Published on Saturday 12 November 2011 11:05
WHEN Gabriel Murray, the Kilkenny movie maker was searching through the Irish geneology website, ‘Irish Roots’ on Sunday, October 24 he hit upon a reference to the family of George Clooney being linked to Windgap. Triggering an interest he’d developed over the previous six months in the story of the Hollywood actor and his Kikenny roots he delved deeper. And there, sitting on the files of a website linked to Rothe House, Parliament St., Kilkenny was the baptismal certificate of Nicholas Clooney - registered at Windgap Church in 1829. The certificate showed that the child was from the townland of Knockeen in Tullaghought, a few miles south of Callan, Co. Kilkenny.
In biographies of George Clooney, Nicholas Clooney is recorded as his mid-1800s ancestral emigrant from Ireland. The Clooney family visited Windgap about three years ago searching for links through the graveyard etc. However, the search had been unsuccessful.
When Murray searched Griffith’s Valuaton (published 1850) he found numerous Clooney names. He then focussed on Tullahought and after opening a page listing Inchanaclogh, Kilmacoliver and Knickeen he found six Clooneys mentioned under the latter townland. Knickeen (Knockeen – the small hill) is one of eight hills that make Tullahought (tula ocht (8, as Gaeilge) – one more than Rome). The land listed to the Clooneys was approximately 33 acres in extent and the main holder listed (occupant at the time of Griffith’s recording in 1844/45) was Andrew Clooney, sen.
Above: Hole in the Wall, Kilkenny
As a result of his acquaintance, through the famous Hole in the Wall (1582 – currently a wine bar), High St., Kilkenny with the conserver and proprietor Dr Michael Conway, Murray asked the St Luke’s and Beacon Hospital based cardiologist to help him find Knockeen. Having spent much of his medical career in Oxford researching various questions Dr Conway readily took up the challenge and applied his training and history experience to aiding the documentary maker. After arriving at Tullaghought, and after exploring the Kilmacoliver (Tullaghought) churchyard, a local directed the sleuths to Knockeen. On climbing the hill, from which the view of the valley with its numerous Neolithic and early Christian relics is a cinematographer’s dream, the expected ruins of the Clooney cottage were not evident. Suddenly, realising that the modern romantic idea of building a bungalow with a view was not viable for the thatched cottages of the 1700s and 1800s the search changed to the lea of the hill. And there, on driving up a laneway at the edge of the original Clooney plot, a cluster of ancient houses was found nestling in the shadows. It was very exciting as both Murray and Conway realized at that moment (one hour after setting off on the search) that, ‘this is it’. There, sitting homely and occupied was the original homestead of Andrew Clooney – now the home of farmer Peter Purcell and family.
On meeting Peter and his son Paul, the intrepid investigators announced that they were doing some historical research. Dr Conway’s first cousin married a Clooney in Limerick in the 1970s and that family used speak of cousins in Callan and a family link to George Clooney’s aunt, Rosemary. As soon as the name Clooney was mentioned, Paul Purcell observed that people had visited them three years ago enquiring about any link with George Clooney. The news was intriguing. Murray was gob smacked – his hunch was right. The Phelans observed that the first (now unknown) visitors never returned. Murray wondered why?
On showing the baptismal certificate with the name of Nicholas Clooney’s mother, Mary McGrath, to Peter Phelan the jigsaw of links to the Walsh, Burke, Egan, Purcell and other local Tullaghought families quickly fell into place. Caroline, Peter’s sister, had done a very detailed family history and the inter-links with the family of Willie Burke and others had been worked out in detail. Explanation of the history of the original landlord/proprietor of the Knockeen – Lowick L. Reade of Rossanara House, Kilmaganny emerged as central to the explanation as to why the Clooneys lost the land and why it is now predominantly in the Burke/Purcell family. Mary Egan reported that a niece of the elder Clooney, named Walsh, went to take care of her uncle. She inherited the land and after marrying a member of the neighbouring Burke family, the ownership changed accordingly. This is known to be a recognised pattern down the years – as with the family of Ann Crowley, Mooncoin, whose grandfather had been a neighbour of the Powers in Tullaghought .
The explanation as to why Nicholas, and his brother Thomas Clooney, left Knockeen appears to relate to the famine. In what must have been a heart rending scene, Andrew waived off his sons never to see them again. In, or around, 1847 Nicholas collected Bridget Byron from Green St, Callan whilst Thomas emigrated with Callan’s Catherine O’Callaghan – finally to settle in Kentucky. Nicholas would eventually be elected mayor of Lexington. The story of the American Clooney family is well worked up in the Rosemary Clooney Museum and the U.S. burial records of the Clooneys are extant. With the discovery of the Tullaghought Clooneys and the rapidly emerging linkage to Clooneys all over Ireland the full family tree is emerging. Already, George’s father, Nick, has been on RTE’s John Murray Show and expressed interest in adding further to the story.
Having recently launched his documentary in New York, ‘Obama’s Irish Roots’ (which won first place at the 3rd Annual Hamptons Black American Film Festival), Murray opted to address the Clooney story as a documentary using a similar format. With Dr Conway assigned as producer, and using the Hole in the Wall movie making equipment, focus turned to immediate video recording on the basis of an academically based story board. Through the latter, key components of the documentary were identified and a number of experts were invited to participate and speak to cameras. Within a week, members of the Tullaghought community had been filmed and interviewed. Dr Walter Walsh, Kilfane, Thomastown has already addressed examined the Clooney records and the likely effects of the Gregory Clause (1847) at the time of the famine on the Clooney household (the importance of the Clause was identified by Dr Conway in an article in the commemorative book on Coolagh, Windgap, Callan). Dr Conway’s friend, Peter Sommerville-Large has been recorded describing the effects of the famine – as noted contemporaneously by Thackeray and Carlyle - in his book about West Cork and Dr Pat Crowley, general practitioner in Kells/Kilmoganny, has explained the story of Lowick Reade’s Rossanara House. Footage recorded in the past few days of the Tullaghought vista and the old houses of Windgap village will be a central aspect of the documentary. It will also feature the late medieval houses and castle in Kilkenny as well as key, and largely unknown, monuments in the county such as the high crosses, dolmens and standing stones, passage graves and ogham stones – all of which were identified in 2010 by Dr Conway when preparing his book on the History of Kilkenny.
A number of startling co-incidences have occurred to suggest that the Clooney story is being orchestrated in some surprising way. Encountering Peter Sommerville’s book over breakfast (which hadn’t been read for 5 years); having a copy of Walter Walsh’s book lying around the Hole in the Wall – unread; being in the midst of a movie recording edit on Pat Crowley’s ‘Kilkenny: In a Time of University’ 2007 lecture on ‘Sir John Lavery and Rossenara’ and finding a photograph of a priest in an abandoned homestead near Tullaghought who is the image of a young George Clooney has been alerting. And discussing local history with patient led Dr Conway to the Clooneys and Clooney Lane, Magdalen St., Kilkenny last Wednesday.
George Clooney recently promised U2’s Bono to visit Ireland next April on his Harley Davidson. The discovery of the actual place from where the male line derives now provides a focus for the trip. And with the documentary about a part of Kilkenny that is now being called ‘Clooney Country’ rapidly coming to fruition, the visit will be highly instructive for the Hollywood superstar. Indeed, George might take on the story of the Irish famine as a subject to address. He has recently mentioned that he would not turn down filming a challenging topic. ‘The Gregory Clause’ might well be the title for such a movie since the decree allowed the landlord to evict the tenant - if the tenant/holding was not valuable enough to pay the government four pounds per year. The storyboard and suitable locations are currently being pieced together with a view to submission to George Clooney’s agent in LA. Contact with the latter and notification of the find (out of courtesy) to Bono (via his friend, Guggi) occurred before the seminal article in last Wednesday’s Kilkenny People.
One of these days, Dr Conway’s cousin in Limerick (and other Clooneys) will be sitting whilst being filmed in the ancestral homestead of George Clooney. Soon after, George himself may follow suit - the genes of the Clooneys back home in Knockeen. A real doctor has played a role in the discovery of the gene pool of the ER doctor. And now, collaborating with Gabriel Murray, Dr Conway’s interest in cardiological genetics comes face to face with the thesbian genes of one of South Kilkenny’s sons. Mother Ireland appears to crave her lost children. And her scattered descendants in the New World and elsewhere strive to find their roots. Gabriel Murray’s find has put smiles all across Ireland. Welcome home George.