Our story begins with a Buffalo Bills flag, the many good stories do.
This charging buffalo on a field of red led a pair of long-lost cousins to meet by happy happenstance over Memorial Day weekend. Their story stretches from West Seneca to western Maryland to the west coast of Ireland.
Terri and Mike Ricigliano, who married in Buffalo in 1981, set off last Thursday from their home in Baltimore for Delfest, a four-day bluegrass festival in Cumberland, Md. When they got to the festival campsite, they spotted that Bills flag and figured the only sensible thing to do was pitch their tent next door.
Meanwhile, Clare O’Connell was back at her apartment in West Seneca. She had grown up in Doolin, a coastal village in Ireland known for the traditional Irish music played nightly in its pubs. She knew nothing of bluegrass, but once she heard that its roots come from Irish and Scottish ballads, she was all in when a friend suggested they go to the festival.
Clare looked up Delfest’s Facebook page and found an entry from Tom O’Connor, the one who had put up that Bills flag. Tom had posted a photo of a beer bucket outside his tent. Above it a sign read, “GIVE A BEER! TAKE A BEER! Please take a beer from our hometown of Buffalo, NY & leave us one from yours.” (Tom brought brews from Big Ditch, Resurgence, and 42 North.) And Clare posted on the Facebook page that this is why she loves Buffalo.
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Tom and Clare then shared a bit of back and forth online, and it turned out that he is good friends with her cousin, Kevin Crehan, and that Tom had once dated another of her cousins. This is how things go in Buffalo. But a much bigger surprise lay ahead.
Clare arrived at the festival on Saturday morning – Cumberland is a five-hour drive south of Buffalo, mostly on Route 219 – and she quickly sought out the Bills flag and beer bucket so she could trade in some Genesee Ruby Red Kolsch, her favorite.
Just then Terri came over from the Riciglianos’ campsite. She asked if Clare might want to borrow a float for a ride on the river. Terri was wearing a tank top with an imprint of the pop-rock band Barleyjuice and the tagline “Weekend Irish.” So Clare, who is 32, asked Terri, who is 69, if she is Irish.
Terri could tell by Clare’s brogue that she is the real thing, so Terri allowed that she is Irish-American but that she has a cousin who left Buffalo for Ireland some decades ago and runs a bed-and-breakfast there. Clare said that her mother dela left Buffalo decades ago, too, and runs a bed-and-breakfast in Doolin, and her name dela is Mary Jo O’Connell.
This is when it dawned on these two apparent strangers that they are distant cousins.
“Everything went very quiet,” Clare says. “I was shaking.”
Tom O’Connor watched the exchange. “Terri’s face had no visible reaction for three to five seconds,” he says. “She was completely stunned.”
Terri and Clare then traded some choice exclamations not fit for print, to express their surprise and their joy and the serendipity of it all.
“There must have been 30,000 people at the festival,” Clare says. “If you told me I had a cousin there, I never could have found her.”
And somehow they found each other without being told.
“The crazy thing is, if she wasn’t wearing that shirt with ‘Weekend Irish,’ I don’t think we would have made the connection,” Clare says. “People don’t ask me about my accent, because they think it might be rude. It’s not. I love to talk about Ireland. And when people who have been there tell me how much they love it there, it takes me home for a few seconds.”
Terri and Mike love Ireland. They visited in 2005 – and stayed at The Seascape, Mary Jo’s bed-and-breakfast. Terri has a photo of herself with Mary Jo that was taken then, when Clare was away at college.
“That’s our old sitting room,” Clare says of the background in that photo. “Now it is the living room for our guests.”
As it happens, my wife and our two kids also stayed at The Seascape – 15 years ago this week, following our son’s college graduation. The breakfast-room window overlooks the Cliffs of Moher in the distance. And a print of the Battle of Ridgeway, fought near Fort Erie in 1866, hangs in the house.
So I called Mary Jo in Ireland and we chatted for the first time since our family had stayed with her. And of course we talked about how Clare and Terri had met by needle-in-a-haystack chance in Cumberland.
“Isn’t that amazing,” Mary Jo says. “Small world.”
Mary Jo comes from a blended Buffalo family. After her mother her died, her father, Louis Cloutier, married Molly Burke, widow of Brendan Burke. The five Cloutier kids and the 11 Burke children made for 16 siblings. Mary Jo has far fewer relatives on the Crehan side, where Terri fits in.
Clare has lived in a succession of cities in Europe and Asia and Australia and the United States since she left Ireland a dozen years ago. Her mother her says she has a capacious case of wanderlust. But maybe this time she has found a true home in her mother’s hometown her: Clare has cousins galore here, and a few months ago she opened The Irish Organizer, a business that declutters and organizes homes and businesses.
“If she can’t be near me,” Mary Jo says, “there is nowhere else I would rather her be than in Buffalo.”
Clare doesn’t care for the cold, though. “In Doolin it rains all the time, and in Buffalo it snows all the time,” she says. “I thought about moving to Florida. But I spent two weeks there in February, and the people aren’t the same. The people in Buffalo are so warm. It’s like an extension of Ireland.”
Terri plans to visit Buffalo, her old hometown, in a few weeks – and looks forward to spending more time with her newfound cousin. They will celebrate her Clare’s birthday. Maybe they’ll drink some Ruby Red, too.
And listen to some bluegrass.