The Irish in America

WHERE GENEALOGY COMES FULL CIRCLE


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Day Six of Irish American Favorites: Best Friends

circa 1900

circa 1900

Nellie Regan (left) and Minnie Foley were life-long best friends. They were both born in Fisherville, New Hampshire in the mid-1870s and grew up in Tara Township, Minnesota. Their fathers immigrated from Kilmichael, County Cork together in 1864 – click here to read my latest column on page 26 of Irish Lives Remembered online genealogy magazine about the Regan and Foley families. This is one of my favorite family photographs and earns the best friends a place on my list of Irish American Favorites.

When I was young, this was one of those photos that could spark a number of great stories from my grandma, Minnie’s daughter and the master of the Boiled Dinner from Day Three. Grandma would say how her mother and Nellie were “great pals”. Even when they lived two hundred miles apart, they made a special effort to get together.

I have a couple more favorites up my sleeve related to Nellie and Minnie and their special connection. I might even share one or two recipes! I love the photo below. Nellie (left) and Minnie together again, just a bit more relaxed than the studio photo from forty-odd years earlier.

Nellie and Minnie about 1942

Nellie and Minnie, 1942


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DAY 22: Kilmichael

View from Kilmichael Ambush memorial

View from Kilmichael Ambush memorial

Several of my great-great-grandparents were born in Kilmichael Parish, County Cork. I first visited the area in 2009, and I fell in love with the rugged landscape. The photo above is one of my favorites. It is taken from the Kilmichael Ambush Memorial. The memorial is on the site of the 1920 confrontation during the War of Independence where seventeen RIC soldiers were killed by IRA forces led by Tom Barry. Read more about it here.

Ambush Memorial

Ambush Memorial

Father Jerry Cremin, then Kilmichael parish priest, guided us around the parish on a drizzly October day. We walked through the thick, wet grass in the cemetery full of ancient gravestones. Fr. Cremin pointed out the grave markers without inscriptions. He said some had eroded, but others were never marked. What good was an inscription when the deceased’s loved ones could not read? They identified the graves by the stones themselves and their placement.

Kilmichael Cemetery

Kilmichael photos by Regan McCormack

t

My ancestors left Kilmichael a long, long time ago. I am attracted to the place for its stunning landscape, but also because it is the birthplace of these brave individuals. Ultimately Patrick Foley, his wife Mary Crowley Foley, and John Regan settled on the prairie of Western Minnesota. I just wonder what they thought when they arrived on that flat, treeless expanse..just a little different from Kilmichael!

Patrick T. Foley

Patrick T. Foley

Mary Crowley Foley

Mary Crowley Foley

John Regan

John Regan

\\\\\\\\\\\\\\


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Gathering Spotlight

TheGathering_logo_Blue_R

In case you haven’t heard, 2013 is the year of The Gathering in Ireland. Hundreds of reunions, festivals, and celebrations are on the books, and more are planned every day. From time to time, I will turn the spotlight on Gathering attempting to trace and invite American relatives. And sometimes I will feature Gatherings that just look like a good time! Email me if you would like to have your gathering featured on The Irish in America.

Power Family Gathering

Power_crestThe Power Clan Gathering is a weekend of events for all the Power families across the world to celebrate their ancestral homeland and to meet with your family members and friends – new and old – in your historic homeland.

This is an opportunity to visit major landmarks throughout Tír Paorach and there will be lots of entertainment including traditional Irish music, song, dance, storytelling and folklore.

  • Click here to visit Facebook page
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  • Click here to view listing on TheGatheringIreland.com
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Stradbally Girls School

StradballyConventSchoolThe Convent School, Stradbally, has been in existance since 1885. We are inviting parents, pupils and past-pupils to a School Gathering to celebrate the educational heritage of this small Waterford community. Bígí linn.

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Life is a Game of Cards

Agnes, with her younger brother, Frank McMahon -- ca 1920

Agnes, with her younger brother, Frank McMahon , about 1920.

This is my favorite photograph of my all-time favorite person – my maternal grandmother, Agnes McMahon Regan.

Today is the 100th anniversary of my grandma’s birth. Agnes  was born in Tara Township near Clontarf, Minnesota on January 12, 1913 on the farm her Fermanagh-born, American Civil War veteran grandfather, Francis McMahon, homesteaded in 1876. Agnes was the sixth child and fourth daughter of Thomas and Mary “Minnie” (Foley) McMahon.

McMahon Family ca.1914

Grandma is standing on the chair, surrounded by her siblings and her mom in 1914.

One of my grandma’s favorite pastimes was playing cards. From Bridge and 500 with her card clubs, to Crazy Eights and Go Fish with her grandchildren, and everything in between, Grandma loved a game of cards. No visit to Grandma’s was complete without at least one game. Not sure if it was an addiction or not, but we can safely blame/credit her Irish Grandpa McMahon, or Grandpa Bushy, as he was known, for her life-long love of cards.

Grandpa Bushy, years before he would teach little Agnes to play cards.

Grandpa Bushy, years before he would teach little Agnes to play cards. Does it look like he is twiddling his thumbs? Something else my grandma got from him!

Grandpa Bushy lived with grandma’s family for a couple of years when she was small. While her older brothers and sisters were at school, Grandpa Bushy taught Grandma the finer points of rummy. She was just four-years-old, but Grandma caught on right away and  never looked back.

Grandma lived her life much like she played cards. Grandma always played the cards that were dealt her. She never complained, really never. Grandma handled tragedy, heart-break, illness, and pain with grace. She believed that her problems were no more devastating than those of the next person.

The coolest thing about Grandma was that she rarely gave her opinion unsolicited, and when it was asked for, she was very careful in what she said. Grandma never gossiped. All that being said, Grandma did not hesitate to stand up for the underdog, or seek justice when someone was treated badly or unfairly. Grandma was very competitive, but she figured out how to win by following the rules.

Grandma didn’t need to tell everyone, everything. She kept things to herself. Odds are if someone told Grandma a secret, she took it to the grave. I managed to get a couple of minor secrets about people long dead out of her over the years, but I gave her my word that I wouldn’t tell a soul. Grandma never showed her hand, and she was the most widely liked person I have ever known.

I know it wasn’t just cards. Life experience is a great teacher. But I can’t help but think that her sweet little Grandpa Bushy, with his big beard and a gleam in his eye, knew that he was instructing his granddaughter on more than just rummy.

Grandma was always teaching us – her children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews – just by living her life and asking us to stay for a game of cards. Much more effective than lectures! And by most accounts, we all picked up on these more subtle life lessons.

I remember asking Grandma (when she was the advanced age of about sixty-six) to what age she hoped to live. She never gave me a number, instead she said, “I want to live as long as I have my wits about me.” When she died in 2004, she definitely still had her wits about her, it was her heart that didn’t cooperate. She passed away just like she lived: quietly, on her own terms, with dignity and class.

We miss you a lot, Grandma, and we are sure that at the “big card game in the sky” (as my sister,Regan, and I like to think about it) you are taking all the tricks.

Grandma's on the left. Does she look like a card shark?

Grandma’s on the left. Does she look like a card shark?

Throughout the year I will revisit my grandma’s life as a second-generation Irish American, growing up in Minnesota.


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This Old Farmhouse

The first time I visited Ireland in 1988, I was struck by the number of derelict farmhouses dotting the countryside. “Why doesn’t someone just tear those old houses down?” I wondered. “That’s what we do in the good ol’ USA…we don’t leave houses to fall down on themselves. If we don’t want or need them, we get rid of them and build something new and better…”

Abandoned house near Ballyedmond, County Laois (all photos by Regan McCormack)

This sentiment came from a teenage girl from the city who spent more time in the countryside during six weeks in Ireland than she had in sixteen years back home – in the “good ol’ USA”. I thought I was so smart…

Fast-forward twenty years and I am closer to home, driving the country roads of Tara Township, crisscrossing its thirty-six square miles in Swift County, Minnesota. My maternal great-great-grandparents were among the pioneer 1870s settlers of this township on the vast prairie of Western Minnesota. This was my first visit to Tara. I had traveled three thousand miles from home on a number of occasions to visit Ireland, my “ancestral homeland”, yet I had never bothered to drive a few hours west to see where my people settled when they came to Minnesota.

Granted, as far as vacation destinations are concerned, Ireland is a bit more attractive than Western Minnesota, but it turns out, the two places have some things in common.

There are the obvious similarities in place names in this part of Minnesota. Bishop John Ireland established several colonies of Irish Catholic settlers with names like Avoca, Kildare, Tara, and Clontarf. Hundreds of Irish families from cities and communities in the Eastern United States seized the opportunity to own land and live in a community with its own church and priest, surrounded by fellow Irish Catholics.

The Depression came early to rural communities and persistent crop failures and changing farming practices combined to make farming unviable for most small farmers. My relatives moved to Minneapolis, as did several other Tara families. Some of the original Irish settlers had left Tara even earlier, moving further West, always in search of better land.

So, I wonder why I was surprised to find this in Tara Township?

Section 22 of Tara Township – the McMahon place

On nearly every section of land in the township stands an abandoned farmhouse, or at least a grove of trees planted by the original settlers to protect a house. And this in the “good ol’ USA” where we tear things down!

Folks in Ireland and Tara Township have the same reaction when I ask them why they don’t simply tear down the abandoned houses. They shrug and say that they are no bother and they can be used for storage. That is the practical response, but I wonder if there is something a bit more sentimental lurking beneath?

The abandoned houses got me thinking…A similar hopelessness that drove millions of Irish to America during the 19th and 20th centuries could be seen in rural Americans who fled the farm for the city in the 1920s. Major difference, of course, is there was not a famine like Ireland experienced, however there was tremendous poverty, crops failed miserably, families were split up, and life changed permanently and dramatically.

I am rather ashamed of my sixteen-year-old self for not being as smart as she thought she was. She should have realized that the same reason this stands today in Ireland…

Near Ballyedmond, County Laois – 2011

might be why this…

Cahir Castle, Tipperary – 2011

and this…

Rock of Dunamase, County Laois – 2011

and this…

Johnstown, County Kildare – 2009

are still here today. I doubt that the farmhouse ruins will have the staying power of the castles and abbeys of centuries gone by, but in the meantime they can remind us from where we came. Whether it is a farmhouse in Ireland or Tara Township, Minnesota.

Now, if I could only get Jimmy to fix up this old house…

Two Jimmy McCormacks at old family house in Ballyedmond – 2009


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Happy Birthday Minnie!

Mary “Minnie” Foley, 1875-76

Minnie was my great-grandmother, and according to my grandma she absolutely hated the nickname “Minnie”. Please forgive me, Great Grandmother, but I think it is a cute name, and since your real name Mary is shared by at least 75% of the women in your family tree, I chose to call you Minnie.

Minnie Foley was born in Fisherville, New Hampshire on January 2, 1875. She was the fourth of five children born to Patrick Foley and Mary Crowley (their eldest son did not survive infancy.) Patrick emigrated to the United States from Kilmichael, County Cork in 1864. Mary came a year earlier in 1863, also from County Cork.

Minnie was baptized on January 24, 1875 at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Concord, New Hampshire. John Foley and Mary Casey were her godparents.

Three years later, Minnie and her family moved west to Clontarf, Minnesota with several other Irish families from the Concord, New Hampshire area, including the Regan family. John Regan and Patrick Foley emigrated together in 1864 from Kilmichael. The families settled on farms in Tara township. Minnie and Nellie Regan were best friends from a very young age.

First-Generation American Girls: Minnie and Nellie in about 1886

My grandma told me that Minnie worked hard her entire life, and that included working on the family farm in Tara Township while she was growing up. Her sister Maggie worked inside, while Minnie and her younger brother Jackie worked outside. My grandma confessed, she wasn’t sure where Minnie’s older brother Tim worked!

The McMahons, an Irish family from County Fermanagh, lived about a mile from the Foleys in Tara. Minnie married Thomas McMahon at St. Malachy Catholic Church in Clontarf on June 28, 1904. Minnie’s sister Maggie and Tom’s brother Frank were their witnesses. I imagine Minnie and Hoosie (as Tom is referred to in Minnie’s autograph book) having secret meetings over hay bales and missing chickens during their courtship…

Minnie and Tom raised seven children and after giving farming all they had the McMahons moved to Minneapolis in 1925.

When she died in 1945, Minnie was living with my grandma, her husband John Regan, and their new baby (and my mother) Eileen. My grandma said that Minnie was smitten with Eileen. Minnie would say that she had never known a baby to sleep as much and as well as little Eileen. Minnie marvelled at how Eileen would even fall asleep with a bottle in her mouth.

In many ways things came full circle for Minnie. Also living with my grandma in 1945 was Neil Regan, Nellie’s older brother and my grandpa’s father. Eighty years earlier Patrick Foley and John Regan had journeyed to the United States. After Fisherville, New Hampshire and Clontarf, Minnesota, the families came together again in Minneapolis…a long way from Kilmichael.

In my grandma’s recipe book are a few recipes attributed to Minnie, her “Ma” – I think I will make “Ma’s Spice Cake” in Minnie’s honor today.

Nellie Regan Byrne and Minnie Foley McMahon, 1942

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