The Irish in America


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There just may be more to the story…

I hesitate to use the term genealogy when I describe my family history research.  Why?  Because I am not very good about the data – filling in family charts with the names and birth dates of distant cousins doesn’t interest me as much as the stories about the people on the chart.  Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled if my research brings me to a previously unknown relative with family photos, stories, or simply a shared interest in the family history, but when I look at my family tree, I am drawn to the little branches that stop abruptly.  These nubs represent bachelor uncles and spinster aunts, those who married but had no children and those who moved away, never to be heard from again.  They also represent children and young adults whose lives were cut short, leaving behind siblings and parents to remember them.  These are the stories I grew up listening to my grandma tell, and these individuals were mysterious to me and I always wanted to learn more about their lives.

Unfortunately, my attraction to these figures tends to set me up for disappointment as a researcher.  Often the content of the stories my grandma told is all the information there is on the family members.  But sometimes it is possible to flesh out their stories using the myriad of resources available to us today.

My grandma used to tell me about her Aunt Rose who never married and supported herself working in a department store in the city.  Grandma always liked Rose and thought she was very polished and fancy.  A simple search on ancestry.com shed more light on where Rose lived and worked.  She was employed in the millinery department of St. Paul department store (which would explain her appearance to my grandma), and she also worked for a time at the National Biscuit Company.  When I looked at the Clontarf, Minnesota archive I discovered that Rose also worked at a hospital in Iowa and kept current with her insurance policy with the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Clontarf.  She wrote letters to the Auxiliary secretary,  inquiring as to the health of her uncle and said she would be home soon for a few weeks to help care for him.  A little research, together with my grandma’s stories helped to paint a picture of what Rose was like – an independent single woman working to support herself and help her extended family.

Aunt Rose McMahon, with her sister Kate McMahon Mears

When older generations pass away, it often takes the younger people a while to become interested in family stories and history.  During this lag time, details become fuzzy, memories fade, and letters are thrown away.  This is where resources found on the internet can help fill the void and begin to put the pieces back together.  The research I do for my own family history is the same that goes into tracing an Irish relative who emigrated to America.  This broader approach to family history allows us to learn more about our roots and what makes us who we are.

I won’t bore you with all the details, but some other family members who have piqued my interest (and imagination) over the years include Uncle Jackie who fell off the threshing machine and died of tuberculosis of the spine, little Francis who died after eating poisoned plums, and cranky old Aunt Maggie who never married because her boyfriend “snuffed himself out” – he blew out a gas lamp in his hotel room.

These people deserve to be remembered just as much as those who had families and descendants of their own.  There is usually more to a story, something to extend that branch just a bit further.  The same goes for Irish people wondering about a member of their family who “disappeared” to America.  It is not too late to find out what happened to them.

Please check out the Resources page for help on getting started with your own research, or send an email to: aine@archival-solutions.com.  If you would like to hire a professional to help in your search, please visit the Services page for more information.


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The AOH: From Concord to Clontarf

I wanted to write about Irish fraternal organizations and societies that emerged in nineteenth century America as the population of Irish immigrants grew, but then I realized I really don’t know anything about the subject.  Instead, I will share some thoughts on the Irish immigrant experience, with a bit on Irish-American organizations.

When I was in Concord, New Hampshire early in October, the parish secretary of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church pointed to a house where Mass was said in the days before the church was built and the parish established in 1869.  She said that the Irish (who were more or less the only Catholics in Concord at the time) had to be careful because they could be evicted for having a priest say Mass in their home.

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church - Concord, NH (photo by Regan McCormack)

My great-great-grandfather came to live in Concord shortly after arriving in America in 1864.  His name was Patrick Foley, and he came from Kilmichael Parish in County Cork (see the last post.)  Patrick Foley could read and write, and at various times served as doorkeeper, secretary, and president of the St. Patrick’s Benevolent Society in Concord.

Another one of my great-great-grandfathers, John Regan, came from Kilmichael Parish in County Cork as well and settled in Concord.  He could neither read nor write, and very likely couldn’t even speak English when he left Ireland.  If the people of Concord were intolerant of Catholics, one can imagine they did not have much time for non-English speakers.  Organizations such as the St. Patrick’s Benevolent Society and the Ancient Order of Hibernians (the AOH, who had a branch in Concord) would have been very important in helping new immigrants adjust to life in America and help protect their religious rights.

My great-great-grandfathers moved west to Clontarf, Minnesota in the late 1870s as part of Bishop John Ireland’s Catholic colonization efforts.  Most of the early settlers were fellow Irishmen and women who had worked for ten years or more in the crowded cities on the East coast or farmed small plots of rented land, saving what money they could for a chance to own land and live in a community where they had their own church and their own priest.

St. Malachy Catholic Church Clontarf, MN

The AOH hall still stands in Clontarf, Minnesota and serves as St. Malachy Parish Hall.  On the prairie of Western Minnesota, the goals of the AOH began to shift.  They could turn their attention toward selling insurance policies and planning St. Patrick’s Day programs now that they were free to practice their religion.

What does any of this mean to you, as you search for your Irish relatives who came to America?  Not sure, exactly, except I hope it contributes to your understanding of what life was like for Irish immigrants in America.

The AOH still exists today.  There are a number of local branches throughout America.  Go here for a list.  Maybe your relative was once a member, or your cousins still are…