Andy Warhol was the one who first said that we’ll all get 15 minutes of fame. It’s probably true. I got mine about 9 years ago because of the conjunction of the present U.S. Secretary of State and a Derry clergyman who died nearly 300 years ago.
Back in 2004, the presidential campaign was in full swing pitting President George W. Bush against Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry. A lot of people back then were surprised to discover that Kerry was not Irish but his family’s name was Kohn and was changed when his grandparents emigrated from Hungary. In June 2004, I got a call from my good buddy and fellow historian Andrew Bell in Californian. He’d just found a genealogical connection between Sen. Kerry and the Rev. James McGregor, the founder of old Nutfield. I thought that was pretty cool and when I checked Brother Bell’s sources I found the undeniable proof that Kerry indeed did have Irish roots! This was a scoop that ever the very smart Sen. Kerry didn’t know.
The records say that John Kerry, through his mother Rosemary Forbes, is the great, great, great, great, great, great grandson of the Rev. James McGregor (1677-1729) from Aghadowey, Northern Ireland. McGregor emigrated here in 1718 with his congregation of 16 families; together they settled the Nutfield grant in 1719. That grant is now the towns of Derry, Londonderry and Windham as well as parts of Salem, Hudson and Manchester. In 1720, they planted the first crop of potatoes in America.
It was a good story and I was glad when the Derry News printed it. The next day the editor told me The Eagle-Tribune was republishing the story on the front page. Wow! Great! Then I got word that it was being picked up by a national news service. In a couple days, the story — and my name — was in hundreds of newspapers from coast to coast.
Within hours, my telephone began to ring. I was being asked for quotes by radio and the print media from all over the country. During that week, I even did an interview with a Dublin, Ireland, radio station that said my story on Kerry and McGregor was well known in his side of the pond. Toward the end of the week I got a call from the nationally broadcast TV show “Crossfire” asking if I’d do an on-air interview. Here was a chance to talk to millions of listeners — on prime-time TV — about Derry’s history. It took me about one second to say “Heavens to Murgatroyd, yes!”
Before my grand appearance, I had to have a young lady put makeup on my face. I suspected that they were afraid the camera’s lights might create a major glare off my bald head. Before I went on, they interviewed Democratic spokesperson Kathy Sullivan. She and Tucker Carlson got into a major battle of words that went on and on and on. Finally, my time came to sit in the chair between Mr. Carlson and Paul Begala. By this time, the on-air, live TV show was almost out of time. I had less than two minutes to talk about Kerry’s Irish roots and the story of McGregor planting the first potato. I did just manage in the last three seconds to squeeze in the tidbit that both Bush and Kerry were distant cousins of astronaut Alan Shepard.
When I got home I found out that my appearance had been noticed. One old friend, whom I’d been trying to find for a year, called me from Florida. Andy Bell called from California to tell me that I looked a lot better now that I was wearing makeup. So far everything was going pretty cool. But then the attacks began! I started to get mean-spirited emails from all over the country. I was made fun of because of the potato story. I apparently made both sides angry by saying Kerry and Bush were distant cousins. Some critics accused me of being a stooge for Kerry and that I was lying in order to get Irish-Americans to vote Democratic. I finally stopped reading my emails to avoid all the nastiness. I had actually neither written nor said anything good or bad about John Kerry. I did however say that “having Derry blood in his veins can’t be a bad thing.” After about a week the angry birds stopped bothering me. My moment of fame had passed. Thank heavens!
I later had a chance to speak briefly to Kerry about Rev. McGregor and he seemed very interested. Unfortunately, his time in Derry had to be brief and he was quickly rushed away by his managers to another campaign rally.
In July, about five months from now, I will be in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland, taking part in their 400th birthday celebration. I’ll be speaking about James McGregor’s importance to American-Northern Irish history. Perhaps Secretary of State Kerry will hear about my gig and show up to hear about his ancestor. Yeah, right! And afterward maybe he’ll buy me a Guinness at Badgers Pub in the beautiful city of Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland.
Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.