Irish Genealogy: My biological mother

Patricia Monaghan.

I have held off from writing this post out of respect for a request made by the widowed husband of my biological mother. He wanted to make sure he had communicated the fact of my existence to her friends before I went public with the information, so that they would not hear about it from a stranger. Additionally, we mutually requested my adoption records from the agency that handled my adoption, and, as I mentioned in my last post, they came last week, just six pages, just a few forms she had filled out that created the legal mechanism for another family to adopt me. These confirmed what the DNA had already indicated — that she was, indeed, my biological mother.

Her name was Patricia Monaghan, and she passed away two years ago. She has a Wikipedia page and a personal page that is still maintained by her husband. She was a journalist, a poet, and a scholar, and wrote a number of books, including books on Irish mythology, the history of Goddess worship, and imaginative (and frequently very moving) autobiographical writing. I once owned one of her books: “The Encyclopedia of Celtic Myth and Folklore.” She was, at one time, married to author Robert Shea, in a manner of speaking: He was still legally married to his previous wife, but he was dying, and so they had a private wedding that satisfied their desire to be married. She wrote very movingly about his death and referred to herself as his widow. Among other things, Shea cowrote the satiric “The Illuminatus! Trilogy,” which I have also owned.

All of Patricia’s ancestors came from Ireland, including several grandparents, which allowed her to have dual Irish and America citizenship; she was a frequent — and sometimes longtime — visitor to Ireland. She had a large family, and I have mentioned that they have been terrifically welcoming to me. They originally hailed from New York, but her father was a career Air Force man and it brought them to Duluth, Minnesota, and then Fairbanks, Alaska, although Patricia remained on in Minnesota, going to college, and that is where she had me. Her father was a veteran, and highly decorated, but also likely suffered PTSD, and Patricia addressed this subject in some of her writing, including a haunting collection of poems called “Homefront.” She also wrote theater criticism for the University of Minnesota’s Daily newspaper, where I later worked as the arts editor and also wrote theater criticism.

As far as I can tell, I was the product of a summer-long relationship. If the information in my adoption files is accurate (not always the case, but this seems credible), my biological father was an English agricultural engineer working in Alaska. He had worked for the British government on agricultural development, and when he was in Alaska he likely worked for Dr. Robert I. Lewellen for a company called Arctic Research, Inc., which was a partner in doing research for the United States Naval Arctic Research Laboratory in Barrow, Alaska, which was linked to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks; he may also have been connected to the Alaska Agricultural Experiment Station in Sitka. I don’t know what sort of research he might have doing; perhaps something to do with fisheries. I don’t know how they met, although he apparently also had a BA in art and was a published author, so they shared interests. This would have been the summer of 1967. And that’s almost everything I know about him, although it’s a lot more than I knew a few months ago, and I suspect there are very few people who fit this description. Probably only one person.

If you asked me a year ago if I ever wanted to learn who my biological parents are, I would not have had an answer. I was not opposed to knowing, but neither was a seeking the information. I had found out some non-identifying information from the adoption agency, and I was satisfied. I took my first DNA test mostly for the health information it would provide, but I took it knowing it might connect me to my biological family. And because the information I then had indicated that the adoption was the result of circumstance, rather than trauma, I was not afraid of what I might learn. Sometimes it is better not to know why a child was given up for adoption, because the story is tragic or horrifying.

Eight months later after I took the test, it produced a cousin, and she emailed and asked me if I wanted to find out how we were related. I wrote back that I would, and sent her what I knew about my biological parents, and she wrote back and told me I was Patricia’s son. And there is nothing I can say to describe that moment, that instantaneous transition from not knowing to knowing.

I went to Patricia’s Wikipedia page first and read about her, and then read more, ravenously. There are some people who do not have much of a web presence, but Patricia was not among them. There is an enormous amount about her online. Further, there are books — so many books. I have only read a fraction of them just now.

Her family sent me their family tree, and so I did what I do as my day job as a research specialist at a historical society. I organized what I learned, and digitized it, and categorized it, and added to it when I could. My job had taught me to sort through massive amounts of historical information in order to understand it, and I did this. Finding Patricia had not satisfied my curiosity; it ignited it.

I expect I will learn who my biological father was at some time. In fact, that is part of the reason for this post — by making public what I know about him, and connecting my name to Patricia Monaghan’s, perhaps it will help. It may be that sometimes he wonders about me and searches, and he might find this page, or that somebody will have an idea for who he is, based on the information I have provided, and will pass it along. If so, I am at

A little while ago, before I knew who Patricia was, the facts about her and my biological father were abstract and academic. I knew they existed, but that’s all I knew, or almost all. I could remain sanguine and incurious, especially since the process for finding out anything more was then deliberately expensive, time-consuming, and uncertain.

But now I know, and cannot remain sanguine or incurious, because I have learned part of the story and part of it remains unlearned. And it’s not just any story. It’s my story — the story of how I came to be in this world. So I can’t just leave it at this — I very badly want to know the rest of the story. I’m not necessarily looking to track down my biological father to have a relationship with him, as we are, in all ways but genetically, strangers. But I am looking to know who he is, and know his story, and know another tale of how I came to be.

And, frankly, it’s their own damn faults. Both biological parents seem to have been curious people, and their curiosity made them researchers, and they both traveled far in pursuit of their research. They’re the ones who parented me. Why would they think I would be any different?

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.

One Comment

  1. Max,
    How happy I am to read your story. Patricia and I were friends for almost 40 years. As I read your writing, its style and use of language, I felt at home with my friend again. Curious yes, a good writer like your bio mom, yes. A reflective man, yes. I wish you well in finding your bio father. I do not know who he was – only that he was a summer romance. But I did know about you. She spoke of you every mother’s day. Best to you, Barbara

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