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Clann Gathering Memories

Fr. Charles Cavanagh

In the chapel of Borris House celebrating the Vigil Mass in memory of all the C/Kavanaghs that lived, I introduced the Mass by saying “some of us went up the road to Derry three hundred years ago.”  I jokingly added, “ forgive us for being late back, just as we forgive the rest of you for not coming to look for us”. For me it was not merely a statement of a perceived truth, but the final realisation that I had roots deep in the history of Ireland and that above all, that I belonged in these lands.  I was almost totally overcome by the emotion of the moment. Others have expressed their own feelings about that celebration. It appears C/Kavanagh memories flooded back to us all. It felt that the souls of our ancestors were with us in the chapel that night calling us back to our origins and exhorting us to be worthy custodians of our shared heritage.

I remember many years ago marvelling at the Afro-Americans in the documentary “Roots” who traced their history back to the ancestral village in Africa. How I longed to be able to do just that. I had also been searching for my roots, but found that I could only trace them back to my great-grandfather in Donegal. Never in my wildest dreams was I prepared for what was to come later. The brick wall thrown up by the sparse records in Catholic parishes the length of Ireland, the fire in the Four Courts, etc., all gave me little hope of ever reaching beyond the 19th century.

On the Internet one evening I discovered the Clann website. At first, I thought it was just the work of someone interested in the Clann. Time was to reveal to me the depth of Cavanagh interest and study through out the world. That night will forever be a memorable one for me because it was the starting point to so many of us discovering our true history. From being a group of people who could not figure out how we got to Donegal, we suddenly found our place at the heart of our wonderful Clann. As a result of the DNA test in which cousin Cathal took part, things took off and I began to feel a new desire to see the Cavanagh lands and experience more closely the place of our origins.

I had decided last summer long before I heard from Cathal about the great breakthrough to take part in the Clann Caomhánach Gathering. Previously I had seen a poster in Kilkenny advertising the 2002 Gathering, but I had no time to attend, or perhaps even the inclination. Now things were different. I was part of the Clann for real. Therefore I had a right to attend the Clann Gathering. But what was I expecting of this meeting with other C/Kavanaghs? Even now I am not sure, but I set out feeling that somehow things would never be the same for me as a Cavanagh

On my way to the gathering, I stayed with a niece who lives in Clane, Co Kildare. It was from her house that I set out for the Gathering and my hotel in Graignamanagh on the Wednesday.  I was very apprehensive as I drove through Co. Kildare. Still I knew I would not be with total strangers because Cathal was already there and the four American cousins were arriving in Graignamanagh that day.

As the miles flashed by (yes, I confess to being a fast driver), and I drove into the C/Kavanagh lands all my fears just disappeared. I had this incredible feeling of coming home. My forebears who had travelled north in the Jacobite cause were returning home in Cathal, the American cousins and myself.  Donegal has been our home for the last three hundred years and I love it dearly, but the feeling of coming home that I experienced as I drove ever closer to Borris was incredible.  I had never been in that part of Ireland before and had no notion of what to expect. It was not simply the beauty of the countryside that affected me, but every hedge and field seemed to scream out C/Kavanagh to me.

A pre-dinner walk, through Graignamanagh in the territory of our mortal enemy the Butlers did not put me off in anyway. That first evening, as I entered the restaurant of the Waterside for dinner, I spotted a group of men seated at the top of the room. My first impression was that one of the lads at the table looked like one of my cousins back in Donegal. So I strolled up and enquired if they were C/Kavanaghs. (Well, the noses and the blues eyes were give away.)  My apprehensions soon dissolved as I introduced myself to the others.  “Charlie Cavanagh,” I said, as if the name could ever appear unique in that setting. Then out cascaded the other names, and I thought how many said James? Fergus of course twigged that this was that priest guy from Scotland. But a quick aside to inform him that for the duration I was just one Charlie Cavanagh among many clans people, was very graciously acknowledged.

Later that evening Cathal and I discovered that the American cousins were lodging just round the corner from our hotel. So we were able to catch up on what was happening Stateside.  We agreed to meet at breakfast and then make our way out to Borris. And again, all the Clann received us very royally. There was Jungle Jim, as large as life and just as I had imagined him. German Jim was next to be discovered and finally Celia whom I had e-mailed many times, but had never met. Then on they came, a sea of C/Kavanaghs from the USA, Australia, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Canada, England, Wales, Germany and Ireland. But no matter where they came from I found similarities to a brother, a sister, a nephew, a niece, a cousin, etc. Others must have felt the same.

Elsewhere cousin Cathal has expressed his feelings about the gathering and the history conference, so I will not dwell on those, but I must share my thoughts on the Inauguration and the visit to the grave of Art McMurrough. Those were powerful moments for me. The reading of the genealogy was impressive and solemnly proclaimed by German Jim. The conferring of the symbols and the acceptance of leadership of the Clann by Gary were simple but very moving. How privileged I was to lead the prayer for Gary: imploring the Almighty to be with him in his time as Chieftain and for his overseeing of the well being of the Clann.

Then we processed to the graveyard.  Jungle Jim reminded us of why this spot is sacred to us. Then we had the laying of the wreath and the prayer for the dead. For me, that moment was a time of immense coming together of the centuries of the story that is our story and I felt so proud and humbled by it all. We have played an immense part in the history of Ireland and our forebears never yielded to tyranny. I prayed in silence for my own immediate ancestors and I joined those present in a prayer that reached out through centuries, continents and time to every resting place of a C/Kavanagh on this earth and beyond to the eternal.

One incredible thing was that the pipers present for the Inauguration were playing Scottish pipes and were dressed in Scottish kilts.  Someone asked about the tartan they were wearing. The truth is I know more about my Irish family than my Scottish side, and in many ways feel more Irish, indeed I possess an Irish passport. So I had to tell all and sundry that I did not have a clue. Though I did say to someone that the only thing I knew about kilts was that I had a right to wear the Anderson tartan because that was my mother’s clan.

Just before the Inauguration, I spoke to the pipers and inquired about the tartan they were wearing. They replied, “Dress Anderson.” I just looked to the heavens and said, “You could not keep out of it, mum, could you?”  Mum was always giving out about Cavanagh ways in her moments of frustration, but she was also proud to be one of the many formidable Cavanagh women that it has been my privilege to know. So it was fitting that through her tartan she was there in spirit and it made me feel even more at home.

I left Borris a happier Cavanagh. For certain, I still love Donegal and that place of refuge has been a true home to my part of the family, but it was so wonderful to stroll about in the lands that were truly ours. To know that I belong to the Clonmullen sept through meeting up with John Kavanagh and Bridget. Yes, it took three hundred and fifteen years to come home and it was as if we had never been away. I will return, God willing, to the Hy Kinsella and will always feel at home.

Finally, I wish to express my thanks to Andrew and Tina Kavanagh for the privilege to have been given the use of the Chapel in Borris House for the Vigil Mass. On that occasion we remembered them in prayer and I hope all of us continue to do so.

Father Charlie - Scotland.


Clann Gathering 2004 - Index