Thursday, March 15, 2012

My Irish Offering for St. Patrick's Day

In the old days I never paid much attention to St. Patrick’s Day, or at least the phoney-baloney fake-Irish popular American version. I thought it all just so much silliness, such as the commercial I just endured--Burger King promoting french fries with green ketchup, all in fake Irish brogue, of course. Now of course, saint’s days have actual meaning to me, and I have since taken it upon myself to learn a little of the real story behind St. Patrick. (I wonder what percentage of the revelers on Saturday know that he was not even Irish? I would guess it would be in single digits toward the lower end.)

Of course, any real comprehension of the saint behind it all is lost in our frenzy to evoke all things green and "Irish." In my extended family, my paternal cousins (with whom I am very close) consider me the keeper of the family lore. One of my favorites was a career flight attendant for Delta, making the Atlanta-Dublin run every week for many years. My cousin fell in love with Ireland, considered it a second home, and maintains friendships there still. She almost pleaded with me once-- “don’t we have any Irish blood in us?” My answer was "well, yes, but..."

The story, of course, is in the “but.” We actually do have Gaelic blood, through a wonderfully wild and eccentric and slightly rough-around-the-edges Irish clan--the Gollihars (which is just the phonetic back-country spelling of Gallagher.) My dad and his brothers were pretty wild themselves when they were young. In exasperation, my long-suffering grandparents would sometimes scold them in a usually futile attempt to shame them into better behavior. The miscreants would be told that they were "acting just like little Gollihars.” It was not a compliment. My grandad's two sisters were the sweetest women one could hope for--and they were, in fact, the absolute salvation of my family after my grandmother’s death. They were proper Presbyterian ladies of the Edwardian era--prim, polite, and truth be told, a bit proud. My grandad would tease them, and one of the subjects he knew would get under their skin was to start talking about their grandmother's family, the notorious Gollihars. My aunt remembers her aunts getting embarrassed and saying, "Brother! hush!" Aunt Willabelle's daughter thought she would also try that line of teasing with her mother. She told me once that that was the only time her mother ever slapped her. In my great aunts' world view, you just did not talk about the Gollihars in polite society.

The first of my line of whom we have any real record was a Patrick Gollihar (sometimes Gallagher), appearing at Harrodsburg, on the Kentucky frontier in the mid 1780s. His wife's name is unknown, but we do know that she was Choctaw. There is no proof, of course, other than my grandfather’s word. But in every generation since, there have been descendants who look like they were part native American, even down to my dad's generation. The Indian blood was never the problem, however. The Irish Gollihar strain
was another matter, apparently.

Patrick’s son, Charles Gollihar, established himself in the Arkansas territory by the early 1820s. He fathered a few children by his first wife, and upon her death, married Margaret, the daughter of an old German Dunkard neighbor. Charles and Margaret had 8 or 9 children of their own. Gollihar made his living by operating a tavern out in the countryside, in a community with the misnomer of "Harmony." It seems the establishment did not have a good reputation (though in fairness, I do not imagine this was unusual for taverns of that day and place.) Some cynics noted that well-healed travelers who stopped at the inn had a way of turning up dead. In fact, at the time of his daughter Jane’s marriage to my great-great granddad John Cowan, Charles Gollihar was in jail in Arkadelphia awaiting trial for murder. I do not know how the trial was resolved, other than that Charles Gollihar was eventually released. It seems, however, that the authorities in Clark County thought it advantageous that he remove himself elsewhere. Charles and Margaret and most of their children moved to Texas in the mid 1850s. John and Jane, along with his sister Martha who had married Jane’s brother Drew Gollihar, followed the Cowan family to the Fort Smith area instead.

The Gollihars were hard to pin down once they arrived in Texas. Mention of them is found here and there throughout the Hill Country of central Texas, while others appear on the Texas Gulf Coast, in the general area of Corpus Christi. The Civil War (I am one Southerner who refuses to play the silly word game of saying “War Between the States”) disrupted the life of this family, as it did for most. Three brothers in Texas—Crittenden, Grandison and Charles, Jr.—were drafted into the Confederate Army, while Drew and brother-in-law John Cowan were drafted into the Confederate Army in Arkansas. Significantly, none of them enlisted. Only Gran seems to have taken it all seriously. He became ill and died in camp in 1864. All the others deserted early on. The Cowans were straight-out Unionists, and were persecuted for their stance during the war years. John’s younger brother and brother-in-law fought for the Union, while he went home on Christmas leave in 1862, loaded up the family and slipped across the line into the Indian Territory, and then on to Texas, where they laid low for the remainder of the conflict. The Gollihars gave no evidence of being so principled, but seemed to take a dim view of the Confederacy, nonetheless. Drew deserted and hid out in the Indian Territory. Crit and Charlie deserted and hid out with others in the brush country in Victoria County along the Texas Gulf Coast. Uncle Crit was a giant of a man, and was the leader of the gang of deserters. Their main concern was avoiding the vigilante Rebs (or “Heel Flys”) who took control in many Texas counties. Other than that, it does not seem that they were up to much good. In the revealing and little-known memoir, “Heel Fly Time in Texas,” one of the more humorous incidents was when these county men raided Uncle Crit’s farm, stealing all of Aunt Frances’ chickens.

The post-war years did not signal better times for the Texas Gollihars. Uncle Crit was killed in a gunfight in 1866. In 1867, his older half-brother, Uncle William, was hanged for horse theft. Also during this time, 70-year old Charles Gollihar who had evaded the hangman's noose back in Arkansas, was not able to avoid a Comanche's arrow on Wolf Creek in Burnet County in the Texas Hill Country. He managed to escape, but died shortly after making it home.

John and Jane Gollihar Cowan lived on 200 acres on Cowan Mountain in southern Bell County. He worked as a teamster and she was the community midwife. The remaining siblings were scattered. Aunt Laura Snider lived in San Antonio. Aunt Mauguerite Nichols lived in Copperas Cove, and if her tombstone is any indication, did well in this life. Uncle Charlie lived out his life down in Corpus Christi.

The Gollihars were no doubt Catholic upon their arrival in America. Catholicism would have been hard to maintain on the Kentucky, Arkansas and Texas frontiers, however, and it seemingly slipped away in most of the family. My family emigrated before Catholicism became so heavily tied to Irish nationalism. But nevertheless, once Uncle Charlie and Uncle Gran moved to Corpus Christi, you might say that they reverted to type. There must have been some nascient Catholicism within the family during those frontier years. Uncle Gran never married and his grave is one of the oldest in Holy Cross Cemetery, the historic Catholic burial ground. Uncle Charlie is there too, along with his large family. He lived on until 1939, dying at age 96. His buckboard was a common sight on Corpus Christi streets long after automobiles had become the norm. His family were tradesmen and shopowners in the city, well known but never exactly prominent. Today they are considered the oldest Anglo-Catholic family in Corpus Christi. One of the major streets is named after them, as is a park.

In my dad’s youth, he remembered the occasional visit of a Tobe Gollihar, a kinsman who was described as “simple-minded,” in the old terminology. The old man would just show up and hang around the various family farmsteads, with no apparent inclination to ever return home. My dad recalls that once his great-uncle George gave Tobe a new pocket knife if he would return home. And so, Uncle George put Tobe on the train home. My dad conflated this story with the story of the uncle in Corpus Christi and thought they were the same man. It took me a while to untangle this, but Tobe, it turns out, was the son of Uncle Will the horse thief.

About 4 years ago, I paid a hurried visit to Corpus Christi, and met with a few of my distant kin there. My contact in the family was Sister Patrice, principal of Incarnate Word Academy. She wanted me to meet her two surviving aunts (both since deceased), as well as their cousin, Miss Margaret. Uncle Charlie’s oldest son was also named Charles. He never married, but late in life had something of a common-law arrangement with a much younger Mexican lady. Two years prior to his death, she gave birth to their child, Margaret. The daughter never married, and at that I met her she was 80 years old. She was a quiet and dignified Mexican matron. She brought a grocery sack with her, and before our visit was over, pulled out two carefully-wrapped large fragile portraits—one of her grandfather (my uncle Charles,) and another of her grandmother (my Aunt Martha.) They were her treasures.

So that is the story of my Irish family on this St. Patrick's Day. And my great-aunts were wrong. I am glad to claim them, rough edges and all.


John said...

That is interesting. I spent a couple of days in Corpus Christi in 1996. I have a friend in Austin who went to Incarnate Word University. I wonder if that is connected with the Academy.

Bill M said...

Fascinating and delightful read... though perhaps "delightful" isn't quite the right word. Your post opens a window into a certain time in history, with a glimpse at a family full of characters. It reminds me that life in history and family is long and complex, inter-tangled with motivations both good and bad.

My Aunt has been on a quest lately to track down her family history (my Dad's side), and has discovered some interesting things along the way, including a great-great Aunt that died at age 18 of "over-studying" (according to the obit). Now, I wonder if that's a euphemism for something.

Ian Climacus said...

I was going to write an intriguing, captivating and delightful read -- but as Bill wrote 'delightful' may not be the best word. As always, you writing is so engaging, and shows a wonderful family history. Thank you for sharing.