Mom and the Girls' Trip to Ireland - 2016

Beyond the Pale


Mike Wheelan and Roberta Clark

Mike Wheelan

Mike Wheelan

My Uncle Mike was three years younger than my mother, Roberta Clark, and the two of them were always very close. They seemed to instinctively know each other's thoughts. Each was the other's barometer for myriad of topics including politics, history, raising families, helping their aging parents, etc. They were playmates as children, relied on each other for the proper response to the regular antics from their brother Don, and they depended on each other when things were hard. Both loved a good practical joke, and they bore the same brand of mischief, even into their later years.

They were raised during the grim years of the Great Depression, on a farm in Iowa, where times were tough for everyone. Mom tells of a heart-wrenching story in her childhood where she watched from a window as their pet calf was loaded in a truck and taken away to be sold -- to help pay the loan that was due on the farm. Mike told a similar story about how the cattle buyer asked if he'd sell him that ol' tomcat, and when Mike agreed that a nickel might be a fair price, the man promptly gave him the coin but said, "I can't take him right now. Will you keep him for me?" And of course he never asked for Mike's kitty again.

Despite plenty of reasons for melancholy and despair, Mom and Uncle Mike instead grew up to tell us stories about the family love which surrounded them, the many adults who looked after their welfare, the opportunities given them, and -- most of all -- the pride in their ancestors. They retold the story about their grandparents' arriving on the sailing vessel The Great Western, docking in Boston after an unusually long voyage of seven and a half weeks at sea. John Swift, from Ballylee in County Galway, at age 18 sailed with his sister, Mary. And Mary Rimmer, from Brewood in Staffordshire, England, at age 3 sailed with her parents and two siblings. Unaware of each other at the time, years later they met and married in Galesburg, Illinois.


Roberta and Mike

Roberta & Mike's brand of humor

When they'd tell the stories, I was in awe at wealth of information they wove from storytellers in the generations before them. They connected me to dozens of people in their stories, and they preserved photos and mementos linked to their past. Their affection for their aunts, uncles and cousins was deep and abiding, and each time they told us about Uncle Carl or George Wheelan or Charlie Ragan, it was clear to me that "family" was a much broader concept to them than the members of their own household.

I relied on Mom or Uncle Mike to help me understand their large and complex family tree. Because their mother came from such a large family, added to their cousins on the Wheelan side, Mom and Mike counted fifty-two first cousins in their generation! Of course many of them were much older cousins -- some of whom they had never met, despite the large gatherings at the Swift reunions which started shortly after the turn of the 20th century and continued until the 1980's, when attendance had dwindled to just a handful of those who remained.

In 1980, Mike and Mom and their sister Esther took a trip to Ireland. The first place they headed was Gort, County Galway, armed with copies of some old letters which had been saved by their Aunt Kate. They weren't optimistic they would find any relatives living in the place their grandfather had left 130 years earlier, but nevertheless they showed the letters to others and asked if any of the names in them might still have family in the area.

Roberta Clark
Roberta Clark

Someone directed them to an old man working in a hay field, and after reading one of the letters, he suggested they would want to talk to Brendon Downey. Carrying the letters, they found the home of Brendon and Mary Downey not far from Thoor Ballylee. As Brendon read the letters, he came across the name of his grandfather, John Cooney. A letter written in 1911 to John Swift by his first cousin Bridget Larkin said, "Your friend John Cooney is also buried lately." Brendon paused and wiped away a tear. "He was my grandfather. I remember when he died," he told his guests. "I was just a lad and I went to his funeral."

Mike, Esther and Mom came home from Ireland filled with more stories about the places they had seen and the people they had met. It make me even more curious about the names of those who came from Ireland as well as the names of those they left behind.

Over the years, Uncle Mike was always generous to pass along to me any piece of information he would come across which shed more light on the family tree. Mom always made careful note of family relations scattered across the country. Both of them made sure we knew who our relatives are. Every time I visited Washington, IA, it seems that I was introduced to yet another cousin whom I had not met.

Mom is responsible for giving me my love of writing. She was my high school English teacher and is still my most authoritative source for answers to thorny questions on grammar and usage. Her faithful correspondence to her parents and her children when we went off to college provided a great example of the (now lost) art of letter-writing. A few years ago, Uncle Mike found a sheaf of letters Mother had written to their parents in a 25-year period between her college years and the start of her teaching career. When we read them, we realized what a good description they provided of those years. We compiled them in a book titled Dear Folks, and she gave copies to her children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews as Christmas presents.

Last summer (July 2015), Uncle Mike passed away after losing a battle with leukemia. He strove to prepare himself and his family for the inevitable, but the loss was hard on them and the rest of us.

Yet in preparing for this trip, I was reminded many times of Mike's underlying influence in my curiosity and affection for my Irish roots. He helped nuture my interest with his own devotion to his family, and I will always be grateful for that.

Mike's note about his sister

Mike appended this note to the galley proof of the
stories he wrote for his grandkids


Other stuff

This page was last edited on 23-Apr-2018

back to the top