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Full Frame: Roots on an Irish farm

A photographer travels back to the Irish farm where his grandfather was born.

Full Frame features photo essays and conversations with photographers in the field.

My grandfather John Joseph O’Mahony was born in a small farmhouse on a strip of farmland called Bawnea Kilbrittain in County Cork, Ireland, in 1890. I have pleasant memories of my grandfather, “Pops,” as we lovingly referred to him. I still remember the sweet smell of his weathered hands, the roughness of his whiskers, which he would playfully rub up against my face, and the ever-present pipe he smoked.

At the turn of the century times were tough in Ireland, and Pops decided to emigrate to the United States. He never again stepped on Irish soil. Years later, Pops met my grandmother, Abina, who was from Cork city. They married and had four children. They lived in a small apartment in Cambridge, the neighborhood of Boston known for Harvard University. Abina worked as a domestic maid for wealthy families and Pops worked as a laborer digging ditches for the water works of the city. My great aunts and Abina kept the line of communication open between Boston and Cork and exchanged letters regularly. After my great aunts and my grandparents died, however, we lost all communication.

In the summer of 1987 my father and I went to Ireland for the first time. For an 18-year-old American, Ireland seemed like a place forgotten in time. It was still a predominantly rural country with windy narrow roads woven through the rolling green hills of the countryside. Apart from seeing Ireland for the first time, we had an additional mission: to reconnect with our family. Since we knew the names of the towns from old letters, we started by visiting the church cemeteries in each town. After a day or two of this, we went to the church cemetery in Kilbrittain. An elderly man was tending to one of the gravesites. After answering a few questions, the man said to my dad that his wife would never forgive him if he didn’t take us home with him, because she was my father’s cousin.

The next day they took us to visit our cousins, Bob and Dan. When we opened the gate to the courtyard of their farm, there was the white-painted stone house where Pops was born. It probably hadn’t changed much since 1890. Bob and Dan were dressed to work in their overalls, rubber boots and Irish cap. They would smile shyly and nod their heads whenever they finished speaking as if to remind us that it was our turn to respond.