When you grow up in the United States with the last name of Finnerty, you get used to the idea that you’ll probably never meet another Finnerty on the road. It’s not that common a name.
It turns out that when a Finnerty visits Ireland, you don’t necessarily meet a Finnerty unless you go looking for them. That’s how I ended up in Chaplefinnerty Graveyard on a wet October day.
I did find some demised Finnertys, but only one family had a marked gravestone that was still legible. Perhaps other kinspeople were on those stones that had sunken into the ground, or fallen over. Yet even when I uncovered them from the moss, they were unreadable. It is documented that a certain Father James Finnerty, who died in 1683, is buried there. So who knows what other Finnertys might be underfoot?
Just because I am starting in a cemetery doesn’t mean that this will be a maudlin tale about The Old Sod. In fact, my Irish experiences have been wonderful. I actually met some live Finnertys and a lot of locals who claimed they knew a Finnerty or two. And I found my castle.
Believe me, there’s nothing quite like finding your family castle, especially if you didn’t even know you had one. According to the books, Donamon Castle was first built by the “O’Finaghty” Clan in the 12th century.
It was a simple stone tower, not very big, but with thick walls. The sort of tower that a middle-sized bunch of clansmen could hole up in until their enemies got bored and went away. But also a tower that could be torn down, which happened several times, after which it was rebuilt and expanded.
The traditional name was O’Finnochta, which means (no kidding) snow white. The family lore says that’s because the hair of elderly Finnochtas turns white. My hair indeed is white, and I have a white beard. I could play Santa as a seasonal job.
From Finnochta we get Finnerty, Finerty, Feeney, Finny, and a number of other variations. And wouldn’t you know, when my wife and I explored the beautiful landscape of Connemara, and went up a cow path called a road, and came out looking over a sparkling lake, well there was the hamlet of Finny. I say a hamlet, because we only saw about ten houses, two of which were long ago abandoned. I picked one as my mythical family homestead, undoubtedly abandoned because of the poor soil, or the sheep got ill, or the Finnertys decided to pack up and leave their hillside for the promise of life in America. It wasn’t because of the Potato Famine — that occurred in 1845–1849. My Finnerty ancestor came over in 1869, and to be truthful, it’s unlikely he and his family left a crumbling stone farmhouse in Finny, since he opened his own pharmacy after he arrived in Philadelphia.
Tommy Finnerty and his son Thomas Finnerty run a butcher shop in Oughterard, County Galway. We saw their sign and we popped in. It is named for his father, Roger Finnerty.
I met the son, a handsome lad, and he called up his dad so we could have a wee chat. Dad (Tommy) told me that his grandfather was also named Thomas, so this is a traditional bunch if I ever met one. Tommy told me that his family goes way back in a small town near Oughterard, where there were so many Finnertys, his grandfather had to compete for recognition with another Thomas Finnerty who was born at the same time but “wasn’t related.” Tommy is also interested in family history, and perhaps as he continues he will find that the two Thomases were indeed related, along with my brother who happens to be named Thomas Finnerty. As far as I am concerned, every Finnerty is a cousin, except for the cattle thieves.
It was Tommy who told me about Chaplefinnerty. He said it was a small enclave of Finnertys up near Roscommon, and got its name because the priest looked out on so many Finnertys in his congregation. Well that was a fun fact, so I looked it up. Google Maps says it doesn’t exist, but there is a Chaplefinnerty graveyard, and I got the coordinates. Watch out for using coordinates unless you know what you’re doing. The coordinates kept leading me to a small spot in Norway. It turns out that a hyphen before a coordinate (as in -8.92365) is significant. Significant enough to move you from Norway and back to Ireland.
Now if you’re going to meet a Finnerty in Ireland, I sincerely suggest you meet Maria Finnerty Kennedy. Maria and her mother, Mary Finnerty, have lovingly restored the family grain mill. It is a water-driven mill, and farmers from the area used to bring corn and other grains to be ground. Maria and Mary can get the mill running for you, just as it would have in the olden days and tell you all about not only grain, but flax — the basis for linen — because the family had a linen mill as well. They call the site Finnertys Mills, and as soon as we heard of it, we knew we had to travel to Loughrae to find them. That was on our first trip in 2016, and after three good visits we have become fast friends.
Maria is doing her own family genealogy, and perhaps she and Tommy and I will discover the intersection that makes us all linked. Who knows, it might be one FINNACHTA of Armagh, who ancient heralds claim was only 68 generations removed from Adam (yes, that Adam).
Before I get to telling about my castle, this might be a good place to talk about the patriarchal nature of this endeavor. As one sees, a Finnerty descendant is tracing things back through a line of male surnames. We are all familiar with this tradition, only recently upended in the U.S. by couples making up their own last names (i.e., Evergreen, Dragonwagon, Jeannechild, Sunflower) or bringing in the wife’s last name, as in Corson-Finnerty. So here I am, chasing after Finnertys, when I could be looking for my mother’s people in Wales (Mapes). Or her mother’s people in Germany (Reiser). Or, more easily, my father’s mother’s people on the Green Isle (Gallagher). Or, what the hell, start tracing the matriarchal generations back to Eve (yes, that Eve).
So the God’s Honest Truth is that I am in part playing out a fantasy in searching for my “roots.” But, like a scavenger hunt, I keep finding little treasures along the way, and I’m hooked. I picked Finnerty and I’m sticking with it. Maybe I’ll add Gallagher before I fly up to heaven.
Of course the fantasy has some basis in reality, just enough to have me and my wife traipsing all over Ireland (some of her people come from Donegal). And Truth to be Told, Ireland is eminently traipsable. It’s got craggy cliffs, green hills, romantic or tragic ruins around every corner, pubs at every corner, friendly denizens, castles, seventeen Michelin star restaurants, bullet holes in buildings on St. Stephen’s Square from the 1916 Uprising, spray-painted sheep, vegans, freshly baked croissants at every gas station, bogs, and even beaches.
And then there’s the castle.
Many years ago my wife and I visited a craft exhibition and encountered a “Visit Ireland” booth. It was staffed by a real Irish person. I gave her my surname and she consulted her books. “Ah yes,” she said, “the Finnerty clan has its origins near Roscommon along the banks of the River Suck.” She said it with a straight face, and she didn’t seem to understand why we found it very funny.
Fast forward to 2016. My wife finally drags me to Ireland on the excuse of my 70th birthday. I had resisted the idea because I hate spending money on what seemed like a luxury, and I wasn’t sure how I would feel about actually being “back” in Ireland. Maybe I’d get all weepy and sentimental. As it happened I did get a wee bit emotional, just after Maria Finnerty hugged us and said to me “Welcome Home.”
As a lark, we decided to find the River Suck. I wanted to go to a bridge and have my picture taken with the river sign behind me. We picked the little hamlet of Donamon, a charming country drive from Galway. We found a bridge; we found a sign. I got out of the car and posed for my picture. Behind me, and up a hill was a rather large and apparently intact castle. “Let’s cross the bridge and take my picture with the castle behind me,” says I. “We’ll tell people it’s the Finnerty Castle.”
So we did just that, and my wife snapped the picture. Then I walked over to the historical marker and here is what I found: “The first recorded reference to Donamon Castle is in the Annals of the Four Masters in 1154. The Castle was the seat of the O’Finaghty’s, a Connach clan. [It is] one of the country’s oldest inhabited buildings….”
Unfortunately, the O’Finaghtys lost the castle to the Burkes in 1307, and the Burkes were evicted by Oliver Cromwell and his army in 1652, and the Caulfields took over in 1668 and hung on through renovations, expansion, and decay until 1920. Then the IRA may or may not have used it as a hideaway. At some point after independence, the Irish Land Commission took it over. In 1929 it was sold to a Catholic Missionary order for £1,300.
£1,300 is worth about $103,000 today. If that seems cheap for a castle that was still in reasonably good shape, it looks even better when you toss in 183 acres of land.
I don’t know what your reaction, dear reader, would be to finding your family castle. Mine was somewhat odd. You have to get that I am very extraverted and my wife is quite reserved. “Let’s walk up on the grounds,” says she. I felt shy and embarrassed, and I wanted to leave. But I followed her onto the grounds. We walked around the castle until we came to a massive staircase leading to an entrance door. “Let’s go up,” says she. I refused. So she went up the staircase alone. I kind of hid at the bottom.
She rang the doorbell and was met by a convivial retired missionary named Father Lanagan. She called down to me to come up. I came out from behind a small wall and walked up the stairs. She introduced me as “a Finnerty.” He smiled. “Ah, now you’re into it,” he said and invited us in. Once in my castle, I reverted to type. We talked for over an hour.
Father Lanagan said that only five retired priests lived in the castle, and that he — in his 70s — was caring for the elderly ones. He wasn’t sure what would happen to the castle next. Naturally, I offered him £1,500 on the spot, a nice profit for 1929. He demurred. Turns out that the entire Irish and British Order of the Divine Word Missionaries would have to decide what to do with the castle.
After our wee visit, we bid a fond farewell to Donamon Castle, and the next day said goodbye to Galway, and traveled back to our comfortable 1,983 sq. ft. home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Recently we viewed the Downton Abbey movie. Poor Lady Mary is left with the dilemma of keeping up the property and the lands. I feel her pain. Indeed, the cost of utilities and maintenance on my castle might be burdensome. But I keep thinking about it. Maybe I’ll raise my offer to £2,000.
Adam Corson-Finnerty is an occasional writer. He lives with his wife, Susan, and five cats, in Bucks County, PA. His people lost their castle in 1307.