A tale of two brothers separated for 44 years
When Frank Snellings visited Ireland to search for his birth mother, he discovered a sibling he never knew he had
Percy Dukelow lived in London for 20 years, working in the building industry. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times
Frank Snellings and Percy Dukelow’s birth mother, Sara Dukelow.
Percy Dukelow and his brother Frank Snellings.
By the end of 1997 Frank Snellings and his wife, Mary Landrieu, had endured almost four gruelling years in US politics. Landrieu, a Democrat, had tried, unsuccessfully, to run for the governorship of Louisiana in 1995; then, the following year, she was elected a US senator in one of the closest races in the state’s history.
Her opponent challenged her victory, claiming election fraud. It wasn’t until October 1997 that the US Senate confirmed her victory after a hard-fought investigation.
After the couple cleared the debts they had built up fighting the challenge, Snellings decided it was time to take a personal journey he had put off for years. “I looked up and said, ‘Well, it’s time I went to Ireland. ’ That is when this whole chapter began,” Snellings says, sitting in a Capitol Hill coffee shop, in Washington DC, recounting his remarkable Irish-American story.
The Louisiana man would travel back to a country he was adopted from as a five-year-old, in 1954, to learn more about a mother he did not know and to meet a brother he never knew existed.
Snellings, who is now 65, remembers a few things about his early years in Dún Laoghaire: his best buddy was Eric; the Cottage Home for Little Children, on Tivoli Road, poached eggs for the children on Sundays; the kids always fought over a tricycle; and they were looked after by a kind woman, Ms Eccles, also known as Matron.
He remembers the day in 1954 when his new family picked him up. “Matron said, ‘Your mother and father and brother and sister are here from America, and they are here to take you home.’ ”
Each of the Snellings family carried part of a new toy train that they had brought for him. They travelled to Ireland by boat after a Church of Ireland minister passing through Louisiana told them about children who could be adopted in Ireland. Marie Louise Wilcox Snellings couldn’t have any more children of her own and badly wanted a third.
The home told Frank Snellings’s adoptive parents, a prominent couple from the town of Monroe, in northeastern Louisiana, to take his Irish paperwork and throw it away. “This is a new future,” they were told. His adoptive mother, a strong-willed woman whom Snellings describes as wicked smart, refused. The boy may only be five, but he has a past, and it would not be right, she said.
“They told me from the get-go I was adopted,” Snellings says. His Irish passport from 1954, a little green hardback book with a photograph of a handsome child peering out, has his birth name, Ernest Dukelow, scratched out and “Frank Snellings” written above it. He still uses Ernest as his second name. Frank was the name of his adoptive mother’s father.
Snellings’s father, George Marion Snellings Jnr, an attorney in Monroe with his own law practice, kept a file of Frank’s records in his desk. When Frank turned 18 his father gave it to him. Frank Snellings decided he would not search for his Irish family while his adoptive parents were alive. “It would just be too awkward,” he says.
He assumed that his mother had given birth to him at a young age and that he would therefore have time to find her. But on his 1998 trip to Ireland Snellings learned that she had had him in her late 30s or early 40s and that she had died in the 1970s.
“I thought she would have been in her 60s, but she was long gone,” he says. “There is almost no connection except on paper. I was sad about it, because I had really wanted to talk to her.”
Snellings’s mother was a woman named *Sara Dukelow, from Durrus, in west Cork. Does he know why she gave him up? Snellings says she was single and poor; she made money from raising chickens among the “rolling hills and little white cottages” on the Co Cork coast.
The when and the why are not fully clear, but his mother ended up living in Dublin. Snellings’s birth certificate lists Castleknock as the area where he was born.
On his 1998 trip Snellings travelled to Durrus and the local Church of Ireland chapel to learn more about this woman. “I find this local priest, and I start this little story and tell him what I have been trying to do,” he says. “He looks at me and says, ‘We have been expecting you.’ It just takes my breath away.”
The Dukelows were originally Huguenots who fled religious persecution in France. Snellings says his adoptive mother always believed that the Dún Laoghaire home recognised the Huguenot link and the French influence in Louisiana, and that’s why it matched him with the Snellings family. He grins. “I always thought it was because I was the best one they had,” he says.
Through cousins, Snellings learned that his mother had another son, born two years before Frank, in 1947. He, too, had been placed in an orphanage.
In 1998 Joe Costello, who was a Labour Party senator at the time, was sitting in his Oireachtas office when a phone call came through. “I believe you know my brother Percival Dukelow,” said the voice at the other end of the line in a southern American drawl.
Percy Dukelow had worked for Costello for years, helping him in his Dublin Central constituency, posting flyers through doors and doing other tasks. “He is my right-hand man on constituency work,” says Costello, who arranged for Percy Dukelow to speak with Snellings again by phone. “They had a long chat,” he says. “He was in floods of tears.”
Percy Dukelow told Snellings that he worked for a senator. “That makes two of us,” Snellings replied. They met for the first time at Buswells Hotel, opposite Leinster House. “I knew he was my brother by the look of him,” says Dukelow, speaking by phone from his home in Dublin’s north inner city. They don’t know if they share a father, as they don’t know their fathers.
“Frank has the appearance of Percy; they are clearly brothers,” says Costello, who remembers their first “highly charged, emotional meeting”.
“It was emotional and awkward,” Snellings says. “This is a guy who is a piece of you, and you are a piece of him.”
Very different lives
From similar starts, the brothers had very different lives. Snellings describes his brother as a wonderful fellow who has had a “hard, hard life”.
Percy was never adopted. He was brought up by the Protestant Orphan Society and “farmed out” to foster families. He remembers three from the age of four or five.
Technically, there were no adoptions before January 1st, 1953, when the 1952 Adoption Act came into effect, although informal arrangements were in place before then. Snellings may have benefitted in his 1954 adoption given that he was younger, and families prefer to adopt children at an early age.
It’s not unusual for siblings to have been separated. The Adoption Authority of Ireland deals with many cases of sibling reunions among about 48,000 Irish people who have been adopted since 1952.
“The birth mother may have accessed two different services,” says Patricia Carey, chief executive of the Adoption Authority of Ireland. “She may not have revealed that she had a first child or wanted to say that this was her second. That would be quite common.”
Percy Dukelow, who is now 67, lived for at time at Drewstown House, a home for children near Kells, in Co Meath. He was “let go”, to make his own way, he says, on his 17th birthday.
He lived in London for 20 years, working in the building industry. On his return he became involved in a trade union and then in the Labour Party, which brought him into contact with Costello. They have worked together for 23 years.
A chance visit that Dukelow and Costello made to Drewstown House shortly before Snellings went searching for his family helped make the connection between the brothers. One of Snellings’s Irish cousins discovered that Dukelow had lived at Drewstown House. The cousin contacted Drewstown and heard of Dukelow and Costello’s visit. Then Snellings rang Costello.
Six weeks after arriving in Louisiana, Snellings lost his Irish accent. (He remembers calling trucks “lorries” for a time.) He had a typical well-to-do American upbringing. He attended four colleges in four states – Alabama, Texas, Tennessee and Louisiana – before settling on law. He went into the family’s law practice in 1975, selling his interest in 1994 to concentrate on his wife’s political career.
The Snellings family were well connected, with a strong interest in politics. Snellings’s parents, both Republicans, served on locally elected education boards. His father served on the board of Delta Air Lines until 1984.
Snellings married Landrieu in 1988; she comes from a well-known Louisiana political family; her father, Moon, was mayor of New Orleans; her brother Mitch is its current mayor.
The couple have two adopted children of their own. They tried unsuccessfully to adopt from Ireland. “We joke with Mary that the three of us are the normal ones and she’s the odd one,” says Snellings.
When Landrieu was elected to the Senate, Snellings started in business on Capitol Hill, selling residential homes for the city’s movers and shakers, including for many members of Congress, who pass through the city.
End up in politics
In Dublin, Percy Dukelow, a lover of politics, is disappointed that Landrieu lost her Senate seat in Washington in a run-off election two weeks ago. The three-term senator is the last of the Deep South Democrats ousted by Republicans in the anti-Obama midterm-election wave.
That the brothers, unknown to one another for almost half a century, would end up in politics is a coincidence not lost on Snellings. “It’s almost like it’s DNA,” he says.
The brothers will talk next week; they call each other every St Patrick’s Day and Christmas Day. Dukelow will also, as in previous years, visit Costello at home on Christmas Day.
“It is one of those strange tales that has the chance element in it all,” says the Labour TD. “It’s a tale of two brothers and that great divide between the States and Ireland that reaches back into what Ireland was like all those days ago.”
*This article was ammended on 15/01/2015.