Saturday, July 16, 2016

A Touch of the Irish: Helen Reilly and the Kierans

Helen Reilly's Inspector McKee series, launched in 1930 (and rebooted in a matter of speaking after two books in 1934), ultimately encompassed thirty novels, the last appearing in 1962, the year of the author's death.  The series has been called an early prominent example of the police procedural subgenre, though it has also been pointed out, rightfully I think, that it is something of a hybrid in this regard.  (For the best single write-up on Helen Reilly's crime fiction of which I am aware, see this account by Mike Grost and also his voluminously-detailed website as well.)

Reilly was born Helen Margaret Kieran on April 25, 1891, in Manhattan, the daughter of educators James Michael Kieran and Mary Katherine Donohue.  Both of her parents were Irish Catholics, as you might guess from the surnames, as well as the children of immigrants.

Katie Donahue was the daughter of Philip and Anne (Moran) Donohue of the town of Banagher, Ireland.  Born in 1805, Philip Donahue served in the British East India Company's army, rising to to the rank of sergeant-major.  After qualifying for a pension in the 1840s he returned from India, accompanied by his native batman, to Banagher, where he married Anne Moran, a woman over two decades his junior.  Fortunately possessed of the resources to withstand the Great Famine, the couple and their children during the 1850s resided in a rented house, with a garden and yard, on Banagher's main street. 

houses in Banagher

"An inveterate pipe smoker," Philip Donohue died from cancer in November 1867 and his widow migrated with her children to New York City the next year.  Anne Moran Donohue died in Manhattan three decades later.  The tombstone at her grave features a motif of carved shamrocks, emphasizing her Irish nativity and Catholic faith.

One of the Donohue boys became a gunner in the US Navy, serving on admiral Dewey's flagship, the USS Olympia, during the Battle of Manila Bay, and another was a sergeant in the US Calvary, serving in conflicts with Native Americans in Arizona and Wyoming.  When growing up Helen Kieran and her siblings thrilled to "Indian war stories" told them by their uncle.  Two Donohue daughters, aunts of Helen, were employed as governesses to the superintendent at the New York Asylum for the Blind, where they taught students as well.

New York Asylum for the Blind

Helen's father, James Michael Kieran, was born in 1863, the year of the New York City draft riots. His parents, Michael and Catherine (Lynch) Kieran, at some point may have farmed in Orange or Duchess County, outside the city. (One of Helen Kieran's brothers recalled that the family his parents owned a farm, on which as a young man he tried unsuccessfully to launch a career as a poultry farmer.)  James Kieran grew up in the city and was educated in local primary and secondary schools, before receiving advanced degrees from the City University of New York, St. Francis Xavier University, Columbia University and Fordham University. 

James Kieran taught in public schools for twenty years before coming to the Normal College of the City of New York (known today as Hunter College), where he capped his career by serving as President between 1929 and 1933.  One of the Bronx schools he attended as a child is named after him today: James M. Kieran Junior High School.

James M. Kieran Junior High School

James and Katie Kieran had seven children together and brought them up in quite a bookish home.  Katie Keiran was an early graduate of Hunter College and schoolteacher who, a son recalled, would quote "the classics on the slightest provocation.

Besides Helen these offspring included John Francis Kieran (1892-1981), a New York Times sportswriter, radio personality (with Oscar Levant and Franklin P. Adams, he was a regular panelist on "Information Please," a popular quiz show hosted by Clifton Fadiman) and naturalist (author of the prizewinning A Natural History of New York City); James Michael Kieran, Jr. (1901-1952), a New York Times reporter and press secretary to NYC mayor Fiorella LaGuardia; and Leo Kieran (1899-1952), yet another Kieran family New York Times reporter as well as an aviation expert who in 1928 made a celebrated 24-day circuit around the world on commercial airline flights in company with Dorothy Kilgallen

Information Please (John F. Kieran center)

Given the author's family background it is easy for me to see how her crime novels came to be so informed not only about elite and artistic New York families but police procedure in the city as well.  In the next blog post I will talk some more about the family that Helen Reilly herself made, as well as the crime novels that she wrote.

Note: this piece draws on genealogical information posted by Kieran descendant Chris Hunton.


  1. Very interesting, Curt. I have enjoyed several of Reilly's novels, and have read a little bit about her, but it is great to learn more. I look forward to the next post.

    1. Thanks Tracy, am linking to your blog and some others on her in the next post. I blogged about a book by her previously, but it was a dud. The ones I'm writing about next are much better.

    2. By the way, Tracy, added a pics a video clip concerning Information Please, the radio show on which one of Helen Reilly's brothers was a panelist. An interesting topic in and of itself.

  2. "Cavalry." Not "Calvary." Don't you hate autocorrect?