For my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, our family went to Ireland to discover our roots and had the best sleep of our lives in a little town in County Sligo. Ten years later, we’re still talking about that incredible night. Forget the windblown scenery, the pink salmon, the monastic ruins and the wild swans at Coole. Forget my daredevil sister practically dangling off the Cliffs of Moher. “Remember that sleep,” we say, shaking our heads. “Wasn’t it just amazing?”
It’s one of the few times that we’ve ever agreed on anything sleep-related. While there isn’t a specific sleep gene, scientists studying the sleep habits of fruit flies have found evidence suggesting a strong genetic component. That’s evident in my own family. My mother and I are the hardcore insomniacs, for whom sleep is part adventure, part penance. My father and two sisters are such heavy sleepers that if you poke them in the ribs they don’t wake up. It’s the difference between what my father describes as “finicky” Flynn sleep – Flynn is my mother’s maiden name – and solid, no-nonsense Morrisroe sleep.
So the trick was getting our varied sleep patterns coordinated for this historic and potentially stressful family trip. (My middle sister, thinking it too stressful, opted out.) My husband, acting as the go-between and chauffeur, set down one basic rule: We had to be on the road by 9 a.m. each morning. In this, my father and I were totally aligned. Even though I have insomnia and he doesn’t, we’re both larks, while my mother and youngest sister, despite their sleep differences, like to stay up – and get up – late. Interestingly, researchers have determined that practically all cells in our bodies come equipped with their own ticking circadian clock and that our skin cells may provide the answer to why some of us prefer the sunrise, others the moonlight.
Our first stop was County Cork, home of the finicky Flynns. There we met my mother’s cousin, who looked exactly like my mother and who claimed that she also didn’t sleep. (She also possessed my mother’s energy; in her late 80s, she was heading out for a night of dancing with a “gentleman friend.”) She directed us to where my great-grandparents were buried amid the ruins of a 12th-century Cistercian abbey. I’d heard from my grandfather that his mother was a poor sleeper. (She also had 10 children, which might have had something to do with it.) Both she and her husband lived until their mid-70s, which for that generation was 15 years over the norm. I found that encouraging, for while the Flynns may have had insomnia, they also enjoyed enviable longevity.
My mother prayed for better sleep and told me I should pray too. Kneeling down amid people on crutches and in wheelchairs, I felt ridiculous but offered a prayer anyway.
From Cork, we went in search of those formidable sleepers, the Morrisroe clan, but my father only knew they were somewhere in the Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo vicinity. In Mayo, my mother insisted on stopping at the Shrine at Knock, a major Catholic pilgrimage site, where, in 1879, witnesses claimed they saw an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Among other things, my mother prayed for better sleep and told me I should pray too. Kneeling down amid people on crutches and in wheelchairs, I felt ridiculous asking to be relieved of my insomnia but offered a prayer anyway.
As we continued to explore Morrisroe territory, my father remembered that someone had once told him that he was related to a late Bishop Patrick Morrisroe from Tubbercurry. We found the local church, along with a wall plaque bearing his name and the date of his death. There was a convent across the street, so we paid a visit to the nuns who were eager for company and a source of delightful gossip. One of the older sisters remembered Bishop Morrisroe and told us about a life-size portrait of him that was in the possession of the current bishop who lived in Ballaghaderreen. “What does he want with it?” she said mischievously. “You should reclaim it as your rightful heritage.”
“What am I going to do with a life-size portrait of a bishop?” my mother said when we got outside. “How would we get it onto the airplane?”
“Maybe the bishop is the Dorian Gray of sleep,” I suggested.
While my parents and sister enjoyed a pub lunch in nearby Charlestown, my husband and I took off to Ballaghaderreen, where a local priest directed us to the bishop’s residence. The bishop was a little surprised when we appeared at his door but granted us a brief audience. The portrait, he told us, was “up in the attic.” I imagined the image of Bishop Morrisroe sleeping like a baby beneath 60 years of dust and cobwebs. “I suppose we couldn’t see it,” I said. “We’re trying to discover the roots of the Morrisroe family and any clue might help.” He shook his head, extended his ring so we could kiss it and sent us on our way.
That night, we drove to Sligo, staying in a 17th century Georgian mansion that had been converted into a hotel. It was decorated with sinister family portraits and looming animal heads. “No way are we going to sleep here!” my mother and I immediately said. The beds were too soft, the rooms too cold and the overall atmosphere downright creepy. My father and sister loved the place, while my husband remained neutral – a useful stance in dealing with the Flynn/Morrisroe clan.
After a dinner of “mushy” or “delicious” fish, depending on which side of the family was giving the critique, we repaired to our rooms. I remember the feel of a hot water bottle between the sheets and little else. I slept so deeply that when I woke up the next morning I didn’t remember a thing – not even a trace of a dream. Looking out the window, I saw my late-night sister surrounded by peacocks in the front yard. She’d gone out for an early morning walk. At breakfast, we all agreed that we’d never slept better in our entire lives. We didn’t even know such sleep existed. There was no other word for it but “heavenly.”
My sister attributed it to the after-dinner drinks, my mother to the prayers at Knock. My father, however, had another theory. “Come to think of it,” he said, “I’m pretty sure the Morrisroes were from around here.”
Sleep, in its mysterious way, had led us home.