Thursday, 22 December 2011

Karmic Uncanniness

Many of my loyal readers have, no doubt, been wondering about the etymology of my name. I should start at the historical end of it, when Imus, kind of a strange old hermit who roamed the highlands of Scotland in the mid-1800s, met young Michael Starrak. Long story short, Imus' ancestors had fought alongside members of the Walsh clan who came to the aid of their cousins, the Wallaces (both names derived from "Wall-es," or Wales), in battles such as the one at Bannockburn on 24 June 1314.

Imus, known for talking to God in the same way as the Irish guy in "Braveheart" (a Walsh, of course) predicted that their people would soon leave their homes, again, and cross the ocean. Within a year, famine drove many to the New World on perilous journeys across the North Atlantic. On one such journey, from Glasgow to Nova Scotia, Michael Starrak was on the same boat with families of Walshes who had settled in Scotland in 1314. The Starraks and Walshes became friends and, a generation later, a young Walsh man (Kenneth) married Michael's daughter, and they took a boat to Ellis Island.

The people who registered immigrants at Ellis Island were generally the sons of upper class families who had not proven themselves capable of anything particular during their schooling, and for whom these jobs were annoying stepping stones to higher positions in the public or private sector, depending on their fathers' connections. This is not to say that anyone without the language training would have been able to understand whatever the next immigrant in the line said to them but, let's just say that, through a combination of humor and who-cares, many people's surnames changed radically on Ellis Island.

When they got to the front of one of the lines of immigrants, my grandfather, who had been speaking nothing but Irish and Scottish Gaelic for most of his life, said good day to the clerk in Irish, which sounded something like "Dia Ruit."

"D-E-what?" said the clerk.

"Ehmmm..." said Kenneth, then remembered the English phrase he needed. "Oh! I want to tell you..."

But the clerk had already written "M" and "O," and now asked for Kenneth and his wife's first names...and the rest is history.

Kenneth didn't mind. The person in front of him, from Lithuania, had just had his name changed from "Shva-des" to Smith. They got to be good friends over the time it took to finish the whole immigration process. Then his friend's clan decided that they would head out West. When they got to Indiana, they established the Hoosier Smith clan.

The postscript to this story is that the descendants of Walsh, Smith, and the two clerks at Ellis Island would all meet when they went to Brown University in the mid-1980s. Like their forebears, Max Demo and two brothers named Smith would become good friends, and the grandsons of the clerks would join the same fraternity.

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