This is a three-part series about the epic ancestral music that runs through our bones.

I’m back after a work hiatus. Thank goodness for friends. If it weren’t for Tim Corcoran, a longtime friend who gets me and the significance of my journey to Ireland, I might have drifted from my love. As it is, he has strong Irish roots and his family is from Cork. I went to Cork on a spontaneous journey to an ancestral homeland, the end of the world, a trip back in time, a deep dive into the diaspora. But that’s another story.

Today is about the accordion. It’s about music. It’s about the soul of culture expressed through song and wordless melodies that navigate through time, called “tunes”. (Chunes).

I knew 20 years ago that I wanted to go to Ireland. My mother is 50% Irish. Her father is the son of two Irish immigrants who, I imagine, were part of a flood of refugees exiting Ireland due to hundreds of years of colonial oppression and a tipping point famine caused by a blight in the potato crop.

Their names are Margaret Ryan and John Carroll.

They arrived in the 1880’s, married in 1895 and my grandfather, John Francis Carroll, was born in 1903 in Springfield, Massachusetts. Home of the John Boyle O’Reilly society, named after an Irish revolutionary who was a leader amongst the Fenians, one of 6 major uprisings in recent Irish colonial history. It’s a story I heard from an elder in the Irish Gaeltacht, that will leave your jaw hanging. But that’s for another time.

When I asked my mother what the names of her grandparents were, she said, “I can’t remember”. And when I relive my childhood and seek out any references to Ireland, being Irish or any cultural remnants, I come up empty. That is my starting point.

As an American, I have learned that there can be an amnesia of ancestral origin. There is a need to survive, assimilate and reduce difference when everything is working against you in the new land. While that’s survival and necessary, the way it played out in my family is total loss of cultural origin and knowledge in two generations, perhaps one.

And from there, well, it is a slippery slope to being white as an identity and at the same time being hungry for cultural depth and belonging. Hungry like an orphaned ghost. I will write a post about being a cultural orphan. This metaphor became a literal definition in the passage from village life to “coffin ship”, as they became known to refugees.

I want to restore the line, the story, to back trail what was left behind. I quest to bring a rope of consciousness, by hand, as thick as an 1800’s shipping rope and tie it to the harbor cleat of my ancestral homeland.

You know, I’m the first one in my family bloodline to return to Ireland since John Carroll (senior) and Margaret Ryan left in the 1880’s. That only dawned on me as I stood there on that soil.

I decided it would be wise to bring my daughter into this quest and restore two generations of connection at the same time. I learned that from the first ancestral quest I went on to the Orkney Islands, Westray, in the North Atlantic, north of Scotland in 2010. I brought Lucia with me and we, together, entered a stone building that our mutual ancestors literally lived in, eating from an iron kettle over the hearth fire, eating seaweed and Orkney lamb. That’s another story.

This story is about music. And it’s about the loss of music. And about John Carroll. And about amnesia. And about restoring a sense of belonging, reweaving the fabric of culture, and knowing where and why you are from.

It’s not easy looking at ancestral trauma head-on, but I’ve learned it’s more real than not knowing and pretending everything is fine, all the while starving for meaning. It’s also inspiring and exhilarating to navigate a new dimension of truth and reality. Simply asking “what was left behind when they came?” has yielded deep cultural pathways of connection that I intend to keep pursuing.

I knew that when I became a father I wanted to leave this family line more enriched with ancestral knowledge than when I came into the story. I knew the simple fact that my grandfather was born to two immigrants from Ireland. I think everyone in my family “knows” this fact. It’s like how you might know a wall hanging chatchka in the foyer your whole childhood without giving it much thought.

I learned 20 years ago about ancestors, and the need to know was born. I knew that Ireland has a rich tradition of Irish music, and I was introduced to it by Jon Young. Gerry Brady stories, playing “the bones”, was an image that I couldn’t get out of my mind. I decided to take up the fiddle, and play throughout my daughter’s childhood so that she learned to hear the tunes and become even more adept than I. I found a great pair of teachers in my hometown of 10,ooo people. We are really blessed to have Becky and Keith here, world-class traveling trad musicians. They tied us into the traditional new england contradance scene and provided a real experience of learning music by ear, one note at a time for 15 years.

I can write a whole post on music and bringing it deeply into the family culture. Easily a dozen ways in which music gains strength over time into an unstoppable culture “of course”.  But that’s another story.

One of those ways of building family music culture was attending Maine Fiddle Camp on an annual basis as a father-daughter special trip. I think Lucia was 7 when we started. She started with penny whistle and moved on to fiddle for another ten years or so. It’s a beautiful scene of 200 people, all ages, in a constant immersion of soul quenching music, dance, song, food and nature. Imagine 60 teenagers and not a single issue. Imagine the deepest needs for self-expression, connection, creativity and community met 5 times a day. Even 10 times a day.

Needless to say, this traditional music camp was a thing in our lives and inspired by the desire to reconnect with our ancestral musical origins.

Part Two: Roscommon

1 reply
  1. Lisa Donahue
    Lisa Donahue says:

    Mark! Thank you for following your heart’s call and scaling that slippery slope (up/down?) from cultural orphan to fiddle-playing carrier of the amnesia-antidote. Thank you for this beautiful story of remembering. I’m moved to curiosity about what the journey was like for Lucia (is there a blog?) I feel my years-long question of whether a “natal homing” exists for humans as it does for salmon has been answered, here.


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