Kiss Me, My Name is O'Hufstader

I know, I know, everyone's Irish on St. Patrick's Day. But despite my mysteriously Teutonic surname, my family tree is firmly planted in the soil of Eire and some day I hope to see my cousins there.

What's in a name? Not always something you can recognize at a glance.

You'd never know it from my surname, for instance, but I'm a proud Irish-American with a family tree that goes back to the year 971, when Conchobhair was King of Connacht—one of more than 100 Irish kings in our lineage, including two High Kings.

Anglicized over the centuries, the family name eventually settled out as O'Conor; and about 830 years after Conchobhair's reign, as my Dad tells it, our branch of the O'Conors decided to relocate to America after the patriarch was beaten to death with his own walking stick by a trespassing tinker.

The American side

I think it is safe to say the family lost no time in assimilating to its new country: The first O'Conor male born in America—Charles (1804-1884)—was nominated as a candidate for United States president in 1872.

It's an odd footnote to election history, one I'd learned as a kid and recently confirmed through online research.

An attorney, known for his staunch support of states' rights, who had represented Jefferson Davis at his treason trial, Charles O'Conor was nominated by breakaway Democrats who refused to support the party's nominee, Horace Greeley, against Republican incumbent and Civil War icon Ulysses S. Grant.

These "Bourbon Democrats," also known as "Straight Up Democrats," who supported O'Conor appear to have been as delusional as they were insubordinate: An Irish-American and Roman Catholic with evident Confederate sympathies did not have the slightest chance of beating Grant.

He declined the nomination, though more than 20,000 presumably disgruntled people still voted for him. Later on, history records, he took vigorous part in prosecuting New York's infamous Tweed Gang before retiring to Nantucket Island.

The Irish side

On the other side of the sea, my Irish cousin Piers now lives in Clonalis House, the mansion his branch of the family built in 1878, which he and his wife open to guests in the tourist season.

I haven't yet visited Clonalis House, but my father, sisters and nephews have, and I can only imagine the sensation when they first arrived.

Photos on the Clonalis website show a gate bearing an image familiar to us kids from Dad's gold signet ring and the occasional piece of engraved, inherited dinnerware: the O'Conor family crest, a mailed arm upraised with a short sword or dagger in its gauntleted fist, with a crown beneath it.

One of my sisters remarked on something else that was familiar: Many of the portraits hanging on the walls of Clonalis featured faces with long, thin noses—just like the ones she sees every time she looks at Dad, me and our other sister.

So while you might assume from my surname (which comes from my grandfather, composer and conductor Robert Hufstader) that I have a German cultural identity, nothing could be further from the truth.

Just fly me to Ireland, and I'll prove it.

The melting pot

Beyond the immediate family, we knew almost nothing about other Hufstaders until the internet era revealed they're all over the place.

Though I'm no motorhead, I would love to be able to claim a family connection with the famous Corvette designer Gibson "Gib" Hufstader; but who knows how we might be related?

Same with Ron Hufstader, a symphony conductor in El Paso, Texas. How could we not be part of the same extended family? Yet when I contacted him on Facebook, he'd never heard of my grandfather, whose peer group included Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem and who ended his days as director of the pre-college program at Juilliard.

It was spooky at first, but I'm getting used to discovering strange Hufstaders. Some even become online friends, like my younger non-cousin Byron Hufstader in Los Angeles.

But don't ask me if I like German beer just because of my last name: I don't care for it at all, any more than I do for green beer.

In fact, I don't mark St. Patrick's Day at all, because being a proud Irish-American isn't a one-day affair for me.

After all: What day of the year shouldn't I celebrate living in a country where the first native son of my immigrant ancestors could be nominated for president—even if he didn't want to run? 

Tot Balay March 18, 2012 at 06:16 PM
Awesome. Slainte!
Ann Trinca March 19, 2012 at 04:25 PM
Great article! I enjoyed looking into the past with you.
Louisa Hufstader March 19, 2012 at 04:49 PM
Thank you, Tot and Ann! I wish I could have shown a picture of the family tree itself, with some of the great old names like "Art the Solitary" and "Rory of the White Stag." But having just discovered Pinterest (!!) I created a pinboard of photos from the Clonalis website: http://pinterest.com/louisahufstader/clonalis-house/
Louisa Hufstader October 15, 2012 at 04:21 AM
I AM related to Corvette Hall of Famer Gib Hufstader! A long-lost cousin has just surfaced with the whole scoop!


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »