A Ring and a Mystery

This is a story I had to tell. First, though, I had to find it and that took the better part of 30 years. It began with a ring and a newspaper clipping from the Terre Haute (Indiana) News of 1953. It was about a relative of mine I knew nothing about, Sister Mary Cyril.

Years earlier, when I was 23, I was visiting a pen pal in London and I went to the British Institute of Psychical Research. A Swedish psychic, Mr. Bogaron, told me about a woman he “saw” around me, a religious person, he said. He described her as someone who had left the land of her birth at an early age and never returned.

I knew nothing about her, but when I got home my mother showed me a newspaper clipping about a cousin of my great-grandmother, whose name was Sister Cyril. At the age of 13 she left her home in Ireland for what was supposed to be a two-year visit at the invitation of an uncle in Indianapolis. The visit was in repayment of a debt owed to her father. Her father agreed to the visit with the stipulation that she continue her education while in America. She was enrolled at a school run by the Sisters of Providence. She fell in love with the order and with America! She was allowed to join as a 15-year-old and eventually became a Superior. The article went on to tell of her last year spent in the convent’s infirmary before her death in 1953 at the age of 98, much of it spent talking of her family, her father’s cousins Michael Davitt and Archbishop MacHale, and her love of Ireland.

My mother also told me that day the story behind a small gold ring she kept in her jewelry box. It had belonged to a long-lost relative, a great-great-aunt, who died on a shipwreck in Lake Michigan in 1860 and had been passed down in the family with little to no information about its owner or its story. The ring had been cut from the body when it washed ashore after the shipwreck. My mother took it to a jeweler and had it recast so she could wear it. When she began wearing the ring, just before falling asleep or upon waking, she heard the sounds of murmuring voices, clinking glasses, and muffled laughter as if there were a party going on in another part of the house. Then, a man’s insistent voice calling out, “Rose! Rose!” She was frightened by these experiences and a couple of weeks later she put the ring away where it remained in the jewelry box. She knew only that her great-great-aunt’s last name was Kilroy. Her husband was named Jim and he was our direct ancestor.

Sister Mary Cyril: Age 97, 1952Fast forward to a time in my 30s. I was pregnant and felt strongly that it would be a girl and just as strongly I wanted to name her Sarah. At about six months I suffered a miscarriage of twin girls. An earlier sonogram had not detected twins. After a year of sadness and grieving I was expecting again. As a precaution, I was ordered to bed rest after the first trimester. To keep busy I decided to work on the family history. Though Ancestry.com was in existence, we didn’t have a computer at that time. I went to the newspaper clipping my mother had and thought that if Sister Cyril had been a superior in the order perhaps there were records. There were. And it was a treasure trove of photos and information.

It gave me the name of the town my great-grandparents left during the years of the Great Hunger—Newport in County Mayo. And it gave me Sister Cyril’s birth name—Sarah—and the fact that she had been born with a twin sister who died at age four.

I felt compelled to try and find this story. And as I searched for what was initially a journey to find my family’s story I found their connection to the tragic brutality of the Great Hunger in Ireland in the 1840s. After surviving a desperate journey across the sea and facing discrimination upon their arrival in New York I also found their connection to the stories of the Native Americans and African Americans they found in their new home. The tragedy of a people having to seek refuge from starvation, violence and oppression has great relevance in today’s world of racial profiling, cultural intolerance and hatred.

I learned all that I didn’t know I didn’t know. And it grew into this script and into my novel, Rose’s Ring. I still have the ring.