By John Leahy
But this is an honor nonetheless--sort of like being asked to do a telethon for hiccups.
I have been invited to speak to you about some recent travels of mine where an Irishman seeks his roots in Norway. I call it the search for my Great Uncle Og. It might be described as "The mother of all searches."
I flew from L.A. to Oslo. Of course I had to change planes in Dallas. Everything filters through Dallas these days. It has been said that, if you want to go to Hell, you have to go through Dallas.
I arrived in Oslo where I was met by my cousin, Olav. Olav O'Malley. Now Oslo is a lovely city, founded in 1048 by King Harald Hårdråde. It is a city of few skyscrapers because there is still room to spread out. You can follow the trails of Vikings, learn about Norway's famous Arctic explorers, and discover the origins of skiing. There are lakes to swim in or fish in. Oslo University was founded in 1811 and is Norway's oldest institute of higher education. Oslo contains over one-quarter of the population of the entire country.
Cousin Olav asked me if I wanted to go to a drive-in movie the evening I arrived. I told him I was a little tired so he should go without me. The next morning I asked him how he enjoyed the show. He said it wasn't much. I asked him the name of the movie. He said that on the marquee in front of the drive-in it said, "Closed for Winter."
He didn't seem to know much about Great Uncle Og but told me to contact another cousin, Thor O'Connor, who was then living in Eidsvoll.
Eidsvoll is a city of particular importance to any group celebrating Norwegian Independence Day. During the Napoleonic Wars, Denmark and Sweden got on opposite sides. Sweden finally defeated Denmark and was awarded Norway as a War Prize. The Norwegians, not having a say in this, were just a tad peeved and they rose up in rebellion. Delegates were elected to a constituent assembly which met in Eidsvoll and on May 17, I814 they adopted a Constitution for a free, independent, and democratically governed Norway. It is the oldest written Constitution in Europe and consists of a Constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system.
Frankly, cousin Thor didn't seem too bright. He didn't know anything about the whereabouts of Great Uncle Og but he did seem to want to show a American visitor around. He asked me if I wanted to go ice fishing. I reluctantly agreed and he took me around to a position where we could move out onto the ice. He stopped and started to cut a hole in the ice. A voice from above called out,"There are no fish under the ice." We were both astounded to hear the voice but Thor kept on cutting into the ice. The voice cried out again, "There are no fish under the ice." Thor said, "How do you know? Who are you?" The voice replied, "I'm the rink manager."
As I was leaving, one of Thor's neighbors came up and asked me what was Irish and stayed out all night. I didn't know. "Patty O'Furniture," he answered. Then he asked, "Why is it if you ask an Irishman a question he responds with another question?" I couldn't help myself and so said, "Oh do they now!"
Next I headed for Bergen where I sought out cousin Christian.
Christian O'Christian. Christian took me about the town and explained some of its history. It was officially declared a city in about 1070, though it had been the site of a much older trading post. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it was Norway's first capital and remained Scandinavia's largest port and trading center throughout the Middle Ages. It is a significant education center and has a Philharmonic Orchestra which dates to 1765. All roads into the city these days are toll roads to fund a massive road improvement project. The toll is collected entering the city but you can leave any time for free.
Cousin Christian also mentioned to me he had purchased the first waterbed in the city and had presented it to his wife on her birthday. She later confided in me that she calls it "The Dead Sea."
From there it was up to Hammerfest to make contact with a Catholic priest, another cousin, Father Rolf Rafferty. Now the Lutheran religion has been the state religion since 1537 but Father Rolf presides over the northernmost Catholic Church in the world. It was built in 1885. Hammerfest has been known as the best ice-free harbor in the Northern waters. It seems to be swept by hurricane and fire though. In 1882, a devastating hurricane came through, leveling the town. They rebuilt and were installing a hydroelectric station when the place burned down. They rebuilt again and in 1892 it became the first town in Europe to have electric domestic and street lighting. It was occupied by the Germans in World War II. Several battleships hid out there. In 1945, the retreating Germans torched the town again. It is now a main trawler port.
Being so far North of the Arctic Circle, the city has permanent daylight from May 17 to July 28 and total darkness from Nov. 22 to Jan. 21.
Father Thor told me he had been assigned there immediately after ordination. It seems he was the anchorman in the class. After about three years at the assignment the bishop came out to visit. He asked Father if it had been a difficult period. Father Thor agreed that it had been and said, "If it hadn't been for my rosary and my martinis I don't think I could have made it. By the way, your Excellency, would you like a martini?" The bishop said yes and Father said, "Rosary, get us a couple of martinis."
Well, I went back to Oslo, disappointed because I hadn't found Great Uncle Og. But shortly before I boarded the plane, cousin Olav--Olav O'Malley--sensing my mood, imparted these words to me--which I now commend to you:
"If at first you don't succeed, so much for skydiving."Thank you.