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The year was 2009. ‘Twas a simpler time, to be sure. I had just graduated, against all odds, from a university in Montréal and was living with my French (France-French, not Québecoise—that’ll become relevant in a moment) girlfriend who, against all odds, would go on to marry me. But that’s the future. This was the past.
A trip to France had been scheduled. A graduation present of sorts but also an initiation. I was to be thrust deep into the bowels of ancient Gaul, where my future in-laws lay in wait, waiting to poison me with Pastis and Chartreuse and magnums of wine, waiting to fatten me with bread and cheese and saucisson at never-ending dinners. But that’s a different, longer story. A novel. This is a prologue. A vignette.
We stopped in Ireland on our way to France. Just for a couple of days, but they were full days. Unforgettable days.
The unforgettableness started with a Dublin hostel canceling our reservation (womp, womp). There was an early, jetlagged morning spent lounging on benches in St Stephen’s Green, watching the city awaken. That was followed by a full Irish breakfast at Bewley’s, makers of the Irish creme coffee my family always serves on St. Patrick’s Day. The Guinness Storehouse was a must, of course. Ditto hitting up the pubs in the Temple Bar district. (We were tourists, after all.) But the real fun came the next morning when we boarded a train to Sligo.
I don’t know what Irish trains look like now, but a decade ago they were gorgeous. At least this one was. It carried us from Ireland’s east coast to its west coast in about three hours. Tea and biscuits were served. A couple across from us spoke Irish for the duration, my first real exposure to the language. Ireland’s hinterlands streamed past the window, blurs of green and yellow. At a tiny countryside train station, flower boxes hung from the weatherboard boasting splashes of red and purple and orange. The soul-warming scent of burning peat crept in the car when passengers alighted.
But enough with the poetry; I’ve got a story to tell.
We arrived in Sligo Town refreshed and ready for adventure and checked into our hostel which, fortunately, honored our reservation. Sligo could perhaps be described as a “sleepy town” but to be fair to Sligonians all of the people we encountered there were wide awake. (Granted, we didn’t encounter many people.) The harborside location and quaint, colorful downtown immediately had me making comparisons to Rockport and Provincetown, because of course they did, New Englander that I am. Sligo even has its own “Cape,” à la Cape Ann and Cape Cod. It’s called Rosses Point.
That was our destination.
We left the hostel and began to walk, armed with only a vague idea of how long it would take us to get there. After thirty minutes of walking we flagged down a cab. “Are we close to Rosses Point?” we asked, climbing in. The cabbie was amused. “If you’re heading to the beach, it’s another three or four miles.”
Technically, Rosses Point is a peninsula, not a cape, just so we’re all clear on that point before I continue. It’s beautiful country, of course. This is the northern tip of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way we’re talking about here. It’s gorgeous, but treacherous. Wind-swept. Ocean-sprayed. There’s a golf course. A long, sandy beach. A statue of a woman overlooks the harbor, her arms stretching seaward. And standing in the harbor is a 200-year-old, ten-foot-tall cast-iron statue of a naval officer known as the Metal Man. Ostensibly a beacon, the Metal Man guards the waters between Rosses Point and Oyster Island, the latter of which happened to be for sale when we visited. You can be sure that jokes had been made about buying it.
After enjoying a leisurely oceanside promenade along Rosses Point Beach, we allowed our stomachs to lead us to the village of Rosses Point on the southern shore of the peninsula. The walk brought us past a house where, in the front yard, a man was building a stone wall without mortar—i.e., he was hand-chiseling each and every stone to ensure they’d fit perfectly with the stones he’d already placed. It’s painstaking work, I would imagine, requiring incredible amounts of concentration and precision. We watched him as we walked, entranced. He looked up when we passed, pausing his work to smile and say hello.
At the first pub we stopped at, which, not incidentally, was the pub closest to us, we ate serviceable-bordering-on-delicious fish and chips and hydrated with a few pints of the black stuff (Guinness). It was a quick, enjoyable lunch.
Just down the road was a second pub. It has a real name, of course, but its tagline was more memorable: “The Pub with the Well.”
We walked into the Pub with the Well with the sun shining, intent on having a couple more pints. We’d leave the Pub with the Well some five or so hours later under cover of darkness.
But let’s back up a second.
The “well” was the fish tank, I’m pretty sure. Like, 90% sure. Because some fishing boats have a “live well,” which is essentially a fish tank. And this pub definitely had a nautical/”Downeaster ‘Alexa'”-sorta theme going on, which, as a stereotypical, I-grew-up-fishing-and-my-grandfather-was-in-the-Navy Billy Joel fan, was right up my alley. The large, spoked steering wheel of a ship adorned one of its walls. Was there a giant, rusty anchor on the front lawn? Maybe. Don’t fact-check me. Also, were there really hurricane lanterns hanging everywhere, casting yellow light in dim corners? My memory wants me to believe there were, so let’s go with it.
Right, so the pub had a fish tank. And that was, most likely, the well referenced in the pub’s slogan. Still, a part of me wanted to believe that there was an actual water well out back, a hundreds-of-feet-deep borehole just behind the bathrooms, a portal to another world.
But I digress.
I walked around the pub with my pint perusing the decor nearest to the bar. There was a wall of framed black-and-white photographs, all of which featured rows of intensely staring young men. Team photos. Rugby. Or hurling, maybe? Consider this your final warning that the details of this story will be fuzzy.
“Are you looking for family members?” the bartender asked.
I smiled. Pointed to one of the photos, where a familiar name was penciled in beneath the front row of kneeling athletes.
“I think I found one. I’m a Devaney.”
I pronounced it Deh-vuh-knee.
“A Devaney?” he replied, pronouncing it Deh-vah-knee. Then he nodded to the man sitting right across from him at the bar, the only other person in the pub.
“This here is John Devaney.”
My eyes widened.
“That was my grandfather’s name.”
I resisted the urge to tell him that he’d been in the Navy during World War II.
The bartender nodded.
“My mother’s a Devaney as well, she lives right up the road there. And that big steering wheel on the wall? That used to belong to a Devaney. Took it right off his ship. Most of the Devaneys around here were fishermen…”
And just like that, I knew I’d accomplished my secret mission.
Oh, right, I forgot to mention that I was in Ireland on a secret mission. Not that I’m a spy or anything like that. And obviously my girlfriend-turned-wife knew what I was up to. Okay, so maybe “secret mission” is the wrong term. If I’m being honest with myself, it was more like…
Ancestry Tourism: Meet the Devaneys
We ordered another round at the Pub with the Well and I spilled my guts to John and the bartender, just as I’m going to spill them to you now:
You see, I had stumbled upon this internet forum…
(What an opening line to a story! Side note: younger readers, you can google what an “internet forum” is.)
…and I read on this forum that Rosses Point was Devaney central. An author and journalist by the name of Kieran Devaney had posted something about Devaneys around the world coming back to their flock on Rosses Point. And, naturally, being the shamrock-tattooed-Irish-American-guy-from-Boston-walking-cliché that I am, I was eager to check it out.
Upon learning this backstory, the bartender promptly telephoned the aforementioned Kieran Devaney, who would arrive at the pub some twenty minutes later dressed in a striped sport coat. In the interim, the bartender took out his laptop and showed us photos of his recent trip to Rome. The Trevi Fountain. The Colosseum. The Spanish Steps. Here we were in a warm pub on an Irish peninsula, looking at pictures of Italy.
When Kieran arrived a half-bottle of wine was swiftly uncorked. I repeated for him, much to his delight, the story of how I’d discovered Rosses Point, then I talked about my family’s love of fishing, and how my father had a small, 17-foot center console that we’d store down cellar during winter. We’d tear down a wall of the house, push the boat in on its trailer, then put the wall back up. I talked about how my Irish great-great-grandfather came over to the States in 1892, and Kieran, John, the bartender, and I all agreed that it was certainly possible all of us were related to one another, no matter how distantly. They even encouraged me to visit the clerk’s office in town the next day so I could do some research.
More pints were poured. More Devaneys were called. Within a few hours, the once-quiet pub was bustling. When questioned about my professional life, I confessed to being an aspiring writer and part-time busboy at an Irish pub in Montréal. They liked that I’d worked during my time at university. “It’s good to earn your own money,” one of them said. My girlfriend/future wife chimed in that I also sang and played the guitar and Irish bouzouki and would snag the occasional gig playing Irish folk music, but I remember downplaying that part of my life for some reason. Maybe I didn’t want them to think I was overdoing it on the Irish stuff. That I was a fraud. A Plastic Paddy.
The jury’s still out.
I learned from Kieran Devaney that he was branching out from journalism and writing fiction. He told me about his forthcoming novel, The Drumcliffe Pilots, which was set on Rosses Point and featured the famed Metal Man coming to life. The plot, which jumped back and forth between multiple time periods, sounded as complicated as building a stone wall without mortar. It must have been a pain to write.
“No, no, no, writing fiction is easy,” Kieran told me. “I can just make everything up.”
I got to talking with some other Devaneys who invited me to a big family reunion they do every year. Another pub patron, who may or may not have been a Devaney, told me about the years he spent living in the U.S., and how he used to work in a blue-collar suburb a few minutes outside Boston. When he said the name of my hometown, I nearly jumped out of my barstool. “You’re shitting me,” I probably said, probably about a dozen times. I scrambled for my wallet and pulled out my driver’s license to provide proof of this connection. I still remember pointing to the tiny text where it listed my American address. “See,” I said. “See, I’m not making it up.”
At some point the bartender placed two glasses in front of me and my girlfriend-not-yet-wife.
“This is the good stuff,” he said.
For the life of me I can’t remember what kind of Irish whiskey it was. Maybe an aged Jameson? Or was it Powers? Whatever the case, my girlfriend-not-yet-wife and I clinked glasses and shot the sacred liquid back.
The bartender was horrified. “What the hell are you doing? That’s good stuff! You sip it!”
Our faces reddened and we made our excuses. “We’ve been in Montréal too long,” we told him. “No one sips in Montréal.”
He poured us two fresh glasses.
“Let’s try that again. And this time, you sip it.”
We sipped it. And it was good.
The sun had firmly set by the time we finally stumbled out of the Pub with the Well, and for some stupid reason, we were intent on walking back to our hostel in Sligo Town. Maybe because we’d bowed out of our morning walk? Or maybe we didn’t want to walk…Maybe we ran out of cash? Or maybe the only cab company in town was closed, and we’d missed the last bus? Whatever the case, we were walking, swayingly, pausing only to chat with the odd roadside cow.
Piercing the darkness.
We pressed ourselves against a fence, giving the car plenty of room. But weirdly, the headlights followed us. And soon, we were fully illuminated, our shadows cast behind us on the hillside.
The car had stopped.
We cupped our hands above our brows, straining our eyes against the light.
A door opened, and a figure got out.
“Hey, it’s you,” called the disembodied voice. “I knew that was you. You’re the fella from Boston.”
“Yeah,” I said, tentatively.
“I was just with you at the pub. What the hell are you doing walking out here?”
“Come get in the car, my wife will drive you back to town.”
The husband introduced me to his wife as “the fella from Boston I was just telling you about,” and we soon learned that the wife picked up the husband at the pub to take him home for dinner on a regular basis.
Oh, and their little yippy dog always came along for the ride.
“I just have to put the dog in the boot,” the husband explained.
And that’s exactly what he did. To make room in the backseat for us, he put his dog in the trunk of the car. And we’re not talking about a station wagon or an SUV with an open trunk, this was a little sedan with a little enclosed trunk.
“He’ll be fine,” the wife said.
The dog yipped the entire ride.
As a parting gift, the husband and wife gave us a dinner recommendation. Actually, they dropped us off right in front of “the best restaurant in Sligo.” (Their words.) It was an Italian joint. We stumbled in and promptly ordered ravioli and a half-bottle of wine.
A few years later I learned from Irish marriage and baptism records that before immigrating to Massachusetts, my Devaney ancestors lived near Athenry in County Galway. Not really the same neighborhood as Rosses Point. What’s more, I did one of those DNA tests, which are absolutely marketed to ancestry tourists such as myself, and the data confirmed that some of my Irish relatives were clustered around Galway.
However, the DNA test also revealed a second cluster of relatives, this one centered around Inishowen, County Donegal, which….okay, it’s really not that much closer to Rosses Point. It also turns out that some of my ancestors styled their surname “Devilly” rather than “Devaney,” despite being from the same family. This was clearly done in an effort to make ancestry research more difficult for their descendants.
The bottom line: The Devaneys who so kindly welcomed me at the Pub with the Well all those years ago probably weren’t my Devaneys. But for a few hours on Rosses Point, I definitely felt like one of theirs.
Thanks for reading!
Enjoy this story? I have a hunch you’ll also enjoy my (fictionalized) story about a wild night spent in Montréal (“Druids of Montréal”), which you can read in Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy.
FYI: Neon Druid is a collection of Celtic myth-inspired short stories I compiled and edited under my pseudonym I. E. Kneverday.
by multiple authors
A collection of 17 short stories, NEON DRUID mixes urban fantasy and Celtic mythology, creating a universe where lecherous leprechauns and debaucherous druids inhabit the local pubs, and where shapeshifting water spirits from Scotland and sword-wielding warriors from Ireland lurk in the alleyways. Stories range from tales of supernatural horror, to street-level fantasy adventures, to farcical, whiskey-drenched fairytales. Learn more…