Skibbereen family's story immortalised in novels

May 5th, 2016 7:25 AM

By Siobhan Cronin

The author, John McDonnell, standing outside the ruins of his great-grandmother's house near Skibbereen.

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A US writer, whose great grandmother emigrated to Philadelphia in the 1880s, has written a series of novels called Rose Of Skibbereen, based on his family ‘secrets’. 

A US writer, whose great grandmother emigrated to Philadelphia in the 1880s, has written a series of novels called Rose Of Skibbereen, based on his family ‘secrets’. 

John McDonnell, who lives in Doylestown, outside Philadephia in Pennsylvania, is the great grandson of Kate Burchill who left Skibbereen when she was just 18. 

‘She left her parents and a brother and sister, and never saw them again. She died in Philadelphia in 1946 and my mother always wanted to find out about the family in Ireland,’ explained John.

But as his mum was doing her research before the internet arrived, she came up against a brick wall. John had much more success when he started his search years later.

‘When I started researching five years ago, it was easier. I found information about the Burchill family, and I made contact with a distant relative, Maura Cahalane, who offered to show me around if I visited.’

John first came to visit West Cork in 2012, and Maura showed him Kate’s house which today is just a shell, with no roof. ‘It was very emotional for me to see that place,’ he said. ‘There are no direct descendants of my great-grandmother’s family, but there are distant cousins who still live in the area.’ 

His first two novels are based on his great-grandmother’s story, with some of his own additions. ‘The family secret was that my great-grandmother’s husband, who was also from Ireland  – but we don’t know exactly where he came from – disappeared around 1900, and left her with three small children. My mother found out many years later that he’d married someone else and had a second family without getting divorced from my great-grandmother. He was a rather mysterious person who changed his name and his birthdate on various documents, and it’s been hard to research him. I imagined a whole history for him in my books.’ 

After moving to the US, Kate married an Irish immigrant named Peter O’Farrell, and they settled in West Philadelphia. She worked as a servant for a wealthy family, and Peter was a chauffeur. She quit her job when she had her first child, and after her third child was born, Peter left her. He disappeared, although the family found out years later that he was not living too far away. Kate was poor for the rest of her life, but she lived into her 80s, and saw one of her sons – John’s grandfather – become a successful businessman. 

What started out as one book, quickly became six, as John became enthralled by the story of his own family. 

‘I decided to keep the story going, because I enjoyed writing about the family. New characters kept coming along, and I wanted to write about them.’

John has self-published the Rose of Skibbereen books, which are all available on Amazon. ‘Of course, it means you have all the responsibility for promoting and marketing it, but I enjoy that.’

John says he fell in love with West Cork when he visited it in 2012 and hopes to return.

After reading the books, Maura paid him the ultimate tribute by saying they read as if the author had grown up in Skibbereen. ‘That made me proud,’ he told The
Southern Star. 

For more, see which also includes a trailer for his novels.

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