The Irish in America


Family Album: McMahons (mostly, maybe)

I need some help from my mom on this one. I know that is my great-grandpa Tom McMahon on the right, with his daughter Agnes (my grandma) standing in front of him. Who are the rest? Could they be Tom’s brother Frank (left), his wife Agnes McGraw McMahon and their children? Their oldest, Richard, was the same age as my grandma. That could be him in the cap by his dad. Three girls followed him in age: Florence, Eileen, and Gertrude, but I can’t quite tell.

And then there is the lady next to Tom. Could it be his sister Kate? She may have still been in Clontarf.

McMahons in Clontarf, Minnesota, ca. 1921 (Private Family Collection)

Subtract about seventeen years from the gentleman standing on the left above and do you get the one standing on the left below?

Tom and Mary Foley McMahon wedding (seated), with Frank McMahon and Margaret Foley (standing), 1904 (Private Family Collection)

I believe this one is from the 1930s. My grandma on the left with her sister Rose and Eileen McMahon, possibly one of the little ones in the first photo.

McMahon Cousins (Private Family Collection)

One more, just because I noticed how my grandma was holding two fingers on her right hand with her left hand and it reminded me of this cute photo.

Agnes and her brother Frank McMahon, 1919 (Private Family Collection)

Mom – please set me straight on dates, identifications, etc.



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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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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Francis S. Byrne (1913-2014)

Francis (baby) with brother John and sister Winifred

Francis (baby) with brother John and sister Winifred

My grandma and I were chatting one afternoon in the Fall of 2003, just like we always did when I came for a visit on Sundays. She pulled a postcard from the pile of mail on the window sill by her chair and handed it to me.

“Francis Byrne will be 90 on December 12th,” she said. “You know, when we were small, he used to try to tell me we were the same age because we were both born in 1913. I’d say, ‘No way, Francis. I am almost a whole year older than you – my birthday is on January 12th!’ You know how kids are. I suppose I tried to boss him around because I was older or something…”

I jotted the anecdote on the postcard and we sent it back to Peggy, Francis’ daughter, for a book of memories she was putting together for his 90th birthday. I was trying to sort through the family tree in my head and I had to ask Grandma, “So, exactly who is Francis Byrne?”

Grandma smiled and told me he was Nell Regan Byrnes’s youngest son, my grandpa’s first cousin. Nell Byrne,w as also best friends with Grandma’s mom, Mary Foley. We spent the rest of the afternoon doing what I liked best: talking about family connections and the “old days”. Grandma reminded me that the banana bread recipe we all used came from Nell Byrne. (That’s a cute story that I will share soon.)

It was six months before I thought about Francis Byrne again. My Grandma died on April 23, 2004. Her death was hard on me and like most grieving family members, I felt like I was just going through the motions on the day of the funeral. I remember little of that day until the luncheon which followed the service when Gene Regan (another of my grandpa’s cousins) introduced me to the man sitting next to him.

NB,JB, FB 1942

Francis with his parents, Jack and Nell.

Francis Byrne. Francis flashed warm smile and said, “Your grandmother was a wonderful woman.” It took me a moment to realize this was Francis, son of Nell. We got to talking and for the first time in days, I forgot that I felt empty and sad and I missed my grandma. I asked Francis if he remembered his mother’s banana bread. His eyes lit up and he chuckled, “Why, yes, of course…she made delicious banana bread. I haven’t had it in years.”

I told him I made his mother’s banana bread on a regular basis – his mother had given my grandma the recipe years ago. I offered to bring him a loaf next time I made some.

“Ohhhh, that would be great. I look forward to it!”

Initially, my visits with Francis helped fill the void left by my grandma’s passing. I missed her so much. There was something that seemed so right about getting to know the son of my great-grandmother’s best friend. I liked the continuity of it. But as I got to know Francis, I thought less and less about the family connections and more about what a great man Francis was.

Francis was sharp and funny and a fantastic storyteller. He had one of those enviable, outgoing manners and could talk to anyone about anything. Francis was loyal, dedicated to his family and friends. He was concerned for the well-being of those around him. He was tough – not tough like he was mean or beat people up – tough like he dealt with the crap life threw at him, came out on the right side, and carried on.

Francis was a great friend. I miss him very much, but am thankful for the last ten years.

Francis Sylvanus Byrne

Byrne, Francis Sylvanus age 100, of Hopkins, formerly of St. Louis Park. Born 12/12/ 1913, passed away 1/1/2014. Francis was proud of being 100% Irish. lifetime member of the NARFE, and longtime worker for the Mpls Postal Service. He was a proud member of the American Legion, VFW, and Knights of Columbus in both Hopkins and St. Louis Park. Preceded in death by wife, Marie; and siblings, Edwin, John, Mary, Winifred and Shirley. Survived by daughter, Peggy (Peter) Julius; granddaughter, Breanna Julius; and friends and family. In lieu of flowers, memorials preferred to the family. Mass of Christian Burial Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, 10:30 AM with visitation 10 AM at Holy Family Catholic Church, 5900 W. Lake St., St. Louis Park. Visitation also Tuesday, Jan. 7, 5-8 PM with prayer service 7 PM at: Strobeck Johnson Chapel 1400 Mainstreet, Hopkins 952 938-9020

Published in Star Tribune on Jan. 5, 2014


Skerries is a Great Old Town

By now you must all know how much I love letters, so let’s take another look at the Stephen Owens Collection. Discovered at the Old Skerries Historical Society in County Dublin in the late 1970s by well-known Irish Emigration historian Kerby Miller, this is a small collection of letters sent from Stephen Owens of Clontarf, Minnesota in the USA to his niece Celia Grimes in his native Skerries, County Dublin, Ireland. The letters are from the first few years of the twentieth century.

I began to look at the letters of Stephen Owens in an earlier post (click here to get caught up.) I will pick up the action with a letter dated July 20, 1900.

Mr. Owens starts right out with the weather (typical Irishman and Minnesotan!) It is the hottest and driest summer in over twenty-five years in Minnesota. No rain and scorching heat have left the farmers with little in the way of grains to cut come harvest time:

Corn and potatoes are Pretty good but the American likes to live on flowers instead of potatoes.

Mr. Owens writes of his younger cousin, a daughter of his Uncle John, who works for a family in Lynn, Massachusetts. He had a letter from her in which she describes her employer and their summer holidays in New Hampshire. She wants very much to come out West to visit her cousin which leads Mr. Owens to write, “I would like to see all my friends before I Die, God bless us all.”

The next letter to Celia is dated April 1, 1902. Mr. Owens tells her of the new priest in Clontarf and how the beloved Father McDonald died of consumption. He goes on to tell Celia that she may miss her brother who recently left home for America, “but it is 49 years last February since I seen your Mother, my sister Eliza.” All those years later, Mr. Owens still misses his sister and family. He even misses Celia, and she was not even born when he was last in Skerries!

Main Street Skerries, ca 1900 (courtesy of the National Archives of Ireland)

In a previous letter Celia must have told her uncle that there is something of an Irish language revival in Skerries because he writes:

Skerries is a great old Town. It is getting very patriotic. I am glad to hear the young People are learning their Country’s language. It is a good sign…

The last letter from Mr. Owens in the collection is dated November 10, 1903. The tone of this letter is less than up-beat. He has been ill for five weeks and sometimes is unable to stand for the pain in his back and legs.

Mr. Owens is pleased to hear that Celia was reunited with her brother who came back from America, and he comments on the latest wave of migrants from Ireland:

…you sent 11 people out from Skerries lately. Them is the kind that is wanting, Old People is only in the way here in America they don’t want them. I suppose it’s that way in every country…

Mr. Owens is clearly facing the fact that he has reached the twilight of his years and he has apparently given up the notion of returning to Ireland to see all of his old friends and family – “I think when we meet next it will be in heaven.” It was another two years before Mr. Owens passed away in December 1905.

I contacted the Skerries Historical Society to see if they had the originals of these letters – I only have copied transcripts. Maree Baker, the librarian at the Society got right back to me and said that they did not have the original letters. She sent along a couple of items from the Grimes family that are part of their collection – a photo from the late 1920s and two memorial cards. Celia’s brother James is on the left in the photo and Maree said Celia could be one of the women to the right.

Grimes Family of Skerries (courtesy of the Skerries Historical Society)