only kings and heroes – john steinbeck’s local roots
This post explores the writer John Steinbeck’s connection with the Ballykelly area and includes excerpts from his article I Go Back to Ireland, originally published in Collier’s Magazine in 1952. We thank the National Steinbeck Centre, California for sending us a copy of the original article.
In 2012, we introduced an annual event to explore and celebrate the internationally acclaimed author John Steinbeck’s connection with the local area. Nobel-prize winning author John Steinbeck’s maternal grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, was born in Mulkeeragh, an area outside Ballykelly, on 7 October 1830. The son of Esther Clarke and John Hamilton, he emigrated to New York at the age of 17 at the time of the Great Famine.
Samuel married a young Irish girl, Elizabeth Fagan, in the summer of 1849. The couple first settled in San Jose and later relocated to Salinas and then a large farm near King City, 60 miles south of Salinas. Their youngest daughter, Olive, met and married John Ernst Steinbeck of King City in 1890. John, the writer, was born in Salinas in 27 February 1902.
Fascinated by his Irish roots, John travelled back to Ballykelly in August 1952 in search of his family, documenting his trip for the respected Collier’s Magazine. His resulting article I Go Back to Ireland was published later the same year.
In John’s eyes, his grandfather’s story epitomised the American experience, and greatly influenced his passions and writing. After he returned from his trip to Ireland, John completed the beginnings of a novel which became East of Eden, and included the larger than life character Samuel Hamilton, based on his grandfather.
The author wrote of his ancestral search:
Every Irishman – and that means anyone with one drop of Irish blood – sooner or later makes a pilgrimage to the home of his ancestors. There he crows and squeals over the wee cot or the housemen, pats mossy rocks, goes into ecstasies over the quaint furniture, and finds it charming that the livestock lives with the family.
I guess the people of my family thought of Ireland as a green paradise, mother of heroes, where golden people sprang full-flowered from the sod. I don’t remember my mother actually telling me these things, but she must have given me such an impression of delight. Only kings and heroes came from this Holy Island, and at the very top of this glittering pyramid was our family, the Hamiltons….
Travelling from Belfast, John and his wife Elaine stayed at a hotel in Londonderry. They got a cool reception at the hotel, however –
There was no home feeling in the bleak hotel, that carried its own darkness with it. The girl behind the desk would not smile nor pass a cordial word, no matter how much we tried to trap her. In the bar there was no gaiety. I don’t know whether laughter was there before we went in for a drink or after we left, but none was offered for us to share, and curtains of rules brushed against us.
In a humorous tone, the author, frustrated by the rules of the hotel and the lack of customer service (the bar was shut, no food was available), asks the porter –
“Does the young lady at the desk never smile?” I asked.
“Rarely,” he said.
“Is no rule ever broken at all?”
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“Look,” I said, “my people came from hereabouts. They were law-abiding people, but there was a filament of illegality in them. My mother wasn’t above putting too much catsup on her plate and sopping it up with a piece of bread in a restaurant.” “
Catsup?” he asked.
I said, “One of my uncles had a major difficulty in college for stealing chickens. Another of my uncles had to be disarmed when he had murder in his heart, and I, myself…”
I stopped because the not-the-real-porter was looking at me helplessly, trying to make out my meaning. My voice was rising against a wall of frustration. “What I am trying to say is this,” I said. “Has all illegality gone out of this rebellious island in three generations?”
Sitting in his hotel, John almost abandoned his trip.
We sat in the window, looking across the street at the angry stone buildings and the small, locked-up shops. The street was deserted and a desolation came over us. I told my wife how brave and open my ancestors were, how full of lust and courtesy and fine laughter. I lied about them some – I guess I had to. The Sunday dark fell on that city which is sombre even on weekdays and in sunlight.
Now my reluctance came on me tenfold and I wanted to give up the pilgrimage and go away quickly and forget it, because reality was violating every inherited memory and I was saying to myself that if the old folks went away from here, maybe they had good reason.
On the morning of 18 August 1952, the author and his wife Elaine set out from Derry, renting a car and describing the passing landscape – ‘summer was full-blown in Ireland and the grain was bowing golden-headed, ready for the cutting’ –
We drove right through Ballykelly without knowing it was there, but at Limavady they turned us back. I guess I had thought of Ballykelly as a town; it isn’t – it’s what they call in Texas a wide place in the road.
An old man stood in front of one of the churches. “Mulkeraugh?” he said. “Second turning to the left – a quarter of a mile.”
“Do you know any Hamiltons there?” I asked.
“They’re all dead,” he said. “Miss Elizabeth died two years ago. You’ll find Mr Richey, her cousin, on the hill, though.”
Mulkeraugh isn’t a place at all. It’s a hill and three or four farms near about. Mr Richey came to the door of the house on the hill and he looked like some of our breed – the pink cheeks, the light blue sparkling eyes.
Mr Richey doesn’t recall John’s grandfather and thought it was Joseph, his grandfather’s brother who had emigrated to America. The author comments:
It was the same everywhere we asked – my grandfather did not exist. So far as Ireland was concerned, there was no Samuel Hamilton. Why should they remember? The tree of our culture had no roots.
Locals did remember the children of John’s grandfather’s brother –
Everyone knew the three children of my grandfather’s brother, Miss Katherine, Miss Elizabeth and Mr. Tom. It was a good farm they had – about 200 acres – and a good house of two stories… They were well-endowed, well-educated people, and they had more land than most. They had silver spoons and fine china and little coffee cups, so thin you could see through them, and all the collected things of the family for hundreds of years, pictures and books and records and furniture, to make them envied all over the countryside. But they never married. They were well known, well liked. They grew old together.
Then about 12 years ago, Miss Katherine died. The directing head was gone. The farm went to pieces little by little and month by month, so slowly that it was hardly noticeable. Tommy, with no-one to tell him what to do, when to plow and when to sow, began to neglect the land, and he sold some of the cows and didn’t replace them. When the roof leaked he didn’t mend it. The hedges began to creep into the fields.
Tommy died about seven years before John’s visit. After he died, Miss Elizabeth began acting very strangely. Neighbours told John they would hear her at night, walking on the lanes, calling her brother back home, as his dinner was getting cold. When neighbours were visiting, Elizabeth would talk very sensibly as she always did, but then quickly usher them out, saying Tommy was coming home from the fields and he would be tired. ‘She’s just turned strange, they said.’
When she died, neighbours said it was a sorrow to see the house torn apart:
It was well known that the Hamiltons had beautiful things. On the day of the auction, the automobiles and the carriages came by the hundred, and people bought pictures just for the frames; and the beautiful silver went, and the fine china, and the books, bought for the binding only – and all by strangers. Strangers bought the farmhouse. It was a sorrow, the neighbours said.
I went to see the house and there was nothing of us there. The rose garden was overgrown with weeds and only the whips of the rosebushes showed above the grass, with haws still on from the last year. The ivy had nearly covered the stone paths. The new owners were kind. But they were strangers, and, what was even worse, we were strangers.
The sexton of the church at Ballykelly is an old man, lean and dry, and his speech is like my grandfather’s speech. I asked, “Did you know the Hamiltons?”
“Hamiltons?” he said. “I ought to – I dug their graves. I buried them, all of them. Miss Elizabeth was the last, two years ago. She was a bright one.”
We looked at the graves, with the new cement coping around the plot. “Miss Elizabeth put in her will about coping,” the sexton said. He didn’t ask, but we felt that he wanted to know.
I said, “My grandfather was William’s brother.”
He nodded slowly. “I’ve heard,” he said. “Went away – I forget where.”
“California,” I said.
“What was his name again?” the sexton asked.
The rain was beginning to fall, he left us for a moment and came back, carrying a full-blown red rose.
“Would you like to have it?” he asked.
I took it. And that’s the seat of my culture and the origin of my being and the soil of my background, the one full-blown evidence of a thousand years of family. I have it pressed in a book.
Tags: American Irish, Ballykelly, Collier's Magazine, East of eden, Grapes of Wrath, I Go Back to Ireland, Irish Ancestry, Irish Emigration, John Steinbck, limavady, Londonderry, Of Mice and Men, Pulitzer, Steinbeck, WritingThis entry was posted on April 21st, 2015 at 8:51 am by Desima