It’s estimated that 70 million people worldwide claim Irish ancestry, and as historian and writer Turtle Bunbury discovered through his Wistorical project, some of them are very famous indeed
The thing about the Irish is that we get absolutely everywhere. From the Arctic Circle to the jungles of South America, from New York to New Delhi, Australia to Zanzibar … there’s an Irish twist in every instance.
The extraordinary impact of the Irish upon this globe became apparent to me during a 15-year stint I spent as a travel writer. Admittedly, some places were stretching their "Irish connection" – I recall an Irish pub in Cambodia whose "Irish" credentials boiled down to a tattered Tricolour draped over the door, and a half bottle of Jameson on the back bar – but, nonetheless, the links to the green isle that I discovered during that time were far and wide.
During the year of The Gathering Ireland, the time is ripe to explore Ireland’s effect on the globe.
Ever since I launched Wistorical at the end of November 2012, I’ve been astounded by the sheer volume of tales about the brave, brilliant and frequently bonkers people of Ireland, or of Irish origin, who have stood out from the ranks and made a difference to this world.
Barack Obama and George Clooney are both descended from those who upped and left Ireland shortly after the Great Famine. Barack Obama’s Irish ancestors include a wig-maker and a shoemaker, while George Clooney’s forebears were stonemasons connected to the Ormond Slate Quarry near Tullahought.
The neighbouring county of Carlow, where I live, lays claim to two of the 20th century’s most influential stars. Walt Disney once said "this whole thing started with a dream and a mouse". But in his case, it arguably started with a French soldier called Hughes d’Isigny whose descendents settled in Carlow in the 17th century and changed their surname to Disney. Walt’s great-grandfather Arundel Disney left Ireland in the 1830s to start anew as a merchant in Ontario.
When I look out my bedroom window at night, I can see a crucifix lit up in electric red on the summit of Eagle Hill, near Hackestown, County Carlow. I know this should make me think of Jesus, but it also makes me think of Elvis. And that’s because Elvis’s great-great-great-granddaddy William Presley had a farm on Eagle Hill back in the 18th century. In 1775, William and his brother were so badly beaten up by "a band of yeomen and many other evil disposed persons" that they decided to split to New Orleans.
We don’t know why Grace Kelly’s grandfather emigrated to the USA. Judging by the shoulders on him, he probably rowed all the way from Clew Bay by himself. "Strong John" Kelly, as he was known, was born near Newport, County Mayo, during the Great Famine. In 1867 he made his way to Philadelphia where he married Mary Costello. Their 10 children included Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright George Kelly, popular vaudeville actor Walter Kelly and Grace’s father, Jack Kelly, who won three Olympic Gold Medals rowing for the USA.
And it doesn't stop there: Nicole Kidman’s forebears are from Cavan and Gregory Peck’s are from the Kingdom of Kerry. Muhammad Ali hails from the Banner County of Clare, and it's very likely that Rihanna descends from a County Cork rebel.
You see, even if you really don’t think you’re Irish, the chances are you probably are. What better time to find out than the year of The Gathering?
Turtle welcomes comments and questions on Wistorical’s Facebook page.