ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland — We stood at the bar of the grand Lough Erne Resort, looking out at the driving rain.
“You see that lake out there,” mused the barman wryly. “That was a field this morning.”
This was my first trip to Northern Ireland’s lake lands in the western region, two hours by car from Belfast and a slightly longer drive from Dublin. We had rented a two-bedroom static caravan — what Americans call a mobile home — on the shores of Lower Lough Erne last summer. It was just the right side of cozy for me and my partner Matthew, and our 6-year-old daughter Kitty. Our verandah overlooked the larger of two interconnecting lakes that comprise Lough Erne. Speed boats and jet skis often zipped past.
But the changeable weather meant we enjoyed a week of sunshine and showers, often at the same time. We also had an opportunity to sightsee and glimpse history, from centuries-old Christian ruins to a park that tells the story of the mass migration of the 18th and 19th centuries — including the roots of a famous and wealthy American family.
As soon as the winds subsided, we hired a little boat and set off to explore. We landed at White Island, home to ruins of an ancient church built around the year 1200. Its Romanesque archway remarkably remains intact.
Among the ruins we found more treasures: six sculptures depicting early Christian figures. One figure holds a shepherd’s crook (crozier) like a bishop, and is believed to represent St. Patrick. Archaeologists think another depicts Christ. The unusual artworks are thought to date from the ninth to 11th centuries.
On this isolated island I felt like I was the first person to discover them. The glimpse of medieval Ireland and early Celtic Christianity was a real thrill.
FAMINE, MIGRATION AND THE NEW WORLD
We also visited a living museum called the Ulster American Folk Park, about an hour from Lough Erne in Omagh. Buildings from across the province of Ulster and from around the U.S. have been carefully rebuilt or replicated here to help illustrate the stories of the many families who left in the 18th and 19th centuries for a better life in the New World.
Those stories include the remarkable odyssey of the Mellons. Their original homestead is the museum’s center, and their descendants remain among America’s wealthiest families.
The Mellons were fairly well-off tenant farmers when they decided to emigrate in 1818, several decades before the Great Famine that decimated the countryside. Their son Thomas was just 5 years old when the Mellons left. The family eventually settled in the town of Export, Pennsylvania, where their large six-room, log farmhouse still stands. The Ulster American Folk Park boasts a replica of that building.
Thomas became a lawyer, then a banker founding T. Mellon & Sons in 1869, today part of BNY Mellon. Thomas’ son Andrew, a banker, industrialist and philanthropist, became secretary of the U.S. Treasury in 1921. A school that he founded is now part of Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
But the Mellons’ affluence was not the usual migrant story. More typical was a one-room thatched cottage with a mud floor at the Folk Park, representing the home of a fictional family of poor farm laborers, eight children and their parents. They ate potatoes for every meal.
In 1845, the potato harvest began to fail. By the time the Great Famine ended in 1852, a million people had died and another million had emigrated to England, Scotland, South Wales, North America and Australia. Many ended up in the U.S., where 10 percent of the population is estimated to have Irish ancestry — including a number of U.S. presidents, most recently Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Other houses representing American homes tell stories of real families like the Mellons with connections or roots in Ulster. The townland became a village with a replica pub, drapery, pharmacy and rope-makers. At the far end of the main street we entered the dockside gallery, which contains a lifesize replica of a ship. A fare of $5 would purchase one-way passage to a new life in America. But this was not the Titanic: There were no luxuries onboard. Around 200 people and their belongings spent the duration of the six- to 12-week journey, four to a berth, in the area between decks of the 100-foot (30-meter) vessel.
As we traced the migrant experience, wandering from thatched cottage to school house, forge and church, our senses were assaulted by the smell of musty quilts, baking bread and smoldering turf. Chatty guides in costume explained their chores, baking soda bread over an open fire, spinning sheep’s wool into yarn and creating smelly candles from animal fat.
When we entered the New World section of the park, the clouds momentarily parted and an American visitor quipped, “The sun always shines in the New World!”
Well, the sun often shines in Ulster, but the first rule of packing for a holiday in Northern Ireland, is bring your wellies as well as your sunglasses, as the weather likes to dance across the sky.
If You Go.
LOUGH ERNE RESORT: https://www.lougherneresort.com/
ULSTER AMERICAN FOLK PARK: https://www.nmni.com/our-museums/ulster-american-folk-park/Home.aspx
WHITE ISLAND: http://www.megalithicireland.com/White%20Island%20Figures.htm