The Irish in America


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Quarantine at Tess’s

Apparently it takes a pandemic to get me to write a new blog post…

I should be wrapping up a family trip to Ireland right now. The whole gang had synchronized our calendars. My dad’s eternal question, “When are we all going to Ireland?” finally had an answer. That was until COVID-19 seeped into our lives.

Given where things are now, it is strange to think that just a month ago we were on the phone with Jimmy and Helen, our Irish cousins, planning day trips and nights out. I couldn’t wait for my brother Matt and his family to finally meet Jimmy and Helen. COVID-19 was in the news, we even joked about the need to quarantine while we were there. Helen quipped, “Ah sure, that’s no problem. Ye can stay at Tess’s place.”

Two Jimmy McCormacks at the ancestral home, the old house on Ballyedmond farm – or “Tess’s Place” – not inhabited for decades. (Photo: Regan McCormack, 2009)

Eleven days after that phone call, Trump announced travel bans and overnight the idea of a pleasure trip became ridiculous. Helen reported panic-buying and growing fear in Ireland. They were told that they were on pace to be the next Italy. Museums and historic sites closed, pubs closed. I waited for Aer Lingus to cancel our flight so I could get a refund. That happened on St. Patrick’s Day.

We will get there later this year, I say now. In a few months, that statement could seem as naive as our light-hearted discussion of minibus tours, pints at Tuohy’s, and quarantines seem today. Right now, all I want is for there to be enough ventilators and for everyone I love, here and there, to stay safe and sound.

Tuohy’s Bar, Rathdowney (Photo: Regan McCormack, 2017)


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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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Well, He Finally Did It!

My dad, Jim McCormack, finished his book: The Ballyedmond McCormacks in Ireland and America. I am proud of him and in awe of the achievement.

The Jimmys having a laugh outside the old house

The author and his cousin sharing a laugh outside McCormack cottage in Ballyedmond

What I am most impressed with is how Dad went the extra mile to tell the stories of ALL the McCormacks who came from Ballyedmond, near Rathdowney in County Laois, Ireland. He could have told the story of his grandfather and great uncles who came to America in the 1870s through the 1880s. That would have been enough for most family historians and genealogists.

But Dad included the stories of the McCormacks who came to America the generation before his grandfather. This is such a well-researched book. It seemed as though every few months Dad would say he had just met a new cousin. He got to know so many cousins, learning their stories, identifying photographs, and filling in the gaps. The book explores the strong links between the American and Irish branches of the McCormack family – links I have talked about on this blog.

What Jim has to say about the book…

This labor of love was almost 20 years in the making. I drew on resources in America and in Ireland, including family oral tradition and memoirs, verified wherever possible, church and civil records, newspaper accounts and a few secondary sources. The result was a 240 page volume including about 300 photos and charts.

Click here to view the flyer.

If you would like to order a copy, send me an email and I will put you in touch with Jim.

Nice job, Dad!

 

 


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Day Eight of Irish American Favorites: Family Photo

First Communion of Margaret McCormack - 1951

I know, I know…you’ve seen this photograph before. It’s right up there on the top of the website, and I have used it on my business cards and other materials. I think it is a great photo – maybe even the quintessential Irish-America family photograph.

Andy&Mary; Mike&Katie

Andy&Mary; Mike&Katie

Three generations of McCormacks gathered (with in-laws) to celebrate the 1951 First Communion of my Aunt Maggie – Margaret Mary McCormack. The “old guys” are in the back row – my great-grandfather Andy McCormack in the classic trench coat and his brother Mike, standing a couple of people over on Andy’s right. The brothers immigrated to the United States from Ballyedmond, County Laois in the latter part of the 1800s.

Can you spot the native Irish speaker in the photo? That would be Mike’s wife, standing behind Maggie. Katie Hannon hailed from Gorumna Island, Connemara, Galway. Mike and Andy married sisters, but Andy’s wife, Mary, passed away years before this photo was taken.

My Aunt Eeny is with her Auntie Nellie (seated in front of Andy), while my dad is kneeling in the corner, looking exactly like I always imagined he would in the 1950s, in jeans and a striped t-shirt. My Grandma Agnes sits next to Maggie, pregnant with my Aunt Mary. My Grandpa Bill is on the far left, with his hand on his niece Martha’s shoulder.

Aunts, uncles, and cousins round out the group. It is incredible to see these people together, looking so happy and healthy.

I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if some of the people in this photo surface later this month as favorites all on their own.


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Lovely Laois

Erke, Co. Laois (R. McCormack)

I am extremely excited for my trip to Ireland next month. We have quite a bit on the agenda, but will be wrapping the trip up with a week in the heart of Ireland, County Laois.

My great-grandfather Andrew McCormack came from Ballyedmond, County Laois in the late 1880s and settled in Minnesota. My father has done extensive research on his McCormack lineage over the past fifteen years.

I had no hand in this research, but I have enjoyed all the fruits of my father’s labors. Click here and here to read about the fun we have had connecting with our McCormack relations.

My dad won’t be along on this trip, so I may need to don the family historian cap – if only to keep my sister straight on who’s who! I had better review my dad’s printouts…

While in Laois I am planning a visit to the County Archives and Local History Department in Portlaoise. It may have taken a while, but I have learned that a good first step when looking into the history of your Irish ancestors is to go to the County Council website.

The council website for any given county in Ireland will have all the information necessary to live in that county – from where you should dump your trash to the operation hours of the local branch of the library. But they are a great resource for visitors as well. Often these websites provide extensive history and heritage information, including details on genealogy, archives, and special collections.

A couple of clicks into the Laois County Council site, I landed on the Local Research page. Once there I found these useful links: 

Like any good researcher, I plan to do my homework before showing up on the archive’s doorstep in September. It looks like they have quite a bit to offer. Maybe I will even find some emigrant letters in some of the personal collections listed on the Laois Archives page.

The Local History Online link brings you to the Ask About Ireland website. This is a very cool site, a must-visit for anyone interested in what the libraries, museums, and archives of Ireland have to offer.

AskAboutIreland and the Cultural Heritage Project is an initiative of public libraries together with local museums and archives in the digitisation and online publication of the original, the unusual and the unique material from their local studies’ collections to create a national Internet resource for culture. (from http://www.askaboutireland.ie)

Ask About Ireland also features Griffith’s Valuation, the first valuation of property in Ireland, published from 1847 to 1864. You are able to search the Valuation, and of course the more information you have, the better.

Returning to the Local Studies Department, we find an extensive collection of newspapers, cemetery records, photographs, maps, local files, and folklore. All are available to view by appointment. Bridget told me that the microfilm machine is a much sought-after appliance, so set your appointment early to ensure you will have access to the newspapers and records available on microfilm.

I am definitely looking forward to my visit to Portlaoise and the Laois County archives and local studies department. Can’t wait to see what I can dig up!


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This Old Farmhouse

The first time I visited Ireland in 1988, I was struck by the number of derelict farmhouses dotting the countryside. “Why doesn’t someone just tear those old houses down?” I wondered. “That’s what we do in the good ol’ USA…we don’t leave houses to fall down on themselves. If we don’t want or need them, we get rid of them and build something new and better…”

Abandoned house near Ballyedmond, County Laois (all photos by Regan McCormack)

This sentiment came from a teenage girl from the city who spent more time in the countryside during six weeks in Ireland than she had in sixteen years back home – in the “good ol’ USA”. I thought I was so smart…

Fast-forward twenty years and I am closer to home, driving the country roads of Tara Township, crisscrossing its thirty-six square miles in Swift County, Minnesota. My maternal great-great-grandparents were among the pioneer 1870s settlers of this township on the vast prairie of Western Minnesota. This was my first visit to Tara. I had traveled three thousand miles from home on a number of occasions to visit Ireland, my “ancestral homeland”, yet I had never bothered to drive a few hours west to see where my people settled when they came to Minnesota.

Granted, as far as vacation destinations are concerned, Ireland is a bit more attractive than Western Minnesota, but it turns out, the two places have some things in common.

There are the obvious similarities in place names in this part of Minnesota. Bishop John Ireland established several colonies of Irish Catholic settlers with names like Avoca, Kildare, Tara, and Clontarf. Hundreds of Irish families from cities and communities in the Eastern United States seized the opportunity to own land and live in a community with its own church and priest, surrounded by fellow Irish Catholics.

The Depression came early to rural communities and persistent crop failures and changing farming practices combined to make farming unviable for most small farmers. My relatives moved to Minneapolis, as did several other Tara families. Some of the original Irish settlers had left Tara even earlier, moving further West, always in search of better land.

So, I wonder why I was surprised to find this in Tara Township?

Section 22 of Tara Township – the McMahon place

On nearly every section of land in the township stands an abandoned farmhouse, or at least a grove of trees planted by the original settlers to protect a house. And this in the “good ol’ USA” where we tear things down!

Folks in Ireland and Tara Township have the same reaction when I ask them why they don’t simply tear down the abandoned houses. They shrug and say that they are no bother and they can be used for storage. That is the practical response, but I wonder if there is something a bit more sentimental lurking beneath?

The abandoned houses got me thinking…A similar hopelessness that drove millions of Irish to America during the 19th and 20th centuries could be seen in rural Americans who fled the farm for the city in the 1920s. Major difference, of course, is there was not a famine like Ireland experienced, however there was tremendous poverty, crops failed miserably, families were split up, and life changed permanently and dramatically.

I am rather ashamed of my sixteen-year-old self for not being as smart as she thought she was. She should have realized that the same reason this stands today in Ireland…

Near Ballyedmond, County Laois – 2011

might be why this…

Cahir Castle, Tipperary – 2011

and this…

Rock of Dunamase, County Laois – 2011

and this…

Johnstown, County Kildare – 2009

are still here today. I doubt that the farmhouse ruins will have the staying power of the castles and abbeys of centuries gone by, but in the meantime they can remind us from where we came. Whether it is a farmhouse in Ireland or Tara Township, Minnesota.

Now, if I could only get Jimmy to fix up this old house…

Two Jimmy McCormacks at old family house in Ballyedmond – 2009


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Grandfather

Years ago I resigned myself to the fact that I would never knew much about my paternal grandfather, Bill McCormack. He died of a massive heart attack in 1957 and so much sadness surrounded this event and its implications, that people rarely spoke of him. I understood why this was so, but at the same time I wanted to know what kind of man was my grandfather. I had a couple of reasons for my curiosity: 1) I never had a grandpa and I felt like I was really missing out, and 2) I loved to ask questions and get to the bottom of things (What, are you writing a book or something? is the question my dad frequently asks me.)

My dad has thoroughly researched the family tree, and several years ago, he learned that his first-generation Irish American father had visited Ireland as a young man in the 1930s. My grandpa’s first cousin Paddy McCormack (of Rathdowney, County Laois) was a boy at the time and recalled the visit. This intrigued me and of course I had a bunch of questions that no one could answer. By default, my imagination took over and I created a dramatic tale surrounding my grandpa’s return to his father’s birthplace in Ireland.

Last month while in Ireland, my dad and I were chatting with Michael Kelly (see previous post). One of the first things out of Michael’s mouth that afternoon was, “The day my mother received word that Bill McCormack had passed away was a sad day indeed…” I had heard such sentiments over the years, but what made this different was what followed.

Michael went on to say that when my grandfather came to Ireland in 1934, his mother (and Bill’s first cousin) Katie Loughman showed my grandfather all around the area and introduced him to neighbors and relatives. Stories of horse races and touring, nights out and singing – it sounded like they had a fabulous time and Katie and Bill became great friends. Katie also corresponded with Bill’s sister Nellie for many years.

I was thrilled to hear Michael tell the stories of my grandfather’s Irish visit. For the first time I could associate joy, humor, and fun with my grandfather – things I always suspected about him, but I was unable to get past the sorrow of his untimely death.

My grandpa Bill McCormack, great-uncles Jimmy Flannery and Jim McCormack, early 1940s

Thanks for the stories, Michael Kelly. I am that much closer to learning about my grandfather.

Next time, guest blogger Jim with his observations on family history and his recent trip to Ireland.