Megan Smolenyak, the roots detective, takes a look at Jimmy Fallon’s Irish side.
Not yet forty, Jimmy Fallon already has an impressive history to look back on. Between “Saturday Night Live” and hosting “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” he’s logged more than a decade on air, and is now primed for his take over of “The Tonight Show.” Not bad for a Brooklyn-born, Saugerties-raised kid who launched his career at the Bananas Comedy Club in Poughkeepsie.
Husband to Nancy Juvonen and proud daddy of Winnie Rose (who debuted on Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr when only days old last July), he’s a third generation James Fallon whose entire family tree was firmly planted in Brooklyn until his parents moved their branch about a hundred miles to the north. In the shadow of the Catskills, Jimmy and his sister Gloria enjoyed an all-American childhood complete with pets, visits with Santa, Catholic school, lots of snowman building, trips to Lake George, proms, and grandparents (who also made the out-of-the-city trek) essentially in their backyard.
Perhaps his name and the proximity of his grandparents help explain why Jimmy self-identifies as Irish. Fans are frequently treated to light-hearted references to his heritage, such as this remark that’s familiar territory for many: “I try to get tan, but I’m Irish so I burn bright red – lobster red. But then it becomes a nice cinnamon toast color.”
But just how Irish is this affable guy-next-door who comes into our homes on a nightly basis? As a professional genealogist who’s peered into the Irish past of everyone from Joe Biden to Beyoncé, I decided to take a closer look.
Jimmy, it turns out, is predominantly but not entirely Irish. To create a Jimmy Fallon, take five parts Irish and combine with two parts German and one part Norwegian. Make sure the five-eighths Irish portion is loaded with names like Daly, Devaney, Driscoll, Feeley, Graham, Kenny, Monahan, O’Brien, O’Neill, and Riordan, and add a gentle multicultural twist by sprinkling in a couple of Irish immigrant ancestors born in France and Spain. For good measure, start the distillation process in the counties of Cork, Galway, Leitrim, and Longford. Letting this concoction breathe for anywhere from 51 to 133 years after arrival in America yields one talented host and comedian that pairs well with a house band called The Roots.
Starting with the Stickevers
Since even Jimmy’s Irish roots are quite diverse, exploring a chunk at a time will make his ancestry easier to follow, and his only American-born great-grandparents, William and Mary Fallon, provide a logical place to dive in. Departing the old country in sporadic bursts between 1841 and 1883, William and Mary’s parents and grandparents were the first of Jimmy’s ancestors to make their way to the United States.
Launching the immigrant parade were William Fallon’s grandparents, Henry and Mary (née O’Brien) Stickevers, who alighted with an infant son on July 17, 1841. They initially settled in Jersey City adding a second son to the household before moving to Brooklyn later in the 1840s and having two more children. Henry was naturalized in 1848 making him Jimmy’s first American ancestor. Despite being born in France, his naturalization record shows him renouncing his allegiance to the “Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.” Stickevers is an unusual name in Ireland, but indications are that they were probably from County Galway.
The Stickevers sons followed in their father’s occupational footsteps and became blacksmiths, but life would not be easy for their youngest child and only daughter, Louisa, a future great-great-grandmother of Jimmy’s. Born around 1851, she lost her father to a pulmonary hemorrhage in December 1861 and her mother to consumption in October 1863. In between, a paternal uncle who would have been a likely surrogate father was killed on June 14, 1863 in Port Hudson, Louisiana fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Not long after this, the brother closest to Louisa in age also died, but she at least had the safety net of two remaining older brothers to shelter her until her wedding to Thomas Fallon in 1878.
Enter the Fallons
Thomas Fallon had journeyed from County Galway in the early 1870s, and shortly after marrying her, swept Louisa off to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where she had their first child – a daughter named Maria who died when only four months old – in 1879. Two more children followed before the young family moved back to Brooklyn in the mid-1880s, and another two after. The baby of the brood, William, was Jimmy’s great-grandfather in the making.
Thomas worked all his life as a laborer, mostly as a handler in a lumber yard, and the fact that things were tight is evidenced by the family’s plot in Holy Cross Cemetery. Even though Louisa lived until 1908 and Thomas until 1924, there is no headstone for them.
In 1914, the youngest Fallon son, William, married Mary Ann Monahan, the oldest child of immigrants James P. and Martha (née Worth) Monahan who had both arrived in America in the early 1880s before marrying several years later. Though of Irish stock, Martha Worth had something in common with Henry Stickevers in that she was also born outside of Ireland – in her case, in Spain. James supported Martha and the seven Monahan children in classic Brooklyn occupations, working initially as a fireman and later as a ferry engineer.
William and Mary Ann Fallon had at least nine children, six of whom survived to adulthood. Hints of the origins of Jimmy’s playful and occasionally mischievous humor can be seen in a poem his great-aunt Geneve wrote about her brother, Joseph. I wonder how Joe felt when “My Little Brother” appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle?
My little brother who is only eight years old,
Never does what he is told.
I believe he’s very bold.
For my mother has to scold
Because he never does what he is told!
There’s no mention in the poem of Jimmy’s future grandfather, Geneve’s then thirteen-year-old brother, James, but he may have provoked a different kind of reaction in the family when he tied the knot with a German immigrant the following decade. Though his choice of bride may have surprised his parents, his older sisters (including two who married brothers) were the first to break the tradition of marrying fellow Irish, so in all likelihood, Luise Schalla was welcomed into the family without much fuss or comment.
Sturm und Drang for the Schallas
It’s almost an exaggeration to refer to Luise (who later went by Louise) as an immigrant, but she and her twin sister were born in Osterholz-Scharmbeck and crossed the Atlantic when just over a year old. Curiously, the girls’ parents had emigrated about two decades earlier, but opted to go back to Germany for the birth of their daughters. Once they returned to New York, however, they swiftly petitioned to become American citizens, and by 1928, had ensconced themselves at 466 47th Street in Brooklyn, a house that remained in the family until 1996.
James Fallon obviously got along with his Schalla in-laws – well enough that he moved in with them upon taking Louise as his wife – but sadly, this cozy arrangement didn’t last long. Louise’s father had asthma, prompting him to construct a makeshift apartment in the basement because he could breathe more easily there. In a tragedy that’s difficult to fathom today, Louise rose one morning to get a bottle for her nine-month-old firstborn, only to detect the smell of gas. She dashed downstairs to her parents’ subterranean abode, where she discovered what was later starkly spelled out on their matching death certificates: “found on bed in cellar of home, having been overcome by illuminating gas from open gas jet on range.”
I often say that our ancestors make those of us living today look like wimps by comparison, and the strength of Jimmy’s grandparents illustrates just this. In spite of this devastating shock, the fledgling family soldiered on, with the birth of Jimmy’s dad shortly after the first anniversary of the calamity marking a turning point for the better.
You Say Feeley,
I Say Feehily
James Jr. would eventually go on to marry Gloria Feeley, the granddaughter of one Norwegian and three Irish transplants. Her paternal grandfather, Thomas Feehily, disembarked in New York on September 5, 1903 with the original version of his name intact, but must have tired of correcting others’ spelling because he adopted the simpler “Feeley” by the time of his 1910 wedding to Mary Jane O’Neill. Embarking upon married life as an ice cream maker in a factory, he shifted gears in almost a literal sense and spent most of his life working as a motorman for Brooklyn Rapid Transit and its successor, Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit.
Thomas was from Drumlish in County Longford, and thanks to the invaluable online posting of the 1901 census by the National Archives of Ireland, it’s possible to spy Thomas with his parents and siblings a couple of years before he crossed the pond. Similarly, the Irish Family History Foundation makes short work of locating the 1863 marriage of his parents, Thomas Feehily and Mary Kenny.
Thomas Jr.’s bride, Mary Jane O’Neill, came from the same neck of the woods. Originally from Killoe, County Longford, her family moved to nearby Corriga, County Leitrim in the 1890s. The 1901 census record shows Mary Jane with her parents, three brothers and two sisters just three years before her emigration and divulges that her father, Bernard, was retired from the Royal Irish Constabulary.
While Gloria Feeley’s paternal grandfather was named Thomas Feehily, her maternal grandfather sported the decidedly un-Irish-sounding name of Hans Hovelsen. A relatively late arrival who found his way from Fredrikstad, Norway to New York in 1910, he was the second husband of Mary Frances “May” Driscoll.
May was born in Kinsale, County Cork in 1881 to Joseph and Margaret (Daly) Driscoll. Thanks yet again – this time to the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht for its Irish Genealogy website that houses digitized church record images – the 1880 marriage of Joseph and Margaret can be found online.
Not long after May’s birth, Joseph took off for America which helps explain why there’s a roughly nine year age gap between May and her closest sibling. Once the family was reunited in Brooklyn, her parents made up for lost time adding five more children in the 1890s. There might have been even more if Joseph, a ship rigger, hadn’t passed away in 1901, leaving Margaret widowed with a handful of children between the ages of six and nineteen.
The Driscolls apparently managed better than many, as can be seen from their memorial at Holy Cross Cemetery, a marked contrast to the total absence of a Fallon headstone in the same cemetery. It’s sweet to note that even an infant brother is included in the inscription, which also reveals that another of May’s brothers died in service during World War I.
May Driscoll married a steamer steward named William Shaw in 1908 and had a trio of sons. In an unfortunate repetition of history, she – like her mother – was widowed around the age of forty. Perhaps it was through her sister who had married a Norwegian that she met Hans Hovelsen, a Norwegian longshoreman she took as her second husband in 1920. May and Hans had a pair of daughters, and it was her youngest, Gloria Rose, who would become Jimmy’s grandmother.
A Rose Is Still a Rose
In one of those countless twists of fate that have a ripple effect down through the generations, had May not been widowed, Jimmy’s grandmother would never have been born and he would not exist. How fitting, then, that his daughter, Winnie Rose, shares her middle name with this near-miss ancestor, a subtle but enduring family heirloom.
P.S. Jimmy, after you’ve read this article, hang on to it. Winnie’s bound to come home with a family tree homework assignment one day and will appreciate the easy A.
Note: The photo below and many other personal family photos can be found at a blog written by Jimmy’s sister, Gloria: http://www.latenightwithjimmyfallon.com/blogs/growing-up-fallon/.