On a trip to the past, she finds home

The ties that bind me to Ireland are slender but strong. Only my maternal grandfather, Pappy Duff, could claim his people were "a bit of the old sod." My mother thought her family had Cork connections, so my visit to the "rebel city" is as much pilgrimage as vacation.

Rather than bury myself in the dusty archives of Cork's Catholic churches, I look for my Irish ancestors as I tread the narrow lanes that meander off St. Patrick's Street.

At the bustling English Market, I sample local cheeses and admire neat rows of pink and silver fish, but bypass the wobbling bovine body parts that remind me of biology lab. Sheep tripe may be a local specialty, but it's not the way I want to get in touch with my roots.

A visit to the Crawford Municipal Art Gallery surprises me. The city's collection includes prints by Dali, Hockney, and Miro as well as the passionate paintings of Jack B. Yeats, brother of playwright William Butler Yeats.

A leisurely stroll along the River Lee refreshes me, but I'm still looking for some intangible key to my past as I board the eastbound train for Cobh.

It's a pleasant seven-mile ride to the maritime hub that the Irish pronounce "Cove." The late-morning train is nearly empty when it arrives at the Cobh Heritage Centre. The former train station now highlights the sometimes-painful history of the harbor where 2.5 million Irish departed their homeland, most of them forever. My progenitors, Patrick and Elizabeth Duff, were very likely among them.

First to greet me is the statue of Annie Moore. This life-size figure of the first immigrant processed at Ellis Island stands clustered with her two brothers. Their polished oak faces are a mix of determination and concern, but so softly human it seems as though they might whisper to me.

Stepping inside the Cobh Heritage Centre, I find that the large room is divided into tableaux resonating with the sights and sounds of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the area was known as Queenstown.

Scenes of crowded ships and family farewells are enlivened by recorded recollections from the men, women, and children who departed for Australia and America. In 1912 this island town was the Titanic's last port of call, and the Lusitania was torpedoed off her coast just three years later. The remnants of these voyages tell stories of pathos and courage.

My hour-long visit evokes memories of my own losses, so it's no surprise when the spires of St. Colman's church beckon. My grandfather's religion was Yankees baseball, but he never missed Sunday mass.

The warm sun is reassuring as I climb up steeply angled streets until I'm dwarfed by the cathedral's carved granite facade. Solidly anchored to the hill overlooking the harbor, the Gothic structure was surely the last bit of Ireland on the horizon as my great-grandparents looked homeward for the last time. Passing clouds allow sunlight to streak the harbor traffic, but my westward gaze is unimpeded.

I'm not sure of the names of the sculpture saints who guard the entrance as I pull open the heavy wooden door, and the cathedral's noteworthy carillon is silent as I cross the foyer.

It's peaceful, but I'm not alone. Instead of a dark, empty nave, I find two rows of schoolgirls in front of the main altar. They are no more than 7 or 8 years old, and their well-scrubbed faces are crowned by curls as dark as chestnuts or framed with braids as pale as yellow cornsilk. The redheads range from deep amber to fresh strawberry as the dozen or so heads bob in unison.

The object of each child's attention is a slim woman in her 20s. Her body language says "teacher."

I can't see her face, but as she raises her hands, the girls begin to sing. As their young soprano voices reach me, I recognize the words. It's a hymn we sing in my church in Connecticut.

Softly, I join in the chorus: "We are companions on the journey. Breaking bread and sharing life. And in the love we bear is the hope we share. For we believe in the love of our God."

The song embraces me like a room full of cousins. I may never meet any blood kin on this trip, but these children have bridged the chasm of time and distance for me. Kindred spirits need not have the name "Duff," nor is my emotional inheritance dependent on a face-to-face encounter. I know I belong here as I sing each verse.

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