(CNN) -

The last time a Ryan stood in the low doorway of the dirt-floored Byre House would have been the day before Willie Ryan passed, 7 November 1967.

I say the seventh because Willie had been up and working that day, but when his neighbor John Maddigan stopped in to check on Willie on the eighth, he found him laid up with pneumonia on his bed in the kitchen, where he'd been living alone since the thatch roof had collapsed on the other half of his two-room house.

All this I learned this summer from Maddigan, who, given that he had been a teenager when Willie died, was looking strong and lean as a racehorse, tan as sunbaked sandstone.

A kind man of quiet gestures, he'd left his own fields to come to his neighbors the Nagles, of Carrowduff, County Clare, where I was staying, as a favor to me.

He had known Willie well; and I was Willie's great-grandnephew, tracing a few pictures, a few names and the scant threads of family lore back to Ireland. Though I thought of it, I never managed to ask John if he saw anything of Willie in me, 47 years later. I was afraid that he might click his tongue against his teeth, look down and say nothing.

Like so many American descendants of 19th and early 20th century immigrants, I have no family albums tracing my lineage back to New England ships, to British houses or German hamlets echoing back my own surname; the portraits in my parents' dining room -- a long nose here, familiar deep-set eyes there -- are to an unsettling degree nameless.

So it was with great excitement when in 2011 my aunt Michele (née Ryan), gripped before the rest of us by some genealogical daemon, brought out three snapshots of the old Ryan farm in County Clare, a place no living Ryan had ever seen.

It was not an impressive structure. The corrugated tin roof recalled Soweto more than the Emerald Isle.

The stone hut was a gray weight against a gray sky; even the grasses were tinged the color of ash. The single door was black as the hole from a missing tooth. But there was something alive in the photography, as if the inkjet printed grasses could at any time sway. I think every one of us felt it tugging.

"You brought the weather with you," said Anne Nagle, my hostess in Carrowduff, a gift of a woman who thought nothing of serving the equivalent of a Thanksgiving dinner -- in volume and in variety -- at one in the afternoon, as "a bit of supper."

According to her, County Clare is rainy for much of the year, with skies drizzling or fog rolling over the hills and the limestone karst. But my bus ride from Dublin through Galway to the Cliffs of Moher, near Carrowduff, revealed minute-by-minute an Ireland of coffee-table books turned real, and vivid and brilliant before me.

In western New York, where I was born, I was accustomed to the clangor of the city or the constant buzzing and rustling of country life, but when I stepped out under the full force of the County Clare sunshine, confronted with the total silence of the fields, I tasted a new and rare serenity.

I never met my great-grandfather Michael Ryan, or "Pa," but I knew that he almost never spoke of the Ireland he left, just as his son, my grandfather, never spoke of his coming-of-age on the beaches of Normandy and in the forests of Ardennes.

Though his father Denis in Ireland's 1901 census listed him as a "scholar," Pa came to America to work 57 years on the railroad that runs through Buffalo, New York. As he never owned a car, he took his family on vacations to anywhere that his own coal steamer could take them.

When he retired, he worked the rest of his life as a caretaker for the Sisters of Saint Francis in Williamsville, to which he walked every day, about four miles from his home on Orchard Place.

His seven sons and three daughters knew little of the land their father left, because Pa told them little. And each generation knew less and less. Ireland to Pa was a cruel land in a cruel time. To his descendants, it is a mystery.

So I thought of Pa's silence as I stood in the silence of the fields of Carrowduff. I was caught between them.

Today, County Clare is home to Ireland's most popular tourist attraction, the stunning cliffs of Moher. One might assume that Carrowduff is on the edge of nowhere, but that's never true in Ireland, an island of just over 35,000 square miles.

Even by Irish standards, though, the Ryan farm is an hour walk from the town of Ennistymon, where today the gleaming glass and white sides of the Falls Hotel face the sun and the Cascades of the River Inagh. The long pristine beaches of the Lahinch are again just over an hour's walk from the farm -- and even less in an "assn'cart," as the farmers say.

And most incredibly (though the trip isn't within walking distance), Carrowduff is neighbor to Poulnabrone, a prehistoric megalith in Clare's "Burren," the tomb of at least 30 nameless members of a nameless tribe.

A tilted giant's table on sturdy limestone legs, the blank face of Poulnabrone fronts the skies at a slight angle, with something of Frank Lloyd Wright in its style and sensibility, though its outsized architects preceded America's own giant by almost six millenia.

All this is set in a vast karst landscape of limestone, riddled and wormed with tracks carved by glaciers and slow time.

The cliffs, the beaches, the waterfalls, the cooling fog, the rolling silent green fields in summer laced with flowers of purple and of yellow, the dramatic megalith mystery of Poulnabrone to the north -- all this was there for the Ryans in 1915, when Anne Ryan left for Niagara Falls, and in the 1850s, when a church fire destroyed all records of births, death and marriages in Kilshanny; all this was theirs for as long as the Ryans called Carrowduff home.

But one by one, the living left; and the rest died.

One Ryan -- Willie, a middle child, born in 1881 -- stayed longer than the rest. From a postcard we know that Pa Ryan went back to Ireland at least once, in 1927, to try to bring his brother Willie back to Buffalo. I told John Maddigan this story, and he laughed.