My family raised me to believe I was Irish. My grandmother taught us to root for Notre Dame, we listened to Bing Crosby, and we knew all the words to “The Unicorn Song.”
Keller is my maiden name, and my father insists the name derives from the Irish “Kelleher.” This plus my great-grandmother’s Fitzgerald surname should have dispelled any question about our lineage—never mind that there’s not a red hair nor a green eye among us.
My Wild Irish Name
But Keller as a surname is German. In fact, it is among the top fifty most common German surnames. It is an occupational surname for one who maintains the cellar or pantry in a castle or monastery. Kellers are greatly respected and trusted, the same way you trust someone to watch your cookies if you have to use the rest room. I can vouch for the fact that you can trust most members of the Keller family with your cookies, so to speak. Thus, it seems logical that we are Teutonic, not Gaelic.
The second most common place of origin for the Kellers is Switzerland. I’m pretty sure we didn’t come from Switzerland, though. Few of us like to ski. And, although most Kellers love chocolate, well–who doesn’t?
Of course, as with most surnames, you can find variations from all over Europe. The Old English form of Keller, Kellere, was the name of executioners in the day. You don’t hear my family bragging about that, do you?
The Scandinavian form of Keller is Kvalheim, which means “unexplained.” Actually, “unexplained” is what most of the websites said when I searched for the meaning of Kvalheim. There is also no evidence that the Kvalheims of Scandinavia are related to the Kellers of Hagerstown. But, begorrah, “unexplained” does not rule out that possibility.
And then there is the variation of which my father is most fond: O’Ceileachair of Gaelic origin. This word is a personal name, which means “a dear companion.” I rather like this etymology and can see why a family would adopt it and the nationality that accompanies it.
So, without knowing us, one would have no way of judging whether my Kellers are more likely to be dear companions, pantry guards, or assassins. And I am keeping my lips sealed on the matter.
The Town I Loved So Well
Hagerstown, Maryland, my hometown, has an ancestry that is 11% Irish, but more than 22% German. This is shocking, since, as my father would like to think, the town’s founder Jonathan O’Hager sailed straight from Dublin with more than 300 Irishmen, their children, and their wives, each of whom was pregnant with twins. And there wasn’t a Kelleher among them, more’s the miracle.
Our city celebrates its German heritage with an Octoberfest in August. The city also boasts its own authentic German restaurant, the Schmankrel Stube, which is German for “We get more Irish the farther we get from Ireland.” So Hagerstown isn’t all that Irish. But you can get a really cool tattoo of a Celtic cross in the colors of the Irish flag in a little shop on North Potomac Street.
A Tipperary Christening
When I was young, every March my parents threw a St. Paddy’s Day party. Uncles, aunts, and older cousins crammed into our basement carrying shillelaghs and affecting brogues that confused Irish with some Australian aboriginal tongue. My Aunt Jean wore a “Kiss me, I’m Irish!” pin and called herself “Sean.” After enough corned beef and Guinness, everyone would sing “Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder.” This quickly deteriorated into a weeping dirge for the poor widow whose last meal was ruined by some malicious laundress.
I felt sorry for my family, clinging to an uncertain past, denying the truth. Eventually one bored uncle confirmed my suspicions when he subscribed to an ancestry website and learned that we are actually more Cherokee than Irish.
“You know, Aunt Sean,” I ventured one year. “We’re not really Irish. Maybe just a tiny fraction, but we’re mostly German and –.”
That’s all I remember about that conversation. I regained consciousness on Good Friday with a shillelagh-shaped knot on my forehead.
And that’s enough to make yer ole Aunt Maggie spit out her shandy!