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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

A family far and away

Last time I began by noting the recent celebrations in Cong, County Mayo, in relation to the 60th anniversary of the filming there of John Ford’s The Quiet Man. It turns out the history of that movie is even closer to me than I thought. Over the weekend, one of our nearest neighbors informed me that her late father (a man I met but, sadly, did not get the chance to ask about this) was an extra in the famous fight scene in Pat Cohan’s pub. It’s a small world indeed.

But mostly, last time, I was indulging myself by sharing the highlights of my recent genealogical discoveries.

There is nothing extraordinary about the fact that I found that I have ancestors from England and Wales and pre-William the Conqueror France or who, as I will elaborate, were Scots-Irish. Countless Americans will have similar ancestral stories and, indeed, will share many of the same ancestors with me. But this knowledge has made a surprisingly powerful impact on me because, for most of my life, I have seen myself as a product of immigration, whose roots in America went no further back than the 1870s. The notion that even a small portion of my DNA comes from settlers in the Thirteen Colonies and soldiers in the Revolutionary War makes me feel not “more” American but perhaps more richly American.

At the same time, it also makes me feel more European. I have always self-identified as a person of European heritage, but as far as I knew that meant descending from farmers living in relative isolation in Sweden or in Mennonite communities. Now I have reason to believe that I have forefathers buried in several European countries, spanning the British Isles and the continent. Heck, supposedly I am a direct descendent of Charlemagne himself. You can’t get much more European than that. Psychologically, as someone who bucked the trend of seven great-grandparents (and who knows how many ancestors further back) and reverse emigrated from America back to Europe, it gives me more of a sense of coming home.

At the end of the day, however, it is our cultural DNA that matters more than our biological DNA, and culturally (like many people) I am some strange mix of American and European—but definitely mostly American.

But back to my own Roots-like historical journey. I have learned that I had a great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather named John Lewis, who died in Virginia in 1762. His grandfather was William Lewis and is reported to have been born in Wales in 1622. From what I read, at some point he fled from France to England and then to Ireland. This flight seems to have been spurred by religious strife in France at the time. William Lewis is identified in several sources as a Huguenot, although I have trouble fitting his story into the overall Huguenot chronology of the time. Anyway, William Lewis wound up in County Donegal. His son Andrew married a woman named Mary Calhoun, the daughter of a man from Dumbartonshire, Scotland. (My Scottish line seems to lead all the way back to King Malcolm III, but that’s a whole other tangent.) The Calhouns were of the landowner class that had replaced the native Irish in the institution of the Ulster plantations. Andrew and Mary’s son John got into a bit of trouble. When his landlord died, the landlord’s son tried to evict him because he preferred to have a Catholic tenant and tried to break the lease. He arrived with a bailiff and a drunken mob, shooting John’s brother and wife, killing him and wounding her. John attacked the new landlord, killing him and the bailiff. He fled, first to Portugal and then to America. His wife later joined him in Virginia, where they lived out their days in Augusta County. His tombstone notes that he “slew the Irish landlord” and “furnished five sons to fight the battles of The American Revolution.”

You could argue that the Lewises and Calhouns were not true Irish and were only passing through for a couple of generations. I have found no evidence of what you might call native Irish ancestry in my family history. Among the English ancestors, there is the occasional one born in Kildare or Cork, but they seem clearly to be Anglo-Irish. But still it is enough of an Irish connection to make me feel that I have my own link to the country I live in besides a wife whose ancestors seem to have lived in the same area of Connacht for ages. Anyway, I have found enough ancestors that came from Scotland, Wales and Brittany to feel secure that I have a good healthy dash of Celt in me.

At the family wedding I was discussing last time, I shared my newfound family history with my friend and Scottish-born brother-in-law-in-law. He was quite intrigued by my own apparent Scottish connection and, indeed, if I didn’t have Scottish blood at the beginning of the evening, I surely had Scotch blood (by blood alcohol level) by the next morning.

It dawned on me that I will now see some movies differently than I had before. For instance, the next time I watch Braveheart, I may get all caught up in the call to Scottish nationalism, as my friend does.

But the movie I really want to see now, in a different light, is the Ron Howard film Far and Away. If you’re a regular here, you may recall that some of the filming for this movie was done not too far from me here in Ireland and that a former high school classmate of mine was hired as an extra for filming in Montana. Directed by Ron Howard, it tells the tale of a poor lad in the west of Ireland, played by Tom Cruise, who injures his landlord, played by Robert Prosky, and ends up running off to America with his daughter, played by Nicole Kidman. Now doesn’t this sound like it was absolutely inspired by the antics of my own ancestor?

Of course, there are some differences. In my own family history, the fellow who married the landlord’s daughter was not a true Irish peasant but a second-generation blow-in from England. And he himself did not kill or injure the landlord; it was his son. And all this took place more than a century and a half earlier than the fictional events in the Howard film. My ancestor John Lewis fled to Virginia in 1729. Since Tom and Nicole end up taking part in the Oklahoma Land Rush, and the land runs in Oklahoma began in 1889, those cinematic events are clearly set less than a century and a half ago. Still, there are enough parallels that I am thinking of having my attorney send a letter to Ron Howard demanding a portion of the net profits. Who’s with me? Hey, all you fellow amateur (and professional) genealogists out there. Check your family records and see if you too are a descendent of John Lewis. I mean, after ten generations or so, there must be millions of us. We could initiate a class action suit.

This genealogy stuff is definitely a lot of fun, although at the end of the day I am still the same person I was before I got started with it. But I am having a lot of fun telling my Irish friends that my ancestor killed a landlord. And I am looking forward to seeing a lot of British costume dramas (thinking in particular of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood and Kingdom of Heaven) in a different light.

And here’s a little factoid I came upon just yesterday, while researching the Missus’s ancestors. It turns out that the great-grandfather of actor Mel Gibson (Braveheart himself), who emigrated from Ireland to Australia in the 1840s, was from the same tiny place in County Mayo where my wife’s aunt/godmother has lived for years. Like I said, it’s a small world.

-S.L., 8 September 2011

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