Are You the O'Reilly

A New Yorker who was graduated in 1949 from the University of Missouri, KEN BERNHARDTspent three years as a free-lance writer traveling in Western Europe. He is now engaged in advertising in the chemical industry.


WHEN Stanley found Livingstone in Central Africa it was considered quite a coup. But when you think about it, how many people named Livingstone were living in Central Africa in 1871? When it comes to finding the haystack that passed through the needle’s eye, let me tell you about the time that I tracked down my long-lost Uncle John O’Reilly in the wilds of Northern Ireland.

This much I knew about my quarry: he was my late grandmother’s eightyyear-old brother, the only one of the clan to stay in Ireland when the potatoes gave out. Since they had no addresses in my grandmother’s day, all she could ever tell us was that the family lived on a farm near a town named Enniskillen.

I found the town all right, and a pretty place it was, with a narrow, crooked main street that wandered in one end of the town and out the other. It was a sunny Monday morning when I arrived and I sauntered along the street thinking, This will be easy; all I do is ask who knows old John O’Reilly and how do I get to his farm.

“John O’Reilly!” said the first person I asked, a pub keeper who was spending a quiet morning behind his bar fishing corks out of empty Guinness bottles with a loop of string. He set his jowls to laughing. “Yer lookin’ for John O’Reilly?”

I convinced him I was indeed looking for one John O’Reilly who lived on a farm somewhere near the town.

“But, lad, ‘tis O’Reilly country yer in,” he said. “Half the folk in Enniskillen are named O’Reilly, and half of them are John.” It turned out he was a McCaffery himself, but had three O’Reilly cousins, two Johns and a Sean — a Sean being the same thing as a John, only in Gaelic. When he started listing all the O’Reillys he knew personally (that’s not to mention what you might call customers, he said) I began to realize what I was up against.

But the good publican was obliging if not optimistic. He made up a list of the twenty-five O’Reillys most likely to belong to me, together with brief directions on how to get to each of the farms in question, and sent me on my way. Armed with my list, my trusty two-shilling map of County Fermanagh, and a passing acquaintance with the native language, I pushed out into the countryside.

Well, it was up hill and down dale, jump the fence and wade the bog, all the way. Whenever I found one of the O’Reillys on my list I’d go into my story: My grandmother’s name was Ellen; she was an O’Reilly by way of O’Casey; her brothers were Owen, James, and John; she remembered there was a litter of redheaded O’Donnells living a duck’s pace the other side of the O’Reilly barn, et cetera and begorrah.

They were all very kind about it. They’d brush off the hordes of little children from around my legs, pull me up to the fire, draw off some tea from the ever-bubbling kettle, and we’d start going back and forth over a hundred years of relatives.

Sometimes I came pretty close, but always a name or a place would turn up that would throw the whole thing out. Finally, the third day out, as I was leaving one place, I happened to mention that my grandmother had once worked for an English family and that she had been quite fond of them.

“I’m thinkin’ she must belong to the likes of Willie O’Reilly,” said the woman with a knowing look to her husband.

“Aye, she’s one of Willie’s for certain,” he said, and they poured an extra cup of tea down me and then sent me off across the valley to see Willie.

Willie O’Reilly and a big red-boned woman who answered the description of his wife were out in the fields spading up potatoes when I found them. I started in on my story. Willie kept on digging potatoes without so much as looking up, but the woman listened very attentively, making me go over each part, nodding her head all the while. When I’d been over the whole thing twice she kicked Willie, who was still throwing up potatoes with his spade.

“The man wants to talk to ye, Willie,” she said, fetching him a good one in the leg.

Willie stared at me with his mouth open. He turned to his wife.

“What’s he want to talk about?” he asked.

“He’s lookin’ for his grandmother, ye idiot! ”

“Well, what’s he askin’ me for, I ain’t seen her!” he said, and went back to his spading.

I talked a while more with the woman and it turned out we weren’t related at all. It was a great relief to me, and from Willie’s attitude I’d say he felt the same way.

As I was leaving, Mrs. Willie told me I might try the O’Reilly who lived a few farms over, that an old John lived there. I still had an hour to dusk, so I rolled my trousers up a little higher and splashed my way a good nautical mile further.

They say that just before a sourdough makes his first big strike or a big game hunter bags his first lion, he gets a strange premonition of what’s to come. But as I sloshed up to the low, whitewashed house half hidden by a hedge fifteen feet high, the only feeling I had was a conviction that my feet were slowly but very surely becoming webbed.

There was a spry old man feeding some chickens who were up to their elbows in the soupy ground. I told him what I was about and he invited me inside. He presented his daughter Margaret, a straight forward woman in her thirties, and as many of his grandchildren as he could find at the moment. The only other member of the family present was a big sheep dog, who introduced himself by flopping down on my feet.

“The divil in ye for a big lummox. Dog!” cried Margaret, giving him a healthy boot that budged him just enough for me to get my shoes free.

We pulled up to the fire and Margaret passed around what must have been my dozenth cup of tea for the day. I began going through my pedigree, and was brought up short as soon as I started. It seemed that the old man never had a sister named Ellen.

Well, I thought, that’s another eup of tea donated to the cause. By this time I was running low on O’Reillys, so I asked him if he had any others to suggest. I told him some of the facts in the case and, funny thing, he recognized the names I mentioned and the people and places my grandmother had told me about. He even had two brothers named Owen and James, and vaguely remembered some redheaded O’Donnells who lived the other side of the barn some sixty years ago.

“But one thing I know, I never had a sister named Ellen in me whole life,” he said.

There it was, the most important thing, and we couldn’t get around it.

“Ach, ‘tis a shame,” Margaret said. “You comin’ all the long way and we not able to help ye out by bein’ related. I never saw Aunt Nelly, but she’d be glad to be Ellen I’m sure, if . . .”

“Aunt Nelly!” I said. “But that’s the same as Ellen. Nelly was what her old friends from Ireland always called her!”

And all of a sudden I had relatives. The hollering and backslapping that followed were worth all the tea and bogtrotting I’d gone through. Even the children got into the act, one banging me in the leg with an empty bucket and his brother giving the dog another kick by way of celebration.

“Ach, ‘tis Aunt Nelly’s boy himself!” crowed Margaret in the midst of fixing more tea. “Sure, I’d know ye the minute I saw ye!”

Which wasn’t exactly the truth, but it certainly beats the “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” caper all hollow.