The Irish in America



Meant to Be


John Foley (ATMR Family Collection)

John Foley (ATMR Family Collection)


John Foley and my grandpa John Regan were good friends. They spent their early childhood together in Clontarf, Minnesota.  John Foley moved to Minneapolis with his family in the mid 1920s.

It was only natural that the two boys were friends. Their paternal grandfathers (Patrick Foley and John Regan) were friends in their native Kilmichael, County Cork, and they came to America together, settling in Fisherville, New Hampshire before venturing to Clontarf, Minnesota in the late 1870s.

I don’t know if “the Johns'” fathers (Tim Foley and Neil Regan) were friends when they were young. Clontarf was (and is) a small place, but from what I have heard, the two had little in common. If I consider as evidence my grandma’s collection of studio portraits of many of the young men of Clontarf, Tim and Neil were not close. – there are no photos of the two of them together. However, the evidence does show that John’s uncle John Foley and Neil were friends (see below and click here to read about it).

Cornelius Regan and John Foley seated (ATMR Family Collection)

Cornelius Regan and John Foley seated, around 1900 (ATMR Family Collection)

As I mentioned earlier, Clontarf’s a very small place so even when folks moved to Minneapolis, as so many did in the 1920s and 1930s, families remained close, supporting one another as they made their ways in the big city. The community was strong whether it was in the rural west or the largest city in the state. It was sometimes difficult to see where family ended and neighbors and friends picked up. It could all get very complicated…

For example:

One day in late 1930s Minneapolis, my grandma’s Aunt Bid Foley (John Foley’s mom) invited her over for cards. Have I mentioned yet that John Foley and my grandma, Agnes McMahon were first cousins? How about that they were double first cousins?

John Regan was staying with his old friend John Foley at the time of the invitation. Agnes and John Regan had crossed paths over the years, but it wasn’t until Uncle Tim asked Agnes to take his place in a cribbage game with John Regan, that sparks flew.

I don’t know who won that game, but I bet it was fiercely contested. They fell in love over a cribbage board and were married in 1941. They were a perfect couple.

Agnes and John Regan, with guess who as the best man...

Agnes and John Regan, with guess who as the best man…

Agnes’ maternal grandfather was Patrick Foley and John Regan’s paternal grandfather was….John Regan. The two friends from Kilmichael, County Cork.

When we visited Kilmichael Parish in Cork, Ireland several years ago, we learned that the connection between Patrick Foley and John Regan may have been stronger than we thought. John Regan’s mother was Ellen Foley. Patrick and John were cousins.

I thought this was very cool. Then my sister mentioned how that would have made grandma and grandpa some sort of cousins, too. Distant, of course, going back to their great-grandparents generation. In 19th century rural Ireland that must have happened a lot…right?

Distant cousins, yes, but friendship connected the Foley and Regan families through the generations, across an ocean and into a new world.

And I didn’t even tell you how my grandma’s mom and grandpa’s aunt were life-long besties….

Nellie and Minnie (ATMR Family Collection)

Nellie and Minnie (ATMR Family Collection)

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Three Sisters

Margaret, Rose & Agnes McMahon (early 1930s)

Margaret, Rose & Agnes McMahon (mid 1930s) ATMR Family Collection

When I think of the Irish in America, snapshots like this one come to mind. My grandma Agnes with two of her three older sisters, young and happy in the midst of the Great Depression.

The McMahon sisters were second generation Irish Americans. However, my grandma told me they didn’t spend any time thinking about their heritage when they were young. She made up for it when she grew older and had a highly inquisitive granddaughter. She shared with me stories and songs, old sayings and recipes, passed down to her from her parents and Irish-born grandparents. Grandma was my link to our family history.

I am not sure if this is at the house in Columbia Heights where the McMahons lived, or if it is in south Minneapolis at the Foley house. Maybe my mom will help us out and leave a comment!

I am currently scanning and organizing my grandma’s collection of photographs and ephemera. Moving forward I will share some of my favorite items.


That’s Pretty Old!

John Regan, circa 1872

John Regan, circa 1872

October 24th is the 185th anniversary of my great-great-grandfather John Regan’s birth.

John Regan was born in the townland of Clashbredane, Kilmichael, County Cork, Ireland on October 24, 1829. His parents were Cornelius and Ellen (Foley) Regan, and his godparents John Connor and Johanna Regan. John was the fourth of ten children, the second son.

When I first looked into John’s story, I was struck by how he never provided an accurate age when asked for it. Be it a ship’s officer, a census-taker, a priest, or a city clerk – never did John report his real age. John did not know how to read or write. English wasn’t even his native language. He could have not understood the question, but I have a hunch John thought his age was his own business.(I will always note his real age.)

In 1864, John arrived at New York harbor aboard the City of Baltimore. He is listed as a 24-year-old laborer (34). The names John Regan, Patrick Foley, and Timothy Galvin appear consecutively on the ship’s manifest. My grandma Agnes McMahon Regan always told me that John Regan and Patrick Foley came to America together from County Cork, that their families were close in the old country. According to John’s birth record, they were more than friends, they were cousins. Was Timothy Galvin an old friend from Ireland or a new friend from the ship? We will never know.

Once in the United States, Regan and Foley made their way north to find work in the jobs-rich industrialized Concord, New Hampshire, while Galvin went west and farmed in Illinois. Thirteen years later the three Irishmen would be reunited and among the pioneer settlers of Tara Township in Minnesota.

The 1870 United States Federal census lists an unmarried laborer John Regan, age twenty-five (40). He is living with seventy-year-old Ellen Regan, his mother. I wonder when Ellen joined John? Maybe she came with his younger brother Jeremiah, who also settled in New Hampshire? The 1870 census record is the only mention I have found of Ellen Regan in America.

The photo above is an old tintype and the only one I have of John Regan. I believe it was taken about the time of his marriage to Mary Quinn on May 19, 1872. The couple was united in Concord, New Hampshire. John was twenty-eight (42) and Mary was twenty-five.

Three children were born to John and Mary in New Hampshire – Cornelius, Ellen, and Patrick – while John worked at a local machine shop. By 1878, the Regans had saved enough money to move from the crowded city of Concord, west to Minnesota. On August 17, 1878 John Regan purchased 240 acres in section 7 of Tara Township near Clontarf, Minnesota for $1,745.24.

John added to his family and his land holdings over the next ten years. Three more children were born – John, Jeremiah, and Mary. John’s wife Mary died of consumption on June 17, 1895 at the age of forty-nine. Their youngest daughter Mary was just eight years old and John was fifty-six. By this time John had amassed over 600 acres in Tara Township.

Tara Twp 9 Oct 2007 Sec. 10 Jer. Regan place

Regan House – Tara Township

John continued to work hard on the farm until he sold his holdings for $31,650 on April 1, 1913. John must have seen his son Jerry as most likely to succeed him in farming, or perhaps most in need of his help. He purchased a section of land once owned by his old friend Timothy Galvin. John built a lovely two-story home which dominates the flat landscape of Tara Township to this day. John spent the rest of his life in this house. He died on January 21, 1924 of pneumonia. His death certificate says birth date was unknown, but age estimated at ninety-years-old (94).

Francis Byrne, a grandson of John, remembered only a gruff old man nearly blind with cataracts, but his mother told him stories of “Old Johnny”. He was tough as nails and fiercely independent. When the local postmaster and general store proprietor tried to tell Old Johnny how to vote, he defiantly went the other way. He was a determined man who kept to himself.

Even in the end, John’s age was not recorded correctly. After years of claiming to be younger than his real age, John’s gravestone says he is two years older.


John’s obituary is near the bottom




















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


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



Gathering Spotlight


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.

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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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