Missing my Irish ancestors

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Piglet! My Irish surname means piglet!

Like millions of Americans, I’ve been poking into my heritage using ancestry sites, such as FamilySearch.com.

That’s how I learned that “Purcell” is an occupational name of Norman origin for “swineherd.”

My name derives from the Norman-French word “pourcel,” which comes from the Latin word “porus,” which means piglet!

I always thought my heritage was mostly Irish and German, but I’ve just learned I’m part British, French and Scandinavian?

OK. Now I understand why I love jokes that begin like this: “An Englishman, a Frenchman and a Scandinavian walk into a bar…”

Until I started my research, all I knew about my heritage was that my great grandfather, Thomas James Purcell, came over from Ireland in about 1885.

He got a laborer job in the steel mills and met his bride, Jane Shappey, at a saloon near the mills that her family ran.

Jane’s family had also immigrated to Pittsburgh around the 1880s. They came from Alsace-Lorraine when she was a child, and the Shappeys proudly considered themselves French, not German.

Jane and Thomas’s union produced eight children, seven daughters and one son, my grandfather, also named Thomas James Purcell.

Jane suffered much grief in her 79 years. She lost three daughters, one as a child and two in their 20s, a young grandson and her husband.

She also lost her only son, my grandfather, who died from strep throat in 1937 when she was 65 and he was only 33.

Despite the significant losses, Jane — better known as “Grandma Purcell” — was a live wire and her house was always full of laughter.

During the Great Depression, several adult family members and their children lived together in her big house on Orchlee Street.

They made their own hooch in a bathtub distillery, and her grandchildren would tell me years later how they played for hours in the large fruit cellar in the basement.

I never got to meet Grandma Jane Purcell or any of her children, with the exception of her last surviving daughter, Helen, who doted on me when I was a boy, because I must have reminded her of her little brother, my grandfather.

Helen had two sons, Jack and Tom, who threw magnificent family parties over the years — Christmas gatherings, graduation parties, family reunions, weddings and other events.

It was there I got to mingle with my large extended clan, each of us owing our very existence to our immigrant ancestors, Thomas and Jane.

What a mix of salt of the earth characters and excellent citizens, neighbors and family caretakers did Thomas and Jane produce!

All of their wonderful children and grandchildren are gone now, with the exception of Judy, the daughter of Thomas and Jane’s youngest daughter, Eugenia.

I get wistful every year around St. Patrick’s Day, as I miss so many beloved family members who have departed.

I get especially wistful about the love story of my dad, also named Thomas James Purcell, and his bride, Elizabeth, who had five daughters and one son, yet another Thomas James Purcell (that would be me!) — as well as 17 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren and counting.

My mother is the current holder of the “Grandma Purcell” title and her house has long been a place of incredible laughter and joy for the wonderful cast of characters she and my father produced.

Her reign, too, will one day pass, but I’m filled with joy to know that younger generations will pick up her mantel.

That means only one thing will agitate me as I muse about my heritage every year: My surname means piglet!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Copyright 2024 Tom Purcell, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Purcell, creator of the infotainment site ThurbersTail.com, which features pet advice he’s learning from his beloved Labrador, Thurber, is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist. Email him at [email protected].

Find Tom Purcell’s syndicated column, humor books and funny videos of his dog, Thurber, at TomPurcell.com. Email him at [email protected].