It was a damp morning in late February 2008 when the phone rang. Harvard scholar and PBS host Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. was calling with one of his random genealogical requests. He was going to be on The Colbert Report later that day. Did I, by any chance, know anything about Stephen Colbert’s roots? Luckily for him, I had two hundred years of family history at the ready.
Unnaturally obsessed with the ancestry of my fellow Irish Americans, I had already snooped into Stephen Tyrone Colbert’s past and discovered that he was about as Hibernian as they come. 15 of his 16 great-great-grandparents were either born in Ireland or of Irish heritage, and rather remarkably, their descendants continued to marry only with other Irish Americans for three generations until Stephen himself slightly disrupted the flow when he wed Evelyn “Evie” McGee. In his own words, “I have broken the pattern, and am in a mixed race marriage. I’m Irish, and my wife is Scots-Irish. Somehow we make it work.”
Several weeks after that call, my nosiness was rewarded when I woke up to the best St. Patrick’s Day gift possible — an email from Stephen thanking me and remarking that he was “thrilled to hear we are pretty much pure Irish.” Fortunately for all of us, this should-be poster child for Irish Americans assumed the throne of David Letterman’s Late Show in 2015, and has made the show well and truly his own - an anchor many of us watch to laugh away our worries. Though many mourned the loss of The Colbert Report, we now get to mellow out each evening to the man himself, rather than the character he portrayed for a decade. And as anyone who’s ever met Colbert will attest, the real man is brilliant, quick-witted, multi-talented, family-oriented, devout, and kind.
An Ancestral Tour
So what sort of family tree produces a Stephen Colbert? Geographically concentrated in New York and Illinois upon arrival in America (in some instances, after a brief interval in Canada), the opposite is true in Ireland where all four provinces can lay claim to a piece of Stephen’s past. So dense and deep is his Irishness that I have little choice but to share it in digest form in order to give a short, yet fairly comprehensive tour of his ancestral map. To that end, I’ll focus on the immigrant generation, who mostly emigrated between the 1820s and 1860s, and provide a brief sketch of each pair of his great-great-grandparents…