It was nearly 20 years ago that I learned St. Patrick’s Day had something to do with me personally, having discovered that the surname I inherited at birth in 1956 was Kelly, and they don’t come much more Irish than that.
The short version of a very long story is that I was born back then in Montreal. But things in those days would not go so well for a bastard child or the mother who bore him, and so I was put up for adoption and within 18 months was claimed by the sainted couple who chose to be my parents, whose name — DeSantis — I now proudly bear. They also blessed me with a marvelous sister a few years later.
The discovery of my Kelly-ness was the result of finding the Canadian passport that Leah and Angelo John DeSantis used to bring me into the states. But it wasn’t really a surprise. I had been attracted to many things Irish, music in particular, and never quite understood why. The Kelly name on that passport answered a number of questions, but also spawned many more. With admitted procrastinating, I tried to learn more. How all that occurred is another story for another time and venue. But suffice it to say that I learned some things with the help of the Catholic Welfare Bureau records in Montreal, though no names were disclosed, as is required under Quebec’s strict adoption secrecy laws. For that some detective work was needed, and it led me to a man in the Canadian Maritimes, where my birth mother was from, and with a little help from Ancestry DNA — which made clear that I was indeed Irish by blood — and a fellow named Vernon Kelly, whom I learned is my cousin and has since been my Kelly family Sherpa, some of the questions most critical to me were answered.
For most adoptees the question appear to revolve around the most immediate parents, who is the father and who is the mother. I still don’t know who the father is, but now know who my biological birth mother was, and that she has been with the angels since 1980. I have had the delight of getting to know the man who was her husband from a decade after I was born until her passing, and one of their two daughters.
For me, a burning question had become that involving ancestors further back. With the help of Vernon Kelly I was to learn that grandfather named Kelly, and all the greats before him, as far back as Michael Kelly who was said to have traveled to Canada from Ireland, perhaps in 1829.
The research has been slow but I shall, no doubt, come to know this Michael Kelly of County Cavan, who left the emerald isle at a time when Catholics were finally emancipated, but forced to pay taxes to the Church of Ireland. This was many years before the Great Hunger, when a million or more starved to death because the grain was reserved for the English when potatoes rotted in the fields from the blight. While all that was going on, according to the information the great Vernon Kelly has supplied me with, the Kelly farm in the Maritimes was up and running. When the U.S. was preparing for a war that many Irish immigrants would be fighting in, the great and bloody civil war, the Kelly farm was a busy and peaceful place.
The 1861 agricultural census — which I have in my hands thanks to Cousin Vernon — shows three “milch cows,” two working oxen, three other cattle, 12 sheep and two swine. Bearing that census in my own hands was like touching the Holy Grail.
And so this St. Patrick’s Day I shall be drinking no green beer, nor joining crowds for merriment. I shall be at my bayouside abode, going through these records, seeking more information on Michael and the other ancestors, knowing I have a place in history to which am related by blood. I shall be thinking as well of the woman who bore me, with thanks that she chose to do so, and with thanks that I was so fortunate as to end up with the family that chose me, who did what she was unable to do herself.
I shall be saying a prayer for her, as well as for my cousin Vernon Kelly, who gave my family and my history to me, and for the other cousins I have since come to know. So for this person of Irish descent, it shall be a happy St. Patrick’s Day indeed.