Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Journeys and Quests

“Here lies the remains of JOHN LEWIS, who slew the Irish lord, settled Augusta Co., located the town of Staunton, and furnished five sons to fight the battles of the AMERICAN REVOLUTION. He was the son of Andrew Lewis, Esq. And Mary Calhoun, and was born in Donegal Co., Ireland, 1678, and died in Virginia Feb. 1, 1762. He was a brave man, a true patriot and a firm friend of liberty throughout the world.”
—A gravestone in Staunton, Virginia

This year we spent most of the Easter school break in the United States. It was the first time in more than three years that we had been back.

My wife asked me how it felt to be home. For me it did not really feel like being home since we were in Washington D.C. and Virginia—thousands of miles from the places where I have lived most of my life. Still, even though there are many differences between the Eastern Seaboard and the West Coast, it was definitely my own country. The money and the various ways of speaking English and the freeways and the sprawling shopping malls were all very familiar.

Our fourteen-year-old loved being there. Too many places to shop and to eat and to find WiFi. She was fascinated by all the national flags waving, seemingly, on every business and home. She began counting them but gave up after the tally went into the hundreds. The Irish do not bring out their country’s flag except perhaps leading up to a big international sporting match. If you want to see the tricolor of the republic waving in front of people’s houses, your best bet is to visit certain neighborhoods in UK-administrated Northern Ireland. In the republic any flags you see on houses will likely be county flags—in advance of a provincial or national championship.

The Virginia D.C. suburbs were unrecognizable from my first visit there 39 years ago. Much like Redmond, Washington, where I lived during the late 1980s and early 1990s, places that had recently been rural had been consumed by malls, business parks and acres of apartment buildings. And every person we dealt with in hotels, restaurants and businesses seemed to be an immigrant. Something that would not have happened on any of my previous visits: we had a delicious meal near Mount Vernon in a little hole-in-the-wall place that could have been transplanted directly from Mexico. As ever, the American entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well and it is best represented by newcomers who truly appreciate a relatively free economic environment.

Having recently contributed my share to the ever increasing amounts of money individuals and businesses are obliged to send to Washington, I was not surprised to see that the federal capital and its environs are one area of the country that is booming economically.

We were there to visit family, but it was also an opportunity to acquaint our daughter with the capital city of the nation of her birth. She is at an age where she can appreciate it. (I myself was nine years older than she is when I first visited Washington.) She was too young when we moved abroad for her to have any memories of living in the U.S., and she definitely gets an interesting view of my country via school in Ireland. She is essentially learning about it as a foreign country, albeit one that has been entwined for centuries with Irish history.

We experienced a bit of that connection when a group of us set out on a quest to Staunton, Virginia, to find the grave of one of the area’s earliest settlers, John Lewis. As promised, the grave was there, surrounded by a small iron fence on top of a hill overlooking what was once Lewis’s homestead. The gravestone was inscribed as quoted above.

John Lewis grave View from grave
John Lewis’s grave and the view from there

Of my eight great-grandparents, seven were born in Europe (three in Sweden and four in what is now Ukraine), but one of my great-grandmothers seems to have descended from a line that goes all the way back to the American colonies. From what I can determine, she may well be a great-great-great-granddaughter of John Lewis’s daughter, Margaret. If so, that gives me a scant Irish connection of my own, separate from that of my marriage. While Lewis’s grandparents were from England and Scotland, he and Margaret were born in County Donegal. It is possible that the “Irish lord” whom he slew may have lived in the house in the photo below and which we found during another quest two counties to the north of our current home.

Corkagh House?
The former Corkagh House in Donegal?

This research has subtly altered my self-perception. For most of my life I had thought of myself as the product Europe-to-America emigration—with no direct personal connection to my country’s earliest history. The prospect of having connections to people who fought in the Revolutionary War has the strange result of making me feel more a part of a larger tapestry. In the end, though, the make-up of my DNA has little practical meaning. All that really matters is the here and now and who I am today.

The one thing I certainly have in common with my various ancestor is the willingness to move to another continent as part of the process of making my own way in the world—not unlike many people I knew in California and the Pacific Northwest and not unlike all the people from myriad countries we encountered in D.C. and Virginia.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Cousin, I am a descendant of Thomas Lewis, John Lewis' son. I have been searching to find the house that John lived in in Ireland where he slew his landlord. Thank you for the great article.