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Discovering My Roots in Ireland

by Keith langston
Ashford Castle, County Mayo, Ireland

Entering the castle is like stepping into a living museum. There was a roaring stone fireplace, mahogany wood beams, chandeliers, and large, hundred-year-old portrait paintings hanging on the walls.

Photo by Ashford Castle, County Mayo, Ireland

In early March 2020, right as the COVID pandemic was really starting to spread around the globe, I received news that I would be covering a historic castle in rural western Ireland that had been turned into a world-renowned luxury resort hotel. Being completely oblivious to the severity of the outbreak taking place, I was thrilled at having the chance to travel.

Europe had never really been on my bucket list. My entire life, I had always gone west. I was a pioneer, an adventurer, an explorer. From my hometown in Ohio, I first moved to Chicago, then Los Angeles, and eventually Australia and New Zealand. Before long, I was tackling Asia, and I loved it. Everyone looked different from me, I didn’t know the languages, the food was unique, and lush jungles bumped into towering metropolises. One time in Singapore, a giant six-foot monitor lizard crawled out of the sewer right in front of me. You just don’t get that in Ireland.

Paula Carroll at Ashford Castle, County Mayo, Ireland

Paula Carroll
Photo Courtesy Ashford Castle

This isn’t to say I had anything against the continent, it’s just that Europe always seemed regimented and trapped in the past. But, I’m a traveler. I love the thrill of the chase. If there’s an assignment in Omaha, Nebraska, I’ll gladly go because Nebraska is someplace new to me, and that’s all I need to inspire another adventure.

My mother was thrilled when I told her I was headed to Ireland. She always said we were Irish, however, my mom says a lot of things. But then again, she was raised Catholic, so I suppose there was tangible evidence of Irish heritage. I promised her I’d take pictures, bring home a souvenir, and tell her all about it when I returned.

The first sign that my mom might be right about our heritage came during the flight over to Ireland. I was flying the nation’s flag carrier, Aer Lingus. On long flights, I love to wander the plane. I like to inspect the galley, see how the food is made, and ask the flight attendants questions like, “Have you ever had a moment where you thought the plane was going down?”

I was standing in the rear galley waiting for the bathrooms to open up when one of the stewardesses walked back. She reached into her purse and pulled out a water bottle, then asked, “So, did you have a good trip to America?”

“Oh…” I replied, “I’m American. I’m actually just starting my trip.” She looked surprised. “Really?” she said, “Well, you look Irish. You’ll blend right in!”

After landing in Shannon, I met with my group of fellow travelers and boarded a van to make the hour-long journey up to the famed Ashford Castle (www.ashfordcastle.com). The estate has quite the history. The original structure was built in 1228. From there, it was continually added to more and more. In the mid-1800s, the Guinness family bought the property and built even more additions to the now-sprawling castle. Throughout Ashford’s history, it was home to nobility and even hosted numerous members of the Royal Family.

As we arrived I truly couldn’t believe my eyes, and in all honesty I still can’t believe this place exists. It’s massive. It’s stately. It’s glamorous. I immediately began worrying about me. I am not stately, nor glamorous.

Ash Oak Hall at Ashford Castle, County Mayo, Ireland

Ash Oak Hall
Photo Courtesy Ashford Castle

My biggest concern was the dinner that was scheduled for our final night. It was going to take place in the castle’s formal restaurant, the George V Dining Room (named so because George V used to vacation with the Guinness family at the castle.) The restaurant has a formal dress code that requires a suit and tie for men. I had never worn a suit and tie before. I literally had to go out and buy a suit, shirt, shoes, and a tie, just for this dinner alone. To say I was somewhat anxious would be and understatement.

Entering the castle is like stepping into a living museum. There was a roaring stone fireplace, mahogany wood beams, chandeliers, and large, hundred-year-old portrait paintings hanging on the walls. I took a deep breath and whispered to Ann, one of my fellow travelers, “Holy crap, this place is unreal.”

She smiled at me, “The looks are only one part of what makes this place so amazing. They’re known for their attentive service.”

Ann had been to the castle many times and had become friends with much of the staff, including the feisty Paula Carroll, the castle’s Director of Marketing.

Paula showed us to our rooms, walking us through the grand two-story living room, and up a stairwell filled with historical artifacts and ornate statues. My room was first. It was one of the oldest rooms in the entire castle, and it was stunning.

State Room at Ashford Castle, County Mayo, Ireland

The Room Where the Author Stayed
Photo Courtesy Ashford Castle

When Paula opened the door, my jaw dropped. The ceiling must have been almost twenty feet high; the walls were covered in a plush, ornate wallpaper; there was a fireplace in the corner, which was already burning to warm the room; an enormous king-size bed; and furniture that all looked like actual antiques. Out my windows I could see the misty Lough Corrib (lough is lake in Gaelic) and the silhouettes of mountains in the distance.

Gently placed on the bed was a bottle of champaign and a box of chocolates, which are made on-site by the castle’s very own pastry chef and chocolatier.

I turned around, speechless. My mouth just hung open, unable to form a single word. Paula laughed. “Enjoy the room!” she said as she closed the door to lead the rest of the group to their rooms.

In the bathroom, an enormous marble bathtub sat in front of a window that overlooked the lake. On the other end of the bathroom (yes, the bathroom was so big that it had an “other end” to it) was a rainfall shower that was big enough to easily fit six people. Since I had a bit of time to spare, I decided to freshen up after the long flight. I turned the shower on, stepped in, and got lost in the absolute divinity of my room.

The next morning, I was awoken by daylight shining through my windows. Outside I could see a light fog over the lake, and a couple walking along the castle grounds. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect way to wake up.

The Connaught Room at Ashford Castle, County Mayo, Ireland

The Connaught Room
Photo Courtesy Ashford Castle

At breakfast, I once again found myself lost in disbelief. I personally believe that breakfast is the best meal of the day. How can you beat omelets and pancakes served alongside a freshly steeped pot of tea? At Ashford, the breakfasts are fit for royalty. For starters, my tea was the castle’s very own Irish Breakfast blend, which is steeped directly at your table. You then have an entire menu complete with classics like oatmeal topped with Irish whiskey, French toast, and Eggs Benedict. Plus, there’s an entire buffet stocked with freshly baked Irish soda bread and brown bread (served with local butter and house-made jam), cheese platters, sliced fruit, just-squeezed juices, and more.

It was March, the world was contemplating shutting down because of COVID, and I had a choice to make: do I watch my figure or live like this is the last trip I’ll be taking for a long time? I chose to eat my brains out, and in retrospect, what a marvelous decision that was. This trip would prove to be the last moment of normality and excitement I’d have for an entire year.

That afternoon was filled with shooting clay pigeons (a task I’m proud to say I was actually good at) and enjoying the castle’s “hawk walk.” The castle has their own world-renowned school of falconry, and guests at the castle can be guided through the forest with trained falcons. The experience was stunning and majestic.

Hawks are massive and powerful birds, and it’s incredible to get a chance to interact with one up close. During the walks, you gently raise your arm, which signals the birds to take flight. As they spread their wings, you can see all the different colors and patterns in their feathers. You can see the muscle in their legs. You can feel their power. Then, before you know it, they’re whipping in and out of trees and gliding through the air.

The trainer then places a piece of meat in your palm, which immediately tells the hawks to come home for a treat. Seeing a hawk come straight at you, soaring at full speed, can be a little intimidating, but after a few rounds, you get used to it. You learn to simply enjoy and respect that you’re a guest in the hawk’s home. This is their forest, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Ashford Suite Bathroom at Ashford Castle, County Mayo, Ireland

Ashford Suite Bathroom
Photo Courtesy Ashford Castle

For dinner that night, Paula had arranged for us to dine with her at one of the castle’s restaurants called Cullen’s at the Cottage. Cullen’s doesn’t have the formality or pomp of the George V. It’s a place to let your hair down and laugh with friends. The menu is mostly seafood, but includes lots of other options, including the restaurant’s signature dish, Peri Peri Chicken.

After sitting down at the table, our conversation quickly turned to Irish heritage. I, however, kept quiet. So many Americans claim to have Irish heritage, and I didn’t want to sound like yet another American who comes to Ireland, acting like it’s the motherland.

That was however until I heard Paula make a certain comment. She said something like, “You know, growing up, all Irish families had an image of the sacred heart and a picture of John F. Kennedy hanging on their wall.”

While I’m sure the main joke was the line about JFK, it was the comment about the sacred heart that got me. I know this image well. My Grandma (on the supposed Irish side) was a devout Catholic. We called her “Hanna” because, apparently, my older brother was never able to say “grandma” and said “Hanna” instead. Hanna always had Catholic relics everywhere. Pictures of Jesus with the sacred heart, a statue of Mary with the sacred heart, bibles, rosaries, you name it.

“My grandma had lots of scared heart stuff in her house,” I blurted out rather aimlessly. Paula looked at me, “Was she Irish?” she asked. “I don’t really know what we are,” I said. “I mean, my mom’s family lore has always been that we’re Irish, but I don’t think anyone actually has solid evidence of our family tree.” Paula adjusted the little ascot she was wearing. “What was your mom’s surname?” “It was Brazzill,” I responded. “But there are some disputes over how it was initially spelled. I think my aunt said it could have been O’Brazzill at some point.”

Niall Rochford at Ashford Castle, County Mayo, Ireland

Niall Rochford
Photo Courtesy Ashford Castle

Paula, quite frankly, said, “No, I doubt it. Brazzill is much more common than O’Brazzill, but the spelling is a little different, it normally wouldn’t have a double Z and L, but yes, Brazil is an Irish surname, and in fact, there’s quite a lot of Brazils who live in the county above the castle.”

I was shocked. It was the first real validity of Irish ancestry I had ever heard in my life. “Besides,” Paula said with a laugh, “you look Irish!” That was the second time I had heard that in two days.

The next morning was our big day. An excursion through western Ireland had been planned for us by the castle that included meeting a traditional basket weaver, exploring the Killary Fjord, learning how a shellfish farmer harvests clams and oysters, and even a chance to pour our own pint of Guinness at an Irish pub. And after we returned from the journey, it would be time for the formal dinner I had been dreading.

But there was something ominous in the air. It was now mid-March. COVID had made its way into Europe. Italy was seeing thousands of COVID cases each day, and rumors had begun swirling around Ireland of an impending government lockdown.

Our first stop was to the basket weaver, and I immediately realized how different things were. While demonstrating how he makes baskets, he made sure to keep his distance and said he didn’t want to shake our hands. I totally understood his concerns and wasn’t offended, but instead was growing scared. This man’s house was built onto the side of a mountain. I stared out the large windows, seeing sheep on the hills, and the river below. It felt like I was in a storybook, protected and removed from the world. A deadly pandemic seemed so intangible, especially when you’re surrounded by the idyllic Irish countryside. But with each passing hour, I could feel it getting closer.

Our next stop was to the pub, Paddy Coynes, in the small town of Tully Cross. The bar was everything you could have wanted from an Irish pub. Musicians were playing classics like The Frost is All Over, there was a roaring fireplace, and photos and memorabilia lined the cozy brick walls.

Being able to pour our own pints of Guinness was awesome and felt iconic, but there was something noticeably off about the pub…we were the only ones in it. The owner told us that because of Europe’s COVID problem, tourism had plummeted, and now with the rumors of a lockdown, even locals weren’t going out. It was another cold reminder of reality in such a warm and welcoming place.

As we continued our excursion, it suddenly hit me… I had forgotten my dress shirt for our big dinner at the George V. Even worse, we were to meet with Niall, the castle’s manager, and Catherine, who handles guest relations at dinner that night.

I tapped Ann on her shoulder. “Ann, I forgot my shirt for dinner.” “Don’t worry,” she said, “there will be time to change at the castle before dinner.”

Indoor Swimming Pool at Ashford Castle, County Mayo, Ireland

Indoor Swimming Pool
Photo Courtesy Ashford Castle

“…No.” I said, half croaking, “I mean, the shirt is not in Ireland…” Ann looked at me with an Oh God, seriously? face. I tried to make the situation better. “Maybe we can say I’m sick and couldn’t make it to dinner?” Ann glared at me. “Say you’re sick during a pandemic? Do you want everyone to get scared?”

“Ok then, let’s just be honest and say I forgot a shirt and couldn’t make it?” I felt like such an idiot on our way to our final stop, the shellfish farm. I bought an entire suit for this one dinner, and now I wouldn’t even be wearing it because I forgot one tiny piece of the ensemble.

When we arrived at the shellfish farm, the owner, Simon, along with his wife, greeted us with a spread of fresh oysters. After a quick bite, we were to head out on the boat and see how they grow shellfish along giant ropes in the middle of the fjord.

As Simon went off to get the boat ready, his wife asked how we were all enjoying the trip. I said I was having a great time, aside from forgetting my dress shirt at home.

“Oh!” she said, without an inch of hesitation. “I can give you one of Simons then, you look like you’re both the same size!” “Wait, seriously?” I said in disbelief. “Oh, sure!” She said.

“But how will you get the shirt back?” I asked, dumbfounded by this woman’s generosity. “Just leave it at Ashford! At some point, we’ll be seeing them,” she said as if the castle, some 40 miles away, was her next-door neighbor.

Ashford Castle’s Irish Wolfhounds in Ireland

Ashford Castle’s Irish Wolfhounds
Photo Courtesy Ashford Castle

I couldn’t get over the kindness of these people, and its stark contrast with the emerging COVID pandemic. How, in a world with friendly, genuinely good people like these, could a virus be hijacking people’s bodies and killing them? Where is the justice in that?

Before we left, Simon’s wife brought out three shirts: blue, green, and pink. The whole group immediately voted for the pink. I thanked them numerous times, completely astonished by their effortless kindness. If the world was about to collapse, I wouldn’t have wanted my last days of freedom to be any different. These are the kinds of people I would gladly spend the viral apocalypse with.

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