Friday, January 21, 2011

Finding more than just my roots in Newfoundland

I’ve been trying to write about my trip to Newfoundland for some time now. Ok, maybe that’s not entirely true…I’ve WANTED to write about my trip for some time now, but have not been able to concentrate long enough, or find the right words, or reign in all of my impressions and feelings about it in order to actually write it all out. It was only one week in October, but there is so much in my heart and head regarding that week that it makes it difficult to find the words…but I will do my best, before too much time passes and it all starts to feel like a sweet dream. That one week has inspired me to learn more about my heritage, as well as to get back to my music, which I've let sit dormant for far too long. Maybe a blog posting will start the writing juices flowing again and it will carry over into my songwriting…one can only hope. I keep trying to shorten the story, but I’m not sure I want to do that. So a word of warning—she’s a long one.

By way of explanation, I guess I should start by saying that over a year ago I began working on my family tree. I didn’t really know much about my mother’s side of the family, but the more I learned, the more fascinating it was. I knew my mother’s family was from Newfoundland, and I knew I still had cousins there, but that was pretty much all I knew. I knew nothing of Newfoundland itself, and the more I learned the more curious I became. Then one day my cousin Joanne mentioned something about our Newfoundland 2nd cousin, Alan Doyle, being in some movie with Russell Crowe called Robin Hood. She also mentioned that he was in a band called Great Big Sea. That sparked my curiosity; since my mother had told me before that I had cousins in Newfoundland who were musicians, so I did some Googling. I had no idea that Great Big Sea was so big, and had been together for 17 years, and were about to release their 10th studio cd. Impressive, to say the least. I listened…I liked it…I was hooked. I wanted to learn more about Newfoundland and its musical culture, and meet some of these very musical cousins. Luckily we got to see Cousin Alan before the trip, when GBS was in town for a couple of gigs. My boys were thrilled to meet their movie star relative, who they think is “very cool”.
The King b'ys and mom's cousin Alan Doyle

Rich and I flew from Boston to Halifax, NS, then on to St. John’s NL, on October 11, 2010. When planning the trip, I’d neglected to note that October 11th happens to be Thanksgiving Day in time I will be more aware. We almost missed our connecting flight to St. John’s and ended up running through the Halifax airport, surely raising suspicions as we rushed through security and customs in order to make our flight. If we’d missed it, we were stuck because there were no more flights to St. John’s that day. Another lesson learned for when I plan my next trip—leave plenty of time between flights.

Luckily, things went smoothly from that point on, until we tried to leave…but I’ll get back to that. Rose and Bill were there to greet us when we landed in St. John’s which really helped us feel more relaxed. We seemed to recognize each other right away. After getting our rental car, we followed Rose and Bill to my Great Uncle Jerry’s place for a quick visit. It was so great to see Jerry and Mary again after so many years. I think the last time I’d seen them was when I was in high school, so over 20 years. Of course, they looked exactly the same as I’d remembered them, and we had a really nice visit. I was so excited just to be in Newfoundland, seeing family and in most cases, meeting family members for the first time.

Great Uncle Jerry and Great Aunt Mary Doyle

That first night, we had dinner at Don Cherry’s restaurant. I thought of my 12 year old son who was both a hockey fanatic and a fan of anything Canadian. After dinner, we went back to the hotel bar and drank Screech late into the evening.

I loved Newfoundland right away. I don’t know why exactly, but I felt totally at ease from the moment I arrived, like I’d come home. I ended up falling in love with St. John’s as well, after spending the following day wandering around downtown. We were lucky to find a parking spot, left the car behind, and explored on foot. We went into many different shops and cafés and without fail were greeted warmly by everyone we met. It took some getting used to at first, but by the end of the week, it had rubbed off on me and I found myself talking to just about everyone I ran into. I think Rich was starting to wonder what was happening to his wife.

One of the highlights of this trip was the second day, Tuesday. After an awesome lunch of fish and chips at Leo’s, (has to be one of the best places to have fish and chips in St. John’s) we stopped in O’Brien’s Music shop, which is one of the oldest shops in St. John’s. There, I bought an Irish bouzouki. Gordon O’Brien, the owner, was extremely nice, helping me choose my bouzouki, then taking care of the case, some personal adjustments to the instrument, and shipping to the US. What a great shop the O’Brien family has there- I will be stopping in the next time I’m in town, for sure. Oh, and, since I know some of you are wondering…No, I don’t know how to play the Irish bouzouki, but I am slowly teaching myself to play. (key word being slowly) So far I can play one song, and I’m working on some more. My cousin Alan Doyle plays one, as does his band mate Bob Hallett, so I figured, why can’t I learn? I’ve played guitar since I was 15, and I have a degree in music education from Berklee…if I can’t teach myself who can? Turns out it’s a lot more difficult than it looks.
Leo's had the best fish and chips

We also went up to Signal Hill that day, where stands Cabot Tower. From there you can see some of the most magnificent views of St. John’s and the harbor. Windy but well worth it!

That night my cousin Leslie-Anne had us over for dinner. She has a beautiful new home, which was warm and welcoming just like her. Her young son Liam was there too and he entertained us with a few songs. He is adorable, and was such a good boy during our visit. Dinner was delicious, and afterward some other Doyle relatives arrived. I was getting excited, because I had a feeling this was going to be a fun night! We all ended up in Leslie-Anne’s living room-Rose with her accordion, and a few other cousins had brought guitars. There was even a set of spoons, which we gave to Rich. We all sat in a big circle; everyone taking turns singing/playing songs.

Suddenly I felt panicky and nervous, because I didn’t know any of the songs they were doing! It had also been at least a decade since I’d performed in front of anyone, and I was suddenly wracked with stage fright. What was wrong with me? This was my family…ok, I’d just met them but still, they’re my family! And they are all so wonderful and warm and friendly, I had no good reason to be so nervous. Finally, after a few drinks, I forced myself to sing Raglan Road, an old Irish tune I had just recently heard and tried to learn. Better than nothing, I figured, but it was certainly not as good as the music I’d heard in that room up until that moment. I just couldn’t allow myself to let that night go by without participating, so I had to literally force myself to sing that song. I’m glad I did it, now, but trust me, next time I’ll be much better prepared! I think the highlight of that evening, besides getting to meet a bunch of Doyle family, was when Great Uncle Jerry stood up and recited, from memory, a few poems. Great Uncle Jerry is 93.
The next day, Wednesday, was rainy. I think it was the only day it rained the whole week. Rich and I went back downtown anyway, and wandered around in the rain. I just love walking around downtown St. John’s no matter the weather. We ducked into a small café, had some coffee and watched people walk by the front window. We went to Fred’s record store, a funky looking purple shop, and browsed for a while. I have to admit to spending more than I probably should have on music that week. Five or six new CD’s came home in my suitcase, if not more. I wanted to bring Newfoundland home with me, and the music was a huge part of that.

That afternoon my cousin Jim came and picked us up at our hotel. He drove us to Petty Harbour, where my grandfather was from. I’d been really looking forward to seeing this area, and it was too bad that the weather was so wet, but it was still a stunning place to see. Jim showed us where several relatives were born or had lived, telling us stories and stopping now and then so I could jump out of the car to snap photos. I tried to imagine what it was like growing up there, in a simpler time. Though I know it was not during the easiest of times, it must have been beautiful. I loved how families all lived close by to each other, and stayed close. I don’t think I ever experienced that here in the States, which, regretfully, is probably why I don’t know my relatives very well. Jim also took us to see Cape Spear, the easternmost point in North America. That night we had dinner downtown (for some reason I was constantly drawn to downtown) at Velma’s, where I had cod tongues…yes that’s right, cod tongues…and they weren’t bad. Then we went across the street to Nautical Nellie’s for a few pints before heading back to the hotel.

Petty Harbour
Cape Spear Lighthouse
Thursday we visited The Rooms. What a place that is—art gallery, museum, archives, restaurant, all in one. And it has one of the most amazing views of St. John’s you could possibly imagine. We spent a few hours there, although I did not go into the archives. I wouldn’t even know where to begin searching for information about my family, and it was a little overwhelming. I think I would need a whole day for that.

That evening we had a great dinner with Rose and Bill after doing some more driving and sightseeing. Everywhere we went was so beautiful! Portugal Cove was amazing, especially the sunset. After dinner, Rose and Bill dropped us off on George Street.

beginning of George Street

We went to O’Reilly’s, because I had heard that Fergus O’Byrne was playing there and I wanted to see him. When we walked in, instead of Fergus on stage, there was this young guy, playing guitar and singing. He sounded a little bit like James Taylor, I thought. Turned out his name was Allan Byrne. I thought, could he be related to Matthew Byrne, the St. John’s musician I had only recently discovered before the trip? About a week before we left for Newfoundland, I stumbled upon the music of Matthew Byrne, listened to it, and downloaded his CD. I thought he sounded a bit like James Taylor too…funny. I asked our friendly barmaid, and indeed Allan was Matthew’s brother. A few minutes later, who should walk into the bar but Matthew himself! Well, if I couldn’t see Fergus, this was a pretty good substitution! I sent pints over to both Allan and Matthew, and then after a while I walked over and said hello. They were both very nice and friendly, and more than a little surprised when I mentioned that I was from Cape Cod, and had been listening and sharing Matthew’s music for the past two weeks! It was such a fun night at O’Reilly’s that we ended up staying there, and missing out on all the other pubs on George Street! (It just gives me yet another reason to return.) We took a cab back to the hotel that night…neither of us was in any condition to drive after a night at O’Reilly’s!

Allan and Matthew Byrne

Allan Byrne

The next day, sadly, was the day we were to leave Newfoundland. The week had gone by so quickly—much too quickly. We had breakfast with Rose and Bill, who are always great company. I knew I’d miss them when we left, and it was nice to spend our last morning with both of them. We did some more touring by car, and stopped at the Basilica in St. John’s, which is a thoroughly impressive creation. We went in and met a 99 year old nun, who showed us the Veiled Virgin statue. This piece of art was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It was so realistic; the veil looked like actual cloth. We walked through the Basilica itself, with its gorgeous stained glass windows and two enormous pipe organs. Weeks later, when Christmas Eve rolled around, even though I was back home on the Cape, I couldn’t help wondering what Christmas Eve mass must be like there, and I wished I was there.
We headed to the airport a couple of hours later, boarded our flight, and sat on the tarmac. The pilot announced that the starter switch for one of the engines had failed, and they were trying to get parts for it. Unfortunately, we would have to deplane and rebook our flights. Air Canada put us up at the Comfort Inn at the airport, and we had yet one more night in Newfoundland. I called Rose and Bill, just to leave them a message to let them know what was going on. We were fine, staying at the hotel and having some dinner, and we’d be leaving the next morning, very early. I just wanted to let them know, as a courtesy; after all they’d done for us. I certainly never expected them to drive all the way back out to where we were, but as we were eating dinner, Rich said, “look who’s here”. Yep, it was Rose and Bill, just making sure we were ok! The last thing we wanted was to inconvenience them anymore, but it was a nice surprise to see them both one last time before we left.
Our flight back to Boston was at 5:30am…we made it home safely, with many happy memories and pictures and stories, souvenirs for the boys, and a bottle of Screech. I returned home with a better sense of who I am and where I came from. Add to that a renewed interest in getting back to playing live music, as well as a burning desire to return to Newfoundland as soon as possible. I’m planning on August of 2011, in time for the St. John’s regatta, folk festival, and George Street festival. Join me?

boats in Petty Harbour


  1. Excellent blog post! Perhaps we can meet up this summer? I'd love to hang out with you!

  2. What a trip that was !!! Congratualations on finding your way back home!!! Something similar happened to me about 20 years ago when I first visited my mothers ancestral home PEI. I felt like I had come home;met people,walked the ancestral haunts,etc. When I left on the ferry 5 days later,as I watched the island fade in the distance,I felt tears coming and had to look away,thinking I'd never return. Well,I did three more times over the years.

  3. What a beautiful way to capture the memories, Catherine! Sounds like they captured you too. Can't wait to really hook you this summer :)

  4. How cool! I'd love to go to St. John's myself some time, but I don't have the personal connection you do. How lucky you are to be able to find your roots! (And nice pictures, too!)