American legend Gene Kelly was one of the major stars of the golden age of Hollywood.
In 1999, the multi-talented actor, singer, dancer, choreographer, director and producer was named the 15th greatest male screen legend of all time by the American Film Institute.
What many people don’t realise is that the American icon was also an Irish citizen – perhaps that’s why ‘Singing in the Rain’ came so naturally to him.
His widow Patricia Ward Kelly said: “He was very proud of being Irish and I think he felt a real identity with Ireland. At one point he said to me that he really felt his Irish roots were at the core of his being.
“I remember the day that the Irish passport arrived and the new certificate was in Gaelic and he was just tickled, he was like a little kid with it.”
The star was born Eugene Curran Kelly in 1912 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. His father was from an Irish Canadian family and his mother’s roots were German – although her father was from Derry.
Kelly was an Irish-American but it wasn’t until late in his life that he actually became an Irish citizen, through his ancestry.
Although he qualified for dual citizenship as his grandfather was Irish, it wasn’t easy as his mother had tried to erase memory the Irish heritage from the family line – preferring to think of herself as German.
His father, on the other hand, was proud of his Irish roots- a feeling shared by Gene. As a child, Gene would sit on his father’s lap as they sang Gaelic songs together.
Gene once said: “The Irishness in me certainly didn’t come from my mother. It came from my father and the joy he had in being Irish.”
His mother’s lack of affection for her Irish heritage led to a lot of frustration for Gene as he was unable to give a certain answer to the question of which Irish county his ancestors came from.
Thanks to his third wife Patricia, he was finally able to make a breakthrough.
She told the Irish Independent: “Eventually, we were able to establish the necessary connection using a copy of a Pennsylvania census from 1900, stating that Gene’s maternal grandfather, William Curran (incorrectly listed as ‘Curn’), had been born in Ireland in May 1852 and that both of his parents had been born in Ireland as well.”
William’s profession was listed as ‘Saloonkeeper’. Patricia believes this may have been why Gene’s mother was keen to hide her Irish heritage.
The Irish were often smeared in America as being drunks. Being descended from a Saloonkeeper would have provided an association with that image for anybody who wanted to indulge in such a prejudice.
However, Gene’s Irish heritage had always fascinated him. He wondered how such a small country could produce so many talented writers.
Patricia said: “When his burgundy-covered Irish passport finally arrived, with EIRE stamped in gold on the front, along with his foreign birth certificate printed in Gaelic and English, Gene was deeply proud. We had, at last, formally connected him to his Irish past.
“In my near-daily recording of Gene’s words over our decade together, I came to realise that Ireland, for Gene, was much more than genealogy. It was the core of his being.”
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