In Search of Nobility
William J. Lynott

     All right, I confess. My decision to research my family's history wasn't as noble as Alex Haley's quest for his roots. In truth, I set out hoping to discover at least a dollop of blue blood coursing through my decidedly middle-class veins.
     Not that I had reason for such optimism. As far as I know, no other member of my family has ever entertained such an outlandish notion. Still, you never know. Suppose I was to turn up an obscure link with, say, Patrick Henry or Betsy Ross. Imagine the increased respect I'd get around the house. And consider the elevated social status that would accompany such news. I would be awash in a raft of social invitations at a snobbery level that has eluded me up to now.
     Given such possibilities, what did I have to lose?
     A glance through my new genealogy book got my adrenaline pumping. The opening chapter began with a declaration that researching my family history was sure to be an exciting and emotionally rewarding adventure. I couldn't wait to get started.
     Sure enough, the excitement soon began. On my first visit to our local branch of the National Archives, I made a genealogical breakthrough. There it was in black and white. An official 1890 census of Civil War survivors confirmed those old family stories. My great-grandfather, Peter, the Irish immigrant who, with his wife Alice, started the Lynott family in America, had fought as a Union soldier in the Civil War.
     I knew it. My instincts were right. I was hot on the trail. Surely, this would be but the first of a series of discoveries that would eventually unearth my family pedigree.
     Alas, as it turned out, this initial triumph would mark the zenith of my ancestral diggings.
Slowly, as my researching skills blossomed, I learned that my great-grandfather had been a peasant farmer. Like so many of the so-called famine immigrants, he hailed from Mayo, one of Ireland's poorest western counties. Further, Alice, the Irish colleen he met and married here in America shared a similar background.
     So much for blue blood.
     Undaunted, I decided to dig further into the past. The Lynott name, although rare, can be traced all the way back to 12th century Ireland. Surely, that vast expanse of history would reveal at least a smidgen of nobility somewhere along the line.
     Over the course of a few centuries of Lynott-Irish history, I discovered a minor sheriff here and a reasonably well to do landowner there. But I found nothing that would afford me even minor bragging rights.
     Then things took a turn for the worse.
     It seems that in the 14th century, members of the Lynott clan were accused of carrying out despicable crimes against members of the Barrett clan. The Barretts' understandable outrage over this unseemly conduct ignited a serious Hatfield-McCoy-type feud.
     The long-running confrontation eventually ended in utter defeat for my namesakes. Worse, the vengeful victors inflicted humiliating reprisals on Lynott males. In the interest of discretion, I will bypass the indelicate details here.
     Not one to give up easily, I decided to turn my attention to family history during the period following our American beginnings. Not much luck here either. It was at this point that I decided to abandon my quest for ancestral distinction.
     That decision came when I learned of the escapades of my great-uncle Eustace, Peter's youngest son. Uncle Eusty joined the U.S. Army in 1901 under an assumed name. I learned about this from an elderly family member who confided in me in the most hush-hush of tones. There had been, he said, an urgent need for Eusty to escape the long arm of the law, which was closing in fast. The precise nature of Uncle Eusty's offense remains unknown to anyone alive at this time -- perhaps for the best of all concerned.
     Then things took still another unexpected turn. As I gradually accumulated more details of my family's history, I became immersed in the life of the man and woman who started it all here in America - Peter and Alice McHale Lynott, my great-grandparents.
     Peter Lynott, an illiterate immigrant, went to work in 1858 as a laborer in the brutalizing coal mines of Pennsylvania's anthracite region. Alice, also an Irish immigrant, had served as a "house girl" for a well-to-do family before she met Peter. After she married, Alice settled in to bear and raise a family.
     By any standard, Peter and Alice were simple people, ill equipped to aspire to little more than supplying the fundamental needs of themselves and their children. Still, as I painstakingly reconstructed the highlights of their lives, I came to recognize that Peter and Alice were possessed of a grace and dignity sufficient to make any descendant swell with pride.
     After being seriously wounded in the Civil War of his adopted country, Peter returned home to Pennsylvania -- the place where he would spend the rest of his working life toiling in the deep, dangerous pits called coal mines.
     This was a time when the railroads exerted total and brutal control of the mining industry. Pay rates were at the whim of the railroad bosses and seldom exceeded bare subsistence levels. There were no workers' unions, no benefits, and no vacations. If a man complained, if he was injured, if he showed any dissatisfaction with his job, he would likely be banned from working in any mine, ever. If he were deemed a troublemaker, he would be dealt with harshly by the so-called Coal and Iron Police -- in actuality, employees of the railroads.
     There was no retirement. Most miners worked until they died or until they were too old or sick to wield a pick and shovel.
     After 11 years of marriage, Peter and Alice Lynott accomplished something that most coal mining families of that day could only dream of: In 1881, they became homeowners. Somehow, they managed to muster up a $75 down payment on a modest but adequate home of their own. This during an era when most mine laborers, buried under mountains of debt, lived out their bleak lives in company-owned shacks.
     How could this be? How could this simple laborer and his wife raise the down payment on a $400 home? And how could they keep up the payments on such a heavy mortgage? Those questions can never be answered with certainty, but it is likely that Alice played a key role in that remarkable feat.
     Alice worked as a live-in servant before she met Peter and while he was serving in the war. Many so-called house-girls were known to have saved most or all of their meager earnings in anticipation of marriage and family.
     Further, in mining families it was usually the wife who handled the finances. Most hard-living miners were content to leave that demanding responsibility to their mates. Stories of miners' wives storming into local saloons on payday hoping to snatch up their husbands before they had a chance to spend their biweekly wages were commonplace in mining communities.
     Alice, a deeply religious woman, bore her husband seven children, five of whom survived to adulthood. One of the children, Patrick, was born with a crippling mental handicap. Patrick required, and received, a lifetime of loving care from his parents. He died at the age of 32.
     Their other children went on to live productive lives at a modest level of comfort and well being. My grandfather, James, the eldest, went to work for the United States Post Office as a mail carrier. He held that position for the rest of his working life.
     While a modest station in life by some standards, a U.S. government job represented a gargantuan leap from the ranks of coal mining. James stood out clearly as the pride of his family
Peter himself would never climb much above the struggle for basic survival. In October 1891, he applied for a disability pension based on his Civil War injuries. By that time, his health had deteriorated drastically. The physician who examined him at the time wrote: ". . . walks with a shuffling gate. Looks to be 60." He was 50 years old at the time. With the help of many letters written by Alice, Peter was eventually awarded a pension of $12 a month.
     Peter Lynott died in 1914 of what appears to have been the dreaded miners' affliction, black lung disease.
     Alice lived on until 1931 in the same home that she and Peter moved into in 1880. Her obituary described her as, ". . . a loving mother, a splendid neighbor, and possessed of an exquisite personality. She was ever ready to lend a helping hand to the needy and her many benefactions will long be remembered by those who benefited."Peter and Alice's oldest daughter, my great aunt Mary, never married. Except for her last few years in a nursing home, she lived her entire life in the house her parents bought one year after she was born. Mary Lynott, the last of the couple's children, died in January 1964.
     Not long ago, I went to visit the cemetery in Scranton, Pennsylvania where my great-grandparents now rest. As I silently stared down at their tiny, weathered headstones, it finally dawned on me: Here was the noble ancestry I had set out in search of. It was lying right here,waiting to be discovered, all the while .


from Family Circle Magazine
March 4, 2003
copyright (c) William J. Lynott

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