ROOTS

 

I think it matters where “I” came from – the “me” which has been my sustenance all these years.  Call it culture, or history - it’s not genealogy, per se, which can be little more than a biblical-like recitation of who begat whom. Rather, it's more akin to the intersection and interplay of nature and nurture, that long chain of one's biological roots given shape and form by my own upbringing.  In combination, they are very telling of 'who' I am - my personality and values.

 

Officially, I'm a mutt.  Mostly Irish.  My dad’s father was born in Ireland, his mother born in the US of Irish immigrant parents.  My mom’s mother and father were born in the US.  Her father was of Prussian immigrant parents (and on his mom's side of Jewish ancestry).  My mom's mom was from German and Irish immigrant parents. The story of late 19th Century America.   And, to be more precise, it is the story of a neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri to which they all emigrated from their homelands - a neighborhood to this day called Old North St. Louis, or, simply, Old North.

   

However, I was raised to think of myself as Irish. Totally so.  Not that I didn’t know I had Prussian and German blood in me but, frankly, we rarely spoke about anything save our Irish roots.  And it was clear, to me at least, I was not American, per se.  I was an Irish, Catholic, Nationalist, then an American Democrat. 

 

I saw no contradiction in starting high school in a monastery, studying to be a missionary priest, by 18 or 19 vowing to fight for Ireland and joining the IRA, if that were to be a 'call', and at 22 being a conscientious objector, a medic, in the U.S. Army during the Viet Nam era. It made sense to me then and it still does. 

 

My name in Irish is Donncha Ó Corcráin, or ‘Brown-haired Warrior descended from (the) Ruddy Complected.’  Quite an image: a half-naked barbarian standing atop a sea cliff overlooking the Atlantic.  Until recently, our family doctor was Kaori Sakurai.  I once asked if her name translated to English.  She thought a moment, then said, Kaori - ‘gives rise to happiness;’ Sakurai - ‘the well by the cherry tree.’  The conflicting images, her name and mine, still give me a laugh.

 

In 1976, my mom, dad and I went to Ireland for the first time.  We wanted to see where my grandparents were from.  Meet people, if there were any left to meet. 

 

My grandfather, seanathair as Gaeilge, was from the townland of Killavoy, Parish of Ross, Barony of Duhallow.  Townlands weren't on official maps.  Parishes still exist but aren’t much help.  And Baronies – meaningless overlays, as best as I can tell.  However, in 2017, I learned there’s a hierarchy to it all.  Ireland was historically divided into provinces – four, to be exact.  Munster, Leinster, Ulster and Connaught.  Each province was divided into Baronies.  Who made those distinctions and why I still don’t know.  Baronies were divided into parishes and parishes into townlands.  Hence Province of Munster, Barony of Duhallow, Parish of Ross, Townland of Killavoy - that was my grandfather’s place, born, baptized and partly raised.  

 

And we found the spot where my paternal grandfather was from.  A farmer, Mr. Ó Riordan, in his 60’s in 1976, said his mom, in her 90’s then, talked about us.  But, like so many others at the time, what with famine and disease, we all either died or moved away, many to America.  Any burial spots? ‘No,’ Mr. Ó Riordan said – a big pit was cut in the hillside – there (he pointed) - and all the bodies dumped in.  Too many were dying too fast - no one with money to pay for a proper burial or headstones, he said.  This is on the side of Mount Hillary in the west of County Cork. 

Famine - a not uncommon occurrence in Ireland.  The famine which was the Corcoran's demise was not the ''great'' famine of the1840s and 50, rather the mini famine of the late 1880’s and 90’s.

 

It was disappointing to find the exact spot where my grandfather had come from.  I wanted to hear an echo.  See or sense a shadow, hear a story, sense something, anything, some evidence, kick a stone from their old home ... but, no ... only a woman in her 90’s who remembered hearing stories, but not any one of those stories, nor any of us by name, in person.

 

So off we went, north to County Mayo where my grandmother's mom and dad were from.  We had better luck there.  We found some cousins who lived on the very spot of ground.  They showed us the pig sty in which my my great-grandma, Catherine Fox, was born.  It’s still there – or was then - to the right rear of the modern house.  A small, dry stacked-stone beehive-shaped shed or hut, a single opening in the front.  It had been whitewashed at some point but was stained, soiled, not in good repair.  No longer any pigs on the property.  But, yes, my grandmother was born in pig sty.  I have often found real grounding in that fact.  A very solid foundation, even if one of my own imagination.  On those few occasions when life’s circumstances have led me to want to think how special I am, talented, gifted, smart, unique ... I think back to that pit grave in County Cork and that pig sty in County Mayo ... and they bring me home, back to my roots.  And I am, have been, eternally grateful for that.

 

My dad and I stood outside the modest stone house overlooking Loch Corrib, the ruins of an Ó Flaherty castle on an island in the middle.  It was a magical place - one of the most beautiful spots I have ever seen.  Me, puffing on my cigarette – I smoked at the time - I turned and said to my dad, ‘Why would anyone ever leave such a place?’  He looked at me with that look ... my own naivete shut me up quickly - move or die.  More of the same – famine, disease, poverty.

 

Nellie, my grandma, was arrested in St. Louis, interrogated for three days during WWII ... held until the authorities realized her strident, outspoken pro-German attitude was, in fact, only an intense hatred of England.  She cared not a jot about Germany but wished to see Ireland’s occupier erased from the world’s map.

 

In Celtic tradition, women fight alongside the men.  Be assured, they are the most to be feared.

 

So, we left.  Headed north, into Donegal, a part of Ulster the English didn’t want when the 1923 treaty was signed, among other things partitioning the country into the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland, a free nation, and six of the nine historical counties of Ulster into Northern Ireland, the colonial vestige of British Imperial rule still standing to this day in our native home.  That’s where a key thread of this story begins.

 

We arrived in Gleann Cholm Cille – St. Columb’s Valley – a remote, Irish-speaking area of incredible beauty.  It was a cold, bitter, windy day – not atypical for June in Ireland.  My dad said he wanted to walk, take in the air.  My mom and I were freezing.  We went into the only open shop, aside from O’Gara’s grocery, and sat before the peat fire, warming ourselves with more than one cúpan tae ...

 

Hours later, my dad back from his walk, us headed up the Glengesh Pass, he said Gleann Cholm Cille was where he wanted to live.  That is was home.  We laughed - our ‘homes’, if you could call any of them that, were many hours drive south, in Connaught and Munster, not here, in Ulster, in Gleann Cholm Cille.  But he was serious, no laughing matter.  He died in 1988, having never ‘returned’ to his home.

 

In 2002, I went back there, for the first time.  He was right.  I can’t explain it ... but you know it when you feel it.  A friend, from Ulster himself, says it’s ‘atavistic memory.’  His own people lived on the same spot, guardians of a saint’s burial place, for 1200 years.  Poverty and the English made them move in his own grandparents’ time.  He took up arms in 1972 ...  commander of the 3rd Derry Brigade of the IRA.  His stories of his Grandma Doherty ... Irish women, like I said ... a force to be reckoned with.

 

So we are, mostly, originally from Ireland - but there’s more to the story than that.

 

The Ely O’Carroll claim to have established my family, the Corcoran’s, on lands in south central Ireland between 280 and 300 AD.  That pre-dates writing in Ireland, aside from a few terse stone inscriptions in the Ogham script, so there is no way to authenticate their claim. 

 

Writing came with Christian missionaries who brought Latin and the Roman alphabet to Ireland.  Notable among these was Patrick, St. Patrick, who arrived as a slave, war booty, gained his freedom and returned years later as a Roman(ized) Catholic priest – in the 400’s. 

 

Corcoran, the name itself, derives from the Irish word for purple.  Applied to a person, it means ruddy complected.  Irish names are often descriptive.  Doherty - difficult.  Kennedy, ugly-headed.  Gannon - without a name.  Sullivan - one-eyed, and so on. 

 

Ar chor ar bith, over the next 700 years, several Corcoran’s are mentioned as ecclesiastics in and around O’Carroll country.  Ecclesiastics weren’t clergy, rather caretakers of church property, which lent them some degree of importance, warranting a mention in the annals but not much more.

 

 In 1014 AD, Brian, the high king, nicknamed ‘Ború’, a Kennedy, was killed at the battle of Clontarf defeating the Vikings.   Brian’s death left a power vacuum. For the next 10 years, war lords fought for control, to no end. Weary of war, in 1024, they agreed to make the poet, O’Laughlin, and the teacher, Corcoran, joint high kings. 

 

Aside:  Brian Boru’s fort, or Béal Ború, as it’s called, can still be seen in the village of Killaloe in County Clare along the bank of the Shannon River.  Ború is thought to come from the Irish word boruma, meaning tribute.  Brian’s ring-fort was built at a fording place, a narrow spot of the Shannon between the ‘twin’ villages of Killaloe and Ballina.  It was strategically located up the Shannon a short way from the Viking town of Limerick.  It is a National Monument today and worth seeing as it is an excellent example of what the Roman’s – who never stepped foot in Ireland – called Oppida, or the hill forts of those Celtic tribes whom they encountered on their march north through Italy, then through France, Switzerland and son on.  Students of ancient history might find Brian’s ring fort of some interest and value.

 

So, yeah ... We’re royalty.  Mar dhea, as you might say in Irish ... (like, yea – as in a heavily sarcastic, ‘yea sure, right, you betcha ... ‘).

 

A chronicle of Charlemagne, crowned Holy Roman Emperor in AD 800, reports that he invited the most famous teacher of the time, Corcoran, to come to the continent to re-establish a system of education, libraries, and learning after the 400 year period known as the Dark Ages. I haven’t found this story in Irish sources, so I take it as an honor ... but with a grain of salt.

 

Ecclesiastics, teachers, morphing into bards by late Elizabethan times.  That’s pretty much all I know aside from an interesting tidbit here and there.  For example, in 1568, one of us, Florence, a man’s name at the time, was murdered in his sleep in an O’Reilly stronghold.  He was a bard.  Bards had the power of the word – a thing both revered and feared among Irish of all ranks.

 

The chronicler didn’t say why he was murdered.  Maybe he was a bad bard.  Or maybe he dissed the O’Reilly who thought to redress his grievance with blood.  Or maybe it was an early form of a drive-by ... I don’t know.  What I do know is that after Cromwell’s wee visit to Ireland in the 1640’s, Corcoran’s pretty much disappear from history. 

 

I would take it personally if it wasn’t that Cromwell murdered everyone, destroyed everything in his path.  Many Irish disappeared from history in this, England’s first attempt at genocide. 

 

So, for the next 200 years, nothing.  No records.  No mention.  The story doesn’t resume until 1840 with the birth of Timothy, who married Mary Twomey, her parents, John Twomey and Mary Sheehan.  There’s another story – the Sheehan‘s – but for another time.

 

We were no longer in O’Reilly country.  Of course, by then, it was no longer O’Reilly country. As with almost all the land in Ireland, it had been given to a loyal English soldier, politician or business man.   The natives almost wholly disposessed.  The era of rampant, government-sponsored poverty had begun. 

 

My branch of the family had moved – by force or choice we’ll never know – to a rural area in southwest Ireland along the Cork / Kerry border.  It’s from there my grandfather, Jeremiah, his five brothers and Mary, my great grandmother, herself a Twomey / Sheehan by birth, emigrated straighway to St. Louis via New Orleans.  Jeremiah met Nellie Burke, another Irish emigree, in Old North St. Louis.  My dad, his brother and 3 sisters were born there.

 

Sin é, as they say, that’s it ...

 

We lost our tongue, our native language, along the way.  I have worked hard to get it back.  Uprooted, we lost our ties - and title - to the land.  We kept our religion and, importantly, our dream of a united Ireland free from the stain of English culture and law.  But our ancient ways?  They’re still there, I suppose ... I hope.  I feel them, sometimes, stirring inside, buried under layers, a generation, two, almost three of ‘foreign’ influences.

 

Sin é ... sin saol é ... ach, tiocfaidh ár lá.  (That’s it ... that’s life ... but, our day will come.)

 

I oversimplified a bit in tellling how my family arrived in the New World, the ‘new island’ as it was called in Irish. 

 

One day, many years back, I found that the City of St. Louis had an archive.  In it were all sorts of engineering documents but it also housed a treasure of personal history titled the ‘City Direcctory.’

 

Starting at an early date, 1820 or so, city officials caused an annual census to be taken – a door-to-door, address-by-address roster of who lived there, their occupation, relationship to others at that address and so on.  They did this every year for many years, until, finally succumbing to the weight of the monumental task it grew to be, abandoned the practice.

 

As a result, I was able to put together an admittedly somewhat hypothetical – but, in a spirit of a true amatuer detective – a likely scenario of how my family came to America.

 

 Let me first go back to Ireland where the mystery began.

 

I had spent hours squinting through microfiche copies of ships records, immigrant ships, for the ports of New York, Ellis Island, Boston, Chicago, New Orleans and other, smaller ports of entry.  Nothing.  Not a mention of my people.  It was perplexing.  St. Louis is in the middle of the country.  You don’t just leave Ireland one day, likely from Cobh Harbor, Cork, and suddenly appear in the middle of another country without entering somewhere, travelling somehow.  Many migraines later, empty handed, I gave up.

 

Then one day, maybe in 2005 or so, I was sitting with Micháil Gallachoir in his thatch-roofed cottage in Gleann Fhinne, County Donegal, Ireland.  Micháil was the local story teller, the seanchaí, the keeper of local history.  I told him of my dead-end, how disappointing and baffling it was. 

 

He jumped up and, almost in a shout, said ‘Wait, wait here ... I’ll be right back’  and he ran out of the cottage.  His modern house was maybe only 20 yards or so up the hill behind the cottage.  In short order, Micháil returned with a copy of a very old Irish newspaper, from sometime in the late 1880’s or 90’s.  The front page contained a number of ads, as was the custom in those days.  And right there, on the front page, was an advertisement for ship’s passage straightway from Cobh Harbor, Cork, to St. Louis, in America.

 

I was stunned.  Seriously?  Yet there it was.  You embarked on an ocean-going vessel in Cork, transferring in New Orleans, without passing ‘go’, to a paddlewheel boat, then up the Mississippi straightway to St. Louis.  That was it.  It had to be.   

 

Now, I can’t prove that’s the exact route they took, my family, but it is almost certain to be.  And I’m still not sure at all about Nellie and her family.  But it does explain the lack of records for any other port of entry, including New Orleans, because the only thing you did in NOLA was change ‘planes’, if you will.

 

So, thanks to Micháil, mystery perhaps solved.  One day, I should write more about him.  He had been the postman in Gleann Finne for 40 years.  Knew everyone.  Their families.  Likely their family’s families.  And he remembered everything he was ever told. 

 

He once found a huge ball of butter in a peat bog near his cottage.  A couple of kilos in weight.  Peat bogs are known for their ability to preserve organic matter in remarkably pristine condition.  He notified some researches at a not-too-distant university.  They collected the butter ball, took it back to their lab and found some well preserved red hairs in it.  That led to DNA tests and ultimately to the identification of the family, still living in the area, whose ancestor had no doubt made and sought to preserve this wonderfully huge, still creamy-yellow ball, of what I’m sure was delicious-tasting butter.

 

God, I miss all that.

 

But, back to my family’s coming to America.

 

It turns out, the first mention of us in the City Directory only lists Dan and John, two of my grand-uncles.  In all, here are the names of those who eventually made the journey:  Mary, my great-grandmother; Andrew; Cornelius; Timothy; Daniel; John – all grand uncles, and Jeremiah, my grandfather.

 

For the next two years, the City Directory only lists Daniel and John.  They lived together.  Made sense.  They did a couple of different things during those two years.  They were farriers and horse groomers, which made sense, I suppose.  They were from a rural part of Ireland – likely knew how to tend to horses.  Then they got themselves a wagon and sold vegetables, produce, from their push carts, no doubt to the hordes of other immigrants settling in St. Louis at the time.

 

As I said, they did this for two years, then disappeared.  For another year, no mention. They were gone.  Then, just as fast as they had left, the whole crowd is here – all six boys with their mom. 

 

Of course, I don’t know what happened.  My guess is Dan and John saved their money and then went back to Ireland, collected up the rest of the family and made the jounrey one last time.  They’re all buried in Calvary Cemetery – never went back to Ireland again.

 

As it is, there’s a weakness in our genes – the males in particular, bad hearts.  Timothy died not long after coming here.  He was only 18.  I found his death certificate in a loose pile of original documents, laying in a heap on the floor of a dank room in the basement of City Hall. 

 

Dan and John never married.  They died at reasonably young-ish ages.  I know almost nothing about Andrew.  I have no basis for saying this – I just imagine perhaps he didn’t get along so well with rest.  But I don’t know that, so I’ll just leave it here.

 

Cornelius married Mary Armstrong.  They had two children, Robert and Alice.  Robert died young.  I met Alice years ago.  Her dad was notorious in our family.   He, like my grandfather, his brother, Jerry, had become a postman.  One of the stories often told at family gatherings was how Cornelius, especially during Prohibition times, would collect his mail in the morning, take it down to a speakeasy near his home, dump the mail in a sewer, then commence drinking until it was time to quit for the day.

 

They also talked about him making a big round ball out of something, painting it black, attaching a piece of rope or twine to it, then lighting the twine on fire and rolling the ball in through the front door of the speakeasy – just to get a rise out of those in inside.

 

One story my father told.  The Irish wake.  Cornelius’ wife, Mary, died.  Cornelius decided on a traditional Irish wake.  All the family assembled at his house, Mary laid out in an open casket in the living room, the children relegated to the same room – to be seen, not heard.  My dad was young, maybe 5 or 6 years old.  He said the body, the sight of the body, frightened the bejabbers out of him.  But he sat, as he was told ... white-knuckled, in his chair. 

 

After a long bout of drinking and telling lies, Cornelius decided it was time to dance.  He  stumbled into the casket, knocked it off its stand, my grand-aunt’s body rolled out onto the floor.

Not sure what to do, they picked her up, seated her in a chair directly across from my dad and that’s the way they were for the next two days. You see, Irish wakes were traditionally 3-day affairs. It was torture.

 

My dad said, never, EVER, would he attend another Irish wake.

 

So many stories.  The family was good for that.  Large gatherings.  A lot of drinking.  A lof of laughter.  And stories.  So, so  many stories.

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