Chasing Irish Ancestors, or How I Suddenly Became a Royal

“Someone in Missouri has sent me a picture of the house I was born in. Heretofore I have said it was a palace but I shall be more guarded now.” — Mark Twain

My mother Joyce Phelan and my second cousin Pat Phelan in front of the ancestral home in Tipperary

Like many, when it comes to ethnicity, I’m a combination pizza. But on my mother’s side I’m Irish, the family name is Phelan, and my ancestors from County Tipperary. When I was living in Ireland and my sister Peggy came to visit, we went up to Tipp to visit the relatives.

My sister is a great genealogical sleuth, and we spent hours in the cemetery in Upperchurch and more time chatting with my second-cousin Pat Phelan and his wife Katty. Several interesting pieces of information emerged.

My great-grandfather and his father (and family) came over in the late 1860’s. He and his father were caught “signaling Mass” that is, secretly advising people that a Catholic Mass was about to be held because the British authorities didn’t allow this.

So, because they were criminals, the family was sent over in one of the “coffin boats,” so called because the passengers remained always on the deck; the uncovered vessels were open to the elements and poorly provisioned, and the loss of life from hunger and exposure was great. In fact, the boat was becalmed in the Atlantic for six weeks and everyone nearly starved; but they finally put in at Boston and made their way to Canada where they homesteaded.

As we hunted together through the great treasure trove of information my cousin had (books, deeds, family trees and the like), we learned that the Phelans ultimately trace their lineage back to the Princes of Decci, famous Irish kings who in the Eighth Century operated out of Rock of Cashel and who ruled over Waterford, Tipperary, and East Clare — a sizeable section of the country. Given that, it seemed only proper to adopt what was our custom for the rest of the weekend and to refer to each other as “your excellency.”

My weekend, then, was like a page out of “The Prince and the Pauper.” On Saturday, I was just a common fellow, helping Pat with the milking and riding a tractor around. By Sunday, thanks to our genealogical discoveries, we were arguing about who was the Heir Apparent.

By way of thanks, my sister and I took Pat and Katty to lunch at the Dundrum Country Club — a fine restaurant in an ancient manor from the 1700’s with antique teapots, silverware, china, and the rest. The meal was fine, though Pat and I objected about the help because they didn’t bow low enough and scrape, what with royalty in the house. Then my sister and I departed — that is, your majesties took a very crowded bus back to Galway.

HRH, Jerry Phelan Griswold

If you’d like to read about “My Year of Living in Ireland,” click here. If you’d like to read about the Irish Bike Tour, click here. And here are some related notes:

Here’s a picture of the Rock of Cashel, the ancestral home of my people (the Phelans), the Princes of Decci. When we were up there a ferw years back, there was quite a row when the Irish Tourist Board tried to charge admission to myself and the relatives… and also some non-regal shouting, as in “That’s our effing silverware you got in that glass cabinet over there.”

Though he’s seven years older, Martin Sheen and I share the same birthday. There are a number of other things we also share. His maternal relatives are Irish, named Phelan, and from North Tipperary (Borrisokane); my maternal relatives are Irish, named Phelan, and from North Tipperary (Upperchurch). I ran into him in Madrid in June 2000; he was entering the Prado as I was leaving, and we exchanged greetings. A few years later, he enrolled as a student at the National University of Ireland in Galway, taking English classes–where I had taught in the English Department just a few years before. Of course, there are differences. For example, he ran for President and I ran for Pope. But the resemblances go on for a thousand miles in the same direction.

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25. March 2016 by
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