My Ancestry and Me…


A funny thing happened on the way to Saint Patricks Day 2018…

Or, a funny thing happened to me on May 8, 1962…

I was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota and placed in a Catholic Charities orphanage. Within six months, I was adopted by a wonderful Irish Catholic couple who swept me away to the place I will always consider home: Rhode Island.

I was steeped in Irish lore from the start and my adopted lineage had a direct line to the Emerald Isle. I often selected the costumes of my childhood to incorporate the Shillelaghy (walking stick) of my deceased maternal grandfather. I still have, folded and stored, the Irish linens my maternal grandmother brought from the old country. I’ve no real use for them now, but can’t bear to part with their exquisite detail.

They were Barry’s and Murphy’s and I remember two great-uncles; one a policeman, the other who worked at the racetrack. They were immigrant stock, working class, and my grandmother Mary was their center. I loved the duplex she shared with Uncle Bobby and Aunt Rita until her death. I found comfort in the framed photograph of Pope Pius which hung in her living room, with a crucifix to its right. Sometimes, while she baked, she let me hunt through my deceased grandfather’s mahogany desk. In the lower right drawer was a yellowed newspaper, dated November 22, 1963, announcing the death of President Kenndy. The black and white photo of Lyndon Johnson with a solemn Jaqueline beside him as he took the oath of office was haunting. The death of President Kennedy affected everyone. The Irish took it personally.

My paternal grandparents were Toole’s and Coughlin’s and lived in what I thought of as an enormous house in Pawtucket. They were “lace-curtain” Irish; prosperous beyond the newer immigrants. My grandfather Frank was a gentle soul. After his afternoon walk, he enjoyed a cup of tea with saltines and peanut butter. Occasionally, I joined him. The fine Belleek teacup and saucer made those small moments special. My grandmother Clare was hearty and bombastic and when she hugged you, you thought you’d never breathe again. She had, just outside her bedroom, a bookcase filled with fine literature which included Yeats, Keats and the indomitable James Joyce.

I have no memory of not knowing that I was adopted. No grandparent ever treated my adopted brother or me differently, nor loved us less than they did my naturally born cousins. Indeed, my father often announced with pride, “Weren’t we lucky that we got to pick you!”

It was me, of course, who inherited the luck of the Irish.

I wore Irish like I was born to it, helped along by reddish hair and the broad freckled-face associated with Irish lasses. I’ve heard time and again from complete strangers, “Why you’ve got the map of Ireland written on your face.”

I can trip into a decent brogue easily and fancy myself something of a story-teller. Adopted children can’t really escape wondering about their backstory and I was thrilled when I realized, sometime in my teens, that Saint Paul, Minnesota is one of the few Irish enclaves in a state dominated by Scandinavians. I may not have known my birth parents, but there was one thing of which I was certain: I was Irish.

At 52, my heart was shattered. In an attempt to mend it, I went to Ireland for the first time with a dear friend. It is what we do when we are lost; seek something that might feel like home. While the journey to be wholehearted again would take years, that week in Ireland gave me the freedom to grieve. Ireland felt as familiar to me as the powdery scent of my Grandma Barry and as comfortable as the beautifully carved handle of the Shillelaghy owned by a grandfather I never knew.

Then again, a funny thing happened to me on the way to Saint Patrick’s Day 2018.

My daughter selected Galway, Ireland as the second half of her in-progress “Gap” year. I was tickled right down to my Irish toes. Before she left in January she told me that she had done “”

My throat caught and I stumbled, “Oh, well… hmm? I have mixed emotions about that.”

She waved me off, “Mom… I have a right to know my ancestry.”

I recovered, “Yeah, I guess. But, I don’t really know my ancestry. I was thinking about doing it, but now you’re gonna know first.”

She thought on that and said, “Well, I don’t have to tell you the results.”

And that was that. Within two weeks she was on a plane to Dublin and concerns about undiscovered heritage floated away.

Until, a few weeks ago, she called from Galway, “Mom, I got my results back.”

I was silent for a moment, but couldn’t contain my curiosity, “Okay, don’t tell me too much, but give me one surprise.”

I knew there would be muddle in the D.N.A but, with her father able to trace back to Ireland on both sides, I assumed there would be nothing too shocking.

“O.K, 15% Scandinavian!” Clearly, she liked that.

As for me, no surprise – between the history of plunderous Vikings and the Minnesota connection, Scandanavian was no head-scratcher. I could live with a little Scandinavian in the mix.

It was surprisingly easy to swallow and so I encouraged Grace to continue, “So, Ireland’s the largest percentage, right?”

“Nope, only 8%, mom.”

I am no mathematician and frankly, numbers make my hair hurt, but that percentage grabbed me by the throat. If my daughter only held 8% Irish heritage, and we know that her dad holds quite a lot, then my chance of actually being Irish?

I shuddered, then recovered before I egged her on to spill the beans.

After all, I did enjoy the Ancestry commercial with the guy who traded his Liederhosen for a kilt. Scottish – that had to be it! Scotch-Irish is a thing, right? Scotland and Ireland; kissing cousins!

I love the spirit of Scotsmen, all rough and tumble. I could adjust to being Scottish and there’s the great accent, and Highlands, and Sean Connery. I was ready to order a tam and look for bagpipes on eBay!

Across the bandwidth to Galway, I gave Grace permission to give the final reveal, “So, what’s the largest percentage?”

My rascally girl drew it out, “Well, it’s huge…”


“Mom, it’s 65%.”

“Wow! What is it? I’m ready.” My brain was swirling with the Loch Ness Monster, shortbread, and Mel Gibson’s bloodied torso in Braveheart!

“Well, it’s a little surprising… Great Britain!”


It was not what I wanted to hear. Not because I don’t enjoy the Royals. I do. I also had a surprising attachment to this year’s Oscar Nominated “the Darkest Hour.” But England, really? Controlled, proper, high tea, Great Britain? One of the great bonds of my former homeland and my current homeland is that both countries broke free of the crown. Ugh.

To all my British friends, I apologize. But gosh, that was disappointing. I suppose it’s complicated enough for adopted children to spend a lifetime guessing what they are made of. When you adopt a homeland, as I did Ireland, you sort of want the fairy tale to live on.

I also imagine that when I do my own, and I will, that the results will differ from my beautiful daughters. However, it’s quite unlikely that Irish percentage will be north of her paltry 8 %. I will root that my new yearning for Scottish blood just somehow missed her. I’ll be sure to report the results to my readers.

In the meantime, I’ll take a page from my dad’s book. I’ll continue to own Irish like I was born to it. If challenged, I’ll announce with pride, “Wasn’t I lucky, I got to pick Ireland for my ancestry!”

Farewell, Uncle Bobby

saint sebs



And they came, a surprising number of them, to say goodbye to a wonderful man. They came to a beautiful stone church nestled in a quiet neighborhood on the East Side of Providence.  A neighborhood whhere the young Robert Barry slid down snow-covered hills and skated on pristine frozen ponds.  Where he passed a long armed wicker basket among the communicants each Sunday morning at 9 am for forty years.  Where he lived the life of a gentleman for 86 of his 90 years.

And we said goodbye with laughter and tears, and finally, with a full military salute as a young officer handed me a perfectly folded American Flag and with extraordinary grace informed me, “On behalf of the President of The United States, we thank Robert L. Barry for service to his country in the Second World War.”

It was a marvelous day.  And here is what I had to say about my dear Uncle Bobby:

“It is good to be home here in a church which meant so very much to the Barry Family.  Built in 1916, Our Grandfather Louis Barry was one of the builders of Saint Sebastian’s.  Robert Barry served as an Usher here for 40 years.

He was, for most of my life, my elusive bachelor uncle. My earliest memories are of a Volkswagen beetle and my wonder that a man so tall could fit in a car so small.  He was a teacher and a veteran and a constant guest at my mother’s dining room table, not a holiday missed. He loved the great writers, and Herman Melville was his favorite.  He was like Ishmael: a man of the Sea.

It was not until the final years of his life, that I came to know the core of him.

Uncle Bobby was, in no particular order, Charming, stubborn, private, witty, sensitive, resolute, exasperating, and sentimental.  He was, above all things, a gentleman and a gentle soul.

His Accountant, Attorney, Financial Advisor and notably, his cousin John Murphy were intimately aware of how very exasperating Uncle Bobby could be.  No decision came quickly, no action moved upon swiftly.  He was careful and cautious.  All things on Uncle Bobby’s time. When he came to Connecticut to live his final year I came to understand this.  Asking Bobby to move in a concrete direction was much like trying to drag an anvil through the sand with a piece of taffy.  Make no mistake, he was captain of his ship til his final breath.

His charm was disarming.  That was his secret sauce and he spread it around liberally. In the great battle he fought with his body this past year, he always had a reserve of charm.  When he passed away, I received notes and calls from the care workers, mostly young women, mostly Hispanic. They spoke not of his death, but of the songs he might sing to distract from the intimacy of his care, the anecdotes he would share while they went about their noble work, or the questions he would ask them about their own lives.  He had the charm of a true gentleman

As for me, this journey with Uncle Bobby was a great gift.  In his suffering, I learned perspective.  In his mounting challenges,  I learned that patience and trust in the God are essential to finding peace.

He wrote in my elementary school autograph book, which I still have, “To Ellen, Miss America, and my very best girlfriend.”  He remains one of the most memorable men I have ever known.”