When my friend Jennifer started researching her family genealogy I joked that she was just looking for an unclaimed title, an estate or a fortune. Trying to change the subject she asked, “Is your family Irish?”
Once upon a time, but my branch have been in Nova Scotia since 1765. So it’s not like we’ve got kissing cousins there. Still, when I finished school and earned my own money, Ireland was the first country I paid to visit. I’ve been back nine times. I know all the Lynches where I live and thought if I went to Ireland I might bump into someone who turned out to be a long, lost relative. It’s my type of casual genealogical pilgrimage.
For my first trip I didn’t bother with any type of traditional genealogical study. I just asked my grandfather, who was born in 1878, where we were from. He thought Galway or Cork. Apparently we weren’t too sentimental about the old country. So I bought a cheap plane ticket to Dublin and did my best to acquire a taste for Guinness. There are four “black beer” in Ireland and at the risk of never regaining citizenship I can’t say I am enamored of any of them. They just make me sleepy. Sober and awake, I rented a yellow Escort and set out “to do” Ireland by following the coast.
Trying to drive on the left while reading a map is not easy. I was lost a lot of the time.
Which is usually how I discover things, like the ancient monastic community of Glendalough. In Wexford I learned a way around bar closing hours was to join a hotel bridge club. From Waterford and Cork, I always drop down to the south coast to spent time in Ireland’s culinary capital, Kinsale (pronounced kin-saaaaaale, as if expelling all air from your lungs). It’s a colourful little town where every second door seems to be a pub or café. From here I follow the Ring of Kerry, a winding, roller-coaster strip of pavement cut into hillsides in the southwest corner of the country which takes you to towns with fantastical, musical-hall-sounding names like Skibbereen, Killarney and Tralee.
The Ring ends in Limerick where I met two elderly Canadian couples with the station wagon version of my Escort. I couldn’t find the horn and they couldn’t get theirs into reverse. They showed me the horn – on the end of the directional signals – and I showed them how to put the car into reverse (push down on the stick shift and pull back). They had been putting the car in neutral, then three of them would jump out to push it backwards.
When I finally got to Galway, I found Lynch family history pretty quickly. Instead of running into a living relative, I learned about dead kinsmen. Our history starts on the corner of Shop and Abbeygate Streets in the foyer of a small grey stone fortified house called Lynch’s Castle. I had no idea we had a castle. Well, we don’t. Not anymore, it’s a branch of the Allied Irish Bank.
This was a time when I still travelled with traveller’s cheques, so I marched into the ornate banking hall to see the teller’s reaction when I presented a cheque with a Lynch name on it. She said nothing. Obviously I was not the first traveling Lynch to appear and being a Lynch in Galway isn’t that unique. We’re pretty much the whole phone book. The streets leading to the castle are lined with Lynch-owned businesses: Lynch’s Cafe, Lynch’s restaurant, Lynch’s Fashions, Lynch Locks (a hairdresser), and so on.
So whenever a friend is travelling in Ireland, I send them to Galway to see the family castle. They look at me as if I’m fibbing. On my most recent trip, I took a California colleague to Galway and didn’t brief him about our history. I thought it would be fun to watch his facial expressions as he read the extensive family history on display in the castle foyer. In the 15th century we were Lynch Fitzstephen. In 1493 a popular young man-about-Galway, Walter Lynch, and a young Spanish count fell for the same girl. It’s an old story: drinks, raging hormones and a little sword play. The count’s body ended up in Galway Bay. Alas, the tides brought him back. There was a trial and the ever so remorseful Walter was convicted and sentenced to death.
The citizens of Galway took the position, ‘boys will be boys’ and tried to have Walter pardoned. Public opinion was such that the city executioner declined to carry out the sentence. As the young Walter sat in jail awaiting his fate, upset citizens formed a mob and prepared to break him out of jail. They were the first Lynch mob. Contrary to popular culture, Lynch mobs are not to attack and string up a convict, but to free the prisoner.
Walter’s father, James Lynch Fitzstephen, was the Lord Mayor and a stickler for the law.
To ensure the mob didn’t prevail, James visited Walter in jail on the eve of the execution. As father and son sat together, the father slipped a noose around his son’s neck and pushed him out the window, thereby giving the language the concept of Lynching and Lynch law. It’s why we say people who are hanged are Lynched.
My colleague David jeered, “This is your family? You’re proud of this?”
“Mock all you want, have you got a family castle? Come, we’re not done.”
I walked him down the street past all the other Lynch businesses to a lane by St. Nicholas Church. At the end of the lane is the ruin of a stone wall. Above a skull and crossbones a plague explains this is the window from which Lynch Fitzstephen hung his son. David shakes his head and starts to put distance between us, as if he was having second thoughts about sharing a car with me.
There may not be an estate, title or fortune to be found, but I’ve dined out on the story of our family history for decades. Who knows what others will find digging into their genealogy should they make their way back to the ancestral homeland.