“That's a big part of being Irish in America – the English are bastards!” So proclaims Comedy Central king Stephen Colbert, whose Irish roots have been dissected by Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard professor whose racially charged dust-up with Irish American cop James Crowley in Cambridge last summer led to the White House beer summit with President Obama and a so-called “teachable moment” about race relations in the U.S.
Gates completed a PBS documentary called "Faces of America" which is due to premiere around the country this week, and in it he traces the ancestral roots of several prominent Americans, among them Colbert. The star of "The Colbert Report" has spoken of his Irish roots many times in the past, and takes part in New York Bloomsday celebrations in honor of the James Joyce classic "Ulysses".
Colbert and Gates talked about the effect of British colonialism in Ireland, with Colbert saying that the Irish in America will never forget the British driving their ancestors off their land.
“Part of being Irish even to this day is not liking the English,” said Colbert with a laugh. “Absolutely no doubt.”
The comic recalled being scared to tell his mother about his future sister-in-law’s accommodations in New York. No, she wasn’t living in sin. It was actually worse. She was residing at a building on 72nd Street called the Oliver Cromwell.
“I thought, I can’t tell my mom that!” said Colbert. “Cromwell is like Satan. He drove our family west of the River Shannon to farm rocks 350 years ago! I was raised on that story.” (Cromwell, of course, was the British tyrant who slaughtered scores of Irish back in the 1600s).
After Colbert and his wife Evelyn McGee married he did a roots search on her background and, horror of horror, he discovered that her Irish ancestors were from Co. Tyrone in Northern Ireland, “on land that had been given to them by the Crown,” Colbert told Gates.
“I said to her, ‘Your family got my family’s land!” he joked. “But that’s what’s fantastic about America – 300 years later we get married.”
Researchers for the Gates show contacted a Dublin historian, who then reached out to Limerick genealogist Tony Browne, who helped unearth Colbert’s great-great grandfather, a native of St. Mary’s parish in Limerick city.
“(They) got in touch with me and asked me to track down a Michael Gearon or Guerin in Limerick. I got on to Father Donough O'Malley and we were able to find him on the parish register," Browne told the Limerick Leader newspaper.
Browne discovered a marriage entry of a Michael Gearon to Johanna Nicholson in January of 1834. The couple had three children and eventually went to America, but Browne said poor record keeping at the time prevented them from discovering when the Gearon family departed.
"I'll have to wait to watch the program to see if they found out what happened, but my guess is that they might have ended up in Canada and walked across the border as you could do back then. Stephen Colbert grew up in Carolina," said Browne.
Gates himself has Irish roots, and discovered during the course of his research that he’s related to talk show host Regis Philbin. "Regis and I are descended from the same Irish king!" he says.
The professor also wouldn’t mind if he was related to another Irish American -- that would be Cambridge police officer Crowley.
"Jim and I have a really good relationship," Gates told USA Today. "I asked him, for fun, to be (DNA) tested. I would be honored to be his cousin."
For a preview of Faces of America, and to check local listings, visit www.pbs.org/wnet/facesofamerica/.