The Irish in America


Leave a comment

Aunt Dodo

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my Great Aunt Dodo. Ever since I opened my hall closet and a vintage overnight case tumbled down from a high shelf, hit me on the head, and landed a few feet away.

Rose Ann “Dodo” McMahon Oien (Photo: Private family collection)

It is a pretty cool old bag – black with a zip-top, dome-shape and two handles. There is a small window on the front of the bag where the owner could slide a slip of paper with their name for identification purposes. “Rose Oien.” Rose was Dodo’s real name and Oien comes from her husband, Bernie Oien, whom she married in 1955.

I love this photo of Dodo. It is from the early 1940s. Rose Ann McMahon was born on December 28, 1908, in Tara Township near Clontarf, Minnesota. She was four years older than my grandma and the middle of seven children. How she came by the nickname Dodo, no one could ever tell me. Nicknames are sometimes like that.

Dodo always seemed like an old woman to me, with thinning white hair, printed cotton muumuus, and sensible black shoes. And it was always “Dodo and Bernie.” I don’t think I ever remember Dodo without Bernie, and I saw them fairly often when I was growing up. Bernie didn’t do anything to make Dodo seem less old. I could never really understand what he was saying. And Bernie had a wooden leg.

Bernie lost his real one in an elevator accident. It was a long time before I realized it was a grain elevator accident. I had always pictured the doors closing on Bernie as he just makes it into the elevator car. One of his legs stays behind in the lobby, pinched off in the heavy outer set of doors while the rest of Bernie keeps going up and up…

“Don’t be silly, Annie. That couldn’t happen,” I remember my mom saying when I mentioned something about how Bernie lost his leg.

Dodo and Bernie were married later in life and didn’t have children. When I was a kid, I thought that was the only reason people got married, so I asked my grandma why Dodo married Bernie.

“I guess Dodo wanted to go to a wedding.”

What a line.

When I think about Dodo, I will now always picture her as she is in this photo, with nicely styled hair, a regular dress, and that great smile.

Advertisements


Leave a comment

100 Years at The Tazewell

Not all the residents at The Tazewell Apartments were Irish American, but this article may be of interest to anyone who enjoys topics in history such as the rise and fall (and rise again) of urban America, 19th-century social history, apartment building architecture, or the history of one of St. Paul’s most well-known neighborhoods (Cathedral Hill) told through the lives of some of its lesser-known residents. 

 

Click here to read The Tazewell: 100 Years in the Life of a St. Paul Apartment Building from the Winter 2019 issue of Ramsey County History Magazine (Volume 53, Number 4).

 

 


Leave a comment

Be Like John Regan

It snows in Minnesota. Some years a lot, other years not enough for some people. It snows early (Halloween Blizzard of 1991) and it snows late (last April was a storm that dumped over 20-inches).

This is the snowiest February on record in Minnesota: 30.5 inches and counting. With a week to go in the month, more snow is expected. It snowed nearly eight inches this past Wednesday and as neighbors struggle in poorly plowed streets and snowbanks loom over my head at street corners, I think about my grandpa.

It snowed 79 inches in the Twin Cities during the winter of 1951-52, following a record-setting 88.9 inches the previous winter. My grandpa (and everyone else in the Twin Cities) was doing a lot of shoveling! Click for a list of the top ten snowiest winters in the Twin Cities.

This clipping may be yellowed and brittle, but it provides a clear glimpse into my grandpa’s character. When he wasn’t shoveling out fire hydrants Grandpa was an usher at church and he played chauffeur to my mom and her friends, driving them to parties and school dances before they had driver’s licenses of their own.

Grandpa was an only child, so he loved being part of my grandma’s expansive network of siblings, nieces, nephews, and cousins. My grandpa was many people’s first call if they ran into trouble and needed a hand. He never hesitated to do what he could to help.

My grandpa was a really good guy.

John Regan (left) with childhood friend, Lloyd Hughes (Private family collection)


Leave a comment

The Irish in America (and at the Tazewell)

The Tazewell in Saint Paul’s Cathedral Hill

I am polishing up an article for Ramsey County History Magazine on 100 years of history at The Tazewell. The short story…The Tazewell Apartments were built in 1918 in a bustling neighborhood of St. Paul. The building suffered from mid-century neglect and urban fight and fell into disrepair. In 1979 the building was condemned. A developer rescued the property and in 1981 The Tazewell Condominiums emerged from the cockroaches, squirrels, and blown out windows.

As a current resident of The Tazewell, I find myself wondering about what the building was originally like and who used to live here. Since, apparently, the original building plans don’t exist, the former plays out in my imagination (aided by the very occasional architectural clue). The latter curiosity can be more concretely satisfied. In preparation for the article, I spent a great deal of time looking at the old St. Paul City Directories to learn about earlier residents of the building. Because so much of the research I do revolves around Irish immigrants, my eye was instinctively drawn to the Irish surnames in these directories. It’s no surprise, but there were a good number of Irish Americans living at The Tazewell over the years.

I mention several of the residents in the article,, but there are many more stories behind the names on the pages of those directories. Small stories, maybe fragments of stories, hidden but waiting to be told. I will explore some of these stories over the next few months. The Irish in America and at The Tazewell is not terribly catchy, but it will have to do for now.

Although construction was completed in 1918, 1919 was the first year a full slate of residents appeared in the directory. Of the fifty residents, there were 21 women and 29 men living in a total of 36 efficiency and one-bedroom apartments. Irish surnames like Hughes, Connolly, Howe, Kelly, Egan, and Neely were scattered among Thorson, Steuer, Albrecht, Van Sylke, and others. Of course, I understand that Felix Hoffman could have as much Irish ancestry as say, Nora Egan, and we’ll look at that as well. That’s kind of the point of America, after all, isn’t it?

For the purposes of exploring the lives of the Irish in America, I will begin next time by looking at the first resident to catch my attention – Florence Connolly, a teacher and original resident of The Tazewell who stayed for nine years. Check back on Monday for Florence’s story.

 


1 Comment

Four Nickels

Thomas Patrick McMahon was born August 30, 1907, in Tara Township, Minnesota. Tom was the third of seven children to parents Thomas and Mary (Foley) McMahon. Tom was one of my grandma’s older brothers.

 

Grandma remembered the time she complained to Tom that she had a headache. He looked at her, sighed and shook his head gently. “No, Agnes, no,” he said quietly, “You need to have brains to get a headache. What you have is rheumatism of the skull.”

McMahon siblings on the farm – Grandma is in front with hair in her eyes, Tom on the right, 1919 (Agnes Regan Family Collection)

Grandma said she could feel her eyes well up, but then Tom placed a hand on her shoulder and she immediately felt better. They had a good laugh. Tom was never mean-spirited, he just had a way with words. Tom was very bright and he enjoyed working on the farm with his dad. He was always a great help, as well as great company to his dad.

Tom on the farm outside Benson, Minnesota, 1919 (Agnes Regan Family Collection)

The McMahon family moved to Minneapolis from the farm in 1924. Life completely changed for the McMahons. They all eventually adapted to life in the city, finding their ways, except for Tom. He never quite fit in. There was no place for farmers in the city and treating telephone poles in the pole yard with his dad wasn’t quite the same as working on the farm with him. Tom started drinking, started missing work and eventually stopped coming home.

Mary McMahon and her son Tom, 1939 (Agnes Regan Family Collection)

My grandma had a currency collection – buffalo head nickels, Barr dollars, drummer boy quarters, and “wheat pennies” – the penny minted in the US from 1909-1956 (see picture at left). I was at Grandma’s one day when I was about fifteen-years-old. I had found a couple of wheat pennies for Grandma to add to her collection.

As Grandma pulled the plastic bread bag of wheat-backed pennies from the drop-down desk, a small envelope fell to the floor. It was one of those tiny manilla envelopes, the kind a landlord might give you with the key to your new apartment.

“What’s this?” I asked Grandma as I bent to pick up the envelope. It looked old.

She took the envelope from my hand, pushed back the flap and poured the contents into her hand. “Four nickels. Twenty cents. This was what my brother Tom had in his pocket when they found his body. Four nickels. It was all he had in the world.” Grandma clasped the nickels in her hand and motioned for me to sit. Then she told me all about Tom, how smart and funny and kind he was and how that all disappeared when they moved to the city and he began drinking.

Tom died on September 5, 1949, or at least that’s when they found his body down by the Mississippi River. He drowned. No foul play, most likely slipped and fell, they said. Tom had no ID, no home, no possessions. The police knew who to call when they found him. They had picked Tom up many times over the years, and it was my grandpa who’d come pick him up. Tom would stay for a day or two – he could have stayed with Grandma forever – but then he’d move on. When my grandpa went to identify the body, the envelope was the only thing he came home with. It was all Tom had.

My grandma kept the envelope tucked up among her collection of bills and coins. I am sure it fell out from time to time and I can see her opening the flap and pouring the nickels into her hand as she did with me that day. My grandma was never one to dwell on the past, on the sadness of life, but I bet she allowed herself a moment to hold on to those coins and remember her brother Tom.


1 Comment

They’re Coming to America

Not to stay, just for a visit. For the first time since I was just a squirming, bald-headed baby, members of the Irish branch of the McCormack family are coming to the Twin Cities.

Jim, Eileen, Regan, and Aine McCormack – Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1972 (photo by Paddy Kelly)

Paddy Kelly was on a GAA tour of the States in 1972 when he swung my great-aunt Nellie Marrin’s home in South Minneapolis. That’s where he snapped this photo. The photo resurfaced in 2011 when the four of us in this photo had dinner with our cousins the Kelly family in County Laois.  I kind of like the idea that this snapshot of us had been in Ireland for most of my life. Even in the years I was not aware or relatives in Ireland, that photo sat in some album or box, like the old photographs of my great-grandfather who left Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century.

But in less than a month, Martin and Marian McCormack will be joining us in Saint Paul. We’ve met up with them in Ireland when we visit, but I can’t wait to see them on our turf.

A bunch of McCormacks in 2011 at Lisheen Castle County Tipperary (Martin and Marian are on left end, front and back)

This is not their first time to the States, but it will be their first trip to Minnesota. I think the Twin Cities will show off pretty well in the September weather. Marian said she wasn’t interested in shopping, so I think we will skip the Mall of America. Several years ago Martin expressed that he didn’t need to see another pyramid or temple so I won’t suggest a tour of the Cathedral of Saint Paul.

Luckily, there are plenty of other things to do and see here, so I am not worried. I wonder, though, what other Irish people who visit the United States like to do while they are here? Or what do they find unique about America? I know what I like to do in Ireland, but I wonder what Irish people like to do when they are here?

I will let you know how the visit goes…


Leave a comment

Summer Irish American Book Club: August, already???

Indeed, it is. Another summer nearly over. But, nearly is the operative word. There is still time to knock a couple more titles off your summer reading list. Regan (my sis) and I started reading Pete Hamill’s Snow in August and I am really enjoying it so far. Order it up and join us…click here, less than $7 on Amazon.

Snow in August takes us to Brooklyn (we’ve been there a lot this summer!) For a change of pace, this novel gives us a male perspective on 20th century Irish American life. The novel opens in December 1946 with eleven-year-old Michael Devlin waking up in the apartment he shares with his mother. That’s all I am going to say. I don’t like when people give things away about books. Isn’t that why we read them? To find out what happens? Click here to read the proper New York Times review.

Regan and I are reading Snow in August at the same time so it will be nice to talk about it as we go. I missed that with the last couple of books which we read alternately.  That doesn’t make for much of a book club, now does it?

Here’s a list of the books I’ve read so far this summer. You will notice a couple of non-Irish-America-related titles. I took a bit of a detour last month. This list begins with the most recently read book.

 

SUMMER 2017 BOOKS, SO FAR

 

Ashes of Fiery Weather by Kathleen Donohoe.

What I liked most about this book was that Donohoe’s characters felt real. Sometimes they bugged me and I sighed and rolled my eyes at their decisions. Other times I was surprised by their bravery, commitment, and compassion. It’s just how I feel about my family and friends. I also appreciated the way she structured the book and was very consistent in weaving the elements and generations together.  We were given a backstage pass into the world of the F.D.N.Y. and it was fascinating and heartbreaking. Really enjoyed this book.


The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

I loved Holden Caulfield when I read this for the first time at age fifteen, and I love him today (many years later). If you haven’t read this for a while, do it. Holden mentions that his last name is Irish and his dad used to be Catholic when he talks about how “Catholics are always trying to find out if you’re a Catholic.” (p.125)  So many good quotes and insightful observations from Holden. Holden is definitely near the top of my “all-time favorite characters” list.

 

At Weddings and Wakes by Alice McDermott.

When I finished this book and noticed it was published in 1992, I could not understand what took me so long to read it! I fell in love with this book on the first page. McDermott’s writing is beautifully subtle, but she doesn’t try to be mysterious. Bits and pieces of each character reminded me of some old relative in my own Irish American family (those I knew as well as those I’d only heard stories about.) So much felt familiar…like how Lucy never left her aunties without a bag of stuff.


Three Days in Damascus by Kim Schultz.

This memoir has nothing to do with Irish America, but Kim is an old friend of mine. She should be proud of herself for this book. I know I am proud of her! As I read it, I felt like it was 1994 and I was sitting at a crowded table at Chang O’Hara’s, drinking beers and listening to Kim tell us a story. Those were good times. The origin of this memoir is a one-woman play Kim produced following her experience meeting and interviewing Iraqi refugees. Kim met a special refugee and brings us along on the bumpy and confusing road of loving through language and cultural barriers. Well done, Kim. I wish Chang’s was still here…I’d buy you a beer!


Don’t Tell the Girls by Patricia Reilly Giff.

This was a delightful family memoir in which Patricia Reilly Giff explores her Irish heritage. She took the stories she had heard throughout her life and set out to learn details of the real events in her family history. I know the feeling of pouring over census records and passenger lists, looking for something – anything – familiar. What Reilly Giff learned, I will leave it for you to read. There is usually more to the story that Grandma tells…we just have to figure it out! This is currently a real bargain at Amazon…cute hardcover volume for less than $5 would make a great gift…click here.

 

 Saints for all Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan.

Please click here to see my earlier post for more on this book.

 

 

 

 

ON DECK

I just got a copy of Will Murray’s King Kong vs. Tarzan and I think that’s going to be an awesome way to close out the Summer of Irish American Reads! I’ll update you on what we thought of Snow in August

 

Let me know what you are reading and if you have any suggestions for great Irish American book. Leave a comment or send an email to TheIrishInAmerica!