Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Fergus MacFergus, Kings, Scotch-Irish, and Oban Scotch

As it is St. Patrick's Day today, I have been thinking about my Irish heritage. In fact, I've been thinking about my entire package of muddled ancestry and thinking about how typically American it is. Yep, I'm a mutt.

So, what's the breakdown? I'm 50% Sicilian, 25% Scotch-Irish, and 25% Dutch-German, according to my parents. I've always been confused about the whole Dutch-German and Scotch-Irish thing...Irish or Scottish? Dutch or German? Both?

There is precious little information about my family history. My grandparents on both sides, seeking to be patriotic Americans in the first half of the 20th century, broke with all of the traditions of the old world (well, except for my theoretically Irish grandfather who supposedly never overcame the Irish drinking gene) and dropped the languages of their ancestors, named their children with decidedly un-ethnic names, changed their own names, and tried to blend in every way they could. Only a couple of traditional Sicilian family recipes survived, most notably Brijole, which is called something that sounds like "seds-a-setti" (on a trip to Siciliy, native Sicilians looked at me blankly when I asked about this dish), something pronounced "cuch-a-daddi" (a mince-filled pastry), biscotti (sesame seed cookies), and an easter cookie with a whole egg baked inside for which I don't know the name; all else was discarded.

On my Sicilian side, we don't know much of anything. What little family folklore survived the great American purge is that both my grandfather's family and grandmother's family lived in the same general area in Sicily, in or around a place called Campo Felice in Palermo. Both of my great grandmothers apparently attended the same convent school. The families immigrated to Pennsylvania in the late 19th century. I'm buying that story on my grandfather's side, as his family name was Distefano, and that story seems to match up with origins of the name. Not so much on my grandmother's side; the name was Greco. There's got to be a reason for "Greek" being the translation of the name...lots of immigrants to Sicily in ancient times mixed the bloodlines. Who knows?

As for the Dutch-German thing, things are even sketchier. On travels to Germany, some friendly locals with whom I chatted said that one of our old family names, Van Neill, was definitely Dutch, not German. They looked somewhat dubious about the other name I mentioned, Wissing, as well, although that has a more German ring to it. (I also was repeatedly mistaken for a German, twice by people incredulous to the extreme that I wasn't, so I must look German.) We have no details on this part of the family. Was the description "Dutch-German" simply rooted in a marriage between a Dutch Van Neill and a German Wissing? Who knows.

So we come to the Irish bit. Family legend gives us a few tidbits about the Fergus family:

1. We were descended from a King.

2. We are descendants of Fergus MacFergus (some say that was the King mentioned in #1).

3. We are Scotch-Irish.

Best I can piece together from impromptu internet research is that:

1. Most Scots having "Fergus" as any part of their surname (Fergus, Fergusson, Ferguson, etc.) descend from an early Scottish King. Check.

2. Fergus MacFergus was given some land in Ayrshire, Scotland (lowlands), by one of the Scottish Kings. So, do my roots trace to Ayrshire?

3. Some of the clan from Ayrshire moved to Ulster for political (land grabbing?) and Protestant evangelization reasons. That fits with the Scoth-Irish bit, but doesn't fit with the fact that my family is decidedly Catholic.

4. Ulster Scots called themselved Scotch-Irish when they settled in America. That would explain my grandfather describing himself as Scotch-Irish.

Of course, this whole Fergus MacFergus, descendant of kings thing is also recounted on the label of Oban scotch. When I discovered this as an adult, thinking of the Irish drinking gene my grandfather preserved so fondly, I began to question whether the family folklore was true, or simply something Granddad read on a bottle one day at the pub and decided would make a good story for our family. Did he call himself Scotch-Irish because of the possible links described above, or was he simply an Irishman who loved scotch?

Despite the variables and unknowns, on St. Patrick's Day, I declare myself and my progeny to be Irish AMERICANS. After all, this is a great melting pot in which we live, and edges and distinctions are blurred when all of the ingredients melt together anyway. I guess the melding of cultures, too, is another reason why everbody is Irish on St. Patrick's Day!

Happy St. Patrick's Day to everyone, no matter what your roots!!!

Addition on 5/24/2009

Talked to relatives about the Irish thing. Here's the best "authoritative" story from relatives of my father's:

The Scotch-Irish label is probably a mistake, not really intended to convey the assumed Ulster-Irish connection. It was likely my grandparents' joke or misnomer for the marriage between an Irish (County Mayo) Toughy (or, possibly, Toughey) and a Scottish Fergus. So, it's looking like I'm 12.5% Irish and 12.5% Scottish, rather than 25% Scotch-Irish.

Still wonder about that whole Oban story, though.