So a non-drinking Winnipeg senior walks into an Irish pub and ends up meeting 17 relatives she didn't know she had.Sounds like the start of a joke, right?
For 75-year-old Kathleen Chaban, that's exactly what happened on a recent trip to Ireland. The Charleswood woman, her daughters Cheryl and Colleen Chabon, and their friends Jennifer Fraser and Maureen Clearwater decided to take the trip together.
"I thought, I'm 75. I thought before I kicked the bucket I should take this trip. I'd talked about it before, but it was time to actually do it."
Chaban knew her dad's roots were in Ireland, but other than the name of the county where he grew up, she had no other details.He was secretive, she says, a drinker who played things close to the chest.
Chabon didn't even know her dad had siblings. Turns out Bernard (Barney) Bennett was from a family with 11 children. "I never thought, when I was growing up, that I had anyone," she says. "For 75 years I thought that."
Still, she and her fellow travellers wanted to visit County Monaghan, where her father was raised. Although Chabon doesn't drink, the rest of her party fancied a beer in the village. They stopped in the local tavern and struck up a conversation with the barkeep. They asked the friendly man at Jack's Pub if he knew any Bennetts.
He knew them. He knew there were some buried in the graveyard and many more still above ground.
The cemetary was filled with McBennetts and MacBennetts and all measure of possible relatives.
The women went there first.
The pub owner also gave them the phone number of a possible relation. "We were on the street looking for a phone and ran into a mother and a daughter. We asked if they knew any of this family," she says.
"It seemed that everyone there knew the Bennetts. They gave us directions," she says. "Go two miles, turn left, ask at a store, up the road into the mountains, ask at yellow farmhouse, keep going until you find a red barrel at the foot of a driveway."
They eventually found the farm. It turned out to be her father's old home. "The folks invited us in after we knocked on their door and, after hugs and tears, I found out information that is beyond belief," she says.
She met Kathleen Bennett, her namesake and aunt. She and her sons filled in part of the family history, telling her that her dad had only a Grade 3 education, worked the fields and finally set off for Canada to make a new life. They lost contact with him and, for his own reasons, he turned his back on them.
They were able to show her the church and school he had attended.
In an instant, Chabon was given a family she never knew she had.
"The next morning, 17 people arrived at our hotel to have breakfast with their long-lost kin," she says.
"They had spent most of the night contacting all the relatives they could. The ones that came missed Sunday mass. That's how important this was to them."
Her new found family told her it was common for young men in Ireland to leave home and set off for a new country to make a better life for themselves. For Chabon's dad, drink led him to a lacklustre series of jobs that included cab driving and bootlegging. He also served in the army.
Barney Bennett was born in 1898 and the family is still trying to piece together exactly when he left. The best guess is sometime around the First World War.
The discovery of her relatives left Chabon gob-smacked. "It is just so awesome. We were just crying and hugging. Can you imagine thinking you were on your own your whole life and then finding out they're all out there?" The Irish clan has vowed to come visit her in Winnipeg. "I asked them not come in the winter and don't all come at once."
- Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press Print Edition, 18 July 2009.