Unexpected circumstances can take you on extraordinary journeys. Megan Hawkins travelled to the other side of the world, two-year-old in tow, in honour of her father.
You hear people refer to the ‘moment that changed my life'. In my case, it was a phone call in the middle of an otherwise really happy time in my life. Our gorgeous son had just turned one, we were talking about having another baby, and work and home life had found a happy rhythm. But a phone call delivered the news that my dad had been rushed to hospital and it wasn't looking good. It was initially thought that Dad had suffered a stroke, but it turned out to be lung cancer with secondary tumours in his brain. My dad, Peter Murphy, died seven weeks after we received that phone call, at the age of 67.
Honouring a wish
In those seven weeks, I had to have the difficult conversation with my Dad about what he wanted to happen after he died. I tried on numerous occasions, unsuccessfully. Finally, without either of us knowing it was to be our last proper conversation, he said he liked the idea of some of his ashes returning to Ireland. Dad’s idea set the course of the year ahead for my young family. In fact, on the first anniversary of Dad’s passing, my husband, young son and I were enjoying the final few days of our mammoth journey and Dad’s ashes had indeed made it home.
Dad was an immensely private man who didn't talk much of his extended family in Ireland, so before I started planning our trip I knew very little of this (quite large) group of people I was related to. I fired off my first email to a bunch of relative strangers and found myself completely awestruck by the genuine and warm responses I received. I learnt that the 'family farm' in Scardaun, County Leitrim, had been sold, but there was also mention of another significant family place – Fenagh Abbey. The abbey dates back to around 1500BC and is where my great-grandparents and two of Dad's uncles were buried. A quick search on Google Maps showed me that Fenagh was close to Mohill, and Mohill was where my Grandma's last remaining sibling (Grandma was one of eight), Auntie Tessie, was living.
To get to Ireland, we would go via Singapore and London, with two days in Paris. Two weeks in Ireland – Dublin, Mohill, Fenagh; up to Belfast, then down the West Coast to Sligo, on to Galway and back across to Dublin. Our home journey would take us through Los Angeles, so we decided to have a holiday within our holiday in Malibu, to round it all off. Six countries, seven flights and one Eurostar journey … and all with a two-year-old in tow.
The journey begins
Getting off the plane at Heathrow, we were met with our first example of family, however much removed, going out of their way for us. Waiting at the gate was my mum's cousin, Alan. He had a little sign, a big hug and a high five for Nate. I had never met him before but the family likeness was unmistakable. Despite it being 10pm at night, he helped us navigate our way to our hotel and gave us some Oyster cards for the Tube before bidding us good night. We were in London! Five days were spent catching up with dear friends and family, seeing almost all of the touristy stuff and a fair whack of shopping too – our poor credit card!
We dedicated a day to exploring Richmond with Alan. We found where my great-grandparents on Mum's side were buried and we had a look around where my Nana and Poppa grew up and began their family, before making the mammoth move to New Zealand – just as Dad's parents had done not many years earlier.
After just finding our feet in London, suddenly we were off to Paris on the Eurostar. The view from the Eiffel Tower was pretty spectacular. Our pint-sized Parisian Paparazzo, Nate, was very proud of the 'photos' he took of the carousel and the boats on the River Seine. "Mama, did you see that photo I just took? It's the best!" His Seedling cardboard toy camera was one of our best pre-trip purchases. Small and light to pack, it gave him hours of entertainment, particularly in Paris.
The emerald isle
Landing in Ireland was a jumble of emotions mixed with coming back down to reality. We had played tourist in London and Paris, but now the true purpose of our trip was upon us and my final goodbye to Dad was just around the corner. We had a few days in Dublin but I couldn't relax.
Once we got to Mohill though, I felt immediately at home. The landscape was similar to New Zealand, but it was more than that – I felt like I fitted right in there.
We met Dad's cousin, John, and his wife at Fenagh Abbey. Even in a crowd I could have picked him out as the resemblance to Dad was striking – enough to bring tears to my eyes. We had never met before and had only communicated over a few emails, yet I felt like I had grown up having him in my life.
They showed us where my great grandparents and two of their sons are buried. This was definitely where I would scatter Dad's ashes; the abbey is an incredibly peaceful spot. The building itself is just walls now, the roof having collapsed a long time ago. You could feel the history.
We later drove to the old family farm. The man living there now is probably best described as a colourful character. He invited us in, but we decided it was best not to stick around for too long. He told us the farm house still has the original dirt floors and open fireplace though, exactly how Dad remembered it. I have a photo of Dad, about my age, standing by the fireplace on the dirt floor of that very house. In the photo he's between his two uncles, who are buried where Dad's ashes are now scattered. That photo symbolises for me the 'coming full circle' nature of our trip. Returning Dad to a place that held a special piece of his heart, that now holds a piece of mine.
A family fit
The next day we visited John's mum, Tessie. It felt like I walked into the room and there was my Grandma. The sense of humour, the voice, the accent and the way she related to Nate were all exactly the same. It was heartwarming to witness this interaction, and again the sense of family was immediate and genuinely welcoming.
From Mohill we went up to Belfast, and then across to Sligo and met John’s sister and her daughters. Two of Dad's cousins even travelled over from Manchester to meet us. Sligo was my favourite town, and a place I could quite happily see us living. Our time there felt too short. I had only just got to know my family and I wasn't ready to let that go yet. Thanks to the magic of Facebook though, I stay in touch and am trying to figure out which limb or body part to sell so that we can afford to go back in 2017 for a family wedding.
We spent our last few days in Ireland in the quaint seaside town of Kinvarra, outside of Galway. It was picture-postcard Ireland. It even had its own castle, within which Nate entered every room looking for kings and knights and telling the other tourists that his mum was a princess. I swear I didn't pay him to say that.
And then we were on to our final stop before home. Malibu, baby! While central LA was sensory overload, Malibu was chilled out fun-in-the-sun. The apartment we booked was on a private stretch of sand, right on the beach. It was wonderful to relax and pretend it was all ours for a while. Those beach swims were up there with the best of what we get at home. It was the perfect end and sent us home relaxed and happy, ready to be reunited with our family, our friends and our dog Barney.
Now we're home, people often ask what the best bit of the trip was. This is so hard to answer – the whole trip was a collection of best bits! Apart from the whole 'family pilgrimage/finding myself' aspect of the trip, a highlight was getting to watch our son delight in all these new places and people. At certain points on the journey, Nate decided that he had had enough of adult company. He would see a kid, get super excited and say "Look a friend for me!" then run off and be instant best buddies. In the Paris departure lounge, Nate decided an Argentinian boy was to be his friend. They couldn't speak each other's language, but it didn't matter. They chased each other around, Nate yelling “My friend, my friend” and this boy yelling “Amigo, amigo”!
Two words best sum up this unexpected period of my life – 'grateful' and 'journey'. I'm grateful for the time we had with Dad/ Gramps. I'm grateful for the love and support I have received from everyone (but most especially Cliff and my mum). I'm grateful for the incredible family I have met and I'm grateful we have such a cool kid who we could do this mega trip with – it was beyond special to take this journey with my husband and our darling boy; to find peace in discovering where I came from and, by extension, where Nate comes from, and peace in giving Dad his last wish.
Now that I've had time to reflect on it all, I am looking to the future again. I hope my family's future holds more children, more travel and more adventure together – and while I know Dad is no longer here, there is this whole new world that has been opened up to us, thanks to him. For that I will be forever grateful. Love you, Dad.
PHOTOGRAPHY: MEGAN & CLIFF HAWKINS