Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The call of the past

It never fails. One of the biggest movie-related events in quite a while occurred just down the road from me the other night, and somehow I missed it.

The event was The Quiet Man Music Festival in Cong, County Mayo, and it was in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the filming of that classic film in that very locale. The festival was opened by none other than Maureen O’Hara, star of the movie, and she entertained the crowd with stories of her long career. Also on hand were the daughter and granddaughter of her leading man, John Wayne: Marissa Wayne and Laura Monoz Bottini. Singer Tommy Fleming serenaded Ms. O’Hara with a song from the movie, “The Isle of Inishfree.” (As The Mayo News noted, the wife of the composer of that song came from nearby Headford, County Galway.) There were many other politicians and entertainers on hand, including one of my mom’s favorites, Daniel O’Donnell of Donegal, and former Eurovision Song Contest winner Dana. What could possibly cause me to miss such an evening and weekend?

By a cosmic coincidence, it was because I was at a wedding with Sean Thornton. If you are a fan of The Quiet Man, you are probably trying to get your head around that one, since the wedding of Sean Thornton (played by John Wayne) is a central event in the movie. Only the most exhaustive and obscurity-obsessed of my readers will recall that Sean Thornton is also the name of the bridegroom at the first wedding I ever was at in Ireland, many years ago now in County Tipperary. He is a first cousin of my wife’s. He and I and a couple hundred other people were the wedding of the Missus’s baby brother, an event that went on for days and—as far as I know anyway—may still be going on. Irish weddings are like that. They seem to have no beginning or end. Anyway, I knew better than to miss any significant part of that wedding, even if my excuse would have been to pay homage to some fictional Sean Thornton’s wedding.

This particular wedding—and it has been a good few years since we have had one in the Missus’s immediate family and this could well be the last of her siblings to tie the knot—had a special significance for me, apart from the fact that my brother-in-law found a lovely woman to put up with him for the rest of his life. This was the first major family event that I attended in the knowledge that I am apparently not a complete outsider to the extended Irish family.

One thing that Americans frequently get asked in Ireland is about any Irish connection or roots they might have. A large portion of Yanks can claim some Irish ancestry, and the percentage is doubtless even higher among Yanks visiting Ireland. But I have always responded (truthfully, as far as I knew) that I have not a drop of Irish blood running my veins. My only Irish connections that I knew of were my wife and my one half-Irish descendent. But while I was in the States in July, I spent some time at my brother’s, and he reignited my old interest in genealogy. There are so many great resources immediately available on the internet, compared to the last time I spent much time researching the ancestral lines. Many old records from around the world are searchable online, and armies of amateur and professional genealogists have put their own family trees up on the World Wide Web so that the rest of us can try to mix and match the branches with what we know of our own family trees. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), in particular, has assembled a wealth of genealogical data, to which my brother has access. What he showed me on his computer got me going, and I have been an ancestor-hunting fool ever since, filling out branches further out and farther back than I ever dreamed would be possible. And some interesting stories have been revealed, one of which sounds as though it was ripped from a Tom Cruise movie.

The fact that new details about ancestors, who came from England and Scotland and even Ireland, is very exciting to me because for years I have seen my ethnic heritage as being well-established and having roots in just two European countries. My mother’s people always described themselves as “German,” although I have since come to understand that this self-designation had mostly to do with the language they spoke rather than the country they came from—in the same way that they always referred to their American neighbors as “the English.” These people were Mennonites, an Anabaptist sect of pacifists who migrated from country to country, mainly in avoidance of having to serve in anyone’s military. All we knew of them is that, before they came to America, they lived in “Russia.” Thanks largely to research done by a cousin of mine in California (and some of my own), I now know they were Dutch people who emigrated to Poland in the 1560s. Beginning in 1788, they began moving because Poland had been annexed by the King of Prussia, who threatened their exemption from military service. They were invited by the Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great to settle on land recently won from the Turks. This area was called New Russia or South Russia, but today is known as Ukraine. The Mennonites prospered there until Czar Alexander II revoked the privileges that had been granted them, and they began looking for a new place. In 1874 they began emigrating en masse to other countries, with many of them landing in North America. Four of them were my great-grandparents, and they wound up in Kansas.

As for my father’s side, we always had good records because my grandmother kept a family Bible that listed family members going back for generations. Two of my Dad’s grandparents came from the same village on the Swedish island of Gotland. One of his grandmothers came as a teenager from Hälsingland, north of Stockholm. Those family lines go back in those same places for centuries.

But one of my father’s grandmothers was from a long line of Americans. In fact, we can now trace her ancestors back to the early days of the Thirteen Colonies and beyond. Her father was a Tennessee-born Civil War veteran (on the Union side) named George Washington Pistole. Her great-grandmother was a Virginia woman named Catherine Boone, who was a first cousin once removed of the famous frontiersman Daniel Boone. Catherine’s great-grandfather George had emigrated from somewhere near Exeter, England, to Berks County, Pennsylvania, in 1717. Sometime during the four previous generations, the family had changed their name to Boone from De Bohun, when they moved from Wales. Even further back, an ancestor of mine, reportedly Henry De Bohun Earl of Wessex, was one of the noblemen who, in the time of King John, enforced the Magna Carta. That line can be traced even further back to the Crusades (a couple of my ancestors died in Palestine and one “en route to the Holy Land”) and the Normand invasion, at which point the line shifts to Normandy and other parts of France. Indeed, if you can believe the internet (and what’s not to believe about the internet?), I (and certainly millions of other people) am a direct descendant of Charlemagne himself, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

Of course, many other people can claim these same ancestors. That’s the magic of logarithmic expansion of family lines in the course of even a few generations. I am reminded of a bit the Smothers Brothers did on their TV show years ago. Earnest, serious Dick was going on about what a problem overpopulation was, and daffy Tommy interrupted to assert that the population was actually dwindling. The befuddled Dick asked him to explain, and Tommy proceeded to point out that everyone has two parents and four grandparents and eight great-grandparents and so forth. So, on the basis of that, it was clear that the population was getting smaller. The truth, of course, is that the growth is in the other direction. A few children result in even more grandchildren and then quite a few more great-grandchildren and so forth.

But let’s go back to my great-great-great-great-grandmother Catherine Boone of Virginia. She married a fellow Virginian named George Long. He was a great-grandson of Colonel John Lewis. And that is where I found my own Irish connection.

More on this next time.

-S.L., 1 September 2011

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