So this is one of the coolest things I’ve done all year.

In 1909, my great-grandfather Patrick Whelan left Ballyporeen, Ireland to seek his fortune in America. This past April, 103 years later, I came back to visit my ancestral hometown.

My cousin did this a few years ago. She and her husband were on a road trip around Ireland, and they said when they drove through Ballyporeen, it was so small that they drove right past it! Now I’ve seen a lot of tiny towns in Ireland – pretty much any place with more than two houses is worthy of a name – so I was expecting something minuscule. But Ballyporeen is quite respectably-sized!

It’s got at least two pubs, a tiny burger joint, and a huge church. It took me five whole minutes to walk from end to end.

Signs in Ballyporeen Ireland

When my cousin visited, she talked to some old-timers in a pub who managed to find someone (who may have been distantly related to us) to take her out to our old family home.

The last Whelan left a while ago, so now the house is pretty much a pile of stone, but it’s still a cool story. I had high hopes for a similar encounter!

Tom Whelan in Ballyporeen

My great-uncle Tom Whelan at our ancestral homestead in Ballyporeen.

But for some reason the Saturday I visited everyone was in church and all the pubs were closed. Judging by the attire, it wasn’t a funeral or a wedding, so I have no idea why Ballyporeen-ers were so pious that particular day. Needless to say we didn’t have any chance meetings as fascinating as my cousins’. There was no one around to talk to!

Church in Ballyporeen

The Church that stole all possibility of cool stories from me!

Disconcertingly, I had heard that Ballyporeen had gone a bit downhill since Ronald Reagan waned in popularity.

I should explain. Reagan’s family is also from Ballyporeen, though I’m pretty sure we’re not related. He made a speech here during his presidency and put Ballyporeen on the tourist map for a couple decades.

Though it no longer has much of a claim to fame, I did see lots of new housing being built, and only a few closed storefronts. In recession-ridden Ireland, that’s pretty great! The church congregation must have been a few hundred people. So I don’t think my ancestral hometown is fading into oblivion anytime soon.

Doolis Inn Ballyporeen

Doolis was the name of "townland" where my family was from!

After we walked the town (both streets!) we took a drive around the surrounding countryside to see if we could find the old house/pile of stones ourselves. No luck, but we did get some strange looks from the locals as we drove down their grass roads. I guess they don’t get too many tourists back there.

Though we had no exciting encounters, we did see some beautiful scenery in Southern County Tipperary and had a wonderful time exploring my roots. The nearby towns of Cahir and Cashel rounded out our excellent day trip. Hopefully next time I go back I can grab a pint with some distant cousins and find out a little more about my heritage, which is definitely one of the most interesting journeys a traveler can take.

Road to Ballyporeen

The road to Ballyporeen.

It’s worth noting that the only reason I know so much about my family history is due to my grandfather’s education of us grandchildren, and his brother Tom’s thorough research of our family history. His published work is available online, for me to peruse every time I forget something (which is often). To both of them our family is forever grateful.

  • Gina

    Great story! I went back to Croatia a few years ago with my grandparents to visit the birthplace of my great-grandma and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I was thrilled to see the tiny village where she grew up. If people can, I recommend everyone travel to trace their roots.

    • Kit

      That’s amazing! I wish I could have done this with my Irish grandparents before they passed. It is so incredible seeing where you from, that way you know where you’re going :)

  • ger whelan

    hey there, my father and uncles, always said our family originated in ballyporeen! though i have yet to find the link. my fathers name was thomas whelan, as was my grandfathers’. i live in the general area of a village called cloughjordan, in the northern part of tipperary, about 6 miles from Obamas, ancestoral irish home.

    • Kit

      Maybe we’re related! Though I know there are a lot of Whelans in the world :)

  • Mary

    Hi. I am reading this story from Australia. Your ancestors originate from a beautiful part of the world. I have lived approx. 1mile away from Doolis, Ballyporeen all my life. Although now living on the opposite side of the world, i will definatly be returning home!

    • Kit

      Small world! :)

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