The Duke of Earl


As a child I often lied to people about where I was born. “Boston, Massachusetts,” I’d say. However, the truth was far less exciting – no one was as interested when I told them “Stockport”. That said, it wasn’t a complete fabrication, as I am a dual-national, American/ English citizen. My grandmother, Grace, moved to Boston from Ireland in her twenties. Here, she fell in love with my grandfather, Joseph “Joey” O’Donnell. I never met Joey as he passed away when I was a baby: he was still in America. I grew up romanticising his life and the country he lived in, to the point that I developed a fiction about him, believing it until much more recently.

In January of 2011 I sat down with my grandmother to talk about her memories of Joey and America. I planned to drive across America, hitting all of the signi cant places in the story, ending at his grave. Until our conversation I believed him to have been a jazz musician – signed at an early age, he toured around the north-east before falling in love and starting a family. Family pressures had been too much for him in his early twenties, though, so he left for a second shot at a career in music on the west coast. This failed, so he moved to Las Vegas, indulging in a lifestyle that consumed him and ultimately ended his life too soon.

However, this wasn’t true. At least, not all of it. 

Talking about it properly for the rest time with my grandmother revealed a story that was far more complex and much less cinematic. Somehow, I had developed a false narrative of my grandfather’s life – perhaps through the few photographs I had seen of him, or the vague stories I had been told of his life. Suddenly I realised how little I had known of him; my family hadn’t told me much about him, possibly because it hurt them too much to remember.

This revelation complicated things; it shook up my understanding of my identity and the country I romanticised, and also distanced me from Joey. I was 22 at the time and perhaps too immature to process it properly. This journey would take sensitivity and a lot of thought, not only because it was important to me, but also my family.

By 2015, I was ready. Four years of thinking, talking, reading and researching had led to a much deeper understanding of Joey and my relation to the States. No longer was he a two-dimensional character picked out of a Hollywood script, but instead a real person with all the complexities that involves. I was anxious about visiting a homeland I’d never known; to be greeted by customs of officials checking my USA passport with a “Welcome home, sir!” To paraphrase Jack Kerouac, i longed to hear what America had to say.

‘What I would do if anyone ever screwed over you or the family’

‘What I would do if anyone ever screwed over you or the family’

‘One wrong move and i’d go down 50,000 feet’

‘One wrong move and i’d go down 50,000 feet’

‘Thinking of my wasted years with your Mom and you. Wishing I could turn the clock back 20 years.’

‘Thinking of my wasted years with your Mom and you. Wishing I could turn the clock back 20 years.’

‘That’s my baby mate, Isn’t she a treat? Only a yearling. She’s just getting used to the saddle and bridle. I’ll be on her before long.’

‘That’s my baby mate, Isn’t she a treat? Only a yearling. She’s just getting used to the saddle and bridle. I’ll be on her before long.’


After nearly a month and a half on the road, myself and my partner Bekky finally reached Clarkston, WA. Five hours had seen us drive through seemingly infinite rolling plains that eventually opened up to an expansive view of the settlement and its twin city. The moon dazzled in the twilight sky, its light falling down, bouncing off Snake river – the natural divide between Washington and Idaho. My heart pounded. I was anxious to see the streets my grandfather had once walked.

Clarkston, named after one of the two explorers from the Lewis and Clark expedition across America, is the city my grandfather escaped to. President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark after the purchase of Louisiana in 1803. Their mission was to find a water route to the west whilst establishing an American presence. The two created extensive journals, chronicling the flora and fauna they encountered whilst establishing trade with the native Americans and mapping their journey. 

My grandfather, Joey, grew up in Boston, MA. His father, Joseph, was a fireman, and his mother, Alice, was a piano teacher. They lived in Brighton, a suburban area of Boston that represented all the values of the American Dream. Joey grew up idolising James Dean, likely sympathising with the character of Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause. He styled his life around this image, wearing similar clothes and driving beautiful cars. He was a real greaser. In his younger years Joey sang in a band – a hobby cut short when his voice broke.

My grandmother, Grace, landed in Boston in the tail end of the 1950s. Having spent most of her teenage years nursing her brother back to health, her family rewarded her with a trip to visit her relatives.

“Everything was so brown,” she recalled to me, describing her first impression of the place as she stepped off the plane. Two weeks later she was hooked on the city life; the immediacy and speed of everything felt so fresh. Grace had no trouble finding friends or a job, and quickly decided to stay. 

On a night out with friends, Joey spotted Grace for the first time. A friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend knew her and gave him her phone number. He waited until the next day to call her. 

“Tell me your address, I’m coming around,” he’d repeat with determination. Eventually, she gave in and told him he could visit her. Two hours later he was at her door, knocking hard and fast.

“I am the Duke of Earl!” Joey burst in through the door and into the living room singing Gene Chandler’s song at the top of his lungs; the first thing he said to her in person. 

Three years later, my mother was born. She loved her father and he loved her. Ultimately, though, Joey was too young, aged just 22 when she was born. Too immature to take on the full responsibility of caring for a family, cracks began to appear in the relationship. Grace fell away from Joey, moving herself and my mother back to Ireland. Joey carried on socialising, spending all of his money on his lifestyle and saving none for his future. He drank, he smoked, he picked up everyone’s tab.

At the beginning of the 1970s, news travelled to him of the good times to be had in Reno. The city was in  flux – movie stars, jazz musicians, broadway performers and high rollers rubbed elbows with each other. Joey packed his bags and moved to the “Littlest Big City”. It was the place to be.

Here is where my record of his life goes a little fuzzy – the gap in the story that perhaps allowed me to create the fiction. I visited the places he had lived during his time in Reno. The  first was a one-storey house, set back from the road and admirable. The second was a pay-weekly apartment in a complex that resembled a motel. The third was a trailer. To me, this tells the story of a man who was more interested in his social life than his domestic life. I’m making a lot of assumptions, but I believe he first moved to Reno to get away, to disassociate himself from his memories of Boston. Maybe he had already begun to regret the decisions that led to his family leaving him. For a while, this might have worked. Reno was ablaze, fun and exciting. Indulging in the excess it provided, perhaps he could forget about the pain he felt. 

Of course, this never works; your ghosts tend to continue haunting you. His mind turned back to his family.

At some point he realised he could escape; that he could move to a small town and start again. I’m not sure why he chose Clarkston, but it feels beyond serendipitous that he chose a place synonymous with adventure, discovery and the new. His move to Clarkston was a bid to find himself again, to abandon his vices and seek redemption with his family. 

Rolling down the window, I breathed in the cool north-western air. To get to Clarkston, we had to drive through Lewiston. I was disappointed; driving past McDonalds, then Burger King, then Domino’s, then Pizza Hut hadn’t really been the vision of discovery I held. It all felt a bit too familiar, a bit too Stoke-On-Trent. No classic cars, no beaten up motels, no dilapidated jazz bars. 

We pushed further on. I hoped for Clarkston to be different. As we approached the bridge that would take us into Washington state, I crossed my fingers and hoped for some semblance of the picture I’d painted in my mind. Halfway across, I saw a blue-lit motel sign that read “Clarkston”. A sudden rush of excitement hit me – I’d made it; I pressed down on the accelerator. The landscape was radically different; buildings low against the horizon, not a single franchise in sight. All that sat between me and my room for the night was a mile of sleepy roads, a couple of white-panelled churches and beautiful, modest homes. It was instantly obvious why Joey had moved here. 

Pulling up at our host’s house, we decided to call it a night. Seeing Clarkston properly would require fresh eyes. The next day, we would visit Joey’s grave.

I woke up and stepped out the front door, I was instantly stunned by the surrounding landscape. The road directed my vision to the mountain we’d driven down, towering over Clarkston. At its peak was a giant C carved into the surface – a defiant mark of the city’s identity.

Still caught up in the cinematic dreams of what this story was to me, I decided we would visit Joey’s grave in the evening. The sun would dip over the horizon at the exact point we saw his headstone. The evening breeze would lift my hair and everything would happen perfectly. We spent our day at the state fair, soaking in the atmosphere Joey would have experienced. Cowboys and cowgirls paraded their cattle in front of a cheering audience. Country singers sang their songs whilst the community clapped to their beat. Myself and Bekky exchanged thoughts of living here one day.

Our watches ticked over to five o’clock. It was time to visit Joey. First, however, we would collect flowers for his grave. I came across a small potted plant bursting with blood red flowers – Joey’s favourite colour. In many of his photographs he is seen proudly posing in deep crimson shirts. I carried the plant delicately; keeping it tight against my body as I stepped into the car. 

Our next stop was Vineland Cemetery, the apparently beautiful area on a hill overlooking Clarkston where Joey rests. Our GPS told us we were seven minutes away. Seven minutes. Seven minutes and I would finally realise 26 years of dreams. A gust of adrenaline consumed me.

Bekky took the driver’s seat. I wanted no distractions, nothing else to think about. I wanted to permanently record every second of the short trip into my memory. Reaching for my phone, I connected it to the car stereo and hit play.

“Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl. Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl...”

We sailed past Clarkston’s homes, shops, trees and people, driving past a micro-casino that was a gentle reminder of his times in Reno. The city opened up to a far-reaching reservoir, an endless expanse of water to our right. The sun glinted off its placid surface. A sharp turn to the left and we saw the cemetery’s sign.

“Grave 1, Lot 74, Block 4,” Joey’s plot of land. Parking the car, we walked out in search of it. We headed to Block 4 first, where he should have been, pacing up and down the lines of the graves but finding no sign of him. The lines weren’t marked, so there was no way of knowing exactly where he would be. Back and forth, up and down, still nothing. Certain that we had checked all of that area, we ventured out across the others. 

For two long hours we snaked through each and every grave, checking every name, all while clutching the precious plant. There was a moment of hope when we encountered another part of Block 4, but the hope died after checking its last grave.

I don’t even know exactly how far we had flown, but we had driven 7,000 miles and we couldn’t find him. Tears welled in my eyes. Defeated, we sat down at a table to the side, placing the plant down for the first time. The sun dipped over the horizon, the wind blew my hair up – but Joey was missing. I lit a cigarette.

Looking up to the sky, confused, exasperated and lost, I wasn’t sure what to think.

“Can I help you?”

A woman peeked out from behind the cemetery office, waving us over. She told us her name was Cathy and that she had seen us with our potted plant, realising that we hadn’t found who we had come to see. At five o’clock she had left the office and gone home for the weekend. She wouldn’t have returned until Monday, a day after we left. However, through some stroke of luck, Cathy had accidentally left the office window open, and so returned to close it. In doing so, she spotted us. 

In the office, she opened up a spreadsheet – typing in all manner of combinations of Joey’s name, birth date and plot location, but nothing came up. I started to fear he wasn’t here at all. 

“Not to worry, follow me through here.”

Behind her desk was a tiny room full of drawers. Out of one, Cathy drew out an enormous leather-bound book. Dust spilled from it, forming clouds as she turned its pages.

“Here he is,” she said, pointing to a small handwritten name, “Joseph O’Donnell.” A sense of relief rushed over me, calming my nerves. We burst out and over to the location marked on the map.

Nothing was there. His grave sat between “John M. Gordon” and “Orren McColden” but there was no headstone. Had no one cared enough to pay for one? Was he buried without a name? The thought was sickeningly sad. 

Cathy’s husband, Doug, appeared out of their car. “How long ago was your grandaddy buried, son?” 

“Twenty-six years ago.”

“Well, it’s more than possible his plaque has overgrown. We’ve only had tax funding for the upkeep for the past 20.”

Doug rushed back to the car, pulling out a four-foot steel rod. He began pushing it into the ground. I felt pretty uneasy about this at first, but soon found myself feeling cautiously optimistic. Doug carried on for about ten minutes, the rod never hitting anything solid. His hand was all beaten up, wrapped in bandages. I saw that he was struggling so I offered to take over. Pushing the rod into the ground for the first time, I felt nothing. I pushed the rod into the ground a second time. Still nothing. The sadness sank in again. I wasn’t sure if Joey was actually here – and that, even if he was, there was no evidence of him.

My partner pointed out that he could be located further to the right, so i pushed the rod into the ground once again. I hit something. The rod sank only an inch and a half; it would go no further. Doug threw me his pen knife and, with shaking hands, I cut a square into the turf – ripping up grass, mud and dirt. A sliver of metal appeared, glinting in the light of the rising moon. Bit by bit, more metal appeared. Next there was a J, then an O and an S. His birth year appeared, 1941. And then the rest of his name – Joseph O’Donnell. We had found it. We had found him. We had travelled the globe and revealed him to the world once more. 

Cathy and Doug embraced us, telling us how incredibly happy they were to have helped. We could not have been more grateful. Without them, this would not have been possible. Beaming smiles at each other, we hugged and laughed for ten minutes before waving goodbye to them as they disappeared into the night.

The world had never felt so calm. I had never been so devoid of thought or worry. I sat down on Joey’s grave, staring at his plaque. Bekky sat down next to me at some point but didn’t say a word. One day, I thought, I would return with my mother to organise a headstone for him – a bold one that represented his character. One he would be proud of.

In the moments after, I laid back and gazed up to the moon. 

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