Mary Pat Kelly

Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day and all things Irish during Women’s History Month represents for me a perfect synchronicity. Let me explain.

While I was researching my Ph.D. dissertation in Dublin, it was the heroines of ancient Irish literature who elevated my sense of myself, both as a woman and as an Irish American. I was startled when I first encountered Queen Maeve, the Star of Ireland’s Iliad, The Táin. She led armies, took lovers and insisted that any man seeking to be her husband pass three tests. First, he had to prove he was without meanness because she was “great in grace and giving.” Second, he had to be without fear because “she liked a bit of contention.” And finally, he couldn’t be the jealous type because Maeve always “needed to have one man in the shadow of another.” What a woman, I thought—so different from the stereotype of victimhood often projected onto Irish and Irish-American women in literature.

I realized Maeve was a mythological figure, but I’d learned that the Irish often made myths of their history and history of their myths, so making distinctions seemed less important than exploring the women who existed in the collective imagination of Ireland—goddesses and abbesses, saints and scholars, poets and queens. Many were listed in medieval Irish manuscripts in sections entitled “Ban Senchus,” a kind of “Let-us-now-praise-famous-women” litany that inspired me to look for such figures in my own life past and present.

I found my great-great-grandmother Honora Keeley Kelly, who rescued her children from certain death during the Great Starvation and brought them from Ireland to Chicago. She became the central character in my first historical novel, Galway Bay.

In my new novel, Of Irish Blood, Honora’s granddaughter, Nora, born in Chicago, embodies the next generation of Irish Americans. Though proud of being Irish, she has little real knowledge of her heritage until she stumbles into the Irish College in Paris and meets a scholar from Ireland. He introduces her to the same heroines who awakened me. But because Nora is fictional and lives in the early 20th century, she can also meet the revolutionary women of Ireland, such as Maud Gonne and Constance Markievicz.

Nora finds that the female figures in early Irish literature inspired these women to leave behind the assumptions of their privileged backgrounds and join the struggle for Irish independence and women’s rights. She becomes part of a sisterhood that includes poets such as Ethna Carbery and Alice Milligan, along with a range of activists, suffragists and labor leaders, as well as a crippled American woman, Molly Childers, who sailed a load of guns past the British naval blockade in 1914 to arm Irish volunteers. There is not a sad sack among them.

St. Patrick himself owes his success in christianizing Ireland to Fidelma and Eithne, the daughters of the High King who were his first converts. If you go to St. Patrick’s Church in New Orleans, you will see their baptism portrayed in the large painting over the altar. The two wear gorgeous gowns fit for a royal French Court—not historically accurate, maybe, but somehow right.

So there are many reasons to rejoice in March, the month of St. Patrick and of women’s history. Sáinte!

Photo of Molly Childers from the family of Robert Erskine Childers.

 

Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day and all things Irish during Women’s History Month represents for me a perfect synchronicity.

Though it’s a novel, Galway Bay is based on the life of my great-great-grandmother, a story I only discovered after years of research. I didn’t even know her name on that October morning in 1979 when my dad and I walked into the office of the Galway City Clerk—two more Irish-Americans looking for their ancestors.
“My name is Michael Kelly,” my father said.

“We’ve a county full of Michael Kellys,” the man replied. Wasn’t Kelly the second most common name in Ireland, right there next to Murphy, and wasn’t Galway “Kelly Country”?

What details did we have about our Kellys? Townland? No. Parish? No. Dates? Only that our ancestors left Ireland in the 1840s or ’50s.

“Along with two million others,” the clerk said.

My dad raised his eyebrows at me. He’d been skeptical about “this whole roots thing” anyway. He was very proud of being Irish. We all were. But Ireland itself didn’t really come into it.

We were Chicago Irish with roots in Bridgeport. “The Cradle of Kings,” my dad only half-jokingly called the neighborhood that gave our city its mayors, beginning with his own cousin Ed Kelly, and continuing through Mayor Daley.

I’d been visiting Ireland off and on for 10 years and I was fascinated by the place. I longed to show him a country richer and more complex than the land he’d seen on a one-week tour with my mom and friends from Chicago. I planned to spend the fall studying in Ireland. Would he travel with me for the first two weeks? “Go on, Mike,” my mom said and surprising himself, he agreed.

We were having a great time. He enjoyed the landscape, the music, the people. My dad delighted in the conversation, enjoyed the turns of phrase and the humor that was so like his own. Though he did comment on the low voices, the guardedness. “A nation of conspirators,” he said.

But the tangible connection to “our Kellys” that I wanted seemed impossible. The town clerk shook his head, sad for us. The Diaspora. Cut off forever. But then he smiled. He held up a wonderful old-fashioned fountain pen.

“Pope John Paul II used this to sign our visitors book when he was here last week. Two hundred and eighty thousand went to the Mass he celebrated on the Galway Race Course.” Then the clerk raised the pen and used it to make a quick sign of the cross on my father’s forehead. A papal blessing once-removed.

Then he handed my dad the pen. “Here. Now you sign your name in the book.” So there on the page facing the pope’s signature, my father wrote: Michael J. Kelly, Chicago, Illinois, USA.

“There,” the clerk said. “You are entered on the official rolls of the county of your ancestors. Welcome home.”

The men shook hands. Perfect.

My dad had always been impatient with details. “Summarize,” he’d say to my sisters and brother and me when we’d start rambling through some story. Get to the point. And now he had. He had reconnected to the 2,000-year history of the Kellys in Ireland. Officially. Done.

We continued our trip, driving along Galway Bay and through Connemara. Somehow we felt less like tourists.

For me the search had only begun. I went back to the U.S. and did my homework, cranking through microfilm census rolls, calling relatives I didn’t know, hunting for death certificates, checking cemetery records. Anyone who does genealogy knows what it’s like—two steps forward, one step back. Right name, possible date—oops, not related. And then the joy when our ancestors emerge. I searched libraries in the U.S. and Ireland, and then the Irish computerized their church records, and the floodgates opened.

Genealogy is called a hobby, but that word can’t convey how soul-sustaining the information gathered can be. All of our ancestors endured so much—war, famine, pogroms, genocide, the middle passage, slavery. Yet they survived, because here we are. Our lives are their victory.

“Thank you,” I said to Honora Keeley Kelly when I stood where she’d been born in 1822, in the village of Bearna/Freeport, right on the shores of Galway Bay.
I wish my dad were still alive to read Galway Bay. He’d say that there are a lot of pages. But I’d assure him it moves fast. I didn’t cover all 2,000 years. I summarized.

Galway Bay, the story of one family’s Irish American experience, is the second novel by Mary Pat Kelly, a former television producer who has written several nonfiction books. She lives in New York.

 

Though it’s a novel, Galway Bay is based on the life of my great-great-grandmother, a story I only discovered after years of research. I didn’t even know her name on that October morning in 1979 when my dad and I walked into the office of the Galway City Clerk—two more Irish-Americans looking for their ancestors.
“My […]

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