You Can Go Home Again

Interested in heritage travel? Take a trip with someone who tried it.

Photo courtesy of Carrie Nieman Culpepper

Carrie at Hand Land

The author on her family’s ancestral homeland. 

A bird of prey on my arm, I was feeling pretty grateful to be trekking through a mossy green forest with Ireland’s oldest falconry school, enjoying regal sporting activities, as well as high tea by roaring fires and dinners in the dungeon dining room at stately Ashford Castle. My good fortune was due, in part, to Thomas Hand, my paternal great-grandfather, and I was in Ireland to learn more about his homeland. 

Photo courtesy of Carrie Nieman Culpepper

Ashford Castle

The Culpeppers at Ashford Castle.

My husband, children, and I were part of a growing “heritage tourism” trend. Americans are tracing their roots in person in record numbers. The demand can be credited in part to the popularity of mail-order DNA kits, like those sold by 23andMe and Ancestry DNA, and the availability of records via genealogy websites like Ancestry.com, which have armed Americans with more insight into their ancestry, as well as the rise of experiential travel, a combination that has given many of us the desire to visit and feel the places of our origin firsthand. 

Although I gifted a DNA kit to my dad for kicks, my family history was not a mystery. I had heard many stories about Thomas Hand, who had come to Brooklyn, New York, from Ireland in the 1880s. Thomas had followed his sister to Brooklyn, and they were later joined by two brothers. Although we knew of his adventures in America, like many who fled “the troubles” of economic devastation after the potato famine, Thomas didn’t talk much about the old country and never returned to see his parents or five other siblings, a fact that always shocked me. 

Visiting Ireland has always been on my travel bucket list. Inspired by family stories, my 6-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter had both recently done projects on Thomas Hand, she identifying a scratchy blanket made of wool from the sheep on their farm as a meaningful family heirloom, and he drawing a picture of Thomas in his New York City police uniform to begin to understand the concept of history and heritage. The time seemed right to visit. 

Photo courtesy of Carrie Nieman Culpepper

Helen Kelly

Professional genealogist Helen Kelly.

I shared Thomas’ information with Helen Kelly, an accredited genealogist of Ireland and the Genealogy Butler at one of Dublin’s most famous hotels, The Shelbourne, prior to our arrival. Once on site, I met with Kelly over tea and scones for what she called an “enablement session,” where she shared the results of her research. The Shelbourne may be unique in having a staff genealogist—a testament to how many travelers to Ireland are seeking their ancestry—but anyone can hire an expert to help them discover their roots. The Association of Professional Geneologists (APGen.org) is a great place to start.

Kelly had scoured through records, some available only on databases to which she has memberships, and, although there were contradictory birth certificates, she had zeroed in on exactly where Thomas had originated from within vast County Roscommon. (She also shed light on the age-old family mystery of the non-Irish sounding name: She said it was likely the Anglicized version of lámh, which means “hand” in Irish.) By looking at both the church and civil parish records, she determined that the “townland,” or smallest area within the county, where the family farm must have been located was called Gortaganny. This is something I would not have known to look for.

After presenting me with her findings, Kelly gave unnervingly simple instructions for our visit: “Go to Gortaganny and find an obvious local.” I must have looked puzzled. “A farmer, or someone on a tractor,” she continued. “And say, ‘My ancestor, Thomas Hand, was born here in 1864. His brother John lived here until 1943, then his son Michael took over the land. Do you know the Hands? Can you point me in the right direction?’”

Photo courtsey of Carrie Nieman Culpepper

Coney Island Bar

The Coney Island Bar at Gortaganny.

I didn’t believe it could be that easy, but felt obligated to honor Kelly’s hard work with some effort on the ground. That evening my husband and I zoomed in on a Google map of Gortaganny to find a landmark to plug into our GPS. There wasn’t much in the rural county, but, remarkably, we found something called the Coney Island Bar, which seemed like the perfect landmark. We wondered if this could be a family connection because Thomas’ brothers had opened a pub in Brooklyn.

A few days later, we drove a rental car west into a countryside dotted by peat moss farms to find the rather unremarkable Coney Island Bar. It was Sunday at 4 p.m. The doors were locked, but lights were on in the adjacent house, so we knocked. A child stirred in the window. We knocked again, unsure how persistent to be. Soon a man came out with three young children around him. I went into my prepared speech, “… did he know the Hands?” 

He scratched his head. This was his wife’s homeland and she wasn’t home, he said, but if we were staying in the area he’d be glad to call in some folks who had lived here for a while to meet at the bar tomorrow. Regrettably, we had only planned to pass through so didn’t have another day; I felt guilty for not planning more time. Then he suggested we drive up the hill and talk with an old farmer who had lived in the area all his life. We drove up the hill and around the bend, where we found a woman tending her horses. She pointed us to a yellow house down the bend. No one was home, but we lingered in front of the house for awhile, waiting, and the couple soon arrived. 

Photo courtsey of Carrie Nieman Culpepper

Pat Hafferty and wife

Local farmer Pat Hafferty and his wife.

I nervously delivered my speech and had barely finished before he jumped in. “Oh yah,” he had grown up in the area and knew the Hands well. He launched into a long explanation, speaking quickly in a thick brogue, of where the various Hands were living: One of Michael’s daughters was living in the next town over, while the other had inherited the house but didn’t live there. Flabbergasted by the deluge of information, I didn’t catch all of the town names and references but managed to record some of it on my phone. They gladly shared all they knew and immediately put us at ease that we were not bothering them. On the contrary, they seemed glad for our interest. I had half-expected a bit of anger toward those of us whose Irish relatives emigrated but was instead met with sincere appreciation for our interest in Ireland. The more warm Irish people I met, the prouder and more connected to my heritage I felt. 

After I asked a number of questions—and paused to take in the serendipity of connecting with him—the farmer gave us directions to the Hand land. He also rattled off directions to visit Bernadette “Bertie” Hand in the next town over, but I was most interested in the farm. We followed the directions across the road, past the school, and to the third house, boarded up, on the hill. The light was golden as we drove down the lane to the small cinderblock house, no doubt a new structure since Thomas’ time, but likely similarly humble. The view from the front door, across fields of sheep and the surrounding hills, was satisfyingly charming. A lovely setting for a farming family, I thought, but of course that was not the whole story.

Photo courtsey of Carrie Nieman Culpepper

Gate attendee Gerald McDonnell at Ashford Castle.

I had learned from Kelly that the Hands leased their 20-acre farm from an English landowner, because Irish people were not permitted to own land at the time. As the third oldest of nine children living on a leased farm with little income after the potato famine, Thomas would have had little choice but to leave. I was supremely grateful for his sacrifice and hard work, which enabled me, in just three generations, to be standing there on vacation, and I walked away with greater understanding for his condition, the political and economic climate at the time, and my own good fortune.

After seeing the farm, I didn’t feel a need to connect with the living relatives in the area. We figured that the heritage portion of our trip was over and drove to Ashford Castle, just north of Galway. But we were lucky once more. The next morning, as we were visiting the picturesque castle, my husband began chatting with a bellboy dressed in a green wool uniform. He inquired about our journey and perked up when he heard we’d been in Gortaganny; coincidentally, his wife was from the townland. He asked the family name, and it turned out that he knew Bertie Hand! He shook my hand and promised to tell Bertie he had met me. I sent my best regards, feeling guilty that we hadn’t sought her out. It was an unexpected endnote to a trip full of surprising revelations. I was humbled with gratitude and left Ireland with a deep connection not only to that little farm, but to the people, famous for their friendliness, who welcomed me home. 

Photo courtsey of Carrie Nieman Culpepper

Hand family land

The Hand land in Ireland.

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