Ireland part VIII: Irish roots – family and potatoes

Greg Schieber

After bouncing around between one bed and breakfast to another for the first few days, we spent a week residing on the small peninsula jutting into Castlemaine Harbor, south of the Dingle Peninsula and north of the small village of Cromane. For a reasonable sum, a person can rent a “cottage” in Ireland.

The one we inhabited wasn’t as quaint as I would imagine an Irish cottage to be, but instead was a very spacious newly built home. It was also a symbol of the rise and fall of what is known as the Celtic Tiger economy. A surge in the technology and pharmaceutical industries created an economic boom prior to the new millennium, the effects of which continued until the Great Recession in 2008. Our cottage was built on the tail end of the Tiger. After the real estate bubble burst it never sold.

Weeks ago I started this column by referencing my Irish ancestry. Quite a few branches trace back to communities across Ireland. It is probably not much of a coincidence, therefore, that our primary place of lodging, we later learned, happened to be near the town in which the McKenna branch purportedly originates —Killorglin in County Kerry.

Despite my failure to adequately research our family history in advance, we thought we would wing it and see if anyone knew of any locals with the last name McKenna. The inebriated patron we consulted at the nearest pub in town hadn’t heard of any, until he thoughtfully pondered it another couple of minutes and then remembered his wife’s maiden name was McKenna. Without our prompting he dialed her up on his cell phone and then handed it over to allow us to do the talking. I’m not sure what that says about the status of their marriage. Regardless, she was friendly and suggested we stop by the church office and page through their records.

The next day we did exactly that and found the church secretary, like most Irish, was very accommodating. She pulled out the books and quickly gave us the Genealogy 101 lesson I am certain she is accustomed to giving tourists like us searching the country of 4.5 million people for a relative from six generations back.

We began scanning the relevant pages for McKenna when she interjected and warned us that it would be improper to only search for the spelling we were accustomed to. Variations of McKenna could also include Kenna, McGenna, Genna, MaKenna, MacKenna, MacKennagh, MacKinna, MacKena or even Ginna. We would have to search them all.

As we narrowed it down by name we began to look more closely at dates when again she interjected and urged us not to put too much faith in the accuracy of dates either. If you can’t rely on the spelling of the names or the accuracy of dates, then you don’t have much to go off of, in my estimation. We did have one thing playing in our favor — we were searching for McKenna rather than O’Sullivan. The inflection in her voice took on a sober tone when she stated that the hair on the back of her neck raises high when someone walks through the door announcing they are searching for an O’Sullivan. Our survey of the local cemetery confirmed the frequency of the O’Sullivan name — nearly one in every three stones appeared to bear that moniker.

Despite these inherent challenges, some folks are able to successfully place the pieces in order, but it became clear we weren’t going to do so that morning. Never mind that anyway, as she then came forth with the most critical information of the day — these exact records are all online at and paging through the books, as romantic as it might seem at the time, was completely unnecessary. Just then the office phone started to ring so we quickly thanked her for her time and assistance and departed.

I also started the column by giving a brief history of the infamous potato famine. I can assure you the famine is no longer, and potatoes persist in abundance despite the absence of widespread poverty that originally made potatoes a staple in the diet many years ago. Dining at a pub one evening I ordered some species of local fish, of which I was not familiar and can no longer recall. Like any good Irish meal, it came with some mashed potatoes and a vegetable as advertised on the menu. I was a bit surprised when the waitress delivered a side of French fries with the rest of my meal. This happened again later in the trip. It wasn’t an extra side I had requested, nor had it been indicated on the menu they were included. Bonus fries, I call them, and they seem to be given away like water.

To be more accurate, these fries are technically called “chips” in Ireland. Meanwhile, what we call chips are called “crisps.” Pudding as we know it is nothing like pudding in Ireland. Irish pudding is a breakfast food composed of pork meat and fat, suet (beef or mutton fat), bread, oatmeal and sometimes blood (from what, I didn’t ask). Pudding is an essential component of the traditional Irish breakfast served by most B&Bs. Soup in Ireland doesn’t have chunks. It is puréed. Stew is more like our soup. Chicken goujons are chicken strips. The Irish do not say they are “hungry.” Instead they announce they are feeling “peckish.” The list goes on.

When it was our turn to get served at the table or the bar, consistently the wait staff would ask, some with genuine concern, “Are you okay?”— almost as if initiating a little friendly small talk. My instincts were always to respond, “Yes, I am doing fine.” But when I did this while waiting to order a drink, of course, they would pass me on by and hustle off to the next customer who wasn’t “doing okay.”

By the time we were done pestering the patient wait staff each night with questions about what unfamiliar words meant and what each menu item actually consisted of, they were probably ready to present us a basket of fries and say, “take it or leave it.” Tipping is generally unnecessary in Ireland. Nevertheless, I usually found myself adding extra, hoping it would serve as an informal apology for our unfamiliarity, indecisiveness and delay.

Unlike places like Italy or India, you don’t go to Ireland to indulge in great or exotic food, since most of their fare can be found right here at home. Nevertheless, we never went hungry, thanks to those generous servings of potatoes.

Slán go foil.


Greg Schieber is a Caledonia native and recent graduate of Drake University Law School in Des Moines, Iowa.