I’m often asked in Ireland if my family is from here. Yes, I say, but both sides emigrated in the 1750s and we’ve never traced them to living relatives in the “ould country.” I don’t mention that my Irish ancestors were Scots-Irish Protestants, sent to America with healthy land grants to water down the brewing rebellion. But that’s another story.
My maternal ancestors were the Farrells, which came to be spelled Ferrel in America. The Farrell and O’Farrell clan are centered in Co. Longford, about 40 miles from where I’m staying. Here’s the Farrell history in a nutshell:
“The O’Fearghails were one of the four chief clans of the Conmhaicne, the race of Conmhac , son of legendary Fergus MacRoigh and Queen Maedhbh (Maeve). Fearghal, King of Conmhaicne, fought alongside Brian Boru at the Battle of Clontarf and there lost his life in battle. His descendants thereafter took the surname of Uí Fhearghail -descendants of Fearghal. The name Ferghal means ‘Man of Valour’. The Uí Fhearghail went on to become Princes of the territory of Anghaile (Annaly), a kingdom which included all of County Longford as well as parts of Westmeath and Leitrim. Their chief seat of power was Longphort Ui’ Fhearghail or O’Farrell’s fortress, the present-day Longford town. Other sites in County Longford associated with the clan are Moatfarrell (Móta Uí Fhearghail), in the east of Longford (Annaly) between the present day towns of Ballinalee and Edgeworthstown, and Mornine Castle close to Moydow.” http://www.longfordtourism.ie/heritage.php?scid=22&artid=22
Pretty cool, huh? When my mother went to Ireland with me in 2003 she was very excited about finding the “Ferrel castle” so we made a special trip to Longford, which is not really that scenic or on the way to anywhere. But…she forgot the paperwork saying where the castle was, so after making a meager attempt at driving around randomly looking for it, we gave up (we were about 20 miles off). She was very disappointed. So this time, 10 years later, I was determined to find it for her. With the internet, it was pretty easy to track down its general location, as mentioned above — “Mornine Castle, close to Moydow.”
I carefully studied its location on the map, noted the roads that would take me there from Roscommon town, what small towns were nearby that might be mentioned on road signs, then set off…forgetting my map on the kitchen table. Must be a family trait.
I had seen a picture of it on the internet though, so basically knew what I was looking for and where. Sure enough, after only a short time of wandering the byways I spotted it across a field — a simple, square tower about 40 feet tall, looking a bit worse for wear at 500 years old. It was on a slight hill in the pasture of a working farm, with tin cowsheds huddled below. As is the custom in Ireland, if there’s not a locked gate or NO ENTRY sign, I figure it’s open for business. Haven’t been shot yet. In this case there wasn’t even a fence to climb over. Two farm boys seemed totally disinterested in talking, probably bored with another tourist coming to look at the old pile of stone.
“Castle” is a generous description — it was built more for defense than comfort, with no fancy crenellations, turrets or moats; just a sturdy block of stones from which to survey the countryside and see the enemy coming. One side has completely tumbled down, and the stone spiral stairs end in midair. The story goes that a cow once got stuck going up the stairs so they had to knock a hole in the side to get it out.
As I stumbled my way over fallen stones buried in the tall, wet grass around the base, I tried to gauge whether I felt a connection, a kinship, to the Farrells, my ancestors who built this tower and ruled in Co. Longford for nearly a 1,000 years. I laid my hand on the lichen-covered stones at the base, set in place in the 15th century. Would my ancestors recognize my genetic connection and try to reach out to me across the ages? I closed my eyes and concentrated. Birds warbled, cows mooed, tractors churned in the distance. The smell of manure wafted on the summer breeze… Nope, not a thing. The castle seemed as bored with me as the farm boys. But did I feel something? No, not really. But I was glad to have found it, if only to tell my mother that it still exists, and to take these pictures as proof that I was there.