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Ancestral search results in deeper connection

Sunday, July 22, 2001

By Maggie Jones Patterson

I never cared for those I called the "professionally Irish" -- those who dyed their hair and beer green for St. Patrick even after four generations on this side of the Atlantic. Perhaps this antipathy stemmed from generations of Belfast-style rock and bottle tosses in my family over religious differences. I preferred to think of myself as an unhyphenated American.

Then I discovered Patrick Kilkelly, my great-great grandfather, and, through him, a passion for my heritage.

I had been assigned by my oldest brother and family genealogist to research this Irish Catholic, who had emigrated in 1841 at age 20 from County Galway. I was intrigued to pursue this strain in my father's family, whom I knew as Welsh Presbyterians.

The local historical society in Huntingdon, Pa., where Patrick Kilkelly had settled, led me to second and third cousins. Through them, I found his likeness captured in an oil portrait and more than 80 letters he had written from the Union front during the American Civil War. By then, he had cut his name to Kelly because, according to family legend, he hesitated to take up arms with a name that said "Kill Kelly."

Shortly before my husband and I left for Ireland last summer, I pored over copies of these letters with a hunger often frustrated by indecipherable handwriting and confusing responses to his wife's missing missives. Yet I read enough to come to "know" Patrick Kelly, now dead for 115 years. I even came to cherish all his human contradictions and peculiarities.

He was a loving but stern father, a formal but affectionate husband. He could be poetic about the wartime destruction he had witnessed and the loneliness he bore, but more often his concerns were banal. After early details about acres of dead horses and human limbs poking out of shallow graves in a battle's aftermath, his letters lapsed into grumbling about missing paychecks and scavenging for rebel clothing that his wife could make over for the children. He never mentioned Ireland nor any family beyond his wife and four children.

Unfortunately, none of my research led me to the two key pieces of information a genealogist needs to trace Patrick's path back to Ireland: his parents' names and his hometown. The usual sources, immigration papers and marriage licenses, had yielded nothing. If you can connect to Ireland with names and places, you can research many historical records online.

Despite this lack of information, when we arrived in Dublin, I visited Ireland's main source of the information: the Genealogical Office in the National Library. A congenial researcher, who appeared to have overcaffeinated on Irish breakfast tea, ripped rapid-fire through a list of questions about what slim evidence I carried of Patrick Kilkelly's Irish birth--only the year and County Galway. "We don't have much to work with," she said with a shrug, surprising me with a question about the names of Patrick's children. "But they were born in the U.S.," I sputtered. She waved off my response.

The Irish tradition of naming the first girl and first boy after the father's parents and the second two after the mother's might be a clue. When we saw that Patrick's second son was "Joseph" for his mother's father, the researcher was more confident. I felt tradition's pull of connection.

Most 19th-century census records burned in a 1922 fire, but the genealogist punched a computer with property records and emerged with a list of possible Galway parishes. In another part of the library, we viewed microfilm of handwritten parish records but emerged bleary-eyed an hour later without finding a single Kilkelly.

In this practical sense, I left Ireland empty-handed, except for my hand-copied list of the 30-some Kilkellys in the Galway directory. And yet, I felt I had touched my Irish roots.

According to legends in Connemara, spirits and ghosts reside within the rocks and bushes of the landscape, and ruins hold ancestor's souls. Were mine nearby? In every part of Galway, I wondered about Patrick Kilkelly. Was this the landscape he had known as a child?

I could only speculate as to the emotions that had accompanied Patrick's rift from this beautiful place. "Exile" in Irish, as one source told me, means "one who has known tears." But the compelling tale of his migration, which so marks me as an American, has long ago been buried by the shame or disinterest of his children.

Yet in the voices of Galway, I heard the lilt of Patrick's phrasings in his letters. The colorful English of this region bears a strong imprint of the Ireland's powerful and poetic Gaelic language. Although my mother's Irish roots are to the north in Donegal and Derry, I also heard her love of language here and her smart-aleck sense of humor, which took hold in all her children.

I saw traces of the old hardship that no doubt drove Patrick away and still preoccupied his life in the green mountains of central Pennsylvania. Among the local faces, I spotted the likeness of his elfish expression, red hair and sparkling blue eyes. Most of all, I felt the irony that he had never returned here or even seemed to speak of Galway, and yet four generations later, my feet and heart felt its irresistible pull.

Strong as these connections felt, I couldn't be sure they were not mere projection -- my seeing and feeling what I sensed I should. Then the night we were in Leenane, I had ordered traditional Irish stew, despite the fact that "traditional Irish" usually meant laden with fat. The moment the waiter set down the bowl, the sweet, heady aroma of lamb, onions, carrots and potatoes shot like a spark through the synapses of my memory and stung my eyes with tears. The sense of smell delivers memory most faithfully, they say. To me, it also brought a sense of heritage.

As I sat in this restaurant on the shores of Killary Harbour, I was also a little girl in my parents' Pittsburgh kitchen, where my mouth had first savored the sweet, fatty taste of that broth. That dish, with its Irish smell and taste, transported me over time and ocean. Something had been passed down through the generations. The bond became tactile.

The stories of my family's exodus from Ireland may be irretrievable -- gone like their names in the smoke of the burned census records and the faded ink of the church ledgers. That loss saddens me, but I rejoice in the surprise of a deeper connection. I'll skip the green food coloring in my hair and beer, but I now know that beneath my first and strongest identity as an American, I am also a Celt. This heritage -- my tie to this ancient land -- is in the very blood and bone of who I am.

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