Duck of the Irish

The stories surrounding my family’s proud — but silly — surname.

Many, many years ago, my dear uncle Patrick Duck was skipping across his schoolyard in his boyhood hometown just outside Washington, D.C.

“Pat Duck!” someone called from across the playground.

My young uncle turned around … and a big red playground ball smacked him square in the face.

It is perhaps unsurprising that, with a name like “Duck,” stories such as this are common in my family.

Patrick told me this story years ago, and I have absolutely no doubt that it didn’t really happen. But I never tire of retelling it — not only because it embraces the silliness of my surname, but because it links me with the proud tradition of Irish storytellers who have bequeathed that name to me.

I’m descended from a butcher named John Duck, who — with his brother Martin — left his town of Athlone, Ireland, in the 1860s and wound his way to Toledo. And though the name sounds like it might have been the result of a sloppy, cruel, or prank-inclined American immigration official, my forefather did indeed bring the proud Duck name all the way from Ireland.

My father, a skilled amateur genealogist and no slouch as a storyteller himself, has tracked down our distant Duck cousins in our ancestral homeland. Some of them still live in Athlone and, naturally, still tell stories about why John and Martin departed.

The family lore says that John and Martin were heroes, of sorts — that they were part of the revolutionary movement struggling to free Ireland from English rule. Their home happened to be across the street from the barracks of (English-controlled) police, so naturally the family believed the government had them under surveillance. The story says that, before they left the country (maybe fleeing to avoid capture?), they cemented their guns inside the walls of their home.

The family never found those guns. It’s possible they’re just as real as my Uncle Patrick’s playground ball. But maybe that’s real enough.

On a trip to Ireland a few years back, I managed to visit Athlone — meeting my distant cousins and searching out the butcher shop where my forefather plied his trade and maybe helped foment a revolution. I didn’t find any guns, either. But I did bring back this story from my distant cousin Eamonn, which remains one of my favorite souvenirs of the trip:

Eamonn was strolling down a path through the countryside one day when an old and frail widow spied him and called to him. Being polite, he asked how he could assist her.

“Eamonn, my boy,” she told him, “I’m terribly sick. Ye must promise to help me.”

When he eagerly agreed, she continued: “Eamonn, ye must fetch me some poitín.”

He was shocked by the request. Potín (Eamonn pronounced it “puh-CHEEN”) is an exceptionally potent Irish moonshine — illegal for much of the country’s history. Some recipes reach upwards of 180 proof, with pungent vapors that smell like mineral oil.

“Ye heard me correctly,” the widow insisted. “Please, Eamonn, fetch me the potín.”

Eamonn walked away, troubled. The widow, already frail and sick, might die if she tried to drink something so strong. But he had given his word, and she had insisted. He returned in a few hours with a jug of the moonshine.

A week later, Eamonn passed by her house again. He was shocked to see her standing outside, appearing for all the world more hale and healthy than she had been the week before.

“Eamonn, my boy,” she called out to him. “Thank ye kindly for the potín, but I’ve used it all up. Would ye please fetch me some more?”

Eamonn could scarcely believe his ears. She had already used the entire jug? And not only hadn’t it killed her, but she wanted more? Despite his worries, Eamonn fetched her another jug and wished her well.

Yet another week passed. Eamonn again found himself near her house but could scarcely bring himself to approach it, fearing what might have happened to the old woman. But again he passed by, and again the widow — looking stronger than ever before — again called out to him.

“Thank ye kindly for the potín, Eamonn,” she said. “Would ye please fetch me some more?”

Eamonn could no longer contain his curiosity. How could she possibly have drank so much potín in her condition?

“Drank it?” she laughed. “I rub it on me chest to clear me head!”

Despite all of our stories and research, the origin of the Duck name remains a mystery. Perhaps a Frenchman by the name of Duc found himself in Athlone and anglicized his name, or perhaps it was an actual duke. Maybe an Irishman saddled with the English surname of Duckett changed it out of solidarity with his Celtic countrymen — or, more likely, perhaps an Irishman with a more Gaelic-sounding name changed it so that he might appear more British and escape persecution from a cruel English official.

I swear that I once found a book in a musty Celtic specialty store — I think it was in Annapolis, MD — reported that the name Duck came to be because the Gaelic word for “duck” was one letter off from a common Gaelic surname. No members of my family have ever found that book since.

But our favorite story about our name’s origin is the one my grandfather told. Grandpaduck, as my cousins and I knew him, was already beginning to fade by the time I was old enough to know him — but he lives on as a lively presence in the stories my father recounts from his childhood. I can easily envision Grandpaduck telling this story over and over again; my father learned it from him, I learned it from my father, and someday my sons will learn it from me. Each generation adds, subtracts and embellishes, but the heart of the story remains.

Here’s the version of the story I like to tell:

Once in the town of Athlone, there were three butchers — each with the name of John Duckett. This caused no end of confusion in the town, as visitors asking for “John Duckett of Athlone, the butcher” never could be certain which one they would end up meeting.

After years of confusion, the three John Ducketts decided to resolve their problem in good Irish fashion: They retired to the local pub to find a solution over a few pints.

After several rounds, the tallest of the three John Ducketts stood up.

“I have meself an idea,” he declared. “Since I be the tallest of the three, I’ll be ‘John Duckett the Long’!”

“Here here! We’ll drink to that!” answered the others.

After a few more rounds, the shortest rose — a bit unsteadily — to his feet.

“I have meself an idea!” he declared. “Since I be the shortest of the three, I’ll be ‘John Duckett the Short’!”

“Here here! We’ll drink to that!” the others answered, and so they continued.

Finally, the third John Duckett staggered from his chair.

“Now I have meself an idea!” he declared. “Since I be a butcher by trade, I’ll chop the end off me name. I’ll be ‘John Duck’!”

And I’m sure that’s exactly how it happened.

Article © 2009 by Michael Duck