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. Linden Lane
.

The suitcase

.

How my mother lost her Irishness

Photo by Eamonn Bonner

Photo by Eamonn Bonner

The letter to my mother from the Irish Land Registry stated that Thomas W. was claiming rights to the property of Michael M. in the town of R.

Thomas W. was a distant cousin of my mother's who now lived mostly in Australia. Michael M. was my mother's grandfather. My mother puzzled over the letter. Because the title to the property was still registered in the name of Michael M., it seemed the Land Registry was required to ask: Did my mother and the other heirs, all now in America, wish to contest the man's claim?

"The back of beyond," my grandfather had always snorted about those three acres on a hill above the sea on which he was born and raised. It had been my grandmother who wanted to go "home" and had raised my mother to expect it. "Don't get too close to these other kids," she'd warn each new school year, "you'll have new friends, better ones, when we get home. This year, surely." The result was that my mother grew up to always feel more Irish than anyone else in the room. But though my mother might have thought of Ireland as her true native land, she has only visited once. And both her parents eventually died in America.

The home my grandfather left as a young man was a stone cottage, one room with a loft above, in which he, the eighth and last child, was born to his 50-something mother in 1894. ("The shakings of the bag," they had said, "but a boy at least.") The thatched stone cottage remained a family home for a brother and sister left behind, until the 1950s, when my grandfather and his sisters in America sent money to help build a larger home on the property for the two others. The stone cottage became a one-car garage.

When I was 28, I traveled to tiny R., where the road signs were still in Irish and the house sat at the height of a hill overlooking the bay at the end of a road. The house was vacant; at the pub I had learned that "the Australian" often rented it to tourists. I loved the cottage-turned-garage best, and I peered in the windows at the dusty cement floor. The home was one-storied, with bay windows from which to watch the sun rising from the sea.

Of the eight children in my grandfather's family, three stayed behind. The oldest, Minnie, was married off at 18 to an elderly, land-owning farmer. It was on the night before her wedding that my grandfather, listening to her tearful protests, determined he'd leave Ireland for good. Minnie died young. Thomas, next in line, married but had no children, and his wife died young, too. Johanna fell in love with a fisherman. Each day during their engagement, from her garden gate, she watched him row out to sea. At day's end, she waited and watched as he rowed back. One day, he didn't.

Brother and sister lived together in the house above the water until the late 1960s when one, then the other, died. And then, under circumstances that have always remained murky, a distant cousin from the village moved in. The child of that cousin was the man now claiming squatter's rights to the property, his family having had possession for many years. But as my mother construed the legal matters, this cousin couldn't claim the house without permission of the American heirs of my grandfather and his siblings and their issue (myself included), and so my mother, thinking to set right a wrong done to her father's family many years earlier, began to consider what she might do to restore the family's patrimony.


SHE TURNED TO history, to the hallway closet, from which she pulled a peeling, brown, calf-skin suitcase filled with copies of weekly letters between my grandfather and those "at home."

The task of reading took two days. When I visited, she would read snippets aloud to me, and her mood darkened.

After Johanna died, two cousins, it turned out, fought almost immediately over the land. One wanted title to a pathway that led from the road to fresh water he needed for his sheep. The other didn't want to give up his claim to the path. Each wrote separately to ask my grandfather for the house and land, one so he could bring his sheep to water (and, he added, provide a home for his widowed mother) and the other so he could defend the place from the sheep.

The author's grandfather (right), shortly before sailing to America.

The author’s grandfather (right), shortly before sailing to America.

My grandfather had kept a handwritten copy of each letter he sent. In 1970 one cousin offered 100 pounds. My grandfather rejected the offer, writing, "It's not a chicken coop!" He wanted to retain the property for the family, for the future. And so he put the feuding cousins off over years. But ultimately one of the cousins and his lawyer produced a will signed with a deathbed X by the stroke victim Johanna, in which she assigned the property to the cousin.

Signed by the testatrix by making her mark hereto she being unable to sign her name through physical debility, said will having truly and audibly being read over and explained to her and she seemed perfectly to understand the same said mark being affixed in our joint presence and we signed as witnesses in her presence.

Of course, neither the house nor the land was entirely Johanna's to give. It belonged jointly to the remaining heirs. That X, however, was enough to let one set of cousins in the front door. They began to use the house, for vacations, mostly. My grandfather threatened to visit and straighten things out, but he never did. He died in 1973.

"I could spit!" my mother said. With each letter she read, her anger had grown, but she saved the worst of it for her father, who had acted as his own lawyer (he was a union organizer by profession) and failed to protect his own interests or ours. "I'm a little conversant with legal matters," he wrote in one letter, "however, as they say, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." My mother more than agreed.

My mother pulled me into Phase II of her project: Type this, fax that, call him, e-mail her. My grandfather's ill-fated policy of grandiloquent letters and no action notwithstanding, she felt we had to protest this cousin's claim.

Consulate, land registry, Irish attorneys—my mother placed call after call. On advice from an Irish friend, she called an attorney in R. and told her story, raising questions about the deathbed X my Auntie Johanna had made. An X from Johanna, a fully literate woman, as her many letters to my grandfather attested? Would this attorney investigate?

And what might she be suggesting about Solicitor B., who had introduced the very man she was calling to the field of law? the lawyer replied. Maybe in America she could get away with such accusations, but be assured, in Ireland her insinuations held no sway, and the dead would be left to rest, and the land would remain with the Irish, and no, not for a million pounds would she be able to hire him!

Even polite and soothing words from the Land Registry could not take away the sting of the Irish lawyer's words. "American!" he had said. Yes, she was told by the Land Registry in one phone call, you have a case. Yes, you can pursue it. No, the outcome doesn't look good because in Ireland, as in every country, squatters have rights to property. After 12 years of possession, the squatter can file a legal claim to title.

"It's over," my mother said to me upon hanging up the phone. She sat down on her sofa with my grandfather's letters scattered around her, dozens of letters written in slanted script on parchment paper. "That's it," she said. "I've lost everything."

"Everything?" I teased, motioning around me. She did, after all, have plenty of claim here.

"Yes," she said, "I can't look at any of it the same way now. I'm Irish no more." She tilted her chin. "So cancel the Irish Mist for my funeral." With that, she gathered the letters in and closed the suitcase.

Eileen Donovan-Kranz


Eileen Donovan-Kranz '84 is an adjunct assistant professor of English at Boston College. Her story “One of Ours” appeared in the Spring 2003 issue.

 


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