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Irish American comedian Stephen Colbert will replace David Letterman next year as host of CBS’s the Late Show.
Colbert a proud Irish American explored his Irish origins with Prof. Henry Louis Gates on the PBS documentary series “Faces of America.” The show’s researchers contacted Eneclann, partners of findmypast, to trace Colbert’s Irish family history.
Seven out of eight of Colbert’s great-grandparents are documented as being of Irish descent, including the Tuck family on his maternal line.
The Tuck family were tenant-farmers, their homestead was in Ballyhoran townland, in the parish of Castletown, Queen’s county (modern-day county Laois). For more than a century the Tucks stayed on the same small-holding, renting from year to year, at the landlord’s discretion. We know the family must have struggled to survive, but there are so few records we can only provide the bare outline of their story. We can however make certain deductions even from the limited evidence. Their farm lands were so small, the only crop they could have produced capable of supporting a family was the potato. So, the Tuck family must have been one of the millions of families in Ireland before the Famine, entirely dependent on the potato crop for their continued survival.
Stephen Colbert’s great (x 3) grandparents were John Tuck Sr. (born ca. 1760) and Judith Bennett. They had seven known children, in order from eldest to youngest: John, Margaret, Nancy, Edward, Edmund, Brian and Judith. We found no records of the three younger children as adults, and we think it likely they died young.
In 1817 John Tuck jr. married Judith Dunn a local girl from the neighbouring parish of Camross – these are Stephen Colbert’s great (x 2) grandparents. Of three known children born to this couple in Ireland - John, Michael and an infant daughter – only young John survived childhood. In 1828 we found a rare piece of evidence for the Tucks in land records. John Tuck had 6 ½ acres, and his younger sister Nancy Tuck, lived nearby on a scrap of land - 1 ¾ acres. It’s barely conceivable that Nancy Tuck could have supported herself on what she could grow, and it’s probable that she was able to supplement her income by weaving. There was a local cotton-mill situated in the nearest market town of Mountrath, that employed local women, ‘about 500 in weaving calicoes at their own houses’.
In the late 1820s John Tuck made the hard decision to travel alone to Canada to seek work, and earn money to bring over his family. During his absence, Judith stayed at home with young John, but she still had family around her in the shape of her brother-in-law, Edward Tuck and his wife, who remained all their lives in Ireland. According to family tradition, Edward was the only one of the family to have received an education, and so he had a trade as a surveyor or civil engineer.
In the early 1830s Mrs. Judith Dunne Tuck left Ireland with her young son and her brother Patrick Dunn. In Canada, she was reunited with her husband, and shortly afterwards the entire Tuck family settled in New York State. In 1834, Andrew youngest son of John Tuck and Judith Dunn Tuck was born there.
There’s a phrase in the Irish vernacular for a child born late in a marriage – a late lamb. It’s a turn of phrase that tells you that the Irish are a country people at heart. Andrew Tuck was born 17 years into his parents’ marriage, and was only four years old when, in November 1838, his father John Tuck sr., died.
Judith Dunn Tuck survived another thirty years, and died in January 1869.
Andrew Tuck born in 1834 married Maria Lynch on 30 Dec. 1865. This couple are Stephen Colbert’s great-grandparents. They had five children, from eldest to youngest Mary Agnes, John Bennett, William Francis, Andrew Edward born. 1874 and Charles Henry.
Andrew Edward Tuck born 1874 married Marie Elizabeth Fee. This couple are Stephen Colbert’s grandparents, their daughter Lorna Tuck was born in 1920.
Lorna Tuck married James William Colbert and had a large family. It’s a happy coincidence that echoes across time, that Stephen Colbert is the youngest of eleven children, another late lamb.
Researching Stephen Colbert’s Irish family history we found a story that was both singular in its’ circumstances, and yet in the 1800s typical of the experience of millions of Irish of similar humble origins. They endured personal tragedy, with an almost blind hope that once settled in America their circumstances must surely get better, because they couldn’t get any worse. And this is the very essence of Irish humour, you’ve got to laugh, because otherwise you might just cry.