FITZPATRICK (MAC GIOLLA PHADRAIG) CLANN
The Fitzpatrick Clann can boast with any of Ireland’s clanns for its contributions throughout history towards the freedom of its people at home and in far off lands.
The Fitzpatricks are an ancient Irish Clann. In fact, Fitzpatrick is the only ‘Fitz’ name whose pre-Norman origins are Irish. Over a millennium ago, in 995 A.D., when surnames were first coming into use, did the Kings of Ossory and their clannspeople become known as Mac Giolla Phadraig, which means son of the guide (or devotee of) Patrick. But these people of the Ossoraighe have inhabited the midlands of Ireland from present day Kilkenny into the Slieve Bloom mountains for more than two millennia. Known as the ‘Cradle of Gaelic Civilization’ the forests and mountains of the Upper Ossory offered partial refuge for many years from Ireland’s many intruders, like the Vikings, the Normans and the Anglos.
In the 5th century A.D., St. Canice (from whom the city of Kilkenny derives its name) started a monastic center in Aghaboe which became a focal point (and small city) for hundreds of years. Plundered by the Vikings, then by the Normans and rebuilt by Fitzpatricks, the present day remains of the 13th century Aghabo Abbey’s church and round tower stand prominently, but alone today, in a landscape of bucolic pastoral fields and only a handful of country houses in contrast to the bustling center of some several thousand people only a thousand years before.
On a slight rise above and adjacent to the ancient Aghaboe remains, stands a 17th century Georgian home, known as the Aghaboe House, with its commanding view over the boglands west and north to the Slieve Blooms and green pastures all around. With all its outbuildings, at the time of British occupation and Ireland’s great famine, this Aghaboe estate was the center of a large beef cattle operation. According to my Father’s (Joseph William Fitzpatrick) research, Aghaboe is my great great grandfather’s birthplace. Not, mind you, the Aghaboe House, but my brother Michael and I couldn’t resist the temptation, when we first set eyes on its abandoned state in 1984, knowing that all this time, Anglos who had been gifted this land by the British hierarchy, who had taken it from the native people, quite possibly from the Fitzpatricks, could now be back in our Clann’s hands, to buy it. We did and have reestablished our roots from whence we came.
William Joseph Fitzpatrick left Aghaboe during the Great Famine, made his way to Liverpool and boarded a ship named the Lebanon and arrived in New York City in 1848. Arriving at the age of 17, William worked as a laborer and settled in Paterson, New Jersey where a textile industry was developing. A year later, his wife Mary Dunn and her parents arrived from Ireland. William became a millwright and worked at this all his life until he became blind from the crude working conditions. His son, William Joseph II, eventually became a street cop for the city of Paterson. His son, my grandfather, William Joseph III, one of three children, ran a grocery store and eventually became the tax assessor for neighboring Clifton, New Jersey. I have a great picture from 1902 where my immigrant great great grandfather William Joseph, his son William Joseph II, and his grandson William Joseph III are standing under a grape arbor in the backyard in Paterson, New Jersey.
My grandfather had an older sister, Margaret, who was a school teacher in Paterson all her life and a younger brother, Harold, who devoted 50 years of his life to the priesthood at St. Brigid’s in Jersey City as pastor and then at Holy Cross in Harrison as pastor and Monsignor. My great aunt Margaret’s wake and funeral were the first I had ever attended. Three nights and two days, I spent at the wake with my great aunt Margaret laid out. I was introduced to endless relatives and family friends. I felt proud and important to be a Fitzpatrick. Her funeral mass was said by her brother, Monsignor Harold and assisted by five bishops and numerous priests. People said my aunt Margaret was a saint and maybe she was; she went to mass every adult day of her life.
I’ll never forget my great uncle Harold’s funeral. The Holy Cross cathedral was packed inside, seven bishops with many priests jammed the altar to say mass. After the mass as we walked behind my great uncle Harold’s coffin and the tall doors opened to the outside, I was amazed to see that the street was packed with people to say farewell to Monsignor Harold Fitzpatrick. Twenty squad cars from the Jersey City Police, where my great uncle Harold had been their pastor at St. Brigid’s for 30 years but 20 years earlier, formed an escort for the 40 minute ride to the family plot near Paterson. My great uncle Harold, although he had no children of his own, had fathered the biggest family I had ever seen. I do have many memories of my great aunt Margaret, my great uncle Harold and my grandfather, but their wakes, funerals and parties afterwards imprinted many subliminal messages of a Clann spirit that remains with me today.
I feel proud to be a Fitzpatrick and hope I bring honor to my Clann. The naming of my father, Joseph William, broke the succession of William Joseph’. Born on St. Patrick’s Day, my lucky father was to be the first generation to graduate college. His uncle Harold, the Monsignor, helped financially with my dad’s attendance at St. Peter’s Prep and then Fordham University. World War II made a Marine of my dad and called him back from the reserves years later to serve during the Korean Conflict. My father worked hard as an accountant and became the first generation of Fitzpatricks to own his own home plus send all his children, three sons, Michael Joseph, Brian (meself) and Billy (William Patrick) to become graduates of Rutgers, UCDavis and Rutgers/Cooke College.
Our childhood years were very secure and full of opportunities. But my goals weren’t going to develop into exactly what my parents would have considered even possible at the time. Somehow the genetic imprints of yesteryear were surfacing and I began developing at an early age, a yearning for the sod, the earth. I began digging up a part of the lawn to plant vegetables at age 12. Each year expanding a little until I came up with the notion that I wanted to be a farmer. The idea wasn’t well received by my mom or dad whose practical viewpoint saw no future or possibilities in pursuing that dream. Well I didn’t know how I was ever going to make it happen either, but I began reading about plants, trees, soil, etc. and befriending every farmer I came near. Please keep in mind, I grew up just twenty minutes from the George Washington bridge and I had no farming relatives to be packed off to for the summers. And I wasn’t in a rush to leave the beach and surfing behind either, so I did my best to continue to pursue my ever focusing interest in organic farming. I opened the first natural food store on Long Beach Island ( New Jersey) in 1971 and befriended two older men, one a organic farmer and the other an herbalist, who supported my dream with enthusiasm. It wasn’t a year later before I was on a plane for California. This Irishman’s dream to make a new home 3000 miles away from where my great great grandfather had landed after he had traveled 3000 west of his home, Ireland some 120 years before.
I first settled in Santa Barbara, where the mild climate allowed me to garden year round ( and enjoy some great surfing too). I still had no clue how I would ever come up with the money to buy a piece of property to farm. Nevertheless, I set my sights on educating myself through college and self-learning and experiences of gardening and small scale farming. I developed a network of friends with similar interests and the experiences and opportunities started to unfold. I started a business called Biodynamic Gardens, etc. and hired myself out as landscaper and tree surgeon to make money as I continued my education at the Santa Barbara City College.
After two and a half years, I had exhausted my possibilities in botany and geology courses at SBCC and was itching for the real thing – some land. It was obvious I had to leave the coast to find land that was affordable. So I set out driving up into northern California with a new found friend and Midwest farmboy, Larry O’Hand, looking for land, affordable and somewhat remote. Traveling north as far as Willits, then east through Clear Lake across the Valley to the foothills of the Sierra near Paradise, we looked at much of California. Then southward along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada until we reached the Placerville area (where gold was discovered 125 years earlier) and we struck it – reasonably priced land, a little remote, a little rugged but it felt good here. With the help of a little inheritance($10,000) from Larry O’Hand’s uncle who farmed in Iowa, we put a down payment on 34 acres, mostly wooded and untamed with no water or electricity, in an area south east of Placerville know as Fairplay.
Building first a small barn to house our milking goats, we camped out under the stars, on the ground, each night that summer. The nearby Middle Fork of the Cosumnes afforded us a cool refuge from the heat of the day and a much needed bath. Water to irrigate that first summer’s one acre garden was hauled up from the river in our 1952 Mac (Army edition) 4,000 gallon water truck. I made a giant leap forward that year, 1975, toward fulfilling my dream of farming my own land. In remembrance and honor of my immigrant ancestor, who left the olde sod in the time of the Great Famine, I name our land “the Famine’s End Farm”. I was to become the first farmer in our Clann in four generations and in the golden hills of California to boot. As that first winter approached, out went the goats and in moved us (dirt floor, no running water, no insulation and a hike to the outhouse) to survive the cold, wet winter at 2,100 foot elevation in the Sierra Nevada. As crude as our living conditions were, it seem like heaven to me at age 22.
My first motivation was to secure water, both for drinking and irrigation. Seeking groundwater in the great batholith of granite that underlies these parts leaves the seeker in a quandary. We employed geologic expertise form one of my geology professors from Santa Barbara. A local well driller using his so-called ‘divining rod’ witched our entire acreage before he settled on proposed spot to drill. And then Harry, our neighbor and area resident since placer-gold mining days of the Great Depression, lean out the window of his pick-up truck and said right over there (exactly where the water witcher/well driller had chosen also). We, of course, dismissed modern science and followed the advice of our neighbor, Harry, and the water witcher and found the exact amount of water and at the exact depth that the witcher predicted.
These two young mountainmen, Larry and I, were now thoroughly convinced there’s magic in these hills. The back-breaking tasks of clearing the forests preceded any plantings; but, within a couple of years an orchard of cider apples was planted. Studying soils and water science at the University of California at Davis and working as an assistant to our county (El Dorado) farm advisor, I became very aware of the need for more and the area’s lack of – water for irrigation. My original plan to have 20+ acres of apples may not be possible. The drought of 1976-7 was upon us. Larry O’Hand and his lady friend, Janice Sharman, left the farm for promise of employment, never more to return.
I began to make plans to harness our creek’s winter water by building two reservoirs. Maybe from a genetic imprint of my Clann’s past or just my mountainman intuitiveness of the present, I began to brew beer and then wine and lots of it, for home use. I also became aware of a fledgling rebirth of winemaking in these foothills that once rivaled the wine industries of Napa and Sonoma from the Gold Rush to Prohibition. I gathered one appropriate bit of information that changed the direction of my farming aspirations forever – winegrapes require one-third the amount of water that apples do; and, once established, winegrapes can be dry-farmed (grown without additional water beyond what falls naturally from the sky.
So certainly you understand why I began planting winegrapes by the acre, as fast I could. I needed capital and found some in partnership with my father, Joseph William Fitzpatrick. In 1980, my brother, Michael, a friend, Bill Bertram, and I became bonded as the first winery in El Dorado’s south county area. The brand name became Fitzpatrick. Our plan was to produce premium wines of the Sierra Foothills – wines made from grapes grown only in the foothill elevations over 1500 feet. The wine business proved to have an unsatisfiable hunger for capital. So big plans became small plans and first, in 1984, Bill and then Michael left the partnership.
My wife Diana jumped (or was dragged in, depending on who you talk to) in to help me reorganize the wineries future. The challenge was to strive for profitability as a small (very small) family-owned winery and vineyard. One recurring problem surfaced – late spring frosts were damaging both our apples and winegrapes so much that in 1986 we had no harvest. This was an inherent problem to our site, which was low ground where cold air would settle. We saw the potential for this problem and in 1981 my brother Michael and I put a down payment on 40 hilltop acres at 2500 foot elevation just three miles up the road (Fairplay Road).
In 1986 we began building a new facility on the hilltop. A massive hand-built log lodge was built to house the winery in its inground cellars and the tasting room, commercial kitchen and dining areas, and bed & breakfast rooms in the above two floors. We began moving the winery and ourselves into the partially completed facilities in August 1987. Immediately the tasting room was opened to visitors and by late 1988 bed & breakfast rooms were available. The view from our hilltop is quite spectacular (by anyone’s standards).
We currently offer 5 rooms for bed & breakfast year round and winetasting every day except Tuesdays . New vineyards (22 acres to-date) have been established to a wide variety of premium winegrapes whose origins are from southern France and northern Italy, mostly reds. This Fitzpatrick has managed to make California his Irish dream. But this dream never ends and additions and upgrading just keeps on happenning, a little every year. Come enjoy our expanded and remodeled tasting room, our 25 meter lap pool, expanded deck area, etc.. And the most recent manifestation of a long time dream is the solarization of our entire operation. We’re building a 40KW solar electric power plant to provide near 100% of our year round electrical use. Our winery may become the first to produce wines made entirely from the sun and earth (renewable energy) and of course be certified organically grown too.