Michael knew her fairly well, although she didn’t have much to say about her early years in the US.
“She was 18 years old when she left Clare and went to New York. She didn’t talk much about it but she was indentured. She had to work off her fare over. She worked for Borden Milk which at the time was one of the biggest milk people in the world. She was right by Central Park and was a maid and a nanny. I knew my grandmother but you just don’t ever ask these things when you’re a kid. She spoke Irish and English. To me it’s incredible to come from a farm in Barefield to the biggest city in the world at the time. It says a lot about her and the people that did that,” Michael said.
About 81 when she died, Margaret’s last thoughts were of home.
“I was just telling my cousin Danny Hassett that on her death bed she was talking about the fields of Trinaderry. We didn’t know anything about what she was talking about. For all we knew it was her imagination but when I came back I realised what she was talking about. She never lost her Clare accent either. The older I got the more I appreciated what this was all about. She had two sisters and an aunt who had left before her and had gone across on the Lusitania. My grandmother got over and the Spanish Epidemic hit New York. She lost her sisters and her aunt. Can you imagine the letter she had to write back to Barefield?” her grandson wondered.
Although in later life Margaret’s memory faded somewhat, it didn’t betray her completely.
“My mother told me about St Raymond’s, a cemetery in The Bronx. They were at a funeral and my grandmother took my mother and brought her over to see some plots and show her where her two sisters were buried,” Michael explained.
With all of this in mind, he is very keen to establish Clare as one of the central planks of his four year old tour company.
“When I started doing these tours, I had students. I’d bring them to Clare but not knowing much more than the Cliffs of Moher, I would take my tour into Trinaderry in Barefield. Winnie and Brendan Hassett would be sitting at the breakfast table and I’m showing up with about ten yanks. It’s a beautiful farm and that was part of the tour and sometimes it still is. I’m here now in Clare to find out what else I can do other than go to the Hassett’s farm,” he said.
Last week his cousin Paddy Waldron showed him around some hidden parts of west Clare. The tour groups are a maximum of eight people which lends itself to a more intimate view of Ireland while generally they stay in B&Bs.
“It’s almost a watershed event for me to be officially starting tours in Clare where my grandmother came from. What we want to do eventually is have our whole tour in Clare but this year we’re going to have more than half of the tour in Clare. There will be some time in south Galway as well. We want to be here lock, stock and bottle. We’ve had people from the US, Canada, China, Australia and Brazil. We can go into peoples houses for music and that kind of thing. Very often our people have been on a big bus tour in Ireland and they had a good time but they felt like there was something missing and they didn’t really connect. They wanted to make more of a connection,” he feels, noting that some visitors spend time battling with their emotions.
“It’s almost like going on a retreat. People come here, at least on our kind of tour, and there is something going on. There is something they are looking for and they might not even know what it is but they come here and I see people crying all the time. I tell people that. Ireland is a crying country. You cry here but at lot of the time it’s good crying,” he smiled.
The company recruits tour guides from the locality and was established during turbulent economic times in the US.
“We were only two years old when The Gathering happened and we were invited to the Irish Embassy in Washington to launch The Gathering. Our approach with this is to let Clare be Clare and Ireland be Ireland. You don’t have to do much in a country like Ireland. If you put people in the right place with the right people, things happen,” the genial New Yorker concluded.
For more information on the tours available visit www.wildwestirishtours.com.
By Peter O’Connell