When “That Noble Dream” Becomes a Nightmare

I was a graduate student in American History when I first heard Charles Beard’s musing on that so-called “noble dream” of historical objectivity; I never thought I’d be reminded of it while researching my own ancestry. Strangely enough, I recollected Mr. Beard’s idea when I came across some data about my Great-Grandfather, Tom Connelly; or as I call him, “The Irish Immigrant Born in Athlone, Ireland Who Was a Second Generation American from Georgia and Philadelphia.” Who would have thought the life of an accountant could be so intriguing, fascinating, and filled with mystery?

Even though I started doing a genealogical survey of my heritage for my family, as a pseudo-trained want to-be historian, I thought I should be as objective as possible. I aspired to follow in the tradition of the great Nineteenth Century Historian Leopold von Ranke. I was going to use his technique and write about the past “as it actually happened” while documenting all my data as thoroughly and as professionally as I could. Great-Grandpa Tom’s story made this a little tricky. I wrote in a previous article of this publication about issues arising from the “disparity between memory and documentation.” I never thought I’d encounter a situation where various documents conflicted with one another on basic facts.

There’s an old family yarn about how my Great-Grandfather Tom Connelly (my paternal grandmother’s father) came to the United States from Ireland when he was 12 accompanied only by his mother. I thought that would be easy enough to confirm, until I came across the 1920 Census Records. I viewed the primary source itself and it stated clearly that Tom Connelly was born in Georgia as were both his mother and his father. That was certainly interesting. I knew this was my Great-Grandfather because it listed Violet Connelly as his wife and Tom Connelly, Jr. (then one year old) as his son. I did some more sleuthing and I located Mr. Connelly’s draft registration card for World War I (c. 1917). On that one, he very specifically indicated that he was born in Athlone, Ireland in 1892. That was really interesting. I knew that Ireland was part of the United   Kingdom until 1922. Was it briefly part of Georgia, U.S.A. in 1892?

I mentioned earlier that the tradition is that Tom Connelly came to the U. S. from Ireland when he was 12 years old. Both my grandmother and my aunt told me that same story on different occasions and decades apart. On the Draft Registration Card, it states that Tom Connelly (I know it’s him because of the other data on there) was born on June 12, 1892. The 1930 Census Record says he came to the U. S. in 1896, when he would have been four. There was no mention of Georgia this time. On that Census Record it reads that Tom Connelly and both his parents were from Ireland.

I later found a draft registration form my Great-Grandfather filled out in 1942. On that one he indicated his place of birth as Philadelphia. I felt a tint of envy upon reading this. He got around more extensively at the time of his birth than I have my entire life! I’ve got to keep researching to find the name of his travel agency.  

I knew my Great-Grandfather Tom was an interesting guy. He worked as a paymaster, a real estate salesman, and even an IRS Agent. The fact he claimed to be born in both Ireland and Georgia made him a lot more interesting than I ever could have imagined. I was also curious as to why on his draft registration card, the “Date of Registration” line was left blank. He was listed as an “alien” and a citizen of Ireland. He also declared that he was supporting his wife and mother at the time. Could either of those explain why? For that matter is it possible that the people responsible for processing draft cards were as thorough and proficient in their duties as census takers of the day? I was really surprised that my great-grandfather, a person who worked with numbers where precision was a hallmark of his trade, would leave a series of documents with so many open questions. It’s very difficult to draw firm conclusions and details about Great–Grandpa Tom’s life from all this.

Great-Grandpa Tom was a wizard when it came to numbers, but his public relations skills were an area he could have developed better. His legacy has the misfortune of suffering by comparison. In modern day language, he “married up.” My Great-Grandmother Violet nee Bishop (or “Vi” as she was known) was the family historian/genealogist. She was related to the famous explorer and discoverer of Pike’s Peak, Zebulon Pike. The city of Coatesville, Pennsylvania was named after one of her ancestors. By my research she was eighth generation American. As if that wasn’t a formidable enough legacy to compete against, “Mom Vi” is remembered very favorably by all who knew her. When she was in her seventies she worked with handicapped people at the WoodsSchool in Langhorne. She wasn’t just loved, she was revered. Since her passing, her reputation has reflected that.

While Great-Grandpa Tom may not have originally been from the South, in spite of what the 1920 Census taker reported, that’s where he chose to spend his remaining years. Robert Gray wrote in his “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” that “all paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Great-Grandpa Tom’s journey ended in Sarasota, Florida in March of 1960.

As lovers of history we all try to present the truth when we write about it. We all strive for that ever elusive goal of complete objectivity. After researching my Great-Grandfather Tom’s life with all the conflicting information, contradictory documents, and his being overshadowed by my great-grandmother’s glowing reputation I wondered if objectivity was even possible. I then realized that there was one thing missing in all this: Tom Connelly’s voice. I remembered a story about Winston Churchill. During the Second World War Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin asked Churchill how history would remember the way they conducted the war. Without hesitation Churchill replied, “History will remember us fondly.” They asked how he could be so sure. Churchill responded, “Because I shall write the history!” It sure would be neat to read Great-Grandpa Tom’s version of events. I don’t know if it would be objective, but I can guarantee this: it would definitely be the most interesting work of history ever written by an accountant born in Ireland, Georgia, and Philadelphia.

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One comment

  1. My biggest concern is should I tell all (the bad news) about my family history or edit the information. I will most likely tell all. However that dose not mean that I am comfortable about it.

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