Sunday, March 4, 2001    Daytona Beach News-Journal

Search for family's past becomes an 'Irish Odyssey'

Staff Writer

If you've a mind to hear, Bob McNamara and his son, Robert, have a tale to tell. A true tale. Of an odyssey they've made. A journey rich in history that plunged them into the past and then brought them full circle.

It begins and ends in the tiny Irish townland of Maghera, not far from the village of Tulla, in the parish of Clooney, in the county of Clare. Though if others were telling it, it could be set almost anywhere. All of us, after all, are rooted somewhere. And most of us, whether we admit it or not, are at least a little curious about where those roots may be. Perhaps there is something in the human spirit that yearns to know.

For Bob McNamara, 77, and his son, Robert, 43, the yearning was deep. There are no castles or kings or saints or larger-than-life figures in their tale of Ireland. No "leprechauns dancing on fence posts," as Robert wryly puts it. Only ordinary folk now long gone. But to the Port Orange father and son the characters in their story are nothing less than extraordinary -- because they belong to them.

Like countless others, judging by the way the hobby of genealogy has boomed in recent years, the McNamaras have become seriously immersed in uncovering their roots.

For them it's been an arduous and painstaking quest. It has taken them from the Family History Center in the Holly Hill Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where they've poured over microfilm copies of old Irish records, to a Catholic rectory in the shadow of ancient Quin Abbey in Ireland, where they've touched the handwritten real thing.

It's brought them face to face, in spirit at least, with an ancestor known as The Doctor Mack, who was not a doctor, really, but a coachman, born in 1855 or thereabouts, and who knew so much about horses and other things that he was always called by his honorary appellation.

It's placed them on a bridge, called Nestor's Bridge, named after the family of Bridget Nestor, Bob McNamara's great-grandmother and The Doctor Mack's mother-in-law.

And it's given them a sense of who they are and where they come from.

A transplanted son

From childhood on, Bob McNamara says he knew bits and pieces of his family's Maghera roots. But his late father, John McNamara, who emigrated from Ireland to Paterson, N.J., in 1904 and died in 1965, wasn't one to talk much about the past.

"If you asked a question, he'd say what do you want to know that for?' " relates Bob, who worked as an engineer for Mack Trucks Inc. before retiring to Port Orange.

"My grandfather was never as romantic about Ireland as people are today," says Robert, a writer, Internet editor for and former fact checker for Rolling Stone magazine. And probably with good reason. Though they may have loved the land, life was hard and opportunities limited for young men such as John McNamara and several of his siblings, who set their sights on the United States.

And so the transplanted son of The Doctor Mack put down new roots in New Jersey, working for the railroad and rearing a family of 11 children, the same number his parents had. Although John's wife, who was born in the United States, corresponded with his remaining relatives in Ireland from time to time and exchanged some photos, the children didn't know much beyond the fact that their grandfather in County Clare had something to do with horses.

Over time, some of John McNamara's descendants got the notion they must have come from landed, horse-owning gentry. But "the stories that circulated in the family over the years about our ancestors in Ireland were mostly fiction," notes Bob. It's "far-fetched," adds Robert, in light of Irish history, to think that a Catholic at the time could have been a well-off landowner.

What they longed to learn was the truth, "to compile a family history that was factual . . . But I had no clue how to start," says Bob. Then, for Bob's 76th birthday in October 1999, Robert gave him an Irish genealogy handbook and the two began researching in earnest. The book revealed that a 1901 Irish census existed. And we knew that "grandpa had to be on there," says Robert.

“Certified imbecile-free”

There's "one thing the Irish can thank the English for" -- at least the Irish who are interested in tracing their roots, according to Robert McNamara. The English were "fanatical" about keeping records.

The McNamaras also owe a debt of gratitude to the Mormon Church which, for religious reasons, helps its members look for their ancestors all over the world as far back as possible, and willingly shares its resources with people of all faiths.

At the Family History Center in Holly Hill, Bob and Robert discovered it was possible to gain access to the records the English kept on the Irish. For a small fee, they ordered microfilm copies of the 1901 Irish census. And after poring over reels and reels of the film (relying on clues such as John's mother's maiden name, his approximate age in 1901, the fact that he had talked about being reared by his grandmother because his mother died young, and, most importantly, that the family lived near Tulla) they struck gold.

They found a family they felt sure was their own. The head was listed as Bridget Nestor, 74. Her son-in-law, Patrick McNamara, 46, occupation coachman, was listed next. And among the children was 12-year-old John. The column on the form indicating whether any member of the household was an "imbecile or idiot or lunatic" was blessedly blank.

"We're very proud that our family was certified imbecile-free," jokes Robert.

According to the census, the family, which numbered 10 people at the time (some of the older children already had left home) lived in a three-room house with three windows, designated, like most others in Maghera, as 2nd class on the census.

Through further research they obtained copies of other documents, including the handwritten baptismal record of John, son of Patrick McNamara and Mary Nestor.

They also discovered that their ancestor Patrick McNamara of Maghera was included in the archives of the Irish Folklore Commission. A section of the archives, compiled in 1937 by the schoolmaster in Maghera, contained stories and advice attributed to Patrick McNamara about such things as the lucky way to pick up a horseshoe and the effectiveness of treating sore eyes with water from a blessed well. He is described as an 80-year-old man known locally as "The Doctor Mack" -- a great authority on horses and "cures" and "a very good storyteller."

Bob and Robert thirsted to know more about The Doctor Mack and those who went before him. But eventually they hit a brick wall. Some handwritten church records had never been microfilmed. There was only one way to delve deeper.

"To get the whole story we had to go to Ireland," says Bob.

In The Doctor's image

"I could tell the second I saw you that you were related to The Doctor. I swear you are the image of him," said the old man, looking up from repairing his tractor, eyeing Bob McNamara. And it was in this way that Pat O'Halloran, a farmer of about 90 who lives between Tulla and Maghera, welcomed back the American descendants of the legendary coachman he knew as a boy.

O'Halloran was one of many Irish old-timers who remembered The Doctor Mack and helped fill in the blanks for Bob and Robert when they visited County Clare last May, and then again in September.

It didn't take them long, they say, to realize that they had come home.

In fact, less than three hours after getting off a plane at Shannon Airport on their first visit and setting out in a rented car -- with Bob's wife, Marie, driving while Robert navigated using detailed maps he got from the Irish government, including one showing the precise plots of land his ancestors farmed in the 1800s -- the American McNamaras came face to face with their family's past.

"We really knew right where we were going," says Robert. "We wanted to get off the plane in Ireland and go to Nestor's Bridge without asking for directions . . . "

They ended up in a church parking lot in Maghera from which they could see a small stone house with two chimneys that looked exactly like the one in a snapshot that had been sent to Bob's mother in America in the 1930s.

"I got chills. I was speechless," says Bob. "I'm saying to myself, is it really the place?"

Nearby was Nestor's Bridge, upon which they walked.

"I couldn't believe I'm standing on the bridge my ancestors crossed in the 1800s, the 1700s," says Robert.

They met a young couple, artists who live nearby in an old converted schoolhouse, who introduced them to some of those in the neighborhood with long memories, including Michael Kenneally, 88, who lived in the house that was formerly the residence of The Doctor Mack and his family. Michael's brother, Tom, was married to one of John McNamara's sisters, so Michael was a relative, in a sense, and had inherited the house.

Kenneally, who died in November, welcomed the McNamaras into the two-chimneyed farmhouse that had changed little over the years, where they sat by a fireplace that had warmed generations of their family.

What totally floored them, however, was when Kenneally produced snapshots he'd kept in the house that were sent to the McNamaras in Ireland by Bob's mother. A picture of Bob as a boy was among them. Seeing those pictures, says Robert, "validated our research like nothing else."

Bob and Robert also arranged to meet with the priest in nearby Quin, the Rev. Michael McInerney, whose reaction was an amazed and incredulous "get out," when the Americans told him they had viewed some of their family's Irish church records on a microfilm reader in Holly Hill. He was more than happy to let them look at the real thing.

"When he brought two old books out, chills ran up my back," says Bob.

The McNamaras began to piece together what they believe is an accurate family history, beginning with Bob's great-great-grandfather, Darby Nestor, who was born in the 1790s.

But they were most moved by the people they met who treated them as if they were neighbors who had simply been gone for a while.

"They just accepted us as if we were connected," says Robert.

And from those who remembered The Doctor Mack, a picture emerged of the amiable coachman who had worked for the gentry, and knew all about horses, and had a little compass on his watch chain, and taught the children how to find hazelnuts, and could talk for hours on many subjects.

Pat O'Halloran, the old farmer they met, told the McNamaras that he remembered well the day of The Doctor Mack's funeral in 1941. People were lamenting that he knew so much, and now that he was gone "who would ever know what he knew?"

Bob and Robert McNamara will be the featured speakers at the Halifax Genealogical Society at 1:30 p.m. Thursday at the Ormond Beach Public Library, 22 S. Beach St. The event is free and open to the public.



Click the McNamara arms for home page

Return to home page