The Irish in America


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Day 14: Neil Regan

“You know, they string up the flags just for me!”

Neil circa 1890

Neil circa 1890

That’s what my great-grandfather Neil Regan used to say on Flag Day, June 14th. Cornelius “Neil” Regan was born on June 14, 1873 in Fisherville, New Hampshire, the oldest child of John and Mary (Quinn) Regan. He lived much of his life in the Clontarf area, arriving in Tara Township with his parents and siblings in 1879. After years on the farm, he moved into Clontarf in 1921 where he lived for over twenty years before moving to Minneapolis in the early 1940s to live with his son John – my grandpa. There he would stay until he passed away in 1951.

My mom, Eileen, remembers a dapper grandfather, dressed in a three-piece-suit every day and smelling of Listerine – Neil used Listerine to soothe pinching from too-tight nose pads on his glasses. Grandpa Neil read books to my mom. Her favorites were the Little Lulu comic books. Neil would say he had a genius on his hands when Eileen would take her turn and “read” these books to him. This was before she even started kindergarten. Of course, she wasn’t actually reading the books, she just memorized them!

Mom said Neil was a quiet man, very mild-mannered. Most days, weather permitting, Neil would take the streetcar downtown to play cards in the park with the other old guys. Neil was also devout. His nephew Gerald Regan recalls seeing Neil, kneeling next to a chair on the back porch early in the morning saying his rosary. He continued this practice his entire life. Mom recalled waiting for Neil to come out of his room in the morning while he finished up his prayers.

Gerald also remembers when my grandpa John would ask for money when he was young, Neil would get up, walk away, and pull out his wallet, inspecting its contents carefully before selecting the bills and handing them to John. Gerald always thought this a bit odd, but Neil was a very deliberate man, so he didn’t think too much about it. Only later did Gerald realize that Neil was not being circumspect at all, but rather the cataracts on his eyes made it impossible for him to see the bills in his wallet unless he had the light from the window.

Neil with his wife Annie and her nieces

Neil with his wife Annie and her nieces

Shortly after Neil moved to Minneapolis he had the cataracts removed at the University of Minnesota. My grandma remembered how Neil exclaimed, “It’s a miracle! I can see!” Apparently all those early morning rosaries paid off!

When Neil passed away on June 30, 1951, his wake was held at home. This was the only wake my mom ever remembered being in a home – by the 1950s the convention was to hold wakes at the funeral home. The front bedroom was cleared of furniture to make room for his casket and after waking for two nights, Neil returned to Clontarf, where he was buried next to his wife, Annie.

When I see the flags decorating the porches and the boulevards in my neighborhood today, I will smile to myself and think it is all for my great-grandfather Neil. Another of my Irish American favorites.

Happy Flag Day everyone and Happy Birthday Neil!

Neil is on bottom. left

Neil is on bottom. left

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Life is a Game of Cards

Agnes, with her younger brother, Frank McMahon -- ca 1920

Agnes, with her younger brother, Frank McMahon , about 1920.

This is my favorite photograph of my all-time favorite person – my maternal grandmother, Agnes McMahon Regan.

Today is the 100th anniversary of my grandma’s birth. Agnes  was born in Tara Township near Clontarf, Minnesota on January 12, 1913 on the farm her Fermanagh-born, American Civil War veteran grandfather, Francis McMahon, homesteaded in 1876. Agnes was the sixth child and fourth daughter of Thomas and Mary “Minnie” (Foley) McMahon.

McMahon Family ca.1914

Grandma is standing on the chair, surrounded by her siblings and her mom in 1914.

One of my grandma’s favorite pastimes was playing cards. From Bridge and 500 with her card clubs, to Crazy Eights and Go Fish with her grandchildren, and everything in between, Grandma loved a game of cards. No visit to Grandma’s was complete without at least one game. Not sure if it was an addiction or not, but we can safely blame/credit her Irish Grandpa McMahon, or Grandpa Bushy, as he was known, for her life-long love of cards.

Grandpa Bushy, years before he would teach little Agnes to play cards.

Grandpa Bushy, years before he would teach little Agnes to play cards. Does it look like he is twiddling his thumbs? Something else my grandma got from him!

Grandpa Bushy lived with grandma’s family for a couple of years when she was small. While her older brothers and sisters were at school, Grandpa Bushy taught Grandma the finer points of rummy. She was just four-years-old, but Grandma caught on right away and  never looked back.

Grandma lived her life much like she played cards. Grandma always played the cards that were dealt her. She never complained, really never. Grandma handled tragedy, heart-break, illness, and pain with grace. She believed that her problems were no more devastating than those of the next person.

The coolest thing about Grandma was that she rarely gave her opinion unsolicited, and when it was asked for, she was very careful in what she said. Grandma never gossiped. All that being said, Grandma did not hesitate to stand up for the underdog, or seek justice when someone was treated badly or unfairly. Grandma was very competitive, but she figured out how to win by following the rules.

Grandma didn’t need to tell everyone, everything. She kept things to herself. Odds are if someone told Grandma a secret, she took it to the grave. I managed to get a couple of minor secrets about people long dead out of her over the years, but I gave her my word that I wouldn’t tell a soul. Grandma never showed her hand, and she was the most widely liked person I have ever known.

I know it wasn’t just cards. Life experience is a great teacher. But I can’t help but think that her sweet little Grandpa Bushy, with his big beard and a gleam in his eye, knew that he was instructing his granddaughter on more than just rummy.

Grandma was always teaching us – her children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews – just by living her life and asking us to stay for a game of cards. Much more effective than lectures! And by most accounts, we all picked up on these more subtle life lessons.

I remember asking Grandma (when she was the advanced age of about sixty-six) to what age she hoped to live. She never gave me a number, instead she said, “I want to live as long as I have my wits about me.” When she died in 2004, she definitely still had her wits about her, it was her heart that didn’t cooperate. She passed away just like she lived: quietly, on her own terms, with dignity and class.

We miss you a lot, Grandma, and we are sure that at the “big card game in the sky” (as my sister,Regan, and I like to think about it) you are taking all the tricks.

Grandma's on the left. Does she look like a card shark?

Grandma’s on the left. Does she look like a card shark?

Throughout the year I will revisit my grandma’s life as a second-generation Irish American, growing up in Minnesota.