Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Trouble With Family Traditions

In tracing one’s genealogy, inevitably there comes along some kind relative who, well-meaning, wishes to interject in the data stream the fondly-held traditions of the family’s origin. What to do with these offerings? Sometimes, they are preposterous—or at best, entirely unsupported by documentation. Occasionally, though—and just enough to make this a touchy judgment call on the part of the dutiful researcher—these stories turn out to be entirely true.

In the case of my husband’s roots, it turns out there are two distinct Kelly lines firmly ensconced in the record about four and five generations back. One line—that of John Kelly who married Johanna Falvey and raised several children in County Kerry, Ireland, before their immigration to the American state of Indiana in the late 1860s—we have obviously traced back to that County Kerry origin.

But the other Kelly family? Anybody’s guess. There is no real way to know for sure, and the history of the surname doesn’t offer any solid leads.

The trick comes when negotiating the family’s oral tradition. And in our case, for this specific Kelly surname, of course we happen to have one.

It was Uncle Ed, keeper of the Stevens family records for the previous generation, who shared with me what he knew. Granted, in many cases, he provided solid documentation and a wealth of correlating material to support his data. When it came to the Kelly family—or, actually, families—his assertions weren’t as substantially upheld.

If you have been reading along at A Family Tapestry for, oh, about three years, you may recall the sense of confusion that overcame Uncle Ed when he realized there were actually two Catherine Kellys in our family history. One of them came from the family of the John and Johanna Kelly we’ve recently been discussing. The other came from…well, from…okay, no one’s ever been able to tell. But the family does have a story.

That was the Catherine Kelly who came from the Lafayette, Indiana, family for whom I recently uncovered an entire new branch of Kellys. That’s why I was so feverishly pursuing Julia Creahan Sullivan in Colorado, and businessman Charles A. Creahan who got his start in the Chicago area. They, along with the other descendants of James and Mary Kelly who lived and died, mostly, in Lafayette, belong to this same mystery branch of the Kelly clan.

Or clans.

Searching the history of the Kelly surname apparently doesn’t provide any leads, either. At Ancestry.com, the claim is that Kelly is Ireland’s most common surname, and the more than eight million documents they have scanned which include that surname might make one think so. However, according to The Irish Times—which, incidentally, ought to know—Kelly, along with O’Kelly, is a surname which is “almost as numerous in Ireland as Murphy.” Although that may signify that we try harder, that means we Kellys are actually number two.

The trick is that the Kelly surname can be found all over Ireland. Not only that, the surname makes a fair showing, also, in Scotland and England. An anglicized form of the Gaelic Ó Ceallaigh—meaning descendant of Ceallaigh—the surname was originally a widespread given name. What the name means is also subject to contention. It may mean “white-headed.”

Or “bright headed.”

Or “troublesome.”

Or “contentious.”

Or “strife.”

Or—for those on an entirely opposite tack—“frequenting churches.”

I suppose, if one were troublesome and contentious, there might be a call for frequent repentant trips back to the church house.

The prevalence of the surname is likely the impetus for the many books and publications tracing the line. But which one would be the right Kellys for me? Even the geographic distribution of the name in Ireland is of little help: “O’Kelly’s Country” takes in part of Counties Galway and Roscommon, but those are not the only counties in which Kellys may be found. The widespread prevalence of the surname is attested to in this Irish Times listing of Kelly households by county, based on the Griffith’s Valuation. Kellys were everywhere.

But where were ours? Despite searching through every document I could find for those Lafayette Kelly immigrants, I had turned up no clues.

Except one detail: a story from Uncle Ed. As confused as he was about which Catherine Kelly was which, he did remember that “she” came from Dublin. But that was only a story, passed down through the generations.

What do you make of such stories? In Uncle Ed’s case, he had everything else pretty much spot on, but of course, I was able to go on and obtain evidence to confirm all those details. In this case, I have found no way to do so.

And what about those generalizations people make—you know, the kind where people pick a well-known location to substitute for the humble farm town of their origin, since nobody this far away would know about that insignificant place anyhow. Did Catherine Kelly and her family come from Dublin? Or was that the big city nearest their home? Or worse, maybe just the port out of which they sailed for the new land?

While learning about the origin of surnames and the history of originating homelands may be helpful in gaining a broader understanding of our ancestors’ roots, in a case as generic—and unsupported—as this, I may never uncover evidence to confirm such a family tale.

But until then, neither can I say I hold substantiation to disprove the story, either.

Until I find the good fortune of locating further documentation, let’s just stick with Uncle Ed and say we have some Kellys from Dublin in our roots. After all, there certainly were enough of them present in Dublin to warrant that conjecture.

Above right: Map of Gaelic Ireland, circa 900 A.D., showing "overkingdoms" and principle Viking towns; courtesy Wikipedia; released into the public domain by the map's creator, Wikimedia Commons volunteer Erakis


  1. Oh yes, I have a couple family legends that are real doozies.

    1. It's the outrageous ones that wave that red flag for me, Wendy. Fun to stumble upon--certainly a kick to write about--my automatic response to those doozies is, "Oh, this couldn't possibly be true!"

      ...but sometimes, it is. That's just how things can turn out.

  2. Documentation it is a struggle. I attended a genealogy class last night...oh my I am not certain how much time I can give to the project but I should get the basic straight line stuff done first and then work on the tree.
    I thought about you and the earthquake...did you have any damage?

    1. Thanks for asking, Far Side. Actually, the first we knew of the earthquake, ourselves, was when we read it in the news online. We had no idea.

      Since we are a fat commute from the Bay Area, it has to be an earthquake of at least 6 on the Richter scale for us to even feel it. Apparently, the epicenter of this one was north of San Francisco, making it even farther away from us.

      I hope you will not let that genealogy class scare you away from plugging along and doing your own tree. I was going to say "You'd be surprised how much you can accomplish when you work on it slow and steady, bit by bit," but then, I realized you already know that. Besides, you have so much information already. Getting what you have organized all in one place can be encouraging.

  3. English is a slippery language too - "coming from Dublin" may only mean that is where she "departed" (i.e., on a ship) and not actually where she lived.

    But... hopefully when you blow the dust off some record that catches your eye... you will find "her."

    1. Thanks, Iggy. I know it is a long shot. I'm hoping discovering the details on several of her siblings will help. Of course, that will only be if there are remaining documents from that time period in the Catholic churches of Ireland--a daunting prospect in its own right.


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