Guest Blog | OUR IRISH FAMILY SECRET by Kerry Duncan

Kerry with her aunt in front of McHugh’s hotel in Mullaghmore, Sligo.

Kerry with her aunt in front of McHugh’s hotel in Mullaghmore, Sligo.

My name is Kerry and I was born in San Francisco to an Irish mother, Kathleen and a Hispanic American father, Earl.  When I was a toddler we moved firstly to the Balearic Islands off Spain, left and traveled through Europe finally reaching Glasgow, Scotland, where my Nana was living.  My father left for the USA, promising to send tickets for his wife and baby Kerry but we are still waiting, more than 50 years later…

Earl, Kathleen and baby Kerry with a disapproving Virgin Mary looking at my Dad.

Earl, Kathleen and baby Kerry with a disapproving Virgin Mary looking at my Dad.

My mum had to find work and Nana, her mother, looked after me.  I can still hear her saying, in her refined Irish voice, “Kathleen, the child has not stopped talking all day!”  Only children tend to be talkative, probably because they are lonely in an adult’s world, but I am also naturally chatty.  Her two most common phrases, referring to me, were, ‘She could talk the hind legs of a donkey’ or ‘she must have kissed the Blarney Stone’.  Like most grandchildren, I probably saw my beloved Nana from a different perspective than all her other relatives.  To me she was cuddly, loving, funny and gentle with a firm Victorian stance.  Her daughter-in-laws always called her Mrs. McHugh but her children called her Mama.

Mum on a model shoot

Mum on a model shoot

I was Nana’s own personal Inquisitor and it must have driven her crazy.  She gave limited details of her past not just to me but to her children.  We knew that she had been brought up in a middle-class home in Bootle, just south of Liverpool.  Both her parents died young and she took over the care of the youngest children until they married.  She joined a convent as a novice nun, she was both religious and beyond marriageable age, but before she could commit to God she met and married my very handsome grandfather, Daniel McHugh.  To an imaginative child this was my version of the Sound of Music.  He had worked as a policeman in Liverpool but once married they both went back to farm some family land in County Sligo, near Mullaghmore.  Sligo is in the north west of Ireland underneath Donegal. In quick succession, they had five children and then my grandfather was diagnosed with lung cancer.

 Nana as a young woman

Nana as a young woman

The whole family went to the nearest Cancer Hospital which was the Beatson Institute in Glasgow where he unfortunately died.  The land back in Ireland was passed onto a brother (inheritance laws were different in Ireland at that time) and my Nana was left almost destitute with five children in a strange city.  Most of her siblings were comfortably off, still living in the wealthier suburbs outside Liverpool and I know that they helped during this crisis.  They moved into a one bedroomed apartment in the infamous Gorbals housing area of Glasgow and had to share a bathroom with other tenants.  Nana had never worked before, other than as a farmer’s wife, but found employment sewing at the local infirmary where she worked until she retired.

Kerry at her First Communion

Kerry at her First Communion

By the time I came to live with her she had a lovely apartment with three bedrooms in a newly built public housing area, Toryglen.  We later moved to a bigger terraced house with a huge garden in the same area. As the years went by I winkled little bits of information out of her.  Her maiden name was Catherine Pinkman which was very unusual.  She insisted that her family were all ethnically Irish despite being brought up in England.  When I was about seven years old, I went on a trip with Nana and Uncle Pat, who was also living with us as a single bachelor, to meet Nana’s Pinkman relatives in England and Wales.  I was surprised that they were so much wealthier than us and all had refined accents.  Nana did too, but it was overlain by a soft Irish brogue from her years on the farm in Sligo.  Some of Nana’s relatives were very dark with thick black curly hair.

Infamous Gorbals area of Glasgow

Infamous Gorbals area of Glasgow

At some stage, my mother had told me that she believed that Nana’s ancestors were Jewish immigrants escaping from somewhere in Europe.  I was perplexed given how Catholic my grandmother was but this theory was backed up by the fact that Nana was very friendly with some Jewish people in Glasgow and the unusual look of her siblings.  The final proof was that they were all musical…  Writing this now, I can see that it is a ridiculous theory but truth be told, we were very excited about the prospect of having Jewish forbears.  Breaking down the facts – as a middle-class family in Bootle they probably had links with some Jewish families.  Many non-Jewish people are excellent musicians with no disrespect to Barbara Streisand!  I remember many a musical night at one of our Irish neighbor’s houses with half the family playing musical instruments, usually the accordion or fiddle.  Finally, there is what we call the Black Irish.  These are Irish people who were descendants of the defeated Spanish Armada who found refuge on both Irish and Scottish shores.  They usually have darker skin, black curly hair and dark eyes.

There was a black sheep in Nana’s family – my great uncle John.  We didn’t know why he had this reputation other than he was in the merchant navy and led a wild life.  He visited Glasgow once when I was about 6 years old and still living in the apartment.  There was tremendous excitement – it could have been a Papal visit for all the fuss and cleaning.  I was made to wear my best clothes, sent from my aunts in America, and my hair was tortured into glossy ringlets.  He was delighted to meet his little great niece – I was a very pretty child who ironically looked Black Irish.  One of Nana’s daughter-in-laws had family who owned the pleasure boats on Loch Lomond so my mum, Uncle Pat, Great Uncle John and I went on a speed boat around the loch.  That is the reason why I am terrified of deep water…thank you, Uncle John.  We all really enjoyed his visit, lots of laughter and some tears when he left.  I think we guessed that it was unlikely that we would see him again.

My beloved Nana also died of lung cancer when I was 13 years old and life went downhill after that living with a grieving, mentally ill and alcoholic mother (but that is another story).  I suppose I was in my 30s and married when I visited Dublin for the first time.  I tried to trace the family name, Pinkman, but with no success.  Shortly after that we found out that a relative in Canada had written a book about Uncle John, ‘In the Legion of the Vanguard’ – author, John A. Pinkman.  We all ordered the book and the secrets fell out of the pages.  When John was 16, in 1918, he joined the Sinn Féin organization in Liverpool to help free Ireland from the British Occupation.  In the book, which is John’s memoir, he stole guns and participated in other subversive activities.  He was caught by the English police and sent to the dreaded Dartmoor prison; its youngest prisoner.  John was released in 1921 under the Anglo-Irish treaty and joined the Dublin Guards Brigade of the Irish National Army.

Dartmoor Prision

Dartmoor Prision

We also discovered that Nana’s family had originated from County Leitrim although she had married a man from Sligo, a neighboring county.  I have traveled through Leitrim but would love to visit it again with this fresh insight.  The postscript of the book details Uncle John’s life from 1924 until his death in 1970.  He traveled back and forth from the United States, at one stage ‘riding the rods’ (illegally hitching a ride on freight trains) as a Hobo during the depression but then settled into his main career as a marine engineer.  The biggest surprise, in the book, was that our family name was McGuire originally and during the British occupation it was translated from the Gaelic (ruddy faced man) to Pinkman – no exotic Jewish ancestry, then…  I don’t truly know what Nana thought but I suspect there was some shame even if she wanted a free Ireland. Both sides of my family have criminal pasts, so all I felt was more embarrassment and surprise.   One person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist.  Some have every reason to rise up against an oppressive regime and it would be hard to know how you would react in any given situation.  I prefer the Mahatma Ghandi approach of peaceful civil disobedience.

Legion of the Van guard

Afterwards, I reconsidered that we might be Jewish because many Spanish Jews converted to Catholicism during persecution by the Inquisition and may have been part of the Armada.  Last year I had a DNA test done which brought up some new tantalizing mysteries. Click on the link to see the full story

Where ever my Black Irish ancestors came from, I now know that I have not one ounce of Jewish blood but I was delighted to know that I had Middle-Eastern and North African forebears.  Unfortunately, my mum is no longer alive so I can’t tell which part of my DNA is paternal or maternal.  I do know that some of my American ancestors must have been Irish, too.  I volunteer at an airport and passengers always ask me if I am Irish, with my brogue and Celtic/Viking looks.  Now I just say yes.

The final postscript of my tale is whether our family feels Irish or British.  My uncle, my mum’s youngest brother, was flying out of Glasgow on his British passport to Newark with Continental Airlines.  They stopped only him and told him he could not travel to the USA because his British passport stated that he was a British subject not citizen.  He and his siblings were all born in the 1930s while Ireland was under British occupation.  He was in his 60s then and had traveled all over the world on this passport but since 9/11 the rules had changed.  The rest of the family were very upset but continued on their trip.  My uncle went straight to the Irish embassy in Edinburgh and immediately received an Irish passport which he has traveled on ever since.  I suppose this, in particular, reflects how the occupiers viewed the Irish.  Not quite good enough to be citizens…


Thanks, Kerry, for sharing this fascinating glimpse into your personal family and historical moments. Im sure that this is only the tip of the Iceberg.

Well I hope that you have enjoyed Kerry’s Guest post as much as I have.

Kerry is a fellow WP  blogger where she showcases a fantastic collection of stories, from nice little anecdotes to travelogues and eveerything else in between. If you enjoyed Kerry’s guest post, please pay her a visit over on Postcards from Kerry and say hi 🙂


About edmooneyphotography

Photographer, Blogger, Ruinhunter, with an unhealthy obsession for history, mythology and the arcane.
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12 Responses to Guest Blog | OUR IRISH FAMILY SECRET by Kerry Duncan

  1. Truly enjoyed this. I will definitely look for more .

  2. I love pictures of old places and how things used to be. For example I live in a place called Wantage and never tire of looking at the same pictures of old streets of the town that hang in the barbers shop every time I go for a trim!!

  3. tgvlradmin says:

    I really enjoyed your story about your family’s history! Wonderful historical details. You also have a great sense of humor that enhances your narrative!

  4. Pingback: Our Irish Family Secret | Postcards from Kerry

  5. chattykerry says:

    Gosh…I am so delighted by all your lovely comments and many thanks to Ed for publishing my Irish secret.

  6. ericamilesx says:

    Reblogged this on authorericamilesblog and commented:
    Wonderful memoir about Kerry’s Irish heritage, told with great humor and illustrated with many beautiful photographs.

  7. M T McGuire says:

    What a story! Thanks for sharing it. My dad in law is also from the Gorbals (as a very little boy) and was evacuated to the coast during the war, where the family stayed.

  8. Roy McCarthy says:

    A truly fascinating story, very bitter-sweet Kerry. God, all the women in your family are so good-looking 🙂 Thanks so much for telling it.

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