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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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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St. Patrick’s Day Fun in Holyoke

SPD_parade+_Holyoke

St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Holyoke, Massachusetts

In case you aren’t ready for St. Patrick’s Day to be over for 2014, there’s one more big celebration to come. On Sunday, March 23rd the Massachusetts town of Holyoke hosts the second-largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the United States (only the New York City parade is larger!)

Holyoke residents are fiercely proud of their Irish heritage, and they know how to show it. The town of about 40,000 will welcome up to 400,000 visitors to its annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. Here’s what the parade website has to say:

The Holyoke St. Patrick’s Parade has been a cherished institution since 1952. Each March, our city streets fill with happy folks from near and far celebrating Irish heritage, civic pride, faith, family, friendship and tradition. A regional event attracting over 400,000 on street spectators, this Parade is the Pioneer Valley’s biggest homecoming of the year!

Festivities will kick off at 12:30pm on Thursday with the raising of the Irish flag at Holyoke City Hall. Then, at 1:00pm is a preview of the “Grand Colleen” float.

 Photo by Manon L. Mirabelli| Holyoke 2014 Grand Colleen Sheila S. Fallon, of Holyoke, with her father, Daniel Fallon

Photo by Manon L. Mirabelli| Holyoke 2014 Grand Colleen Sheila S. Fallon, of Holyoke, with her father, Daniel Fallon

Many thanks to reader Ed O’Connor for telling me about the Holyoke parade. I am always learning something new about the Irish in America! Good luck to everyone in Holyoke – I hope you have a beautiful Spring day to celebrate your Irish heritage!


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Irish Savannah in Pictures

Irish Savannah (1)

Just in time for the Savannah Irish Festival this weekend, Arcadia Publishing released it’s newest pictorial history, Irish Savannah, by Sheila Counihan Winders earlier this week. Irish Savannah is for sale online at arcadiapublishing.com and folks in Savannah can pick it up at local retailers.

Take a look at what the publisher has to say about this exciting new book and its author…

CLICK HERE to open the pdf of the press release.

Irish Savannah joins more than twenty volumes in Arcadia’s series highlighting the contribution and impact of the Irish on communities throughout the United States. And you know what’s really great about these books? The pictures! If you are like me and you can’t get enough of old photographs and the history of Irish America, then you have hit the jackpot with Arcadia’s Irish series. Click here to get started building your collection. (Psst…it looks like you can get 20% off when you sign up for their newsletter.)

Congratulations to Sheila Counihan Winders and the lovely city of Savannah!


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Monica Wood: Irish American from Mexico (Maine)

WWWTK

From the moment she began reading When We Were the Kennedys, my sister, Regan, could not stop talking about the book. Regan reads a lot, but we don’t usually share what we read. I think it’s because our literary tastes differ quite a bit. But that all changed when Regan read, When We Were the Kennedys.  As she finished the book and handed it off to me, she said, “Hurry up now and finish it so we can talk all about it!” (Please keep reading to learn about your chance to win a copy for yourself!)

The Kennedy name surely caught Regan’s eye initially – the iconic Irish American family has always intrigued her – but the blurb on the back sold her. The story begins in 1963 with the close-knit Wood family living in Mexico, Maine. Mexico is a town physically, psychologically, and fiscally dominated by the Oxford Paper Company. The author’s father dies suddenly on his way to work at the Mill one day and life for the Wood family changes forever. We see how the family mourns (at one point with the entire country) and how they begin to make their way back.

Poignant, but never sappy, it is a truly a beautiful memoir. One reviewer said he had never pulled as hard for a family. That is exactly how I felt, and I wanted to learn more about its author, Monica Wood. She mentioned in an interview that both her parents’ families came from an Irish enclave on Prince Edward Island, Canada and that her father was a natural storyteller with a gift for language, but I wondered how else she felt her heritage as an Irish American.

Monica Wood - click photo to learn more about the author!

Monica Wood

Monica was gracious enough to chat a bit and answer a few questions. I began by asking Monica if growing up she was aware of her Irish roots. Monica said very much so and went on to describe the lilting accents of her grandparents and the “many, many Irish expressions that were built into our family lexicon. Lots of colorful expressions.”

I asked if she remembered any and Monica came up with: “Arriving with one arm as long as the other.” Meaning? “You brought nothing to the table.” That’s one I can definitely hear my Irish American relatives saying!

Monica also remembered songs such as “Whiskey You’re the Devil” and “Danny Boy” filling the air of her childhood.

I was interested if Monica ever felt she was treated differently as an American of Irish descent. Mexico, Maine was a town of immigrants and the children of immigrants, so she never felt out-of-place because of her heritage. Monica was proud of it: “…I remember as a child in my town, we still identified by our families’ roots. When a kid asked, ‘What are you?’, my answer was ‘Irish.'”

Monica recently visited Ireland for the first time, spending part of her visit on a houseboat on the Shannon. She was amazed at how, although many generations removed from Ireland, she felt at home in Ireland. The Irish embrace their history and their folklore in such a way that a common ground emerges when descendants of those who left, return. This is why it can feel like coming home for many Irish Americans.

I’d like to share what Monica told me about her visit to Ireland:

My sister Cathe had been there just last year and told me it would feel like coming home. I didn’t think that would be true. But it was. For one thing, so many people reminded me of aunts and uncles and cousins! And they are so very warm, and they LOVE to talk, and sing, and lift a glass to almost anything. The night before we left (I was there with my husband) we ended up singing for 100 people in a pub in Ennis. By the time I got to the final chorus, everyone had learned the song (“Hard Times” by Stephen Foster) and was singing with me. I got the chills, literally, and realized: This is my tribe.

I can imagine that Monica was a big hit with the people of Ennis that night – they do love when you bring a song!

I am so happy to have read When We Were the Kennedys, and if you don’t win the Author-Signed Copy in our little competition here at The Irish in America, you will just have to go out and buy one for yourself, but it probably won’t be signed. Monica even agreed to personalize the inscription (actually it was her idea!)

So, how do you win? It’s easy! Just “like” this post – either click the button below on the blog or like it on Facebook (click here) – and your name will be entered in a drawing to win. Only one entry per person, please. You only have until 11:59pm (EST) Sunday, January 26th. We will announce the winner here on the blog early next week. For more information on the contest, please visit our CONTEST page.

Good luck!

Take a look at this short video and hear Monica talk about When We Were the Kennedys:

Click here to read reviews of When We Were the Kennedys by Monica Wood.


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Up Close and Personal with Philadelphia’s Irish Memorial

Philadelphia is full of things which photographs (and words) do not do justice – the Liberty Bell, the seventeenth-century residential street Elfreth’s Alley, and the steps scaled by the iconic film character Rocky Balboa are just a few of the sights one really needs to experience in person to fully appreciate.

But, until you all can get to Philly, I will share some of the photos from our trip last week. Let’s begin with a few of Regan’s snaps at the Irish Memorial.

The story of the Irish Memorial.

photo credit: Regan McCormack

photo credit: Regan McCormack

Memorial with Benjamin Franklin Bridge in background.

photo credit: Regan McCormack

photo credit: Regan McCormack

Another view.

photo credit: Regan McCormack

photo credit: Regan McCormack

I love this poem by Peter Quinn, located at the memorial.

photo credit: Regan McCormack

photo credit: Regan McCormack

The Irish Memorial is a beautiful tribute to our Irish ancestors and a poignant reminder of their struggles, tragedies, and triumphs.

Click here for more details on the memorial.

Next time I will share some more about the wonderful city of Philadelphia – a city it only took me a few days to fall in love with!


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Will the Real Annie Moore Please Stand Up?

Annie Moore with brothers Anthony and Philip, Ellis Island, 1892

Annie Moore with brothers Anthony and Philip, Ellis Island, 1892

Megan Smolenyak is on a mission. She wants the world to know the real Annie Moore. You have probably heard of her – Annie Moore was the first immigrant to arrive at Ellis Island when it opened on January 1, 1892. Annie became an instant celebrity that day, but just as quickly as the gold and silver coins were distributed and attention enveloped this girl from County Cork, Annie melted into the masses and another Annie Moore took her place in history.

AnnieMoore_EllisIsland

Annie Moore sculpture at Ellis Island

We didn’t know of Annie’s identity crisis until 2005 when Megan Smolenyak decided to pitch a story idea to PBS for a documentary on American immigrants. Megan had always been fascinated with Ellis Island and the immigration story, and why not explore the genealogy of Ellis Island’s first immigrant, Annie Moore? 

Megan is a well-known and respected genealogist, author, blogger, lecturer, finder of President Obama’s Irish roots, contributor to TV programs (Who Do You Think You Are?) and documentaries. Megan didn’t set out to bust any myths, she simply saw that little was known about Annie Moore and she wanted to see what information she could find on this important figure in American history.

As she began to trace Annie Moore, Megan came across one inconsistency after another. It wasn’t long before Megan realized that the Annie Moore everyone accepted as THE Annie Moore was born in Illinois, not the first immigrant on Ellis Island. And there is more…click here to see the proof Megan has compiled showing that the wrong Annie Moore had become the heroine of the story. Megan was determined to set history straight.

Last month I had the pleasure of listening as Megan shared her Annie Moore research journey via her wonderful Legacy Family History webinar, Annie Moore of Ellis Island – A Case of Historical Identity Theft. Megan explained the process of making things right – finding evidence of the real Annie Moore, contacting Annie’s descendants, bringing them together for a reunion, and even helping to get a headstone for Annie’s previously unmarked grave.

The real Annie Moore didn’t go West. In fact, she never made it out of New York’s lower east side tenements. You can follow Megan’s research here. Megan has put together links, videos, audio clips, and photos to tell this fascinating story. It amazes me that so many people could be so wrong about Annie’s identity for so long. No one even thought to look into Annie’s story…until Megan. Thank you, Megan, for your persistence and dedication to learning the truth.

Annie Moore with brothers, Cobh, County Cork

Annie Moore with brothers at Cobh, County Cork

Megan’s discoveries have tremendous impact on how each of us views our genealogy research and the lives of our immigrant ancestors. It is important that we do not simply accept stories we hear as the truth because, “That’s what Grandma always said…” Family lore is priceless, but it can be useful to back those stories up with research. That’s how we turn the stories into history.

This case of mistaken identity reminds us to value all the experiences of our Irish immigrant ancestors. They didn’t all come to America and follow the path of dreams, adventure, and success that read like a Hollywood film script. But neither did all immigrants struggle in poverty-stricken urban slums. Many fell somewhere between; there is great diversity to the Irish immigrant experience and it is important to keep an open mind when researching your family’s history.

I can’t wait to see what Megan finds out about Annie’s life in Ireland, before she became the first immigrant at Ellis Island. Stay tuned…

You might know that Irish artist Jeanne Rynhart is responsible for the bronze sculpture of Annie and her brothers at Cobh, as well as Annie at Ellis Island. What other famous sculpture in Ireland is also the work of Ms. Rynhart? Another trivia question…who actually cast the bronze statues? Leave a comment if you have either answer!