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Irish wannabes… aren’t we all?

My cousin Donna is occasionally annoyed with my abject failure as one of the family’s genealogists to prove the one thing every one of us wants to believe every year on March 17th. She wants me to prove that we’re Irish.

Dingle Peninsula, Aug 1997

Trust me, I’d love to be Irish. Okay, so I don’t much care for warm Guinness (not even on St. Paddy’s Day), and corned beef and cabbage won’t find much of a place on my table, but I fell desperately in love with all the Many Faces of Ireland on a two-week vacation there some years back.

The Dingle Peninsula (left). The Lake Country. The Ring of Kerry. Connemara. The Barony of Erris.

Oh yeah, I could happily be Irish. Even a little bit Irish.

The hitch is, we’re probably not, at least not very much. If we are, it’s much more likely to be Scots-Irish than Irish-Irish. And it isn’t within the last, oh, 235 years or so anyway. If that. Today’s Google doodle is more Irish than we’ll ever be.

The best we have is (sigh) the old three-brothers story. There were three brothers who came from Ireland. One stayed north, one went south, and one went west never to be heard from again. I’m still not sure what did in all those brothers who went west, but ours — so the story goes — is the William Killen born around 1775 who was having kids between 1792 and 1808 in North Carolina and then Tennessee, and who ended up in the Mississippi Territory by 1810.1

Now mind you there’s not one shred of evidence that William Killen was born in Ireland. I’ve seen Ireland as his birthplace in all the online family trees that include this William, I’ve seen family histories written by William’s great grandson, I’ve seen interview notes with my own grandmother who described the Killen family as Irish and her grandmother, who descended from the Killens, as a fiery-tempered redhead, and I’ve seen that description lead my mother to write Ireland in my baby book as the birthplace of that Killen-descended redhead. And nobody, anywhere, at any time, has cited anything even vaguely resembling a source.

So all we know for certain besides his arrival in Mississippi between 1808 and 1810 is that William was in Wayne County, Mississippi, in 18202 and Rankin County, Mississippi, in 1830.3 He is supposed to have died around 1834 in Rankin County.

I don’t know that it’s going to be impossible to see if we have Irish ancestors among our Killens. I’m sure I could track down a Killen cousin for DNA testing, and I really should get around to that. But there’s just no way now to be certain, from the little information we have, that William Killen was any flavor of Irish much less Irish-Irish.

So at least for the short run, for one more year, one more St. Patrick’s Day, I’m doomed to disappoint my cousin Donna. But I think she’s starting to be willing to settle for a little less certainty these days. She gave me a t-shirt from an Irish pub in Virginia. It reads: “My grandmother’s neighbor’s second cousin’s dog is an Irish setter. Does that count?”

Hey it works for me… at least once a year, every year, on March 17th.


  1. 1810 Mississippi Territorial Census, Washington County, MS Terr., p. 3; digital images, ( : accessed 16 Mar 2012); citing Mississippi State and Territorial Censuses, 1792-1866, Heritage Quest, Microfilm V229.
  2. 1820 U.S. census, Wayne County, Mississippi, population schedule, p. 112 (penned), line 3, William Killen Sr. household; digital image, ( : accessed 16 Mar 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication M33, roll 57.
  3. 1830 U.S. census, Rankin County, Mississippi, p. 167 (stamped), line 9, Wm Killen Sr household; digital image, ( : accessed 16 Mar 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication M19, roll 71.
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