Growing up, I was told I was Scottish, French Canadian, and one-quarter Irish on my father’s side. My dad’s mother, Thelma O’Dell, came from good Irish stock in County Cork, the story went. I never knew her; she died of tuberculosis at 36 and was for me a figure shrouded in mystique. I had even mistakenly believed she was born in Ireland when she was in fact a native Texan.
I have a framed picture of her as a serious, full-cheeked young woman of 18, looking every bit the Irish lass. I’ve been told I resemble her and also that I have an “Irish face.”
The Irish was always the part of my ethnic heritage I was proudest of, the most colorful part. To be of Irish descent is to come from a poetic, tough, hard-drinking tradition. Ours was the heritage of Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce. My dad’s side wore its Irish birthright proudly and brazenly. When my temper flared, I was just “getting my Irish up.” I couldn’t help it, it was in my blood.
Then my father’s Aunt Dorothy, Thelma’s younger sister, decided to hire a genealogist to trace the family's roots. This was years before Ancestry.com. For a handsome fee, this genealogist, a meticulous professional, traced us all the way back—not to the O’Dells of County Cork, but the Odells of Bedfordshire. As in England.
It was all there, documented in an exhaustive family history complete with maps, photographs, and even the Odell family crest. The parish of Odell was in Bedfordshire County, England. By the 16th century, people of the parish began taking Odell for a surname, and among them were the ancestors of my forebear William Odell, who sailed for America in 1637 to join the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
“O’Dell is altered by folk etymology as if of Irish origin,” we learned.
Coinciding with the shock of learning Grandma hadn’t been Irish after all was the realization of how far back in America my ancestors went. I was thinking more like Ellis Island, not Plymouth Rock.
There was much to be proud of, for sure. We Odells had fought the American Revolution, the Civil War, and helped settle the frontier. We may not be Irish, but we had a little Cherokee in there in the form of Lucy Hicks, mother of my great-great grandfather, James. She died at only 20, and may have been the daughter of a top chief in the Cherokee Nation.
But mostly, my family was devastated by the news. My father’s brother Earl said he cried when he found out. Not only weren’t we Irish, but we were descended straight from the ancient enemy of the Irish, the Brits.
"You mean we’re Limeys?!” one of my half-brothers gasped.
“What day do the English party?” another hard-partying brother wondered.
What I wanted to know was, where did the story about being from County Cork come from, and who threw that apostrophe in there? Nobody seems to be sure. The family surname seems to have been used and abused depending on personal preference. Some spelled it with the small “d” but others used the apostrophe. Some spelled it Odele.
It seems that there may be no authentic Irish surname of O’Dell at all. It’s a fake Irish name.
“It just sounded like it should be Irish,” Aunt Dorothy said wistfully in her Houston drawl. “My daddy looked like a redheaded Irishman. I think there’s some Irish somewhere, there’s got to be. We’ve all got that hot temper.”
This changed everything. They say everyone’s an Irishman on St. Patrick’s Day, but it just wouldn’t be the same. I couldn’t get excited about the British “bank holidays” or whatever it is they celebrate. “Getting your British up” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. I was still a tiny bit Irish on my mother’s side, but something fundamental had changed.
Nonetheless, I eventually came to embrace my British heritage. The British are a great race of people who produced Shakespeare and the Beatles, and ruled most of the world for centuries.
Maybe Irish is a state of mind, after all. But the whole family pretty much wished Aunt Dorothy had left well enough alone. Sometimes it’s better not to trace your roots.