Dysert O’Dea Castle links Ireland, Wisconsin

If Jack O’Day says there’s no place like home, ask for a clarification.

Does he mean the house he lives in today, which is across the street from the one where he was born and on land that his grandfather owned?

Is he referring to his neighborhood, which includes the family’s long-running Jack’s Body Shop and the homes of two sons, a brother and a nephew – all within a three-minute walk?

Or is home a matter of heritage, the Irish roots that have been traced back to County Clare and the Parish of Dysert O’Dea (the original spelling of the family’s last name)?

The O’Day family of Wisconsin Rapids owns a castle in this part of Ireland, and you can visit from May to September. It is not as well-known as the Cliffs of Moher, which are nearby, but the massive stone structure is both architecturally and historically significant.

Built in 1480, the Dysert O’Dea Castle today is a museum and archaeology center. It is one of 25 stops on an outdoor history trail that also takes visitors to a 12th century church, ornate graves of local landowners, various ruins reminiscent of life and struggle during times of peace and family feuds.

There is St. Tola’s High Cross, knocked down by the Cromwellians, but repaired in 1683. St. Tola’s Church, on the site of an 8th century monastery, has a stunning Romanesque arched doorway. There are stone forts, the remains of a refuge for monks, a lime kiln, the ruins of a family lodge.

It all is in the lush, exquisitely green and often wet, rolling countryside, between Ennis and Corofin. Visitors follow a narrow lane, off a rural road, past grazing cattle and sheep. On the drizzly day that we visited last summer, we had the area all to ourselves.

“I’ve only been there 34 times,” deadpans Jack O’Day, who is 80 years old. His first visit was in 1968, and it was his grandfather who bought the castle. He and his wife have six children, five of whom live in Wisconsin Rapids. Sons Grady and Kelly live two doors from each other.

There are O’Day reunions, says Kelly, the youngest in the family. How many attend? “With cousins, it’s too many,” he jokes. “I have one uncle with 13 children …”

His father started the Wisconsin Rapids body shop in 1962; now three of the brothers operate it. That includes Bill, who will head to Ireland this summer for the sixth international O’Day/O’Dea clan gathering in County Clare.

The reunion will be July 8-11, and it will bring in 125 to 300 relatives from around the world, Bill says. It’s one thing to trace a family tree and another to travel thousands of miles to connect with the branches. The Ireland reunions are every three years.

Breda Cornisidine, the castle’s longtime manager, describes the structure and the area as authentic Ireland, untarnished by the influx of tourists. There is a short film about the history of the area and castle. Artifacts include old swords and furniture, coins and photos, the family crest and other remnants of family life.

“The stairs were built in a clockwise direction, so the defender had the right-hand advantage when wielding a sword,” Breda told us. The Wisconsin O’Days are descendents of the castle builder. The last resident was Nancy Hartney, a poor policeman’s widow who lived on the ground floor from 1890-1912.

For more about the clan, castle and area, go to www.odeaclan.org.

The day after we visited this remote Irish castle, we wound our way over to Castledaly Manor, a country estate on 37 acres in County Westmeath, between Dublin and Galway. It, too, has strong Wisconsin connections that seem particularly appropriate to share as St. Patrick’s Day nears.

About 75 percent of this inn’s guests come from Wisconsin, says Gerry Dunne, the general manager. That is because owner Rip O’Dwanny lives in Wisconsin and operates Irish inns here (County Clare, Milwaukee; 52 Stafford, Plymouth; St. Brendan’s Inn, Green Bay; and the Rochester Inn, Sheboygan Falls).

Weeklong stays at the 220-year-old Castledaly Manor began in 1999, and more than 5,000 trips have been arranged there since then. The formerly derelict property has a warm, homey and spacious feel. It is quaint and isolated, peaceful with panoramic views of the countryside.

Ten of the 23 rooms are in the main house; others are in the adjacent stable block. All have four-poster beds and private baths.

“They get a truly wonderful Irish experience,” Dunne told us. “It’s not the places you see, but the people you meet that will be your fondest memory.”

Trip fees include airfare from Chicago, seven nights of lodging and breakfasts. During this time of year, it is about $1,600 for two people – a tremendous bargain. At the height of summer, the cost for two is $2,300, still a good deal.

Not included is the cost for day trips ($32, on average), lunches, dinners at the manor ($15-25 for three courses) and transportation to Moate and Athlone (the closest towns). There is a bar on the premises, and entertainment by local residents on some nights.

Dunne says there are six championship golf courses within a half-hour of Castledaly Manor. “The craic is mighty,” he adds, referring to the Irish word for “fun.” Day trip destinations include Kilkenny Castle, Dublin, The Burrens and the Cliffs of Moher. There also is a weekly, evening pub crawl to some of Ireland’s oldest taverns.

To learn more, go to www.classicinnsofwisconsin.com or call (414) 272-5273. A painting workshop will be there May 4-12; call (920) 892-8409 for details (cost is $1,352 for a shared room).