The Story of “The Dirty Little Irish Kid” Revisited

Wishing you a pot o’ gold,
And all the joy your heart can hold.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

I first heard the story of “the dirty little Irish kid” a number of years ago. It was once again brought to my attention as this St. Patrick’s Day approached. It is a common story told locally among descendants and throughout the world by church leaders. One version goes like this:

“Many years ago an elder who served a mission [for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] in the British Isles said at the end of his labors, “I think my mission has been a failure. I have labored all my days as a missionary here and I have only baptized one dirty little Irish kid. That is all I baptized.” Years later, after his return to his home in Montana, he had a visitor come to his home who asked, “Are you the elder who served a mission in the British Isles in 1873?” “Yes.” Then the man went on, “And do you remember having said that you thought your mission was a failure because you had only baptized one dirty little Irish kid?” He said, “Yes.” The visitor put out his hand and said, “I would like to shake hands with you. My name is Charles A. Callis, of the Council of the Twelve of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am that dirty little Irish kid that you baptized on your mission.”

This story first caught my attention because of my connection as a descendant of Irish immigrants. I am familiar with the poverty and struggles that my ancestors had to overcome. Who is not impressed when someone is able to overcome the challenges of life? And, to do it alone, wow!

I was awed by how this young, supposedly orphaned, child was able to make such a religious commitment, immigrate to America, and rose among the ranks in church leadership. I was also disturbed from the first time I heard this story that the former missionary would profess failure or claim success based on statistics. Spiritual work is not a sales position. It’s not something that can be tallied. Spiritual work is intangible. The only measurement that would have, should have, counted is that this young boy’s life improved because of this missionary’s service. Somehow, somewhere, this missionary misunderstood. It wasn’t about him at all.

Not only that, when I finally decided I wanted to know a bit more about this Irish boy, I learned that I had it wrong. Charles Albert Callis was born on May 4, 1865 in South Dublin to English parents. This was true. But, when Charles’s father died in Dublin in 1867 at the age of 27, his widowed mother, with four children in tow, moved back to England. It was there on a Liverpool bridge that the missionaries noticed a little boy out after dark and offered to walk him home. It was at this boy’s home that they met Susannah Callis, the boy’s mother. The family was then taught, baptized,  and, shortly thereafter, immigrated to Utah. Not quite the orphan I thought, even though the definition of “orphan” is dependent on time and place. To the missionary, this single mother and her children were forgotten or discounted except for “the dirty little Irish kid”—at least the way the story is told.

By age 16, Charles worked in the coal mines of Utah twelve hours a day to help support his family. I wonder if this is where the “dirty” descriptor was acquired. According to reports, he took interest in learning and ultimately, through the support of a mentor and self-study, passed two bar exams. As an attorney and a missionary, he became a great asset to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Nephi Jensen once wrote of this “dirty little Irish kid: “C. A. Callis in many respects [is] a very remarkable man. He is one of those heroic souls who have come up from the depths…

“His personality is not striking. His appearance gives you no true idea of the caliber of the man. He is undersized and there is nothing prepossessing about his countenance. But when he commences to talk you begin to enlarge your estimation of him. His voice is soft, round, and full. There is a charm in it. You listen and soon discover that you are not in the presence of an ordinary man.

“He is a leader. He does things without being told. Nor does he stick tenaciously by the past. He is always discovering new ways of doing things. While others are waiting for opportunities to do good he is making them.”[1]

I’m still in awe of “the dirty little Irish kid” and all that Charles Albert Callis achieved in his lifetime. I just wonder about his mother’s loss and her influence upon her children, his sisters’s stories, and if, in the end, this family was happy.

From this example, are there any lessons to be gleaned about how we tell our family stories and how we listen to the stories written or told by others?

 

[1] Nephi Jensen Journal, July 1907, pp. 65–67, Archives & Manuscripts, BYU. Quoted in Richard E. Bennett, “Elder Charles A. Callis: Twentieth-Century Missionary”; accessed 16 March 2021: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1981/04/elder-charles-a-callis-twentieth-century-missionary?lang=eng

 

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