The Irish in America


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Gimme the Butter

A version of the following article first appeared in Irish Lives Remembered Genealogy Magazine (July 2013 issue).

Tom McMahon, 1895

Tom McMahon, 1895

“I’ve never heard that! Why didn’t grandma ever tell me that story?”

I have to admit, when my older sister Regan says this, as she does from time-to-time, I feel a tinge of satisfaction. Younger sisters will understand how years of childhood rivalry can spill over into adulthood and we briefly allow ourselves to revel in the tiniest of victories. A card game won, a promotion at work, or in my case, a story my grandma told me.

But, as the ever-modest younger sibling, I shrug and tell Regan it’s simple. She never heard the story because she never asked. I was constantly asking my grandma to tell me all about the “old days”, and a question like, “What was your dad like?” (and a few key follow-ups) often lead to an afternoon of unearthing memories and revealing truths. Like this…

Thomas Edward McMahon, my great-grandfather, was born on June 13, 1879, in Tara Township, Minnesota. Tom was the second child and eldest son of Francis and Catherine (McAndrew) McMahon. His father was a native of County Fermanagh and his mother was born in New York – her parents came from County Mayo in the 1850s.

1904

1904

My grandma was Agnes McMahon Regan, Tom’s youngest daughter. Grandma said her dad was warm and generous. His family and friends could depend on Tom to be there when they needed him. No one was better in a crisis. Grandma smiled when she said that in the end, her dad was at heart, a big kid. He loved to play with his children and his easy manner lead to lots of jokes and laughter. Tom enjoyed nothing more than sitting in his chair in the evening, surrounded by his family as his wife, Mary, read aloud from Treasure Island or Little Women or whatever novel the mobile library offered that month.

Tom wed Mary Foley on June 9, 1904, at St. Malachy Catholic Church in Clontarf, Minnesota. The couple grew up a mile apart on farms in Tara Township and were childhood friends. Tom’s nickname was “Hoosie” and Mary was “Minnie”. They had seven children – four girls and three boys.

Grandma said her dad was so good-natured, he never raised his voice.

“Never?” I asked. A natural question.

“Well…there was one time…” And we’re off.

The family was at the table for dinner when my grandma (who was about four-years-old at the time) said to her dad, seated next to her, “Gimme the butter!”

Tom was startled by his daughter’s demand. “Pardon me?”

Grandma said it again, this time louder, since he obviously didn’t hear her, “GIMME THE BUTTER!”

Tom was taken aback. None of his children behaved so rudely, not even his spirited middle child, Rose. But he was especially surprised by the outburst from Agnes. Tom told her she could have the butter if she asked for it nicely.

Grandma thought about it for a moment and said, “Gimme the butter!”

Tom had heard enough. He stood up and ordered Agnes to leave the table immediately. Grandma stormed out of the kitchen and threw herself on the seat of the buggy outside. She cried like she had never cried before. A short time later, Tom came out to Grandma. He set her dinner on her lap and placed his arm around her shoulders. Grandma said she apologized profusely. Her dad brushed the black curls from her forehead and dried her tears with his handkerchief. “There, now, that’s the girl. You’re alright…”

The two of them sat on the buggy while Grandma ate her dinner. She still felt terrible, but she had learned her lesson. Looking back, Grandma thought her dad felt as bad as she did that he raised his voice. He never did it again. And Grandma learned some table manners.

More I learned about Tom McMahon…

1921

1921

According to Grandma, her dad was a true farmer. He loved everything about the process – preparing the soil, planting, growing crops, harvesting them, and sharing the fruits of his labor. Unfortunately, the 1910s and 1920s were tough on many farmers on the prairie of Western Minnesota. Tom tried to make a go of it several times. He sold the homestead and moved to rented land, farming until 1926 when he gave it up for the last time. The McMahon family moved to Minneapolis to begin life anew.

In the city, Tom worked at the pole yard, treating and preparing new telephone poles.  When he retired, a neighbor allowed Tom to use a nearby vacant lot for a garden. Tom returned to what he loved. He grew enough produce to trade with the local shop for groceries and feed his family and neighbors. He had never been happier.

Tom McMahon died on May 6, 1937. His wife, Mary, came home after a rare afternoon away from home to find him peacefully in his chair, rosary entwined in his fingers. A heart attack took him quickly.

Listening to Grandma’s memories of her loved ones brought them to life for me, and at the same time allowed me a glimpse at my grandma. I never had the privilege to meet my great-grandfather, but I feel like I know him. I was lucky to know my grandma. Now it’s my job to keep and share my grandma’s memories and her stories for the rest of the family. You just have to ask.

 

If you aren’t by nature as nosy as I am, these sites might help you think of what questions to ask…

 

 


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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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Remembering Donald

They say that one of the first steps to learning about your family history is to talk to your oldest living relatives. They actually knew the people behind the names in your family tree print-out. These relatives have stories to tell, memories to share.

Nearly ten years ago my mom and I set out to learn more about our family and arranged to meet two of my grandpa’s cousins – Donald and Gerald Regan. The brothers taught us much more than we thought possible about my grandpa, the entire Regan family, and growing up in Clontarf, Minnesota .

Donald passed away last month, one day shy of his 96th birthday. He was a loving husband, father, and grandfather, a proud Navy veteran of World War II, a successful businessman, and a former mayor of DeGraff, Minnesota. Donald was friendly, outgoing, and charming. He loved to be in the mix and hear the latest news. Donald’s brother Gerald said he inherited these traits from the “Regan side” of the family. I will miss Donald’s delightful gift for storytelling and am grateful I had the chance to listen.

Donald and his sister, Kathryn.

Donald and his sister, Kathryn.

The first time I met Donald in early 2004*, he brought my mom and me on a driving tour of Tara Township. As we drove out from Clontarf, with what seemed to me to be an endless expanse of land on either side of the road, Donald began telling us who lived and farmed each section, beginning with the original nineteenth century settlers through the present-day owners. From the front seat, his brother Gerald filled in the gaps. I was in awe – I didn’t even know the names of the forty other residents of my condominium!

As we slowly rounded a corner, Donald pointed out a grove of trees set off from the road, and he stopped the car.

“Can you see a house in there? That’s where John was born. Let’s see if we can’t get closer.”

John was my grandpa and Donald’s first cousin. Donald and Gerald grew up across the railroad tracks from my grandpa in Clontarf. Donald took a sharp turn into the “driveway” – a muddy springtime mess of rocks and decaying twigs. I was certain we would get stuck, but Donald knew what he was doing. We got out of the car and walked up to the house. Donald made sure we didn’t get too close, it wasn’t safe. There was my grandpa’s birthplace, glass gone from the windows and walls gently caving in, but still standing thanks to that grove of trees.

Several years later, when Donald had moved into the Manor in Benson, he navigated his scooter down to the Whistle Stop Cafe to meet us for lunch, with the same purpose and confidence with which he drove up to Grandpa’s house that Spring day. I liked how Donald maintained his independence – with a touch of determination. Mom and I came to town a couple of times a year, meeting Donald and Gerald for lunch and a chat about “old times”. Without fail, Donald and Gerald dazzled us with entertaining tales of life in Clontarf.

At each meeting with the brothers, I waited patiently for Donald to break out his “Annie voice”. In a high-pitched tone he would say, “Oh, Sonny!” mimicking my great-grandmother Annie Hill Regan’s chastising her son for some transgression or another. I simply loved how Donald scrunched up his nose and exclaimed this phrase with a twinkle in his eye. This meant the world to me, and I think Donald got a kick out of it as well.

Donald helped fill in the gaps in our family history left by my grandpa’s early passing. My mom and I were a captive audience as Donald and Gerald reminisced about old times. As Donald helped me get to know my grandpa through his memories, he gave me a special glimpse into his own life. The Donald who was a protective older brother to Kathryn, a boy earning a little extra money sweeping out the furnace at McDermott’s in Clontarf with his brother Gerald, and Julia’s youngest son. We were lucky that Donald was so generous with his memories, his time, and his friendship. Rest in peace, Donald.

*I am sure I met Donald in the 1980s at a Regan Family picnic, but I didn’t get to know him until Spring of 2004 when my mom and I first visited Clontarf together.

Donald W. Regan

Benson
September 14, 1917 – September 13, 2013

Donald W. Regan, 95 of Benson died Friday, September 13, 2013 at Meadow Lane Nursing Home in Benson.  Mass of Christian burial will be 10:30 a.m. Saturday, October 5, 2013 at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church in DeGraff.  Burial will be in the church cemetery.  Visitation will be held from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. Friday at the church with a rosary at 4:30 p.m.  Visitation will continue on Saturday for one hour prior to the service.  Funeral arrangements are with the Harvey Anderson Funeral Home in Willmar.

Don_0Donald William Regan was born on September 14, 1917 in Clontarf, the son of Patrick and Julia (Duggan) Regan.  He attended Clontarf Elementary and Benson High School, graduating in 1936. After his schooling he entered the U.S. Navy where he served his country during WWII.   On December 27, 1945, Don was united in marriage to Margaret Helen Coy at the Catholic Church of Visitation in Danvers. They made their home in DeGraff where Don managed the DeGraff Lumber Company. They were able to share in 57 years of marriage before Margaret’s death on July 27,2002. Don enjoyed traveling, dancing, watching sports, especially Notre Dame football, Vikings and Twins.  He was the Commander of the Hughes-McCormack Post of the American Legion until his death, was a member of Knights of Columbus and had served on the school board, city council and was mayor of DeGraff.

Donald W. Regan died Friday, September 13, 2013 at Meadow Lane Nursing Home in Benson at the age of 95. He is survived by his children, William Regan of Benson, Julia (Everett) Richardson of Surprise, AZ, Dr.Timothy (Michelle) Regan of Santa Rosa, CA, Patrick Regan of Mpls, Duggan (Cindy) Regan of DeGraff and Daniel Regan of Blaine;  7 grandchildren; 3 step-grandchildren and 6 step-great-grandchildren.  Don was preceded in death by his wife, Margaret; son, Bruce; siblings, Clarence, Howard, Catherine, Agnes and Marjorie.

– from Harvey, Anderson & Johnson Funeral Home


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Meet Maureen (Part I)

Maureen in 1953

Maureen in 1953

I think we have all enjoyed Maureen’s stories on the blog over the past several months. Her memories of growing up in Miltown, County Kerry in the 1930s and 1940s speak to an Ireland still remembered by many, but which – for good and bad – has all but disappeared. Click here, herehere, here, here, and here to read Maureen’s stories.  Based on her delightful stories and insightful recollections, I knew I had to learn more about Maureen.

So I asked Maureen and her daughter, Mary, if I could interview Maureen about her immigration and her transition to life in the United States, for the blog. What does it mean to Maureen to be Irish American? They agreed, and Mary suggested I call the post Meet Maureen. Perfect!

When I received Maureen’s responses to my initial questions, I realized that Meet Maureen required not just a single post but a series. So here goes…presenting Part I of Meet Maureen! Maureen’s responses appear in italics. My first question: “Why did you decide to come to the United States?”

We were invited to immigrate to the States by our uncles, Jack and Dan O’Meara. Both sponsored my sister Joan and me. They had to prove they had employment and assets and they said they would be able to get us employment once here. Uncle Jack had victory Bonds – it’s notarized in the attached document. (see below)

John_O'Meara_Bonds_26_Apr_1947_1

Notarized letter from Uncle John O’Meara regarding bonds he owned. (Maureen Teahan Murray Collection)

If we hadn’t come here we might have gone to England. Our friends Maura,Therese, Christine and her sister Margaret, emigrated there for nurses training in hospitals during World War II. London was constantly being bombed but the hospital never took a direct hit. Training was free but times were tough with food and other rationing. They were paid a little and they did live at the hospitals. But I never considered becoming a LPN.

Not sure how Mary ever found this list - both girls' names are altered!

Not sure how Mary ever found this on Ancestry.com with the misspelling. Maureen and Joan are on lines 14 &15.

We were the first to leave Milltown after the “Emergency”. Coming over on a converted troop ship, “The Marine Jumper”. We were “the talk of the town”. We had been booked for a February passage but suddenly there were two cancellations in November. Our passport visas were already issued by the American Embassy the month before when we took a train trip to Dublin. Our new clothes were also purchased in Tralee a month earlier since uncle Dan sent us money for expenses. We had to be re-vaccinated by Dr. Sheahan in Glen Ellen, Kerry and Counihand Travel Agency , Killarney made our arrangements. We packed quickly and said our good-byes. This happened over a two-day period so we had little time to be nervous.

Just like millions of Irish who emigrated before them, Maureen and Joan left from Cobh. In a few short years, immigrants would begin to come to the United States by airplane. The method of transportation was changing but some things remain constant, like the waves of Irish immigration to America with Uncles and Aunts sponsoring Nieces and Nephews in their new lives. Of course, I had a few follow-up questions for Maureen. I was curious about what sort of new clothes they purchased to pack:

We didn’t bring much because we would be buying the latest fashions in New York. Uncle Dan took us shopping on 5th Avenue when we arrived and he thought it was important we looked like Americans. We dressed almost alike with beautiful blue, long-sleeved dresses and grey military-style coats with brass buttons and stylish hats and leather gloves with new shoes. I remember those were the outfits we wore to view Macy’s Parade. Despite all that we were still freezing! We have no idea what uncle Dan paid for all the clothes but he was a bachelor and said not to worry about the cost.

Every girl should have an Uncle Dan! Click here to read about Maureen’s first days in New York City. Maureen and Joan had an auspicious welcome to America!

We will continue with Maureen’s story next time. And by the way, Maureen has a special birthday coming up on Wednesday. Feel free to leave birthday wishes in the comments…I will be sure she sees them!


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Day 24 of Irish American Favorites: Vince Flynn

vinnieThis morning, at the Cathedral of Saint Paul just up the street, is the funeral of Irish American writer Vince Flynn. I’ve purchased many of Flynn’s political thrillers over the years, but never read one. Since the late 1990s, Vince Flynn provided me with a “sure thing” when it came to buying gifts for my dad. Dad would always offer the book to me when he was finished. I declined every time – not a big fan of thrillers.

My dad knew “Vinnie” since the mid-1980s. Dad was an assistant football coach at the College of Saint Thomas when Vinnie was on the team.  Since I didn’t really like football, anytime I went to the games, I found other ways to pass the time. One way was to look at the game program. As I perused throster,  I paid special attention to the players with Irish last names. And there certainly were lots of them!

At one time, I could have told you what number any given player wore during the period my dad coached at St. Thomas, but that was a long time ago. Vinnie could have been #89…not sure.

So many people I know love Flynn’s books. They rave about his story-telling and great characters. Even my mom, whose literary preferences lean heavily toward Jane Austen, jumped on the Vince Flynn bandwagon. I guess it is about time I see what all the fuss is about this Mitch Rapp…

Click here to read more about Vince Flynn’s life and career.

When I hear the Cathedral bells ring later this morning, I will think of the Flynn family. The world may have lost a great writer and the Irish American community is less one proud member, but his family lost a beloved son, brother, uncle, husband, and father.

Rest in peace, Vinnie.

vinnie2


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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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Day Four of Irish American Favorites: Maryn

Newborn Maryn

Newborn Maryn

Today is a special day. My niece, and the first member of the fourth-generation of our branch of the Andy McCormacks in America, turns six-years-old today. The world came to a halt for us on June 4, 2007 when Maryn Eileen McCormack joined the family. We all had new roles – Father, Grandpa, Grandma, Great-Aunt, and Aunts, and immediately Maryn became the sun in our solar system.

Maryn at age one

Maryn at age one

Maryn has always been really cool. She’s never let all the attention and adoration go to her head. Before Maryn started talking, you could just tell she was taking it all in and figuring things out.

2011

2011

Maryn is smart, generous, loving, and inquisitive. She has a mind like a steel trap and an awesome imagination. The storylines of our games of Princess continue from week to week, as the plot develops and characters evolve. Sometimes her younger sister Ainsley and I try to freelance with events in our land of make-believe, but Maryn is always on us to get us back on track and keep to the story.

2009

2009

Maryn is one of my two favorite Irish Americans born in the twenty-first century. It has been a privilege to share the last six years with her and I love to experience her energy and enthusiasm for life. It is amazing to see her grow up, but in this Auntie’s opinion, I wouldn’t mind if she slowed down just a little bit!

Maryn_Christmas_2012

HAPPY BIRTHDAY MARYN!!!!!