Clann Gathering Report 2002
By Jimmy Kavanagh
This year's journey to the Clann reunion began on Thursday the 19th of September. In order to break up the trip I had decided to stay overnight with my brother Michael and his family. It may seem ludicrous to those cousins from the southern hemisphere who endured over twenty hours cramped in economy class and god knows how many time zone changes that I saw it necessary to break a total journey of two hours into more manageable one hour stints. The evening went well but at one point, in a moment of madness or forgetfulness, my sister in-law Sarah enquired what kind of activities would be taking place over the coming weekend. There was a collective intake of breath and murderous looks were thrown in her direction for having given me this opportunity to bore the pants of everyone.
Caitlin the baby of the family, who can only manage half a dozen words and is still mastering the art of walking, made a dash for freedom. Grabbing her feeding bottle and a spare diaper she said "Bye bye" and sped out of the room at something approaching world record pace for the fifty-metre sprint. The eldest child Liam had no escape route for I had been holding him in a big hug when his mother had posed the fateful question. Unable to escape my grip he promptly stuck his fingers in his ears and began to hum to himself. Michael and Sarah were of course bound by etiquette to feign interest in the subject and smiled as I began to relate the timetable of events. As I spoke my enthusiasm slowly took over and I lost the run of myself. When I had finished I noticed that both Michael and Sarah had that glazed far away look that sets in when you are in the middle of a meeting that is going nowhere slowly and has already taken up half of your precious one hour lunch break. Thinking I had rambled on for hours I glanced at my watch to find that I had only been speaking for two minutes. Crestfallen, my grip on Liam relaxed a little and he ran out of the room shouting: "Time for bed, I have playschool in the morning."
I know that a lot of us encounter this kind of reaction when we speak to friends and family about the Clann. It seems to require a significant event such as the loss of a loved one, the discovery of a family heirloom or a skeleton in the closet to spark an interest in the past. So, realising I had put my gracious hosts through enough mental cruelty I left the subject of the Gathering to one side and proceeded to enjoy a very pleasant evening. I awoke the following morning to clear blue skies and warm sunshine; the gods were smiling. As I set the car in motion towards Ferns I noticed that the smiles of those stood in the doorway were unusually brilliant, and that their waves of goodbye were particularly energetic.
Driving south I reflected on the fact that I was heading to my second Gathering and, as a member of the Executive Committee people would now be coming to me with questions and requests for help. How quickly things had changed since my first gathering two years earlier. When I reached the town of Gorey I took a small detour to see some of the scenery and was pleasantly surprised to find a small cottage having its thatched roof redone before the onset of winter. Although still numerous in many parts of Ireland they are increasingly difficult to find along the primary routes of the east coast so I stopped to stretch my legs and take a photograph.
I arrived in Ferns around midday and parked opposite the Courtyard pub. Those of you who have attended previous gatherings will remember this establishment well, as it is the focal point for most of the activities. Inside I found a number of the Committee huddled in the corner, among them the terrible twins, James J. Kavanagh ("German Jim") and James F. Cavanaugh ("Jungle Jim"). The warm rapport that had been established face to face at the gathering in 2000 and built on via email was evident and I was immediately at ease in their company. We spend the next hour or two going over the arrangements and getting to know the new members of the Committee.
Later in the afternoon I decided it was time to check-in to the accommodation that would serve as my home for the weekend and headed to Clone House, a guesthouse five minutes outside of town. Before I had even parked the car in the farmyard, the proprietor, Mrs. Betty Breen was striding forward enthusiastically to greet me. In addition to myself Betty was also responsible for housing German Jim, Jungle Jim and his daughter Melissa. Betty did a fine job; every morning she ensured that we were all well fed on a hearty breakfast and saw to it that Melissa had the four gallons of coffee she required to start the day. For some reason German Jim proved to be her favourite as a chair at the head of the breakfast table was always reserved in his honour. I had to content myself with a compliment on one of my jumpers. Betty was wonderful and I have no hesitation in recommending her establishment to anyone considering a stay around Ferns area.
After carefully unpacking and arranging my clothes into a neat mess, I changed into a little black number and headed back into the town centre to take a look at the Clann archives. At each gathering a room is reserved to hold the vast amount of journals, newspaper clippings, photographs and other paper records that have been uncovered and extracted by cousins around the world. German Jim serves as the guardian for some of this material and he also maintains one of our more valuable resources - the Clann databank. The last time I checked the databank it contained the records of over eight thousand individuals and these have proven to be of immense value to many of our members hoping to locate a long lost ancestor. As a rule of thumb you can expect to find Jim in close proximity to the archives and as I entered the room I was not disappointed. There he was in familiar pose; hunched over his laptop, a four-foot pile of CD ROMs and diskettes to one side, a two-foot stack of paper and manuals to the other side, and the usual vipers nest of cables at his feet. We chatted a while and then I left him to answer data bank enquiries. Outside I noticed the car in which Jim had transported all of his material across Europe. It had a huge boot and I made a mental note that should I consume a little too much alcohol and be unable to make it back to Clone House, that it was spacious enough to sleep three adults, two kids and a cat in comfort.
The first event of the Gathering took place at 7.30 on Friday evening when we assembled in the function room of the Courtyard for the official welcome. I imagine the locals are used to seeing a procession of weirdos file through their pub every two years in September, each with a large friendly name tag but we did get the odd look here and there. Jungle Jim and Bridget Kavanagh Dalton were our MCs for the evening and Jim began by thanking our cousins one by one for their attendance and then gave a short talk on the origin of the Celts. After that Bridget oversaw the presentation of awards to those individuals who had worked tirelessly on behalf of the Clann. This year recipients included Michael Kavanagh from England who had managed to uncover important family records from Barbados and Judi King from Little Rock, Arkansas who had helped track down documents on various people in the US. There was also a presentation of a birthday cake to Jim Gethings, a stalwart of the Clann and a regular sight at our Gatherings.
Following the award ceremony we all sat down to a buffet dinner. A tour of the tables revealed some faces from the last time I had been in Ferns in 2000 but most of the attendees were new to me. One of the new faces I was delighted to meet was Michael Cavanaugh from Cincinnati, Ohio. Michael's ancestors originally hailed from Wexford but he had no information as to which parish they had left when they embarked on the long and dangerous journey to America. The family established farming roots in Indiana and he has spent many hours on the road and going through local records to determine the exact location and extent of their homestead. I enjoyed the time I spent with Michael; I found him to be warm and easygoing and I do hope that he makes a breakthrough soon. Around midnight I was flagging a little and decided to call it a day, luckily I had managed to avoid the alcohol so there was no need to stowaway in German Jim's car boot.
Welcome one and all
Fergus ensures his surname is okay
on his certificate
They don't expect us to do all that in one
weekend do they?
I awoke around seven thirty on Saturday morning to the sound of cows in the field outside my window. It brought back pleasant memories of summers spent on my grandmother's farm in Wicklow. A peek through the curtains revealed another splendid morning as the sun rose steadily above the horizon. A light mist was draped across the ground and a herd of cows moved lazily towards some favourite corner of the field or perhaps to the gate ready for milking. I closed my eyes and tried to get back to sleep but the thought of the countryside springing into life just behind my head was too much to resist. I had a quick shower, dressed in some warm clothes and went for a walk. It was truly magical to be back on a farm again at daybreak. Well, I say daybreak but any self-respecting farmer would have already been up two or three hours by the time I had raised my head from the pillow. Breakfast was a mighty instalment of sausages, bacon, eggs, tomatoes and brown bread. To ensure I didn't go too far overboard I took great care to balance all of that with a healthy glass of orange juice.
Early morning at Clone House
At 9.30 we rendezvoused at the top of the town outside Ferns castle for a field trip to Kilkenny. I was beginning to regret the warm clothes I had put on earlier, for with each minute that passed the day grew brighter and the temperature climbed higher. We set off and before long took to the winding and rolling back roads so that we could see for ourselves the land once known to the English crown as "Kavanagh Country." Bridget Kavanagh Dalton was our guide for she is a local lass and knows intimately the nooks and crannies of Wexford and Carlow. She brought the countryside to life with local stories, folklore and gossip that cannot be found in textbooks. But she didn't have it all her own way for throughout the trip she was constantly heckled by the Terrible Twins, who brought their own colourful interpretations of Irish history to the tour. An enjoyable dialogue ensued between all three of them until they were more like the Three Stooges rather than three historians. Many jokes and insults were thrown from one side to another and this alone made the trip worthwhile.
Forgotten what I wanted to say now Miss...
Once in Kilkenny we took a 15-minute break for refreshments in the Café at Kilkenny Castle where I had a nice chat with the brightly dressed Robert Cavanaugh from Peabody, Massachusetts. Robert has been with the Clann since it's inception, is a regular face at the gatherings and has already booked his accommodation for the 2004 event! After the tea break we proceeded on a guided tour of the magnificent castle itself. Although it was never a MacMurrough or Kavanagh home it does hold links to our Clann as some of our womenfolk married into the powerful Butler family who built it. The purpose of the visit was to get an idea of how the "other half" lived in bygone days and it appears that the "other half" lived very well indeed. For a number of years a government and EU program has been restoring the castle to its former splendour. Each room is lavishly decorated with enormous carpets, unique wallpaper and valuable paintings. When the official guided tour has finished we were free to wander through the grounds. After Kilkenny Castle we took an hour out for lunch and a visit to the craft shops before moving on to Rothe House located on one of the busy shopping streets. John Rothe, a prosperous merchant of the city constructed the house in 1594 and today it provides a glimpse of what life was like in the sixteenth century.
At five o' clock we clambered back onto the bus for the journey back to Ferns with Bridget again acting as our guide. It wasn't too long before we were in giggles as the Three Stooges kicked off their evening road show at the front of the bus. Bridget did manage to bring some gravitas to the affair however by introducing a crash course in the Gaelic language. As we drove back through the Blackstairs Mountains the hedgerows began to draw closer and closer, the bends grew more and more acute and the gradient grew steeper and steeper. It was great fun for us but I imagine that John Murphy the poor driver, struggling to manoeuvre a 50-seat coach over such terrain must have been a nervous wreck despite his outward appearance of calm. At one stage we had to yield to a flock of sheep that steadily advanced towards us, but just as we anticipated a sea of white fluff enveloping the coach they swung right into a field.
A short stop near the summit of Mount Leinster, the highest mountain in the region proved the perfect vantage point from which to take in the countryside. It was a memorable sight, with unobstructed views for miles in nearly every direction. As our intrepid band of travellers absorbed the landscape many of us felt deeply moved by the experience. It was both humbling and inspiring to know that from horizon to horizon, every field, hill and valley, river and wood that we could see once belonged to our Clann. It was difficult to imagine how it might have looked at the height of our power, for today only small clusters of trees dot the land where once dark luxurious woods gave protection to our ancestors. What a glorious sight they must have been, but alas the English cleared the woods and then used the timber for shipbuilding and the production of charcoal. Returning to the bus we embarked on the last leg of the trip, arriving in Ferns around 6.30. There was just enough time for a wipe with a damp facecloth and a change of clothes before the evening entertainment began at 7.30. I took great pleasure in removing my shoes, which had been slowly and painfully performing surgery on my heels all day. Is there anything a man will not put himself through for fashion?
The view from Mt. Leinster
In the bar of the Courtyard pub I met up with Pat O'Shea from New Zealand. Over a quick bite to eat and a pint of beer we had an interesting chat on many topics ranging from aboriginal land rights, the transportation of nuclear material on the high seas and the 1985 bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland by French secret service agents. It sounds very serious now but we managed to keep the conversation light with humour and a good old moan about our respective governments. We got on well and sat together in the function room for the evening of song and dance. It all began with a handful of songs by the John Furlong Group, who I seem to remember also played at the previous gathering. Later a troupe of young Irish dancers from the Furlong Dance School quite literally kicked things into life with an energetic and well choreographed display of traditional Irish dancing. The dance floor was a blur of colour and movement as the brightly dressed young things danced feverishly to the music. The audience loved every minute of it and showed their appreciation with a loud round of applause.
The John Furlong Group
The Furlong Dance School
The band then proceeded to play a set of traditional Irish tunes and emigrant songs, which was appropriate considering the large number of cousins from overseas. As the evening wore on I began to realise that Pat O' Shea knew the words to nearly all of the songs whereas my ignorance of them was almost totally complete. Pat informed me that she played in a band back home in New Zealand and that her children were also involved in music. With each song she became a little more animated and vocal. Then I took leave of my senses and did something I would never normally contemplate; I went up to the bandleader and told him about Pat. Three minutes later her name was called out and as Pat rose from her chair so my heart sank. I had put her on the spot and felt horribly responsible for what might happen in the next thirty seconds. She had a quick word with the musicians and I considered doing a runner while her back was turned. I decided to stay and thank god I did, for as soon as the first pure, clear note left her I knew everything was going to be okay. With each successive note Pat grew in confidence and the band, recognising her obvious talent contented themselves with a gentle supporting role. Pat sang two songs; "Spinning Wheel" and "You Will Be The Light" and the audience were vocal in their approval. When she returned to her seat I explained that, having heard her voice I no longer felt the slightest tinge of guilt at putting her name forward. I would urge any of you in New Zealand to find out where Pat plays for you will not be disappointed.
Natasha & Nicola Fortune
Pat O' Shea, NZ
Martin Slater, UK
Later in the evening Martin Slater from Southampton, England gave us a beautiful demonstration of classical guitar. The evening finished around midnight and I headed back to Clone House. As usual a few diehards stayed behind running the risk of having their coaches turn back into pumpkins.
On Sunday morning I was able to relax a little as the first scheduled event; a walking tour of Ferns was not due to kick off until midday. I took a nice bath, lounged a little in my room and then headed downstairs for breakfast where I discussed the previous evenings gossip with Jungle Jim, German Jim and Melissa. Suitably nourished for the day ahead, I returned to my room to change into something respectable. The day ahead was very important for two reasons; the Clann AGM was due to start at 2 o'clock and the inauguration of the new Chief at 4 o'clock. I headed into Ferns and promptly spent the next few hours in a Committee meeting, which unfortunately meant that I missed the walking tour around the town. In fact the meeting was still going on as people began to file in for the AGM. But the overrun did have one positive side effect - it took my mind off the fact that I would have to stand up and present a report on the website to the AGM! You must understand that I prefer to stand in the shadows and observe events rather than take part in them.
The Exec Committee prepares to be grilled
The next forty minutes were absolute hell; I began to suffer from sweaty palms, extensive forehead wrinkling and fidgety fingers. In honour of my mother I double-checked that I was wearing clean underwear in the event of my fainting and being carted away to hospital by strangers. My appointed time duly arrived and I forced myself to speak sl-ow-ly, to keep my hands out of my pockets and not to run from the room screaming the "Normans are coming! The Normans I tells yer!!" In the end I managed to drag things out for three to four minutes and make it appear as if I had something interesting to say. For the rest of the AGM I tried not catch anyone's eye for fear of provoking him or her into asking a question.
With the AGM out of the way there was just enough time for those involved in the inauguration of the new chief to change into costume. The Clann likes to conduct the inauguration ceremony in a style similar to how it would have looked centuries ago. Although medieval costume is not compulsory many of the people involved to date have enjoyed dressing up and getting into character for the occasion. The philosophy is to have fun - do it only if you enjoy it. The inauguration was to take place in St. Aidans church at the lower end of Ferns so I made my way from the Courtyard pub down to the church and waited on the road outside the cemetery for the principal characters to arrive. After a short wait Fergus Kavanagh from Dublin, one of the honour guards pulled in and parked his car. Within seconds he had the boot of his car open and began to change into his costume. Thanks to a uniform provided by his daughter his transformation was immediate and dramatic. Where a mild mannered man from Dublin once stood, now stood a man straight from the pages of a history book. Minutes later the Clann Herald James F. Cavanaugh arrived in a fantastic costume designed by Cathi Taylor of California. Jim's long flowing hair, and mighty white beard combined with his colourful attire to create a very impressive figure. Passing motorists could not resist slowing down and craning their necks out the window to see what was going on.
James F. Cavanaugh
Bloody staff - I can't get a signal. Do we have coverage in this area? Melissa, Jim, Celia and Joan
Finally the star of the day, Celia Kavanagh Boylan arrived in a flowing emerald green velvet dress and white headscarf. She was accompanied by her ladies in waiting; Joan Kavanagh Slevin, Alice Kavanagh and Melissa Cavanaugh. Celia's partner John Marshall, constantly at her side throughout the weekend was also in attendance ready to pounce should there be the slightest hint of something going wrong. With the cast assembled a procession was formed, lead by Fergus and we all headed into the grounds of the church. For the first time all weekend the skies were grey and brooding as we made our way through the entrance gate. The rain held off but a slight wind began to build; this only added to the drama as it caught Celia's robes and gave them a life of their own. Dr. Gary Cavanaugh from California conducted the ritual with the crowd playing a supporting role where required. The chief of the Clann Nolan, Judith Nolan who had travelled over from England especially for the ceremony conferred the title upon Celia. It was obvious that her confirmation had touched Celia deeply and she knows it is a great honour to be elected by cousins from all over the world. It was a colourful spectacle and great fun to be part of it. A bit like a wedding really - enjoyable if you are on the sidelines but nerve-wracking if you are the centrepiece.
At 7.30 we were all together again preparing to enter the function room of The Courtyard for a candlelit banquet. As we entered each of us received a glass of mead and a piece of bread. We were then presented one by one to our new chief Celia, who bade us welcome, thanked us for our attendance and accepted our best wishes. A number of chiefs from fraternal Clanns were also present; Mrs. Judith Nolan (Chief of Clann Nolan), Mr. and Mrs. Eddie Kinsella (Chief of Clann Kinsella) and Mr. and Mrs. Kevin O' Toole (Chief of Clann O'Toole). All of the visiting chiefs were seated at the top table as guests of honour. Each of these Clanns has close historic ties to our own Clann Chaomhánach.
Celia Kavanagh Boylan
When everyone had been received and seated the music began. The Kennedy Sisters who hail from Gorey provided a delicate and delightful background for the evening with a combination of harp and violin and the occasional ballad. For the meal I was seated beside German Jim who, I quickly discovered had an insatiable appetite for mead. I had never tried this golden liquid before and found it to be a potent combination of honey and alcohol all the more dangerous because of its wonderful taste. As the evening wore on people began the usual migration between tables to share their experiences of the day's events. For once I remained stationary to enjoy the company of German Jim, Fergus Kavanagh and Michael Kavanagh from Hove, England. At 1 o'clock I made by farewells and returned to Clone House.
Celia & Robert
The Kennedy Sisters
Time to relax and unwind
And here gentle reader my story must end for on Monday morning I left the bosom of Clann Chaomhánach to return home to Dublin. In store for those I left behind was a wonderful field trip to Clann castles conducted by Jungle Jim. If anyone would like to send me a report of the trip I would be delighted to include in here.
I take away wonderful memories, funny stories and new friendships from the 2002 gathering. I hope those lucky enough to make this year's event found it as enjoyable as I did and that we will meet again in two years time. For those of you who could not make it on this occasion remember - there is always Ferns 2004.
If you attended the Gathering and would like to share your stories, thoughts or images then please email me.