In anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day next week, I decided to spend some time getting to know my Irish roots. I mentioned in an earlier post that the untimely death of my grandfather, Clifford Preston McGuffin, meant that his young daughters (my mother and her two sisters), grew up mostly unaware of their paternal ancestry…and that the girls’ maternal German grandparents looked down their noses at all those “drunken Irishmen” otherwise known as the McGuffin family. But whatever my mother and her sisters never knew…a whiff of a proud legacy seemed to maintain a presence through the years.
As a young girl I anxiously searched for something green to wear each March 17th to avoid the painful pinches that awaited anyone who did not remember what day it was. It was something you had to do… to avoid attention and to fit in. But even as I dutifully wore the color green I had a sense that something didn’t feel quite right. At some point I became aware of the notion that “…we’re orange Irish…we never wear green on St. Patrick’s Day…” Where that notion came from or what I thought it meant I can’t recall…because as a child, self-preservation dictated that you followed along with the crowd…so I don’t suppose I gave it much thought…I wore green. A bit later, in my early teens, I became aware of the conflict in Northern Ireland…what I understood to be a war between the Catholics and Protestants. I read a book about the 1972 Bloody Sunday incident where civil rights demonstrators were killed. And of course, everyone of my generation was aware of U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday anthem which made its debut during my college years. In the simplified world of black and white thinking, to be “orange Irish” meant that you sided with the oppressors…something no fan of Bono could ever think of doing!
The other “whiff” I recall from childhood was that the McGuffins were Scots-Irish… told to me as “we’re the ones who caused all the trouble…” Of course the truth is never that simple. The McGuffin family members who emigrated from Scotland to Ireland were not really trouble makers, nor were they pesky Protestants looking to make trouble for the Catholics. My cursory understanding is that many Scotsmen and even some Englishmen were invited to settle in the Ulster region of Northern Ireland because the area, decimated after more than fifty years of war, was in great need of people to settle and farm the Ulster Plantations. The Scots brought along their Presbyterian religion and built churches where the previous ones had been destroyed. Even though the Scots were Protestant, they weren’t Church of Ireland or similarly Church of England, which meant they too were discriminated against under English rule. Of course the Scots had their own long, bloody battle for independence from the English. And it should be noted that the Church of Scotland is not Anglican but Presbyterian.
I recently asked my mother why–of all the things she did not remember or never knew about her father’s family–this idea of being trouble-making “orange Irish” seemed to be the legacy that endured. It was important enough to her father, she said, that it had been taught to her as a very young girl. Without really understanding why, it became important enough to her, that she taught it to her own daughters. Each generation had been taught by the one before. One of those McGuffin family teachers was Clifford’s grandfather, Preston Robertson McGuffin. Until recently, I had no knowledge of my great-great grandfather, in fact, I had been told his name was also Clifford, as my mother believed that her father had been named after him. He was, but it was his middle name of Preston that had come from his grandfather, not his first name.
Researching my newly discovered great-great-grandfather has been quiet interesting. Born in Hawksnest, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1839, Preston would be buried 95 years later in Los Angeles, California. In September of 1863 at age 24, he enlisted in Company E of the 9th Cavalry Kansas Regiment of the Union Army, a regiment known to be “…employed in the irregular and hazardous warfare along the border, where it rendered valiant and faithful service against the various irregular forces of the enemy…” In June of 1865 he would be promoted from Private to Corporal and later that year mustered out at Devall’s Bluff Arkansas. Two years later, in 1867, Preston would marry Elizabeth Jane Briscoe in Pleasant Hill Missouri. For much of his life he appears to work as a farmer in Kansas. The first four of his twelve children were indeed born in Kansas, with the fifth and sixth born in Winters California, a town near Sacramento. Number five, daughter Ella was born in 1877, just two years after the town of Winters was incorporated. Number six, my great-grandfather John Abraham was born in Winters in 1879. Whatever brought the family to California didn’t seem to keep them engaged for long, as the rest of the children were born back in Kansas. I am left to imagine what it might have been like to travel from California to Kansas circa 1880, mostly by wagon, perhaps with limited train service, with six children in tow, ranging from age twelve down to one year old. Perhaps wife Elizabeth was determined to stay put for the arrival of their next six children. The 1910 census shows that Preston, now a widower, still considered himself a farmer at age 71, even while living with his eldest daughter Annie. A number of his children located to the Los Angeles area in the early part of the 1900’s, which is likely what brought him to the area by the time of his death in 1933. Preston’s wife Elizabeth was buried in the Paola Cemetery (KS) in 1907. Her headstone includes the dates of her husband, which would lead visitors to believe he is buried right beside her—as perhaps he had intended. He is actually buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery in Southern California. His obituary states the following: “…Mr. McGuffin came of a patriotic family…for many years [he] was a leader in the Democratic party of eastern Kansas…He lived a noble life and made a splendid record.”
The original McGuffins who came to the American colonies were Preston’s great-great-grandfather William McGuffin (my 6x great-grandfather) and William’s wife Nancy Nicholson, who arrived in Philadelphia sometime in the mid-1700’s. Records indicate that William died in Cumberland County Pennsylvania in 1768 and his wife Nancy, buried somewhere in Chester County Pennsylvania, died in 1779. Their son Joseph, who might have been born in Ireland (which would put immigration shortly after 1757)…appears to have followed the Philadelphia Wagon Road southward, with subsequent generations settling in Virginia and Maryland. Joseph would die in Bourbon Kentucky in 1841, having left his wife Jane Shannon (also of Scots-Irish descent) and their children behind in Pennsylvania.
The McGuffin sons married into long-standing Scottish and English colonial families. They married well…into landed families… families with Virginia plantations. Joseph’s son William Levi (my 4x great-grandfather) married into the Seay family with roots running back to the early settlers of Jamestown Virginia. Grandson Abraham Seay McGuffin (my 3x great-grandfather) married into the Sims/Symes family, who through connections to the Garton and Angell families, were the earliest settlers of Lancaster County Virginia. Basically, all of Preston’s great-grandparents (my 5x great-grandparents)—what I call the revolution generation—were all born in the American colonies prior to the revolution. They didn’t just help fight for independence; they helped form a new nation. Yes indeed, a patriotic family.
So, the question remains, why would the McGuffin family, proud patriotic Americans, care so much about St. Patrick’s Day…to such a point that I—their descendent—am thinking about this notion of “orange Irish” more than 250 years later?
William and Nancy McGuffin immigrated to Pennsylvania from County Down, Ireland. With a bit of Google-searching I found that County Down seems to serve as ground zero for celebrating St. Patrick, especially as he is rumored to have been buried there. Never really understanding the story of St. Patrick, I was surprised to learn that contrary to what I thought, St. Patrick wasn’t a Catholic saint but a pre-reformation saint (neither Catholic nor Protestant) who was honored for bringing Christianity to the Pagans around 400 AD. It was actually an Irish Protestant organization that decided to start honoring St. Patrick as a means of unifying the Catholics and the Protestants in Ireland.
The tradition of wearing green or orange on St. Patrick’s Day is a bit more difficult to pin down. Early on, blue was the color traditionally associated with St. Patrick, but later celebrants pinned shamrocks to their lapels in honor of St. Patrick’s supposed use of the three-leaf clover to illustrate the Holy Trinity. This came to be known as “the wearing of the green.” In 1690, when Protestant William of Orange became King of England, Scotland, and Ireland by defeating the Catholic King James II, it appears people started associating orange, the literal color, with being Protestant. I came across an interesting story of a Scottish magistrate who in the late 1600’s was attempting to ward off St. Patrick’s day brawls by instructing the Scots (Presbyterians) to wear orange thistle flowers discretely pinned to their lapels. Those drunken revelers he picked up who wore the thistle were likely sent home, while the Irish who wore shamrocks were sent to jail to sober up. The magistrate’s system kept the Scots & Irish seperate, thereby limiting potential fights.
When the Scots-Irish, also known as Ulster-Scots, immigrated to the American colonies in the early and mid-1700’s, they seem to have brought their St. Patrick’s Day tradition with them. There are accounts of colonial St. Patrick’s Day celebrations occurring well before the American Revolution. Members of the McGuffin family from County Down, were surely among those celebrants. The Scots had fought against British oppression in their homeland and in Ireland, and would soon do the same in America. I can see why wearing orange had meaning to my proud ancestors. It was certainly more than just a color.
This year, in honor of my newly discovered great-great-grandfather, I will don some orange this March 17th. But then again…I’m starting to think about my Scottish ancestors that go back even further through the centuries…you know, the Pagan ones… the ones who lost their religion when Christianity came along with people like St. Patrick. I hear Pagans like purple…maybe I’ll wear a bit of that too.