Sunday, May 10, 2015

Raphoe, Ireland: Retracing Footsteps - May 2015

"Welcome to Raphoe" the sign read. Home to a friendly lot of 1,100, we ventured to the small town in the northwest corner of Ireland, in the county of Donegal, to scout out James' family roots. Trying to out drive rainclouds, we entered into the town hidden between green rolling hills and parked the car to explore. We knew that both of his great great grandparents on his mother's side hailed from Raphoe and were the last in the area before the family migrated to America.

Towering over the town is a ruined 17th century castle known as the Bishop's Palace. Now hollowed and taken over by grasses, James and I snuck past the barbed wire fences to walk the land once reserved for nobility. Back at the town square, we let ourselves into the grounds of Raphoe Cathedral. There we explored the cemetery surrounding the 12th century church learning that it was the resting place of  bishops and soldiers, and to our surprise ... both of his great great grandparents and their families. Upon looking at the centuries-old tomb inscriptions, we nearly tripped over two family plot headstones: one reading Thompson and the other bearing the name Sheldon.

Pleased with our discovery, we walked across the street to a local pub to grab a Guinness and phone relatives. Two Americans walking into a dimly-lit, neighborhood pub raised a few eyebrows and within minutes we were chatting up the locals. It turned out that the town of Raphoe didn't get many visitors. We introduced ourselves, and before long, the bar owner, who was also the mayor of Raphoe, walked us out and up the street to show us the home, which was also the cobbler shop and birthplace, of James' great great grandmother Jane Sheldon. As we walked up, the current home owner greeted us with a smile and invited us in. She explained that for many years the narrow, two-story building was a cobbler shop on the ground floor and a living space above. She took us out and pointed down the street to another building with a red door and told us that it was once the general store of James' great great grandfather Thomas Thompson. She explained that both the Sheldon and the Thompson families were very well-known in Raphoe and that several of their descendants still resided in the area.

James and I were overcome with the friendliness of the people in Raphoe and astounded by our luck at uncovering his family history. Many of the locals we met remarked that they were charmed by Americans' interest in their ancestry and joked that the Irish have no such curiosity because all of their families live right up the street and they are only good for bickering.

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