ENSHRINED like an icon on my Aunt Frankie's dining room sideboard, the little black china teapot seemed, somehow, to legitimize our family's presence in the New World. Tones dropped reverently when its miraculous rescue at sea was recounted, and as a little girl I sometimes felt an eerie compulsion to genuflect when I passed that sideboard.
I didn't pass it very often, because I grew up in Indiana. Aunt Frankie (something of an icon herself in our family) and my other aunts and uncles, however, lived in Connecticut and considered my father, the baby of seven siblings, a bit unbalanced for abandoning civilization and choosing to live in the Midwest.
Nevertheless, there was lots of love and oceans of Irish laughter, and we all looked forward to the visits, nearly every summer and sometimes at Christmas, when the renegades would come home.
The profusion of Burkes in Connecticut comforted me greatly, since back home in Indiana it was something of a novelty being a Burke. To this day and for all the years I lived there, we were the only Burkes in the local phone book, a matter of such serious distress to me back then that I solemnly adopted Edmund Burke, the English orator and politician, as a relative. It wasn't a vainglorious attempt to manufacture noble roots; he simply won by default as the only Burke I'd ever heard of besides my family in Connecticut.
Though I didn't realize it then, that incipient hunger for family roots would send me off more than two decades later on a multi-phased trans-Atlantic treasure hunt for the real Burkes in my past. How it would have thrilled me then to know, as this recent search revealed, that Ireland's legendary 16th century pirate queen of Connaught, Grania O'Malley, was a Burke by marriage to Sir Richard Burke, who may or may not have been my ancestor. Pirates, of course, are much more desirable than orators as family tree ornaments when you're 10 years old, and a female pirate is nearly too much for a little girl to hope for.
But I hadn't met Grania back then, and the only family history I remembered concerned the little teapot. Time and again I heard Aunt Frankie--who relished her matriarchal role (my grandparents were long since dead) and delivered her tales and opinions with the authority of Mammy Yokum's "I has spoken!"--recall how my great grandfather, a poor Irish emigrant en route to a new life in America, was shipwrecked near the Canadian coast. Huddled miserably in a lifeboat with other survivors, he looked up and saw the black teapot--one of his few wordly possessions to begin with, and now his last--bobbing along in the sea. He scooped it to safety, took it for a sign from heaven that things would get better, passed through Ellis Island and subsequently migrated to Connecticut to begin the Burke family line from which I eventually sprang. Or so went the family legend. The teapot was our link with Ireland, though then it seemed to me just a bridge to ancient history with all the details of time and place and personal connections eroded by neglect and time.
Now, though, some 25 years and a cathartic trip to Ireland later, I think Aunt Frankie was right. There was magic in that teapot after all. A family schism has been mended, and I learned about justice in a muddy field in the west of Ireland. But I'll get to that.
Anyway, back in 1960 another of my father's sisters traveled to Europe with her husband; they decided on a whim to stop over in Ireland. Armed with a ragtag bit of family history, Aunt Hester and Uncle Frank made their way eventually to Whitegate, a tiny, somewhat isolated village (pop. 200) in County Clare and located a gentleman they believed, rightly, to be my grandfather's first cousin. A farmer and horse trainer, Jimmy Jock Burke had seven children and a house about half a mile from the village pub.
My Uncle Frank, an Italian doctor beloved for his warmth and spontaneous generosity, promptly asked one of his wife's new-found Irish cousins if she'd like to come to school in America. The answer was yes, and later that year, 13-year-old Theresa arrived in New Haven. For the next several summers, my own trips to Connecticut were considerably enlivened by the presence of my new Irish cousin.
We finished high school and entered college, me in Chicago, she in Connecticut. Then Theresa fell in love and made plans to marry. My aunt and uncle objected. A battle raged and one night she stormed out of their house, and as it turned out, out of our lives for 20 years. Though she wrote frequently after her marriage, my aunt--carrying the acknowledged Burke stubbornness to unprecedented heights--tore up her letters and cut off all comment to the rest of the family. Have you heard from Theresa, we'd ask. Theresa who, she'd reply.
I, meanwhile, had moved east, first to Washington, then to New York. I wondered about Theresa, especially when I began traveling regularly to Ireland on business. But I never really tried to find her family.
Gradually, though, for whatever reason, I began to nurture an insistent, undeniable need to find out who I was, where I came from. Perhaps it was just a rite of growing older, or maybe my peripatetic way of life. Certainly the catalyst was my father's death three years ago. I wanted to go home, but I wasn't quite sure where and I didn't know how.
So I approached the journey as I approach the ocean in early June, cautiously, teeth gritted, one toe at a time. Impulsively, two summers ago, I left Dublin early one evening to drive clear across Ireland for a peek at my heritage. July days are unusually long in Ireland, so the last of the summer light was just fading when I finally found Whitegate, a single crossroads tucked remotely into the wilds of County Clare. The pubs were closed, the moon was rising and the little village seemed deserted. I had another torturous hour's drive over twisting skeins of country roads to a hotel near Shannon, but I was elated. It was a beginning.
On my next trip to Ireland I got braver, cajoling an old friend from Shannon who knew the countryside well to drive with me back to Whitegate, this time in daylight. We sat whiling away a summer's evening with pints of Smithwick ale and games of darts, learning about the local Burkes. Sure and you can't miss Jimmy Jock's house, the pubkeeper told us, half a mile or so back the road, there's a trailer parked beside it . . .
Don't you want to say hello, urged my friend, slowing the car to a crawl as we passed the house. But my courage fled at the prospect of knocking on a stranger's door and announcing, "Hi, I'm your cousin from America, or that is, I think I'm your cousin from America . . ." I declined, and we drove off silently into the green hush of an Irish country night.
When I came home, I called Aunt Hester, now 83, widowed, lonely. The years, fortunately, have dulled the edges of her anger. Moreover, Aunt Frankie is gone now, so Aunt Hester, the next eldest, is the keeper of the teapot, and I like to think that inanimate yet powerful little vessel influenced her change of heart.
Yes, she said, Theresa's father's name was Jimmy Jock. Yes, she remembered, the town was Whitegate. I knew then I'd have to go back for some answers.
I began to prepare by confiding all this history to some Irish friends in Shannon. They put me in touch with a respected Irish historian and genealogist, Hugh Weir; in a stroke of almost uncanny coincidence, he lives in little Whitegate, had known Jimmy Jock and his family for years and promised me an introduction. When I arrived in the village last November, Hugh was waiting to guide me on a day-long odyssey that spanned 10 centuries and ended with tears and good Irish whiskey at Jimmy Jock's kitchen table.
But first that morning we had headed north into Galway. On the way I learned that all the Burkes in Ireland were descended from the Norman invader, William de Burghs, who arrived in 1185 as chief governor of Ireland. His clan prospered and multiplied as hereditary lords of Ulster and Connaught, planting the family roots firmly throughout the west of Ireland. (I took this as grateful repudiation of the Bedford, Ind., telephone book.)
Our initial destination was Portumna Castle, once the towered center of a 50,000-acre estate, now a magnificent ruin being restored by the Irish Government. Next, on to Clondegoff, a likewise abandoned lakeshore fortified tower, and then Meelick House, a 1791 Georgian house with a fine old Burke crest carved over the front door.
But it wasn't castles or even a manor house that I'd really come to see. They were all Burke homes, but they had really very remotely to do with me, whose own family line took an illegitimate detour from the palaces of privilege centuries ago. Instead, I ended the day in a rainy, muddy field down a winding road from Whitegate to nowhere, gazing at the mossy ruins of an ancient farmhouse etched in a ghostly mist.
Once among the grandest in the countryside, it is said, the house was built of stone and malice by one General Cooper, still remembered in Clare as a ruthless, merciless and loathsome 19th century landlord. He built this once-fine house for himself on the ruins of the simple thatched cottage, quickly destroyed, from which he evicted my family during the Great Famine in 1848, thus setting off the little teapot's perilous journey to America.
I stood there with the cold rain running down my face, the black mud swallowing my shoes, and I started to laugh when perhaps I should have cried. I laughed to see his haughty house now crumbled and overgrown, home only to ravens and field mice, his name scorned and his progeny evaporated. I laughed because I'd found Jimmy Jock and knew I'd find Theresa. I laughed for the endurance and inspiration of a fragile china teapot and the strength of a gutsy and loving, if sometimes stubborn, family. I laughed because I'd finally come home.
Judi Burke Bredemeier is a free-lance writer who has written extensively about Ireland.