Mary Pat Kelly on writing her way back to her roots
Driven to discover her ancestors’ homeplace by her in-laws’ scepticism about her Irish roots, the author’s family history inspired her novels Galway Bay and Of Irish Blood
Mary Pat Kelly: I stood on the strand at Bearna/Freeport, the piece of Ireland that was mine, where my great-great grandmother Honora Keeley was born in 1822 and where she married Michael Kelly in 1839. The home place
After the fifth time I was introduced as “the American Martin married”, I had to speak up.
“But I’m also Irish,”I said. “I’ve Kellys on all sides, as well as McCabes, Foleys, O’Callahans and yes, my mother’s part German but two of her brothers were priests.”
November 1988. Our first trip to my husband’s village Carrickmore in Co Tyrone. I’d already apologised several times for the election of George HW Bush and for not being Eddie Murphy’s sister as had been reported back by someone who was confused because I did know the comedian while working at Saturday Night Live and Paramount Pictures and had actors in my family. But I did want credit for my heritage.
After all, I was related to Ed Kelly, mayor of Chicago from 1933-47, who founded the Democratic machine that elected Mayor Daley and helped put President Kennedy into the White House.
My ancestors dug the Illinois and Michigan Canal, transforming a muddy frontier village into “the crossroads of America” and “the freight-handler of the world”. They were paid with plots of land in a section called Hardscrabble which became Bridgeport, “the cradle of kings” according to my Dad, birthplace of Irish mayors and clout.
In Chicago even the Native Americans were Irish. I grew up in a neighbourhood named for Chief Sauganash, whose father came from Fermanagh. By age four I could sing the Notre Dame Fight Song and McNamara’s Band and was convinced that “whether the odds be great or small” the Fighting Irish of all descriptions would “win over all” because we were “the finest in the land” and I was a proud member of the clan.
“I really am Irish,”
“And where is the homeplace?” his Auntie Anna asked.
The question I’d come to dread ever since my initial visit to Ireland in 1969 when I was asked what county my people came from and I responded “Cook County, Chicago”. Because I didn’t know, had no idea where all those past generations of my family lived before they crossed the Atlantic nearly 150 years ago.
“I haven’t been able to find out,” I said to Auntie Anna. “They came a long time ago and well, my grandparents died young and…” I stopped because she was patting my hand. “Ah well then,” she said. Kind. Sympathetic, but I got it. Without a homeplace then I was “the American Martin had married”.
And true enough I was an American and happy to be. Hadn’t my dad, like the fathers of most of my friends, fought for our country in WWII? He never talked much about his service but I loved looking at the picture of him piloting his US Navy plane which I felt linked our family in a special way to John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the hero captain of PT 109, who was handsome, brilliant, quoted Irish poetry and went to Mass. Euphoria when he was elected president. My priest uncles took my sister, cousin and me to his inauguration so as a 16-year-old I heard “here on earth God’s work must truly be our own” as a challenge and was inspired to become a nun in order to serve the poor and change the world. Fourteen of the 100 girls in my high school graduation class also entered the convent, part of the great vocation blip of the 1960s that featured thousands of young Irish-American women.
And then JFK was gone. Tragic beyond words. But the strength his family showed, the rituals of his funeral, encouraged a certain resolve. We could go forward for him, marching with Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy for justice and peace. Their assassinations seemed too much to bear. I’d been teaching African American students on the west side of Chicago and saw Madison Street go up in flames, watched tanks drive down our streets as if the neighbourhood was an enemy enclave. I left the convent just in time to protest against the Vietnam war at the Democratic convention where I was menaced by the very Irish-American policemen I had seen as my protectors. Hard to sing When Irish Eyes Are Smiling in those dark days.
Ireland saved me. During that 1969 trip I discovered that the real place and actual people surpassed the Emerald Isle of my imagination. Over the next years I would receive a doctorate with a concentration in Irish study, make a documentary on John Hume and the Northern Ireland civil rights struggle and marry a Tyrone man. I would learn much about Irish and Irish-American history writing for Irish America magazine, whose motto is Mórtas Cine, Pride in our Heritage. But in 1988 I still didn’t have a homeplace.
I promised Auntie Anna I’d get serious and began knocking on parish house doors and searching records in Ireland and the US. Finally on a June morning in 2002, with the sun shining bright on Galway Bay, I stood on the strand at Bearna/Freeport, the piece of Ireland that was mine. There had once been a fishing village here where my great-great grandmother Honora Keeley was born in 1822 and where she married Michael Kelly in 1839. The home place.
Honora started talking to me that day and her life and the history of my family became the basis for my historical novel Galway Bay and the sequel, Of Irish Blood.
I thought of my moment on the shore when I saw President Obama dancing with his relatives in Kenya and remembered too JFK tapping his toe in time to a jig at the Kennedy homestead at Dunganstown. A great joy to find the homeplace. To connect with the ancestors. Still Auntie Anna was right. I am an American. I’m both. Last month the Playhouse in Derry hosted a booksigning where a chorus sang Galway Bay while accompanying themselves on ukuleles. Wonderful! I was happy to see Auntie Anna’s grandson there and gave him Of Irish Blood for her. I signed the copy “To Auntie Anna, with love from your Irish-American niece.”
Of Irish Blood by Mary Pat Kelly is published by Forge