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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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