Farewell cousin Nora, I’m so glad fate brought us together

If Con O'Brien hadn't pulled out of emigrating to New Zealand, John Arnold would never have known Nora O'Brien, who died last week
Farewell cousin Nora, I’m so glad fate brought us together

Emigrants leaving Cork in 1928. John Arnold’s distant relation Con O’Brien almost left Ireland as a young man, but opted to stay

FAITH and fate are two similar words but with different meanings, even though I was told one time that if you have faith then you must believe in fate.

I suppose faith is believing in something or some concept though it cannot be scientifically proven. It is usually spoken of in terms of religious practise, custom and tradition, whereas fate can simply be the idea that what will be, will be.

It’s not necessarily saying that everyone’s future is laid out or mapped out for them at birth and cannot be changed. No, it’s more the view that sometimes things happen, not in a planned fashion, but turn out for the best.

There was a man in West Cork one time in the last century. One of a big family who farmed the land as his forefathers had done. Well, anyhow, this man kind of ‘fell in’ farming, probably left school around the age of 15 and settled in tilling and tending the ancestral acres.

For nigh on 15 years he farmed until, as the song says, “a sudden thought came to my mind that I should go away”. Along with a close neighbour and good friend, he decided to travel to New Zealand and try a new way of life. He was only about 30 so the world was his oyster.

Two tickets were bought for the journey and the adventure of a lifetime. New Zealand was a long way away and the lure of ‘faraway hills are greener’ and ‘ a land where milk and honey flows’ must have been very strong. Did fate intervene or simply did his parents say: “You’ve a lot of years put into farming and should stay here”?

So his friend and neighbour ‘bade farewell to Erin’ but Cornelius O’Brien, Con, stayed and the rest, as they say, is history.

Like many a man before him, Con O’Brien came east and bought a farm in Ballinascarta — no, not Ballinascarthy, West Cork, but Ballinascarta, near Midleton. He purchased a grand holding from the Carroll family. Here he put to good use the skills and techniques he had honed at home near Dunmanway in his youth.

Con was born and reared in the townland of Girlough and home is where the heart is, so, when a new house was built for Con and family, it became ‘Girlough House’.

There’s an old phrase, ‘well, do you know what, but didn’t he marry well’. In Con’s case I’m not saying it just because he wed my second cousin, once removed, Nora Fitzgerald, from nearby Mogeely. No, they both came from big families and home and the hearth meant so much to both of them.

People often scratch their heads when I go on about second cousins, once removed or fourth cousins, twice removed, but Nora knew exactly what I meant! She and I had he same McCarthy blood in our veins.

Some say ‘our’ McCarthys came hither from around the Ballynoe side in the late 1700s and settled in the parish of Lisgoold.

Luckily, a few decades back, two other McCarthy cousins of ours organised a clan get-together below in the hotel in Garryvoe. It was a great gathering, with people present born in the 1890s and all the subsequent generations. That was the first time I met Nora and we clicked like peas in a pod.

Wherever they came from initially, it was in the townland of Ballyvatta (pronounced Ballawatta) that Tim McCarthy and his Fitzgerald wife, Ellen, made their home. They were great, great grandparents of mine. They had at least eight children, all born from around the Famine years of the 1840s onwards.

One son, James (Seamus Rua) — I suppose you could call him Foxy Jim — got the home farm. A brother, Daniel, my great grandfather, took up farming in Ballinaskeha — where my mother’s mother was born. Other brothers went to Condonstown and Ballinakilla, thus ensuring a copious supply of McCarthys all over Lisgoold parish.

James McCarthy’s daughter Nora married Robert Fizgerald in Ballygibbon, Mogeely. That Nora and my grandmother, also Nora, were first cousins. Nora Fitzgerald, who married Con O’Brien, and my mother were second cousins so that made Nora and me second cousins once removed, sure ’tis very simple to follow really!.

Nora O’Brien was a gas woman, jolly and airy. Herself and Con came from large families and reared nine lovely children themselves. They worked hard to provide for their family but loved life and lived it to the full. Bringing up and educating a big family was no bed of roses, but Con and Nora took it in their stride.

Con might not have migrated to New Zealand all those years ago, but their family travelled aplenty, bringing back stories from faraway places with strange-sounding names.

Con was so proud of his West Cork heritage and family and Nora similarly of hers in the ancient barony of Imokilly.

Nora was a stylish woman, not just in terms of clothes but in appearance and the way she would meet and greet you. You know the way it is with certain ‘boring’ people, if you saw ’em coming up the street against you, well, you’d cross the road to avoid meeting them — we all encounter persons like that. My cousin Nora then was the exact opposite. If she was across the street from you ’tis the way you’d cross over in order to meet and talk to her.

She loved a good chat about relations and farming and cards and the ways of the world. Yerra, you’d hate saying goodbye and do so with a warm after-glow that would stay with you. So much so, when you’d get home the first remark would be ‘Wait until I tell you who I met in town...’

Well lads, one day I had to go to Midleton in a rush. I can’t remember was it something for the tractor or the chainsaw I was after. Anyhow I left home in a a bit of a tare. I wasn’t shaved with most of a week, wearing a torn shirt and tattered pants.

Going out the door, I stuck me feet into the first pair of shoes I met and away with me. These shoes had seen better days and were now at the stage where the soles were departing from the uppers.

Well, as I flapped and flopped along the Main Street, who was coming up against me only Nora? We stopped and hugged and as she released her embrace, whatever move she made didn’t she spot the excuses for shoes!

“John Arnold, in the name of God and his Blessed Mother, won’t you go down this instant to the charity shop below, sure they’d give a free pair of shoes to the likes of you” — and half the town of Midleton listening to us and laughing at me!

Con died four years ago at the start of March. We gave him a great send- off. As the family members filled in his grave in Mogeely, cemetery songs and hymns were sung in a grand old tradition.

Nora missed him a fright, but marriages and christenings and travel and playing 45, and chatting and tracing kept her going. She died last week at the age of 85 — so different this time with Covid restrictions keeping hundreds away.

The sun shone in Mogeely this day week as Nora was laid to rest with Con, the man that faith or fate decreed, didn’t emigrate to New Zealand all those years ago.

I suppose if a stranger walked by, they’d have wondered at the sound of shovels gently moving the soil that reared Nora and would have paused to listen to The Boys of Kilmichael, Nora, and her favourite song, My Homeland In Young Grove. Nora loved the old songs, the fun and the craic. She knew the difference between relations and connections but had time for them all. I was looking at the McCarthy family tree last night, my second cousin, once removed might be gone but she’ll not be forgotten.

The legacy of Nora and Con lives on and every time I’ll buy a pair of shoes I’ll think of Nora and laugh.

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