Steven Cornelius was born and raised in Northeast Mississippi and is married to a beautiful, auburn haired second generation Irish woman with deep roots in Galway and Sligo. His love of books began at a very early age. When night fell on the farm and chores for the day were complete, he and his family sat around the fire and read until bedtime. Many of his childhood adventures are featured in his writing. He attended the University of Mississippi, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees while participating in Air Force ROTC. Steve completed more than thirty years Air Force service in the US and overseas. For the Distant Traveler Trilogy, he drew upon experiences and memories collected during assignments around the world. After retiring in 2015, Steve decided to get serious about a lifelong passion for writing. His most recent work has been published in Mississippi magazine (October 2022) and Louisiana Living (November 2022). He just finished a multicultural novel set in Cuba and Houston Texas featuring Hispanics as the main characters. Steve has written one hundred and five short stories collected in two volumes and posted stories on the Mississippi Folklore and True Appalachia webpages and has a following of more than 3,000 regular followers on each page.


By Steven Cornelius

The night before we left Dublin headed west, a friendly waitress in the restaurant where we were eating dinner, offered that she was heading to “The States” over the summer.  We talked for a bit about where she might go during her two week stay in Texas…in July.  I neglected to tell her that once in Dallas Fort-Worth, she might want to stop in the airport giftshop and buy a tube of SPF 4000 sun screen to take with her.  Instead, I asked, “Have you been to Texas before?”  She smiled, “No, but I’m looking forward to it very much.”  The mind boggles to consider how Texas in July will work out for someone from a place where hazy sunshine and sixty degree temps is considered a punishing heatwave.  As we stood to leave the restaurant, she asked, “So where are ye off to next?”  I smiled and pointed at my wife, “Sligo.  We’re trying to track down long dead relatives…fill in some gaps in her family history.”  She replied, “That’ll be nice” though her face clearly betrayed her comment.  She couldn’t hide a why in the world would you go there expression.  I could have turned that question around and asked why she would go to the burning skillet of the US in July, but decided that would be rude.  We could have also discussed the human need for group inclusion, a strong desire to know your roots and maybe even visit a long dead relative’s grave to offer your respects.  In our case, all of the above.  The desire to find and pull the genealogical threads of the Durkin and Healy clans was strong, but ultimately clashed with the reality of lost or incomplete records.

On the other hand, sometimes you turn a corner in a strange city and confront the distant past head on, as when we saw the spitting image of my wife’s deceased mother.  This happened to us on our first trip to Sligo.  We were dutifully following the turn by turn directions offered up by our GPS and while stopped at a traffic light sat in startled amazement as a stoop shouldered old woman with a flash of auburn hair peeking from under her paisley scarf scurried across the street directly in front of us.  I should have jumped out of the car and took her picture, but, sadly, I didn’t.  Our mystery lady was loaded down with bags and a large purse and seemed in a real hurry to get to where ever she was going.  Headed back home from the market most likely.  The strange encounter sent a shiver through me, but really shook up my wife.  The resemblance was uncanny; as if my mother-in-law, dead for thirteen years, had an identical twin in the west of Ireland that she’d never told anyone about.         

We had put off going back for several years, and Covid didn’t help our timing.  My wife and I kicked the idea around and finally agreed that this was the year to make such a journey.  As happens in many cases, her desires for a trip to the west of Ireland to seek her ancestral roots gave me another opportunity to visit the area where William Butler Yeats decided to live and complete many of his great literary works.  I discovered his poetry when I was eleven and was blown away by the clarity and incisiveness of his writing.  It was like God reached down and touched WB Yeats, giving him insight into the human condition that none of the rest of us shared.  So, I have now twice visited the cemetery where WB Yeat’s mortal remains lie in repose and stepped inside the chapel where his funeral service was held.  I wish I could say that while I was standing near his grave or walking inside the chapel that some special insight or sense of purpose transmitted from WB, settled over me.  Not a chance.  Hoping for the insight of Yeats would be like expecting the next great breakthrough in physics from Forrest Gump.  As I stood over his grave, like most do, I pondered the words inscribed on his tombstone, “Cast a cold Eye on Life, on Death, Horseman pass by.”  I take his epitaph to mean…question what happens in life and also what people tell us about what will happen when we die.  He is telling anyone walking past his tomb to mind your own business and keep going on down the road.  While standing inside the two hundred year old Protestant Chapel, I mostly felt relief and gratitude to be out of the bitingly cold thirty mile per hour wind sweeping off the nearby Atlantic.  One final observation about Yeat’s grave.  He is a Nobel Prize winning poet and writer and the pride of Ireland, yet each time we have visited, we’ve had the place to ourselves.  That is a national shame!  School children from all over Ireland should be bussed to his grave to pay their respects and given his poems to read on the trip to and from the cemetery.  I’ll send that suggestion to the authorities in Dublin…I’m sure they’ll get right on it.   

Anyone who gives Ireland and the Irish any chance at all will be compelled to admit that they are the most welcoming and gracious people a body is likely to encounter anywhere on planet earth.  During this most recent trip, my wife, son Daniel and I stood on a downtown streetcorner in Sligo, looks of obvious bewilderment on our faces when a large Garda (policeman) strolled up.  He looked like an extra from the movie “The Quiet Man.”  The officer smiled and asked, “Can I help ye find where you’d be a goin?”  I smiled at the large, ruddy faced policeman and shrugged, “We’re looking for a good place to eat lunch.  Any recommendations?”  The policeman laughed, clapped his hands together and then put a big mitt on my right shoulder and turned me ninety degrees, “You’ll be a wantin Lyons Café.  Just go down the block there and turn left and it’ll be across the street.  You’ll be a thankin me later.”  I smiled, “I’ll be a thanking ye now.”  I seem to very quickly pick up local speech patterns and apologize in advance to anyone I’ve offended.  With that grand gesture of direction, the policeman waved us away, “Off with ye now.”  We eventually found Lyons and it became our go to place for lunch and once for breakfast.  What the Garda didn’t tell us was the café is located upstairs in Lyons Department Store.  There is a very big sign for the clothing store outside and a very small sign once you’re inside directing you upstairs to the café.  The second time we ate there, I was uncertain that we were in the right place, so I walked up to two locals, old men my age and asked, “Can you tell me where Lyon’s Café might be?”  One man snorted but remained silent while the second guy gave me an incredulous, are ye daft look, as he pointed, “Right there…just across the street.”  I was grateful that he didn’t add…”Ye feckin idgit” to his helpful directions. 

That covers the friendliness and approachability of the Irishness.  A random encounter in a convenience store next to our hotel confirmed their acceptance of strange people from strange lands.  While in Sligo, we had occasion to buy bottles of water and other sundries and chose to trade at the nearby convenience store instead of paying hotel prices.  Imagine my surprise when Daniel and I walked inside the tiny place and found two Syrian brothers operating a thriving store, that includes a halal fish and meat market in the back.  How do I know they are Syrian?  A large Syrian flag hanging over the front door was a pretty good hint.  After a few minutes browsing, we stood in line to pay.  I smiled to no one in particular as Dan and I watched a scene play out that is more universal that I would have ever imagined.  A Syrian dad and his eight year old son were in front of us and next up to pay.  Naturally, the store owners had positioned every kind of candy and junk one could imagine right by the counter to tempt eight year old’s and those who are still kids at heart.  As the dad conversed softly with the owner in Arabic, the child quietly made a huge mound of candy, chewing gum, ink pens and amazingly enough, a shiny, silver dog whistle on the counter.  His dad stood by, oblivious until the clerk/owner began tallying up all the stuff that child had grabbed and dumped next to the things they’d really been sent to the store to buy.  The father raked the junk away from the essentials and spoke sharply to the son, emphatically shaking his head no, causing the boy’s face to crumple.  The little guy turned on the waterworks, tears streaming down his light brown cheeks, wailing as though life for him was over.  I stood fascinated, watching a real-time negotiation where the boy lobbied vigorously for everything on the counter while his dad held up two fingers, rejecting the lawyerlike pleas of the eight year old.  Finally, the child sighed heavily, nodded, picked out two of the biggest candy bars and left the rest.  As they walked out of the store, the father glanced back and shrugged, giving me a what am I supposed to do look.  I smiled and pointed at my grown son and offered, “He was the same at that age.  Children are the same all over the world.”  The father nodded as he disappeared while the owner laughed and nodded as he quickly scanned our items, accepted my payment and turned to wait on the next person in line.          

The Genealogy Office – reality check number one – there is a sharp divide between theory and practice in almost any of life’s endeavors.  My wife and I got a refresher course on this reality as we conducted genealogy research.  Surfing websites from 3600 miles away made me confident that the records and documents we sought and still seek were housed just a few steps away from our hotel in Sligo,   and once we got our bearings, we could quickly conclude our business.  Reality check number two – not everyone around the world is as obsessed with genealogy and heraldry as we are in the US.  Then again, we are the “melting pot” and many of those who migrated to America were desperately poor and had neither the time nor means to document and keep track of their ancestors from six hundred years past.  In most cases, family lineage only went back as far as the family bible could document, and even then, accuracy and completeness remain spotty.  There was also the literacy challenge.  Many immigrants were barely clinging to the bottom rung of society and had only basic literacy.  For example, one of my brother-in-law’s could neither read nor write.  I remember accompanying him to the feed store or other businesses and witnessing for him when he “made his X,” completing a business transaction. 

Reality check number three – your surname may seem unique and exotic in the US, but in the country of origin, it is most likely commonplace.  When we talked with a very nice researcher in the Sligo Genealogy Office, my wife proudly mentioned the names of interest to her were Durkin and Healy.  The researcher shrugged, “Healy is a very common name.  Durkin is a bit rarer, but the Durkin’s settled south of County Sligo nearer to Galway.  You may need to pursue that family line down there.”  To prove her point, the lady disappeared into the back office and returned with a small volume titled “Irish Surnames in County Sligo.”  The compact but very thick book contained more than a thousand references to Healy but very few Durkin’s.  While this was upsetting to us, the lady was more pragmatic.  She was sympathetic but realistic, acknowledging that church records were incomplete and sometimes priests took their birth/death record books with them when reassigned to a new parish.  When you factor in the fire that swept through the Dublin Records Office in 1865, there are huge gaps in what should be and what is concerning who came from where and when.  The best we could do was ask the researcher to drill down into what records are available, give her our information and hope for the best. 

Reality check number four – when you are in a strange city, nothing is easy to find or convenient to where you are located.  Every day we were in Sligo, we walked at least six miles over rough cobblestones and uneven sidewalks.  On our first day in Sligo, we crisscrossed downtown and walked in circles looking in vain for the two churches that online sites indicated family were most likely interred.  When we finally found the most promising walled cemetery, it was up a steep hill next to a very large and weathered Abby…an imposing place so dark and gray it seemed to absorb light.  Alfred Hitchcock would have been right at home.  As we stood backs to the wind and a light drizzle, taking in the place, a flock of the largest, inky black ravens I’ve ever seen circled overhead cawing and shrieking noisily.  We walked the perimeter of the massive place looking for an opening, but it turned out the cemetery was locked as were the weather oak doors providing entry into the chapel.  So, we trudged back down a fairly steep hill in search of a hot cup of tea and maybe a scone or a pastry to take the edge off our hunger.  We found a pastry shop near Mall Street with a sign over the door that read “Born to Bake.”  I was suddenly in a very happy place.

As we ventured out into the town each day, eventually, our route back to the hotel took us a quarter-mile along the east bank of the Garvoge River.  The Garvoge courses along a series of rock and turf bluffs for about twenty-five miles, emptying icy cold water from Lough Gill into the wild north Atlantic.  When we visited Sligo twelve years ago, it felt like a quaint village just inland from the Atlantic.  Sligo is all grown up, with a bustling downtown and enough traffic to make you nervous crossing the streets except under the protection of the small green walking man that beeped loud enough for even a deaf person like me to hear.  Still, I am very fond of Sligo and the wild west coast of the wonderful island called Ireland.