The Irish in America


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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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


Day Six of Irish American Favorites: Best Friends

circa 1900

circa 1900

Nellie Regan (left) and Minnie Foley were life-long best friends. They were both born in Fisherville, New Hampshire in the mid-1870s and grew up in Tara Township, Minnesota. Their fathers immigrated from Kilmichael, County Cork together in 1864 – click here to read my latest column on page 26 of Irish Lives Remembered online genealogy magazine about the Regan and Foley families. This is one of my favorite family photographs and earns the best friends a place on my list of Irish American Favorites.

When I was young, this was one of those photos that could spark a number of great stories from my grandma, Minnie’s daughter and the master of the Boiled Dinner from Day Three. Grandma would say how her mother and Nellie were “great pals”. Even when they lived two hundred miles apart, they made a special effort to get together.

I have a couple more favorites up my sleeve related to Nellie and Minnie and their special connection. I might even share one or two recipes! I love the photo below. Nellie (left) and Minnie together again, just a bit more relaxed than the studio photo from forty-odd years earlier.

Nellie and Minnie about 1942

Nellie and Minnie, 1942