The Irish in America


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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.

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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…


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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!


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Getting Started… A Summer Book Club!

We heard from a few of you last week with great suggestions for The Irish in America Laid Back Summer Book Club. It’s laid back because no one is trying to boss you around, tell you what to read and when to finish. We’re just here, taking/making suggestions, learning about Irish American authors and chatting about books.

Back in May, Regan and I simultaneously read Saints for All Occasions, by J. Courtney Sullivan. Since Regan and I are neighbors, we found ourselves talking a lot about the book as we read it. This made me more critical of the book than was perhaps necessary. Has anyone else read the book? I’d like to hear what you thought. Leave a comment or complete the form at the end of the post.

 

AINE’S CURRENT SELECTION…

Eileen suggested an Alice McDermott novel. Since I usually follow Eileen’s advice, I chose At Weddings and Wakes, McDermott’s 1992 novel. McDermott has several books from which to choose, but this one felt right for a summer read. The book begins in the summer and the stifling heat in the Brooklyn apartment McDermott describes is not unlike what we had in Saint Paul over the weekend, although I do enjoy air conditioning!

I am on page fifty-four, and I love this book. McDermott is a beautiful writer. I am not a fan of overly descriptive, flowery language – when I feels as though the author is trying to impress me with their writing. McDermott is the opposite of that. She writes with confidence. Her descriptions are integral to developing the characters, to telling the story.

One of my favorite passages so far is on page eight where McDermott describes the three children from the perspective of their fellow passengers on a subway car. This is the youngest daughter:

And then, nearly dangling from her mother’s arm, another in the same white eyelet dress. No beauty here, what with the freckles on the moon face and those small green eyes, but it was she they smiled at, those who smiled, she who drew them to smile up at the mother (the door sliding shut behind her, cutting off the noise), whose face brought to mind not only the map of Ireland, but the names of two or three other women they knew who looked just or something like her.

Isn’t that great? I can picture the girl (and the two or three or four other women) exactly.

Click here for a review of At Weddings and Wakes.

Let me know if you decide to read this book…we can discuss!

 

WHAT’S REGAN READING?

Regan is currently reading Ashes of Fiery Weather, by Kathleen Donohoe. Stay tuned to the blog, she will tell us all about it. You can also follow Regan on Twitter…click here.

 

WHAT ARE YOU READING?

NEXT UP FOR AINE…

Mary suggested King Kong vs. Tarzan, by Will Murray. Looking forward to this one…more about the book and its Irish-American author coming soon!

 

JUST WONDERING…

I include links to amazon.com because that’s where I buy a lot of my books. Where do you get yours? I will include links for you, too. If you go to your local library – or your sister’s bookshelf – you will be on your own!

 

 

 


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Summer Reading: The Irish in America

Memorial Day is in the rearview mirror, the school year is winding down and the air has turned heavy and warm…summer has arrived in Saint Paul! It’s time to assemble your summer reading list, hit the pool/beach/lake/air-conditioned living room, and start reading!

I plan on doing a lot of reading this summer so I thought it might be fun to start an Irish American Book Club here on the blog. I’ve never been much for the traditional book club. I like to discuss books as I am reading them. It’s hard for me to save up all my key points and insights for the monthly club meeting. I also don’t like the pressure involved in the typical book club – I don’t like people telling me what book to read and when to read it.

This will be a different kind of book club. I am not exactly sure how it will take shape, but for starters, I would like to hear what Irish American books have been on your radar lately. I need some suggestions as to what I should read this summer and I would like to hear what people think about what they’re reading.

Make suggestions, give feedback. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Books should be by an Irish-American author or have a subject involving the Irish in America, but needn’t be both.
  • Readers will share what they are reading and will be honest with their critiques and praise.
  • We will have fun reading!

Regan (my sis) and I got a head start and read Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan. It is a novel about two Irish sisters who move to Boston in the 1950’s. Immediately I thought of Maureen Teahan Murray, the lovely contributor to the blog who passed away last summer. Maureen came to Boston from Milltown, County Kerry in 1947. She and her sister landed in New York just in time for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade before heading north to Boston to begin their new lives. (Click here for more about Maureen and links to her delightful essays.)

I also thought about Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, a book I loved. The movie was great as well, but the book was better. However, I put all of this out of my mind when I began reading Saints for All Occasions because I wanted to have an open mind. I didn’t want to compare it to a real-life situation or another novel.

Has anyone else read Saints for All Occasions? I would love to hear what you thought of it. I think it is a perfect summertime “beach read.” It is just over 300 pages and it goes pretty quickly. Regan and I discussed it as we read, carefully monitoring where the other was in the story as to not spoil anything. Leave a comment and let us know what you thought!

If you have book ideas or thoughts on Saints for All Occasions, tweet me @ainemccormack1…I’d love to hear from you!

Happy Summer!!!!


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Gimme the Butter

A version of the following article first appeared in Irish Lives Remembered Genealogy Magazine (July 2013 issue).

Tom McMahon, 1895

Tom McMahon, 1895

“I’ve never heard that! Why didn’t grandma ever tell me that story?”

I have to admit, when my older sister Regan says this, as she does from time-to-time, I feel a tinge of satisfaction. Younger sisters will understand how years of childhood rivalry can spill over into adulthood and we briefly allow ourselves to revel in the tiniest of victories. A card game won, a promotion at work, or in my case, a story my grandma told me.

But, as the ever-modest younger sibling, I shrug and tell Regan it’s simple. She never heard the story because she never asked. I was constantly asking my grandma to tell me all about the “old days”, and a question like, “What was your dad like?” (and a few key follow-ups) often lead to an afternoon of unearthing memories and revealing truths. Like this…

Thomas Edward McMahon, my great-grandfather, was born on June 13, 1879, in Tara Township, Minnesota. Tom was the second child and eldest son of Francis and Catherine (McAndrew) McMahon. His father was a native of County Fermanagh and his mother was born in New York – her parents came from County Mayo in the 1850s.

1904

1904

My grandma was Agnes McMahon Regan, Tom’s youngest daughter. Grandma said her dad was warm and generous. His family and friends could depend on Tom to be there when they needed him. No one was better in a crisis. Grandma smiled when she said that in the end, her dad was at heart, a big kid. He loved to play with his children and his easy manner lead to lots of jokes and laughter. Tom enjoyed nothing more than sitting in his chair in the evening, surrounded by his family as his wife, Mary, read aloud from Treasure Island or Little Women or whatever novel the mobile library offered that month.

Tom wed Mary Foley on June 9, 1904, at St. Malachy Catholic Church in Clontarf, Minnesota. The couple grew up a mile apart on farms in Tara Township and were childhood friends. Tom’s nickname was “Hoosie” and Mary was “Minnie”. They had seven children – four girls and three boys.

Grandma said her dad was so good-natured, he never raised his voice.

“Never?” I asked. A natural question.

“Well…there was one time…” And we’re off.

The family was at the table for dinner when my grandma (who was about four-years-old at the time) said to her dad, seated next to her, “Gimme the butter!”

Tom was startled by his daughter’s demand. “Pardon me?”

Grandma said it again, this time louder, since he obviously didn’t hear her, “GIMME THE BUTTER!”

Tom was taken aback. None of his children behaved so rudely, not even his spirited middle child, Rose. But he was especially surprised by the outburst from Agnes. Tom told her she could have the butter if she asked for it nicely.

Grandma thought about it for a moment and said, “Gimme the butter!”

Tom had heard enough. He stood up and ordered Agnes to leave the table immediately. Grandma stormed out of the kitchen and threw herself on the seat of the buggy outside. She cried like she had never cried before. A short time later, Tom came out to Grandma. He set her dinner on her lap and placed his arm around her shoulders. Grandma said she apologized profusely. Her dad brushed the black curls from her forehead and dried her tears with his handkerchief. “There, now, that’s the girl. You’re alright…”

The two of them sat on the buggy while Grandma ate her dinner. She still felt terrible, but she had learned her lesson. Looking back, Grandma thought her dad felt as bad as she did that he raised his voice. He never did it again. And Grandma learned some table manners.

More I learned about Tom McMahon…

1921

1921

According to Grandma, her dad was a true farmer. He loved everything about the process – preparing the soil, planting, growing crops, harvesting them, and sharing the fruits of his labor. Unfortunately, the 1910s and 1920s were tough on many farmers on the prairie of Western Minnesota. Tom tried to make a go of it several times. He sold the homestead and moved to rented land, farming until 1926 when he gave it up for the last time. The McMahon family moved to Minneapolis to begin life anew.

In the city, Tom worked at the pole yard, treating and preparing new telephone poles.  When he retired, a neighbor allowed Tom to use a nearby vacant lot for a garden. Tom returned to what he loved. He grew enough produce to trade with the local shop for groceries and feed his family and neighbors. He had never been happier.

Tom McMahon died on May 6, 1937. His wife, Mary, came home after a rare afternoon away from home to find him peacefully in his chair, rosary entwined in his fingers. A heart attack took him quickly.

Listening to Grandma’s memories of her loved ones brought them to life for me, and at the same time allowed me a glimpse at my grandma. I never had the privilege to meet my great-grandfather, but I feel like I know him. I was lucky to know my grandma. Now it’s my job to keep and share my grandma’s memories and her stories for the rest of the family. You just have to ask.

 

If you aren’t by nature as nosy as I am, these sites might help you think of what questions to ask…

 

 


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Riding the Rails

So pleased to welcome Ellie Kelly as a contributor to The Irish in America. Before we get to her delightful piece in which a subway ride in Toronto triggers memories of riding shot-gun with her dad on another subway, in Boston, Ellie takes a moment to introduce herself. I like what Ellie has to say about her Irish heritage and identity. It is not always about knowing the entire family tree by heart or singing sentimental Irish ballads. For many of us, being Irish American is just a way of life, growing up surrounded by “the lilting laughing Irish voices”. I look forward to learning more about Ellie and her thoughts on being Irish in America!

Meet Ellie

I am a first generation American. My mother, Joan Teahan, came to this country in November, 1947, with her sister, Maureen. Their first day in New York City included the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, which is described in Maureen’s blog, along with various other adventures they had with their sisters growing up. I truly enjoyed my Aunt Maureen’s blog over the years. My father’s parents also came from Ireland, so the lilting laughing Irish voices were such a part of my entire childhood. Funny how as I have moved all over the country, I often get homesick for that very sound.

Most people know I am Irish by looking at me, as I have the usual white skin, freckles and blond hair. I love my Irish heritage and yet I have not fully embraced it. I see myself as a proud American coming from immigrants seeking a better life. I am honored to have been asked to blog for the Irish in America, and yet I feel almost like a fraud in many ways. My siblings know so much more Irish history than I do, are so much more involved in everything Irish, while I am not. I feel I disappoint them at times when they mention names and dates that are meaningful to the Irish and I stare blankly. I cannot figure out who is related to who in my extended family as I moved away years ago and lost touch with so many. I am fully assimilated….and so in some ways I guess I maybe do represent some of the Irish in America. I plan to write from the heart about my life and times and hope that the stories reach people and touch a heart here and there.

I currently live in Fort Myers, Florida with my wife, Terri, and I am a few years from retirement and I travel from home to various locations weekly for work projects.

From 2011 riding the subway again after over 30 years away

So here I am working in Toronto 4 days a week and happy that spring is arriving. Instead of a daily drive commute from home, I now use airplanes, taxis and the subway to get to work. The subway is now a regular part of my life – and for so many years I have not been in a city with a subway. As a child being raised in Boston, Massachusetts, the world revolved around using the subway to get from point A to point B. I grew up riding the Boston subway – but not like most people rode it. No, I rode in the next best spot in the car – the driver had the best – but I stood right beside the driver 99% of the time I rode. How did I manage that? My dad was the driver. In fact, the Boston subway was a part of my family, with Poppa joining the Boston street car union in 1916. He was known as “Sandwich Kelly” as every day his wife would meet his street car at the end of their street and hand his lunch through the window to him. My father followed in his footsteps and then the Boston transit system went from a Sunday dinner discussion event at Nana’s house to a daily over dinner discussion at our own dinner table. My brother made it a multi-generational affair by also joining the “T”.

Countless times I would ride with my dad, simply for the pleasure of it. He would pick me up at the top of our street (back when the street cars ran instead of the buses) and I would travel one or more loops through town with him. He would always teach me something about the subway on our rides. It wasn’t until now that I realized how much I learned about the subway, and how much I loved those rides. Back then, I learned the signal-light patterns in the tunnels. I remember where the secret doors in the walls were. Heck, I even knew where every cross-track was, and could prepare myself for the accompanying sway, and was ready for the exact moment that the car wheels would begin screeching as it rounded that Boylston Street curve. Outside of the tunnels, back in the car barn, I learned how to reseat the wire on top of the car if it came off the line. How to open the closed car door from the outside. Once, I even drove a street car around the yard one time – that was a thrill! Most of all, I just loved riding those rails with him at my side. Many times as a child I also had the privilege of riding in the same spot with my Dad’s friends when I boarded the car by myself, something a child could safely do in the 60’s in Boston. I had extended “T” family all over the city.

Today, I found myself migrating to the front of the Toronto train, standing again at the front, looking out, right beside the driver’s booth. There was a familiarity about looking ahead into the dark, feeling the car grab as it crossed another line, adjusting to the sway, and watching those familiar (even though I was in a foreign city) gray walls with the power lines running along them. It was a warm, welcoming feeling. There are many things in life to be thankful to a parent for, and most people remember the bigger things in life when remembering their own father. I have those memories, too. But this small piece of comfort, when I am so far away from my own home, is what stands out for me today. My dad was not the person in the driver’s seat today – he was standing right beside me enjoying the ride……and I will be in that same spot tomorrow morning, too.

 

Thanks, Ellie! Couldn’t help but think of this song…