By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
SALTILLO – Driving north along a two-mile stretch of road in northern Lee County, you probably won’t notice any connection between the simple, ranch-style houses.
The woodpiles, the shaggy yards and the porch swings all meld together, forming a familiar, undifferentiated scene of Southern life.
But inside nearly every house along Barrett Ridge hangs the same portrait – an ancient, smoky image that traces each family’s ancestry back to County Cork, Ireland.
“This is Edward Barrett and his wife, Mary,” said Edward’s great-grandson, Joe Barrett, holding a photograph of the couple who now rest in the soil they donated to the Roman Catholic Church.
For five generations, the land the Barretts donated, upon which sits a cemetery, and, until it burned last spring, a church, has been the center of a tightly knit community of Irish Americans.
Today, as America pays its yearly homage to Irish culture, the Irish of Barrett Ridge remain bound by blood, by faith and by their shared sadness that life, as they once knew it, is passing into history.
Faith of their fathers
As best as any of the old folks can remember, it was a job on the M&O Railroad that brought Edward Barrett to settle on the ridge that today bears his name.
Barrett Ridge, officially known as Lee County Road 683, begins about 10 miles north of Tupelo. It winds its way north, about two miles, up the spine of a low rise of land, flanked by U.S. Highway 45 to the east, and by Euclatubba Road to the west.
“Ned” Barrett, as his progeny call him, fled his homeland because of the potato famine.
A skilled farmer, Barrett coaxed some money out of the fecund Mississippi soil and, in partnership with another Irish immigrant, Tom Cassidy, bought an old saloon and converted it into a Catholic Church.
They named the church St. Patrick’s, after the patron saint of their homeland.
Once Barrett and his wife, Mary, put down roots on the ridge, more Irish families moved in – families like the McQuinns, the Laffertys and the McCartys.
They planted corn and cotton in the dark, upland dirt and they learned their catechism and waited for visits from Benedictine priests from St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Ala.
The old folks on Barrett Ridge still remember how rare it was to see a priest, and how their parents and grandparents doted on them.
“Father Reitmeier would make the rounds every Monday, and people on the ridge would have fresh vegetables for him, and milk and butter,” said Virginia Barrett-Bishop. “Mother and daddy would cure a hog for him, sometimes.”
The Barretts on both sides of the Atlantic always kept in touch. In 1988, Virginia and her husband hosted their cousin, Pat Barrett, who still lives on the family’s land in County Cork.
Through the years, Pat’s Irish kin also visited the ridge. They ate fried catfish at Barrett family reunions, and scoured the bushes alongside their kinfolk for colored Easter eggs. Not to be outdone, Saltillo attorney Leroy Long and his wife, Helen, recently made the trip over to see Pat.
“The area is called ‘Boola Bweeng,’” said Leroy, holding out a picture of his wife standing in front of an ancient church made of field stones. Behind her, the hills were as green as new corn.
Friday afternboon, Virginia’s son, Herman Bishop Jr., was using his tractor to pull a log out of Joe Barrett’s yard, just doing what neighbors on the ridge do.
“There never was a better place to grow up,” said Bishop. “But times are changing.”
St. Thomas Aquinas Church was the community’s beating heart for nearly a century, before the flames claimed it last spring. The church was officially a mission of St. James in Tupelo, whose priests celebrated Mass at St. Thomas for four decades.
Today, in the midst of a recession, the Diocese of Jackson faces a hard decision about whether to rebuild, but among the ridge folk, with their fierce sense of territoriality, an uneasy feeling already has taken hold.
On the other hand, as they all say, a church isn’t just a building.
In a fellowship hall, standing right beside the ashen remains of their sanctuary, the Irish have pinned pictures and names to a billboard. They’ve traced the line of families – Gusmus, Poppelreiter, Larkin – whose histories have become intertwined with that of the Barretts.
And in the graveyard, on land given to the church by their ancestors, they continue to bury their dead. Joe Barrett’s wife of nearly 50 years, Willa Mae, died last year on St. Patrick’s Day, so the holiday that most Americans associate with the Irish will forever hold a bit of melancholy for him.
Today, Willa Mae rests among her ancestors, in a plot surrounded by oak and crape myrtle, along a ridge skirted by farmland and green bottoms. It is a place that, in the springtime, looks a wee bit like Ireland.
Contact Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.