The Irish in America


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Family Album: Your Grandpa’s People

My grandma kept a cardboard box of family photos on the closet shelf under the Monopoly game. Every once in a while I pulled the box down and we’d go through the photos. I marveled at Grandma’s ability to not only identify the people in the pictures but to recall dates and outline connections.

Once we had gone through the old photographs of her parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents, we’d move on to the “modern” snapshots of Grandma and her friends in the 1930s, weddings, and outdoor groups. Finally, we’d come to the bottom of the box and a cache of unidentified photos.

“Those would be your grandpa’s people.”

My grandpa was an only child and died the year before I was born. It has taken a bit of research (and a dose of serendipity) for us to identify “Grandpa’s people” and it is definitely a work in progress!

It turned out “Grandpa’s People” referred to my grandpa’s mother’s people. Like this photo of Mary Hill O’Brien, one of my great-grandmother Annie Hill Regan’s four sisters. Mary came to the United States from Kill, County Kildare, Ireland in 1892. She married a widowed farmer (Thomas O’Brien) in Tara Township, Minnesota in 1894. Annie joined her sister in Minnesota in 1899. Mary and the O’Brien family moved to Montana in 1914.

Mary Hill O’Brien – Chinook, Montana 1920 (Private Family Collection)

There were a couple of postcards in the bottom of that old box, too. Here’s one from Chinook to “Anty” Annie in Tara Township…


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Day 13 of Irish American Favorites: Tom McMahon

circa 1895

circa 1895

My great-grandfather, Thomas Edward McMahon, 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.

His youngest daughter was my grandma, Agnes McMahon Regan. She loved her dad and shared her memories with me over the years. Grandma said her dad was like a big kid. He loved to play with his children and joke around, and enjoyed nothing more than sitting in his chair on a winter’s evening with the family as his wife, Mary Foley McMahon, read stories aloud to them all.

Tom wed Mary Foley on June 9, 1904 at St. Malachy Catholic Church in Clontarf, Minnesota. The couple grew up about a mile apart on farms in Tara Township. They had seven children – four girls and three boys.

4 1904 Thomas and Mary McMahon wedding with Francis McMahon and Margaret Foley

Tom and Mary, seated.

Grandma said her dad was extremely good-natured and soft-spoken. She only remembered one occassion when he raised his voice at her. 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 and replied, “Pardon me?”

Grandma said it again, this time louder, since he 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 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, and her dad just brushed the black curls from her forehead and comforted her, “There, now, that’s the girl. It’s alright…”

Grandma said she could tell her dad felt as bad about the situation as she did. The two of them sat on the buggy while Grandma finished her dinner. Grandma learned her lesson, and this was the first and last time Tom raised his voice.

According to my 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.

Tom worked in the pole yard (telephone poles) for several years before he retired. A neighbor let Tom use a plot of vacant land nearby. Tom grew “every vegetable known to man” on that piece of land. My grandma said he never seemed happier. Tom had a nifty little trade set up whereby he exchanged fresh produce for groceries at the local shop. Grandma admitted that her dad gave away a lot of produce to neighbors throughout the 1930s. She said everyone did what they could to help each other out during the Depression.

Tom McMahon died on May 6, 1937. His wife, Mary, went out that day with a friend. When she returned home, she found her husband of nearly thirty-three years slumped in his favorite chair. One thing that Mary always said was that no one should be alone when they die, and she felt terrible she was not home for Tom – she was always home.

Because my grandma shared her memories of her loved ones with me, these relatives I never had the privilege to meet came to life for me. This is how a great-grandfather who passed away thirty-five years before I was born can be one of my Irish American favorites. I feel like I knew him and  now it is my job to keep his memory alive, for my grandma.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, TOM!

Tom is seated on the left, pictured with his sisters and brother.

Tom is seated on the left, pictured with his sisters and brother.