Thursday 27 November 2014

My Genealogy

Patricia Ward Kelly on her late husband Gene Kelly's Irish heritage – and why his mother tried to hide it

Soon after I met Gene, a friend told me about Ireland's Citizenship by Foreign Birth programme and suggested that I apply for Irish citizenship for him. As it turned out, proving Gene's Irish heritage was much more difficult than I imagined.

With a name like Eugene Kelly – and a middle name like Curran – I figured it would be easy to establish that Gene was of Irish descent. But his mother had done everything in her power to obscure those roots.

As far as Harriet Curran Kelly was concerned, they were Americans descended from her mother's proper German stock. "We're not Irish," she used to say, defensively, "we're the Ackards." As though they were the Rockefellers.

Because of his mother's disavowal of her lineage, Gene's origins were shrouded in mystery. As a result, he could never answer with certainty the question he was often asked: What county did your ancestors come from in Ireland? He would usually say, "I'm told it was Co Clare, but the records from the local church rectory burned leaving no clue."

"The Irishness in me certainly didn't come from my mother," said Gene. "It came from my father and the joy he had in being Irish."

James Patrick Joseph Kelly, or JPJK, as he was known, hailed from Peterborough, Ontario, and the stories he told his middle son "always had an upbeat ending". He bounced Gene on his knee, sang songs in Gaelic and often danced a little jig.

He was Irish through and through, it seemed, but we didn't have the documents to prove it.

Eventually, we were able to establish the necessary connection using a copy of a Pennsylvania census from 1900, stating that Gene's maternal grandfather, William Curran (incorrectly listed as 'Curn'), had been born in Ireland in May 1852 and that both of his parents had been born in Ireland as well.

The census also described William Curran's profession as 'Saloonkeeper'. Looking back, Gene was convinced that this personal history explained why his mother was, throughout her life, such an ardent "Ireland-phobe".

Honestly believing that all Irishmen were drunkards, wastrels and no-goods, she distanced herself from any association and constantly tried to elevate the family from what she considered "Shanty Irish" to "lace curtain".

When his burgundy-covered Irish passport finally arrived, with EIRE stamped in gold on the front, along with his foreign birth certificate printed in Gaelic and English, Gene was deeply proud. We had, at last, formally connected him to his Irish past.

In my near-daily recording of Gene's words over our decade together, I came to realise that Ireland, for Gene, was much more than genealogy. It was the core of his being.

The basis of this emerged one day as he told me a story about an afternoon he spent sharing a bottle of Paddy's Irish whiskey with Samuel Beckett in the playwright's "little spare sitting room" at the Hyde Park Hotel in London.

When I asked what transpired between the two men, he said: "We sat and talked. He'd pour me a glass, pour himself a glass and put the bottle down, and we sipped. It was a good sipping whiskey. We just talked. That's all we did."

Gene often listed his favourite book as 'The Crock of Gold' by James Stephens, but he also devoured the work of many other Irish writers, including Goldsmith, Swift, O'Casey, Shaw, Joyce, Synge and, of course, Yeats.

When I first met Gene – and, remarkably, before I knew he was famous – we came together in our shared love of words and poetry and, particularly, the poems of WB Yeats. Early on, Gene said to me, "I bet you don't know the opening lines of Yeats's poem 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree'." To his surprise, I did, and that was the beginning of the romance that was to come.

Over the years, we frequently recalled passages together, quoting one phrase or another as it came to mind. I can still hear him saying to me, "When you are old and grey and full of sleep, take down this book".

Irish Independent

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