The Irish in America


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Anyone up for a game of checkers?

It might not look like much to you, but this somewhat crudely fashioned checkerboard has always been a treasured relic of my family history.

Patrick Foley’s checkerboard, circa 1870. Fisherville, NH.

I grew up in a house full of family heirlooms. My mom liked to incorporate them into her overall decorative scheme. She framed her grandparents’ wedding certificate and put it on the wall amongst old family photographs and used her great-grandmother’s china pitcher as a vase for lilacs and lilies of the valley in the springtime. Mom also lulled us to sleep in the same rocking chair her grandmother once rocked my grandpa. Old stuff and family history were all around the place.

But the checkerboard always intrigued me. It was tucked discretely in the space between a tall radiator and the dining room wall. When I was young I assumed that my mom intentionally put it there to hide it from potential thieves and jealous relatives. In my mind, the checkerboard was an extremely valuable antique.

The checkerboard (we always called it “the checkerboard” but I suppose it could be a chessboard) belonged to my great-great-grandfather, Patrick Foley. Patrick died the year my grandma was born (1913), but she shared what she had heard about her grandpa.

Grandma didn’t have stories about her grandpa, as much as she recounted some random details of a man’s life that survived the generations. My grandma was proud to say that Patrick was able to read and write (a rarity among her grandparents). Patrick was educated in a hedge school in County Cork, Ireland. He came to the United States as a young man with his friend John Regan and settled in Fisherville, NH. When Bishop Ireland started his colonies in Minnesota, Patrick moved west, bought a farm, and raised his family in Tara Township. Patrick was known as “Grandpa Petey” (or P.T. for his initials). He was a prosperous farmer in Tara and eventually moved into a nice house in the nearby larger town of Benson, Minnesota.

Patrick Foley, circa 1867, tintype (Private Family Collection)

I grew up in the 1970s, before the genealogy craze, Ancestry.com, and DNA matches, and was grateful for my grandma’s information, but I did want to learn more about Patrick. What did he do in Fisherville and where did he come from in Ireland? The checkerboard stirred my imagination and inspired me to learn more about my family history. I’ve visited Fisherville (Concord), New Hampshire and Kilmichael, County Cork and I have learned many more random details of Patrick Foley’s life. I guess it is my job to piece it all together and tell the story.

In case you are interested, here are the details of the checkerboard. Maybe you’ve seen something similar hidden in the nooks and crannies of your family home? Let me know!

The checkerboard measures about 20.5 inches (wide) by 19.5 inches (deep) and is about 3 inches thick. This is a substantial piece, I’d say it weighs nearly four pounds. Alternating stained and dark green painted squares create the playing surface (squares range in size 1.5 to 2 inches). In spite of these irregularities, I thought it was quite fancy because it was personalized. “Patrick Foley” is stenciled on one end and “Fisherville” on the other.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!