by Cathy Fitzgerald (Mary Cowie’s daughter)
Read at Mary Cowie’s memorial service in Havelock North, New Zealand, 20 February, 2018
Sweetest, Dearest Mary Cowie
19 September 1936 – 29 January 2018. RIP.
And all manner of things shall be exceeding well.”
I am so grateful to have had such a loving mother and best friend for so long. She touched my life and many others’ lives in a delightful, caring and uplifting way. She was fascinated by life and had a unique ability to tune into, and affirm and give comfort to other people’s different journeys. For this she was much loved and she expressed love back so generously.
My mother loved the big questions of life, where are we going? Where do we come from? She was an engaging storyteller and had won cups for speech-craft at high school; in Ireland, such people gifted in our oldest oral traditions are still respected and called seanchaí – the stories they tell creatively transmit the insights and the values of our lived histories. And the lives and values of our ancestors are perhaps more important now in how we might best dwell in our over-complicated, rootless world that often ignores the value of place and caring communities. In this, mum’s most enduring passion was to understand and pass on her knowledge of where our family came from and who they were.
And Mum was skilled at looking at legal records in her first job as a secretary for the lands and mines in Hokitika (West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand). Mum loved finding things out and making connections with people and places. She had an astonishing memory for dates and stories. When her daughters moved across the world, mum quickly embraced email and Skype and then started, with my help to create a blog website (this website) almost ten years ago to host all her family records, memories and family photos (plus some recipes). She loved Facebook and keeping up with friends and family and her blog connected her to relatives, some of whom she visited overseas, in Tasmania, even to Michigan in America. She even asked me about Twitter but I thought it best she concentrate on her blog and Facebook 🙂 . But I wonder now, how she might have relished firing comments back to others via twitter.
However, today I want to share how her searching for her roots on a special day during one of her visits to Ireland has gifted our family with an unexpected physical connection to our ancestors lives. She was still thinking about this day recently in December (2017) just gone, asking me about the photos I took on this special day.
Mum and Michael (Mum’s 2nd husband, my step-father) visited Martin and I in Ireland in the summer of 2006. It was mum’s third visit to Ireland and she was always thrilled to visit the places of both her and our father’s Fitzgerald relatives (she managed to get all three of us Irish passports, which has profoundly changed my life as I moved the other way from my ancestors, from NZ back to Ireland), and this she did by researching our father’s side of the family, but that is another story…)
A third generation New Zealander of Irish descent, in her early life mum was fascinated by the sad but brave stories of her family’s history of leaving Ireland to make new lives in Australia and New Zealand and the United States. One search that was really important to her, was about her own grt. grandmother and her son, mum’s grandfather, (ancestors to some of you here at the memorial).
Mum had grown up with a story that her grt. grandmother, and her son, her grandfather Kieran Hogan and their family originated in King’s County which is now known at County Offaly, in the centre of Ireland not far from the Shannon river. Mum had seemingly sketchy details of the home place from her mother Mary Hogan Cowie, and had on her previous efforts tried to locate where they may have lived to no avail. In the summer of 2006 she tried again. I was expecting my mum to want to visit old sites in Ireland and this time she insisted I ring a parish priest in a small rural area to ask if we could look at his church family records. Oh, I thought, what will this achieve – it’s a needle in a haystack to imagine Mum could locate her great grandmother’s place, which would have long disappeared. The priest was so friendly but was going on his summer holidays but welcomed us to visit – his housekeeper would show us the birth and death registers. Mum was delighted and we set off, mum and me in my small hatchback car, Martin and Michael in Martin’s van. Offaly is still a relatively poor inland county; its narrow lanes are potholed and bumpy, we passed through many hedgerows back into our history. Mum was thrilled by it all.
At the priest’s house, in a rural area between Birr and Banagher, the housekeeper showed mum the parish books. Mum spent some time looking at this small parish’s records. Disappointed, she couldn’t find any link to her family. She was just about give up when an elderly man, came to the door having heard that someone was trying to trace their family. I had previously warned my mum, that Irish people love to entertain visitors although they also keenly feel the sad break in families that had to leave Ireland. “It’s not meant unkindly Mum, but sometimes the Irish will embellish stories to tell you what you most want to hear.” The elderly man announced himself as Tim Kelly, an amateur historian. After chatting to my mum, he was quite sure he knew Mum’s grt grandmothers place. “Here we go”, I thought as I glanced at Martin.
Mum had always been told from her mother and her family, and had told me, that her grt. grandmother’s home place in Ireland, was right next to a flour mill and next-store to a police barracks. We took Tim in my car and he first drove us to graveyards, Mum was enthralled by Tim’s kindly interest and local knowledge. But then he took us to a small lane that was set on a very harsh angle to the main road between Birr and Banagher. At the corner, was an old Irish cottage, with foot-wide stone walls, a wrought iron gate and brambles up to the small deep-set windows (the Ivy has taken over the roof that is collapsing). Tim was convinced this was my mum’s grt grandmother’s place and he remembered dancing in that small cottage – and remembered the last of the family had emigrated to the United States many decades ago. The house is still standing as there is no way that any house today would get planning permission on such a dangerous bend.
And astonishingly, Tim was right. Over the main road, was an abandoned flour mill; the small creek that the mill had used was still running under the road! And on the same side of the road as the cottage was a small police barracks!! In times past, rural army barracks don’t look much more than a small bungalow with outbuildings (these were for horses). I would have never recognised it. And, can you imagine how my mum felt – she was elated in being able to knock on the actual door where her grt grandmother and grandfather Kieran Hogan (and his four brothers) and family had lived for so long (The cottage is small – two rooms only). Below you can see mum’s delight at finding her grt grandmother and her grandfathers birthplace. And just like that, I too had a tangible sense of my roots and knowing a bit about this area from my time living here in Ireland, I keenly knew why they felt they had to leave. It was so special for mum and for me; when I had arrived in Ireland in 1995, there were no living relatives to connect with, just the stories that mum relayed to me.
I don’t think Mum really slept that night, she was so excited to have found the missing part of her mother’s family history. And mum’s day got even better. Some of you will know that mum had a special affinity with the sea and water. She loved Sunday drives to visit the wild seas at Haumoana, which is not a scenic beach like some others in Hawkes Bay, but perhaps it reminded her of the wild untamed Hokitika seas along the West Coast. And mum’s day in Ireland turned into magic as Tim Kelly asked mum would she ever be interested in a bit of dowsing, or you might know it better, as water divining. Mum was ecstatic, and it turned out, she was a natural with the divining rods to find water under nearby fields. Martin and I were useless but it was so astonishing to see mum relish ancient talents. What a day!! I was so happy for her, and for us all.
And while we have plenty of physical legacies to remember mum by, there is something about her spiritual connection with the ocean too: I will close with a few lines to impress that the home that mum signified to me, will always be in my heart.
White waves upon the ocean
Will be a path to where I roam
For in my heart there is a presence
And I will call that presence home.
Darren John Murphy 1970.