Seeing green: Couple makes regular trips to Ireland
By Kim Hurley
Ireland claims its landscape boasts 40 shades of green. If so, Jack and Patti Dillon, from rural Strawberry Point, have seen them all. The couple returned from their 10th trip to Ireland on February 25, their 47th wedding anniversary.
Why does the couple have such a fondness for the Emerald Isle? Both Jack and Patti are of Irish descent. Jack’s paternal great-grandparents, Bartholomew and Rosanna Dillon, arrived in the U.S. at the Port of Boston. They were from Slane, County Meath, Ireland, which is on the east coast of Ireland just above Dublin. They came to Clayton County in 1849 and settled just east of Fenton Repair off Highway 13 between Elkader and Strawberry Point. Their homestead was on what is locally known as the Pat Farmer farm. The couple believes that Jack’s grandfather, Gus, was one of five children born here: Augustus (Jack’s grandfather), Thomas, Mary Ellen Ball, Teresa Baldridge, and Chris. Two sons, Stephen and Michael, died while they were in Boston. Most of the family is buried in the St. Mary’s cemetery in Strawberry Point. Chris died out west in the gold rush and his wife, Catherine, is buried in Cox Creek cemetery, rural Strawberry Point.
Jack’s maternal grandfather, Patrick Garrity, came from Ballinsloe, Co, Claire, Ireland. He came to Wisconsin and then moved to southern Iowa to be a stagecoach driver. The couple has recently learned of this location, but they have not yet visited it.
Patti’s great-grandfather, Patrick Hogan, landed in Baltimore, Maryland from County Galway, Ireland. Genealogy research has not been able to trace his Irish roots.
On their first eight trips to Ireland, the couple rented a car to do what the Irish call a “self-drive vacation. “We were free to go where we wanted,” Patti points out. Although Jack and Patti have enjoyed staying at Bed and Breakfasts, they have experienced a variety of other overnight arrangements. They had what Patti describes as a “one-night splurge” when they stayed at an old manor house. The house had remained in the same family for over 250 years and was newly remodeled for the tourist trade.
Jack and Patti have also rented an apartment/cottage for a week outside of Killarney, County Kerry, in the southwest of Ireland, as well as two houses in County Mayo and County Sligo on the west coast. All of these were great ways of meeting the Irish natives. They used the cottage as a starting point for daily trips.
One of the selling points for lodging in Ireland is the full Irish breakfast. This means an offering of cereals, fresh fruits, all types of breads, eggs, cooked tomato slices, bacon, sausage, white and black pudding, fruit juices, coffee, and tea. Jack isn’t much of a breakfast eater and he once asked a B&B owner if they could get a room without having breakfast. Enjoying someone who would barter, the owner made the sign of the cross and said “Holy Mother Mary, no one has ever talked to me like that!” After the Dillons explained that they usually weren’t hungry enough in the mornings to enjoy the breakfast, the B&B owner allowed them a room minus the breakfast. “We were invited into the kitchen for warm pie and ice cream as we returned from eating dinner,” Patti recalled.
The apartment, manor house stay, flights, car rentals, and other details were done online. The B&Bs, however, weren’t reserved ahead of time. When paying for B&Bs or the manor house, the cost is given as Euros per person sharing the room. The exchange for U.S. dollars (USD) to Euros on the Dillons’ latest trip was one Euro cost $1.37 USD.
Jack and Patti go to Ireland in middle to late February. Jack remarks, “We don’t go for the beaches.” Besides, it’s a good time for Jack to leave the farm since their son, Tim, can check on the operation. Patti explained that their first trip in l99l was two weeks long while their other trips have been between six and eight days in duration.
The Dillons have become avid attendees of the Irish Fest-in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which takes place the third weekend in August every year. It is a great place to hear Irish music, see Irish dancers, hear Irish story tellers, meet Irish authors and, of course, shop for Irish goods. The Fests have provided opportunities to accept great offers by Aer Lingus and tour groups for discounted trips to Ireland. Jack and Patti for instance, enjoyed airfares of $110 round trip from Chicago one year. Other great combinations, such as airfare and five nights in Dublin for $450 in a five-star hotel, have made their trips to Ireland less expensive than traveling to U.S. destinations.
On the couple’s last two trips, they were on organized tours, which freed Jack from driving on the wrong side of the road. These tours allowed them to learn different things about the areas and sites they saw.
The couple has hit most of the popular tourist attractions: Blarney Castle; Bunratty Medieval Dinner (no utensils) and show; Killarney and the Ring of Kerry; the Cliffs of Maher; and the town of Cobh, south of Cork on the south central coast; the new Titanic museum in Belfast, the religious med-evil area known as Glendalough with stone churches, stone round towers and many ancient graves; the mother abbey of New Mellery by Dubuque. Patti reminisces with laughter, “Sometimes we got lost…very lost…on the narrow, winding roads and found different adventures.” However, getting lost is among her fondest memories, as the couple ended up discovering and touring charming towns along the way.
Jack’s favorite place in the Republic of Ireland is wherever he is at the moment, with which Patti agrees. Patti’s favorite place is Galway City, County Galway, on the west coast of the country. It was there on their first trip to Ireland that she purchased her Claddaugh ring designed by a slave on his way back to Ireland for his fiancé. The ring features a heart for love in the center, surrounded by hands for friendship and topped with a crown for loyalty. Patti further explains the Claddaugh, “if the point of the heart is worn pointing into the wrist, you have found your true love; if it is pointing out, your heart is available.
Jack and Patti agree that the rural medieval monastic centers of Glendalough and Cloinmacnoise are beautiful and very inspiring. The Celtic crosses that dot the towns, cemeteries and other sites are also inspiring. The shape of the design is a pictorial story of Christianity on the arms and main support of the cross. This is said to be because most of the Celtic people did not know how to write at the time they became popular. The circle behind the cross is said to have been inspired by the worship of the Sun God, thus blending the old religion with the new faith of Christianity.
Patti enjoys sharing a litany of memories of their visits to Ireland. After climbing the eight stories of narrow steps in the Blarney castle, Jack kissed the Blarney Stone three times while Patti did not kiss it at all.
Another memorable moment occurred on their first trip when, after circling Shannon airport on the west coast for an hour, the pilot of the 747 said they were going to try landing. The plane descended and just as Patti could see tarmac, the plane went into a sharp climb and the pilot said, “guess we are going to Dublin to land.” Patti remembers the incident comically, “I wondered if we were too short, too long, or if another plane was also coming in!”
Their visit to Slane, County Meath, just north of Dublin, was particularly special, as it is where Jack’s paternal great-grandparents were from. According to Patti, birth, marriage, and death records in Ireland were usually kept by the Church during previous centuries. When Jack’s uncle, Reid Dillon, went to Ireland in l973, he stopped at the Slane church and found that all records had been lost due to a fire.
Three other vivid memories of the Dillons include being inside a stone beehive-shaped old house that had no mortar between its stones or layers, and not getting wet at all; being asked for directions by native Irish; and coming around a corner, seeing a gentleman (with a tall beautiful horse) dressed to the nines for a fox hunt, and holding a cell phone in his hand. Of this latter memory, Patti exclaimed, “Wrong century!”
Understandably so, their favorite mementos are “all the pictures in our minds of the island,” Patti explains, “we are not picture takers, but we can see many places [in our minds] by just mentioning their names.”
The Dillons have three sons, Mike, Pat, and Tim. Patrick and his wife, Shelly, took a delayed honeymoon to Ireland. On their second trip there, they took their three children--Sean Patrick, Kathryn, and Kelli -- after they had been witnesses at a wedding in Scotland. While online preparing for that trip, Shelly found a reference to a ruin castle as that of the Home of the Dillons. This will surely be on the itinerary of Jack and Patti’s next trip to the Emerald Isle. Until then, the couple will enjoy the shades of green and the rolling hills of Clayton County. . .a setting which must have attracted their Irish ancestors due to its resemblance of their homeland.