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Ireland in the Blood

This article featured in Cara, the Aer Lingus in-flight magazine, in February – March 2008.

Who can say for sure when the Irish first reached America? Archaeologists are still reeling from the discovery of ancient ring-forts and burial chambers in both New Hampshire and Vermont, complete with a pre-Christian Celtic script that looks very much ‘Irish’. [Editor: Alas, this looks like it is no longer a valid connection! Feb 2010]. And who could doubt the possibility of Saint Brendan the Navigator’s epic voyage across the Atlantic in the 6th century? Christopher Columbus called by Galway City on his way to the New World. Sir Walter Raleigh was living in Co. Waterford when he plotted the first English colony in Virginia. By the time the United States came to life in 1776, men and women from Ireland were taking centre stage in just about every field. Following the Great Famine of the 1840s, Irish Catholics began arriving in their millions. The 2006 American Community Survey reported that 35,975,855 US Citizens claimed Irish ancestry. That’s nearly 12% of the total population. Yes indeed, every which way you look, there’s an Irishman coming at you. Here’s five Irish-Americans who’ve had a major impact on our world.

JAMES HOBAN (1758 – 1831)
Few realize an Irishman designed and built the White House in Washington. James Hoban was born and raised on the Earl of Desart’s estate near Callan, Co. Kilkenny. In the estate school, young Hoban’s carpentry and drawing skills so impressed the Earl that he paid for the boy to study architecture at the Royal Dublin Society. With a head full of ideas, Hoban arrived in Philadelphia in 1785 and began looking for contracts. Within three years, he was hard at work in the rapidly developing city of Charleston, managing difficult projects such as the reconstruction of the original colonial statehouse (built by Dubliner Samuel Cardy) as a courthouse. In 1791 President George Washington visited Charleston and dined with Senator Pierce Butler, an Irish-born plantation owner whose family owned a large estate in Co. Carlow. Butler recommended Hoban as a competent and practical architect builder and, in 1792, the Kilkenny man was awarded the contract to design and build the presidential mansion later known as The White House. The building was badly damaged by the British during the War of 1812 after which Hoban was again whistled up to oversee its restoration and extension. Hoban completed the portico of the White House shortly before his death in 1831. To celebrate the 250th anniversary of Hoban’s birth, The White House Historical Association will mount an exhibit on his life and work in Washington DC during 2008 and several other commemorative events and publications are planned for both the U.S. and Ireland. See for details.

WALT DISNEY (1901 – 1966)
‘Always remember’, urged Walt Disney, ‘that this whole thing started with a dream and a mouse’. From another perspective, it started with Hughes d’Isigny, a French soldier from Calvados who settled in England in 1066. By the 1700s, d’Isigny’s descendents had adopted the name ‘Disney’ and were living beside Ballyloo Castle in County Carlow. The nearby Clonmelsh cemetery is the final resting place for at least one of the cartoon king’s direct ancestors – George Disney, baker of Dublin, who died in 1736. Walt’s great-grandfather Arundel Disney was born in 1801 but left Ireland in his 30s, settling in Ontario. He married Mary Swain and set up as a corn and timber merchant. The eldest of their sixteen children was Kepple Disney, Walt’s grandfather, apparently born in Clone, Co. Kilkenny, in 1834. In 1858, Kepple married fellow Irish immigrant Mary Richardson from Aghaboe, Co. Laoise, who bore him eleven children. In 1878, Kepple and his two eldest sons Elias (father of Walt) and Robert moved to a farm in Kansas. Elias Disney, a wandering soul, worked on various farms, railroads and building sites, as well as a stint as a professional fiddler in Denver. When Walt was 5 years old, Elias and his wife Flora moved to Marceline, Missouri, and that’s where young Walt learned how to draw. In the 1930s, the studio magnate visited Carlow and paid his respects to his Clonmelsh forbears.

NB: Tom La Porte subsequently contacted me about the Disbeys. Between 1698 and 1732, there were a number of Disneys entries in Stabannon, co. Louth. They seem to have stayed for just one generation as there are no Disney entries before of after those dates and register covered from the 1650’s to the 1800’s. The elder Disneys were Captain Thomas and Susanna Disney, Ebenezer and Mary Disney and Benoni (wife’s name not listed) Disney and their children were William, Thomas, Eccles, Elizabeth and Ebenezer andDarkis (who both were born and died there). Could this be the family who moved on to Carlow? Were there other unrelated Disney branches around the country? What kind of given names are Benoni and Darkis?
HENRY FORD (1863 – 1947)
Henry Ford was an avid believer in consumerism as the key to world peace. The belief made him one of the richest and best known men of his age, not only because he founded the Ford Motor Company but also for his pioneering use of assembly lines in the mass production of cars. Indeed, he had the concept down to such an art that a Model-T automobile could be built from scratch in 98 minutes. On top of that he single-handedly raised workers wages and lowered costs across the US and, as such, is credited with creating the American middle class. Not bad for a lad from the Lee. Henry’s grandfather John Ford grew up in Ardboe, County Tyrone, but later moved to Cork City where Henry’s father, Billy Ford (1826-1905), was born and educated at St. Joseph’s High School. Billy briefly lived in Clonakilty but then emigrated to the United States where he married Mary Litogot Ford, a Belgian girl raised by the O’Hern family after her parents died. Their son Henry was born on a farm at Dearborn outside Detroit in 1863. He never forgot his family ties with Ireland. In 1919 the company set up its first factory outside the United States in Cork City.

BILLY THE KID (1859 – 1882)
Billy was a veritable gun-slinging Irish desperado if ever there was one. Although much of his life is hearsay, he was born ‘Henry McCarty’ in 1859 and raised in the ramshackle tenements of New York during an age of intense violence recently depicted in Scorsese’s ‘Gangs of New York’. His father’s identity is unknown but his mother Catherine McCarty appears to have arrived in New York on board the Devonshire aged 17 in 1846. A boyhood friend of Billy later described her as a ‘jolly Irish lady, full of fun and mischief’. By 1865, Billy and his mother were living in New Mexico where Catherine married a silver miner from Ulster called William Antrim. Catherine died of TB in 1873 leaving her orphaned son to master the arts of cattle rustling, gambling and pistol-packing. He also learned to speak fluent Spanish. At 17, Billy shot his first man dead – a bar-room bully called Frank ‘Windy’ Cahill – and so the legend of Billy the Kid began. Most of his victims worked for James Dolan and William Murphy, two unscrupulous beef barons who had effectively assassinated a man Billy greatly admired called John Henry Tunstall. Henry McCarty, alias ‘William H Bonney’, alias Billy the Kid, was shot dead by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881. He is said to have killed 21 people in his life – one for every year of his short life. The first book about him was a wildly sensationalistic biography called The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid, written by no less a soul than Pat Garrett.

GRACE KELLY (1929-1982)
‘I don’t want to be married to someone who feels inferior to my success or because I make more money than he does’. Such were the wise words of Academy Award-winning actress Grace Kelly when she achieved the fairytale dream of marrying Monaco’s Prince Rainier in 1956. There hadn’t been an Irish woman on a throne since Grace O’Malley who was not just Grace’s namesake but also came from Mayo. Her grandfather John Henry Kelly, an ‘unskilled labourer’, was born at Kidney Lake near Newport, Co. Mayo, in 1847, the worst year of the Irish Famine. We don’t yet know what he did in Ireland but I suspect he was a handy man at rowing a currach around Clew Bay. Family lore holds that he was known as ‘Strong John’ and there is a suggestion that his father was called Brian.

As a young man, he crossed the Atlantic, settling in Philadelphia where his great-grandchildren are held in high esteem to this day. By his wife Mary Costello, John had six sons, including Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright George Kelly, popular vaudeville actor Walter Kelly and Grace’s father, John Brendan Kelly, Sr. (known as Jack). Jack was one of the most successful oarsmen in the history of rowing, winning 126 consecutive races in the single scull and becoming the first triple Olympic Gold Medal winner in the sport. Amazingly his first cousin and long-time rowing partner Paul Costello was also a triple Olympic Gold medal winner in the same sport. And given that Jack’s son Jack Kelly Jr – sometime President of the United States Olympic Committee – also won a bronze medal at the Olympics, that is seven Olympic medals for the one family, six of them gold.

Jack also excelled as a boxer and footballer. Like many a Mayo man, he made his vast fortune as a brick-layer, starting in 1908 and becoming one of a select group of East Coast millionaires. “Kelly for Brickwork” was the slogan seen at his construction sites. In 1935, he very nearly won the Mayoralty of Philadelphia for the Democrats. Grace’s mother Margaret Katherine Majer was a fashion model of German Lutheran origins.

A combination of Jack’s wealth, Margaret’s beauty and the Kelly’s civic-spirited exuberance gave Grace all the confidence and contacts she needed in Broadway and later Hollywood. A favourite of Hitchcock, she also starred in ‘The Country Girl’ with Bing Crosby whose mother Kate Harrigan was also a builder’s daughter from Co. Mayo. Grace’s film career lasted just five years, concluding with ‘High Society’ (another Mayo reunion with Bing!), after which she settled down to life as Grace Grimaldi, housewife and Princess, until her tragic death in a car accident in 1982.

NB: Lore holds that John Kelly was born in Drimurla townland in the civil parish of Kilmaclasser, Co. Mayo, where Grace bought the cottage. His father may have been Brian Kelly. The records for the 1830s and 1840s show Kellys living all around the parishes of Islandeady and Kilmaclasser. However, no Kelly households were recorded in the townland of Drumilra at the time of Griffith’s Valuation, although there were Kelly households in the parish of Kilmaclasser.[i] Nor were there any households recorded in the townland of Drumilra at the time of the Tithe Applotment. Parish records hadn’t begun by time JHK was born so its unlikely that his baptismal record survives.
[i] The civil parish of Kilmaclasser corresponds with the Roman Catholic parish of Kilmeena, the records for which date from 1858. Newport is located in the civil parish of Burrisohoole, which neighbours Kilmaclasser and corresponds with the Roman Catholic parish of Burrishoole, the registers for which only date from 1872.
• Former Secretary of State and Gulf War hero Colin Powell descends from a liaison between a slave girl and Limerick man General Sir Eyre Coote, Governor of Jamaica from 1805 to 1808.

• The Erie Canal was built by Irishmen.

• Al Smith, who lost to Herbert Hoover in the 1928 presidential election, was the first Irish Catholic to run for president.

• The Declaration of Independence was printed by John Dunlap of Strabane, Co. Tyrone.

• The Great Seal of the Confederate States of America and the Stonewall Jackson Monument in Virginia were designed by John Henry Foley of Dublin.

• At least twenty-three presidents of the United States have Irish roots.

• John F. Kennedy’s paternal grandfather PJ Kennedy was born in New Ross, Co. Wexford, and emigrated to Boston during the Great Famine of the 1840s.

• Ronald Reagan’s grandfather Michael Reagan left Ballyporeen, Co. Tipperary, and moved to Illinois in the 1860s.

• Presidential hopeful Barack Obama is the great-great-great-grandson of Fulmuth Kearney of Moneygall, Co. Offaly. Irish wags have since crowned him Barry O’Bama.

• New York City has had at least three Irish-born mayors and over eight Irish American mayors. The most recent was Co. Mayo native William O’Dwyer, elected in 1949.

• Muhammad Ali’s great-grandfather was Abe Grady, a plasterers’ son from Ennis, Co. Clare, who moved to Kentucky in the 1860s and married a slave woman.

• The Irish language ranks 66th out of the 322 languages spoken today in the U.S., with over 25,000 speakers.