An American Priest Visits Ireland

‘My Irish ancestry played almost no part in my upbringing’

by Father Jeffrey Keyes

My parents were hard-working people who operated their business out of our home until it became successful and they struggled to send us to Catholic school. We were told we were Scottish and Irish but there was not a whole lot of meaning attached to it.

Malin Head 2

Family was an important part of life. Dad’s family was far away in Illinois and we had little contact with them. But Mom had two sisters and they all had lots of kids, so being among the cousins on holidays was a regular feature of life. Mom’s Dad was born in Ireland, but he had died years before I was born, and so I only met Mom’s Mother and grandmother who were both born in this country. Mom was a Sullivan and her Mother was a Conway, two very Irish names. We never heard any stories of emigrating, as that had happened many generations before.


Mom was a strong Catholic and she had a particular devotion to the Blessed Mother. Dad became a Catholic as an Adult. What we got was the Catholic Faith. It probably had a strong sense of the Irish Culture, but it was not explicit in multi-cultural California. As an adult I wanted to get more information about my culture and heritage. My Father passed away when I was only 21, and his funeral was only the third time I had met his Mother. I later took a job in Illinois not far from her. In visiting her I got to know that part of the family better. I fell in love with her cooking and her baking, and she told me stories about the early days of the family.  


More importantly, she gave me pictures. One picture of hers I had copied was a four-generation photo (above) taken in 1920 when my father was an Infant. It is a treasure. My Great-great Grandfather is holding my infant father, on the left is my Grandfather and on the right my Great Grandfather. She also gave me two portraits of John and Sarah Keyes, my Great-great Grandparents. John is listed in the US Census as a farmer in Champaign, IL and my Great Grandfather Thomas is listed as 18 years old. John — here pictured holding my father — was born in Scotland.

Malin Head

Around the time of my 50th birthday in 2002, I had plans to spend the summer in Rome as part of a Formation experience with my Religious Community (C.PP.S.) The program would be ending in early August just a few weeks before my birthday.  My sister flew over and met me in Dublin. We had no information about any distant relatives, but we wanted to experience the country.


I asked a bartender in Cork how I would find any Sullivans. He told me to go down to the town center and just yell, “Hey, Sully!” He said half the town would respond. We later found out that the bartender’s name was John Joseph Sullivan, the same name as my maternal grandfather.


We did some research on the Keyes name while we were there. We were surprised to learn it had to do with dockworkers who worked along the Quays. (Pronounced “Keys”)


We had assumed that much of the Irish emigration to America was the result of the Famine. We were stunned to learn that there had been no actual famine. One –potatoes — crop had failed, yes, but shiploads of wheat and livestock were shipped over to England daily during that time. It was a time of great wealth and prosperity.


The 1847 failure of the potato crop was used as a means to get the peasantry off the land. People were forced from their homes and could never return because their homes were leveled — sometimes by the military, and sometimes they were forced to destroy their own homes. It was not ‘famine’ as much as it was ethnic cleansing. (Click here for more on the Famine.)


We had been taught very little about the Penal Days, when it was against the law to celebrate Mass in Ireland. I made a pilgrimage to a hidden Mass Rock near Carndonagh. This is where Mass was celebrated secretly in the wilderness. (Click here for more on this.)

The Cathedral protestant

We visited the ‘Church of Ireland’ in Dublin — the Irish version of Anglicanism. Today’s Anglican Cathedrals in Dublin were taken from the Catholics as part of the Reformation, which made Catholicism illegal in Ireland. One of these Protestant Cathedrals had the tomb of St. Lawrence O’Toole. But the Anglican Cathedrals were museums for tourists. They might have small places set apart for prayer, but prayer was not the focus of these places.


I wanted to visit Knock. I knew nothing about it, but wondered what the Blessed Mother’s message was to the Irish People. I was completely shocked. The Knock even had everything to do with the Precious Blood Charism of my community. It was the Lamb slain, yet standing and reigning. (Click here for more about Knock.)


My sister and I visited Croagh Padraic, St Patrick’s mountain, where the Saint was said to have retreated to pray for forty days before embarking on his mission as Bishop of Ireland. The experience of the Faith was interesting. In many places we found the Faith very much active and alive. The Catholic Pro-cathedral in Dublin had Daily Adoration.

advertisingThe Faith was part of the Irish culture, certainly. It was used in advertising: “Vanity is only a very little sin.”


 One reason for my trip to Ireland was because I wanted an authentic Irish knit sweater from Donegal. Mission accomplished. 

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