The Irish in America


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Does History Go to the Highest Bidder?

Letter from late April 2022

The Catholic Diocese of New Ulm, Minnesota plans to demolish the recently deconsecrated St. Malachy Church building, but not before they auction off “St. Malachy’s Memorabilia.”

Memorabilia makes me think of my brother’s Don Mattingly baseball cards or a jersey worn by Joe Mauer. Remember how people bought sets of the iconic blue plastic seats from the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome when it was taken down? They put them in their “man caves,” ice houses, and basements all over Minnesota. Will the St. Malachy’s church pews have the same appeal? Maybe, but the word memorabilia seems to cheapen what the pews and stained glass windows of St. Malachy’s represent.

Years ago when my mother, Eileen, and I began looking into family history in the Clontarf area, she had copies made of pages from the St. Malachy’s account books. Pages were chosen because they pertained to our families – the Regans, the Foleys, and the McMahons – as well as known neighbors and associates. The copies by no means represent the full fiscal picture of the building of St. Malachy’s, but they clearly shows how the people of Clontarf paid for the building, a building whose elements will be auctioned off as memorabilia and will soon be demolished by the Diocese of New Ulm.

The following narrative is the first installment on the building of St. Malachy Catholic Church in Clontarf, based on the original financial records.

FUNDRAISING AND THE BUILDING OF THE NEW ST. MALACHY CHURCH

By 1896, it was clear to most that the parish of St. Malachy’s had outgrown the original building constructed in 1878. Children of the original settlers were marrying and starting families of their own as new residents joined the community and the town grew. The financial record books indicate that raising money for the new St. Malachy Church was every bit a community effort – “all hands on deck!”

March 17, 1896 – ST. PATRICK’S DAY EVENT

The parishioners of St. Malachy’s assembled an event to raise money for the new church building while celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. With attractions that included a watch drawing, Pidgeon target shooting, a cigar and candy stand, play performance, dinner, and fireworks, the fundraiser would certainly have been popular with the wider community.

Margaret Duggan of Tara Township and Mary Purcell of Clontarf donated the watch and the drawing raised $256.50, over half of the total funds raised at the event ($470.05). Expenses for the festivities were listed as $52.00, but most were covered by donations.

November 1896 – FALL FAIR

Later in the year, once the crops were in, Clontarf area residents held a Fall Fair to celebrate and raise more funds for the building of the new church. Records provide no final numbers for funds raised by organizers, but it appears to have been quite an affair.

Spanning two days, with dinner served on both Saturday and Sunday, Fair events included a horse raffle, another watch drawing, a fishpond, a play, and a cigar and candy stand. There were raffles for a kettle and a cigar box, as well as three “Fancy Tables” organized by Mrs. Moore, Mary Hurley, Miss Riley, and Mary Purcell.

The records note that Patrick Freeman of Clontarf donated the horse for the raffle and Frank McMahon of Tara and Eugene Daniel of Hoff went out ahead of the raffle to sell tickets to area residents.

Examples of funds raised:

  • Fancy Tables – $50.00
  • Play tickets – $14.35 (95 tickets sold @ 15 cents each)
  • Dinners – $68.00 (“at least”)
  • Watch Drawing – $92.00

March 17, 1897 – ST. PATRICK’S DAY EVENT

Limited information exists in the record books for this event, but undoubtedly there were the usual nineteenth-century fundraiser staples: raffles, cigars, candy, dinner, and a play.

Included in the March 17, 1897, financial records entry are a few details on the Dramatic Club of Clontarf. Sixty-four tickets were sold to the performance for total sales of $16.00. The ticket prices rose to 25 cents a seat. After renting wigs ($1.85) and purchasing a “tableau fire” and “sundries” ($2.15) and paying printing costs ($4.36), the records indicate they contributed $10.60 toward the window fund. They must have received a discount on some of their props.

Note:

Information in this article is from copied pages from the St. Malachy Financial Records and copies are located in Eileen McCormack’s files. These copies and the information contained here do not represent the complete financial record. Eileen McCormack copied specific pages when the books were at the parish house in Clontarf, 2004-2005. The record books are located at Saint Francis Church in Benson, Minnesota.

Eileen R. McCormack and Aine C. McCormack, March 9, 2022

For more information on Clontarf history, please visit here and here.


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Family Album: Mother and Son

Catherine McAndrew McMahon sent this postcard to Tom, her oldest son, in early April 1908. She was in Rochester being treated at the Mayo Clinic for cancer, and Tom was at home in Tara Township. Catherine died on April 18th following surgery to remove a tumor.

Tom kept his mother’s obituary folded up in his wallet. His rosary, the postcard, and the obituary are the only things left behind by my great-grandfather.

Frank and Catherine McMahon Family ca. 1895 (Private Family Collection)

Tom is standing, second from the left, and Catherine is seated in front, next to her eldest daughter and namesake. The McMahon family would lose its youngest son, Johnny (standing, at far right), to tuberculosis about three years after this photograph was taken.


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Family Album: Irish in Minneapolis

Technically-speaking, this is a terrible picture. But I love it, because EVERYONE is smiling – even my great-grandmother and Uncle Frank. Margaret might be hiding his grin, but I can see the smile in his cheeks. I suppose this is 1942-1943? Mom will need to help out with this…when was Frank in the service?

I wonder what they are all so happy about???

John W. Regan, Agnes McMahon Regan, Ella McMahon (wife of John McMahon), Frank McMahon, Margaret McMahon Nelson, Mary Foley McMahon (Private Family Collection)


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Family Album: Aunt Kate

Catherine McMahon was the oldest daughter of Frank and Catherine (McAndrew) McMahon, born in Tara Township, Minnesota on October 17, 1877.

Catherine McMahon, circa 1900 (Private Family Collection)

I know very little about Catherine, except to call her Aunt Kate like my grandma and mom would. My mom remembers her as one of the old aunts. She married Jack Mears and the couple had no children. They lived in South Minneapolis, near downtown, and Jack was employed as a laborer. Before she was married, she lived in Clontarf with her family. The 1900 census says she was employed as a teacher. By the 1910 census she is “keeping house” – her mother passed away in 1908, so she was taking care of the house and her dad.

Aunt Kate, circa 1950 (Private Family Collection)

This is probably how my mom remembers Aunt Kate. She’ll let us know! I’m looking forward to learning a bit more about Aunt Kate. I am working on finding a marriage record and I want to take a look at her death certificate.


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Family Album: McMahon Siblings

On December 3, 1955, my great aunt Rose McMahon married Bernet Oien. Here’s a snapshot of Rose and her siblings from the reception. All surviving siblings are present except for the youngest, Frank. I wonder where he’s hiding?

McMahon Sibs 1955 (left to right): Agnes, Margaret, John, Rose, and Mary. (Private Family Collection)

Let’s take a look at them about thirty-five years earlier, on the family’s farm in Benson, Minnesota.

McMahon Sibs 1920, back row: Mary, John, Tom; front row: Margaret, Frank, Agnes, Rose (Private Family Collection)

I know, that is a terrible photo of the front row, but here is a better one of the youngest McMahons, Agnes and Frank.

1920: Agnes and Frank McMahon (Private Family Collection)


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Family Album: Snapshots of the Irish in Minneapolis

In the lead-up to St. Patrick’s Day this year, I want to feature some favorite snapshots from my collection of family photos. These photos will celebrate the Irish in Minneapolis!

Not sure what house this is, or the date. My guess is that it is my grandparents’ house and it is about 1943. On the left is my grandma’s sister Rose McMahon (we called her Dodo) walking with her mother, Mary Foley McMahon. Trailing behind is my great-grandfather Neil Regan.

When I see this photo, I think about Neil and Mary, both born in Fisherville, New Hampshire to Irish immigrants from Kilmichael, County Cork. The connection between the Foley and Regan families survived a transatlantic journey to America followed by a move half-way across the county to central Minnesota for Mary and Neil, a generation later, to grow old under the same roof in Minneapolis.

I wonder where they were going, anyway?

I hope my mom comments on this post and fills us in on the location and date of the photo!

In this photo: Rose McMahon (left) with her mother, Mary Foley McMahon. Followed by Neil Regan. (Private family collection)


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A Wedding and a Funeral

Eighty years ago today my grandparents tied the knot. April 26th, 1941 Agnes McMahon and John Regan were married at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in South Minneapolis, Minnesota. Margaret McMahon Nelson (bride’s sister) and John Foley (bride’s cousin, groom’s good friend) were maid of honor and best man, respectively, and the bride’s niece Rosaleen (Dody) Fuchs was the flower girl.

Photo from private family collection.

The wedding reception was held at Grandma’s house on East 22nd Street in Minneapolis where the McMahon clan had been based for a few years. This house had originally belonged to another John Foley, then later his daughter, Catherine. Grandma’s mother was a Foley, but she always referred to this branch of the Foley family as “shirttail relations,” and brushed it off as a relationship too distant to really consider. But in this age of Ancestry.com and DNA matches, it seems somewhat closer: Grandma’s grandfather Foley and Catherine’s father were first cousins. Both men were immigrants to the USA from Kilmichael, County Cork and lived in Fisherville, New Hampshire before coming to Minnesota. Further connection: John Regan’s grandfather was good friends with Patrick Foley and also came here from Kilmichael.

Wedding cake on dining room chair out in the yard…not something you see too often these days! (Photo from private family collection)

April 26th was also the day of my grandma’s funeral. The year was 2004, sixty-three years after her wedding day and seventeen years ago. I can’t believe seventeen years have passed since that sunny day in April when we said goodbye to her. I know she would have appreciated the coincidence of the two anniversaries. She loved thinking about numbers and playing with dates. She would point out palindrome dates and come up with (often convoluted) tricks for remembering a number for a combination or door entry system. I still remember the code to access her apartment building: 8278. I also remember her trick for remembering these four digits: “The code begins and ends in an 8 and the first two numbers add up to 10 and the second two add up to 15.”

Like I said, convoluted. But I’ve remembered it all of these years. And I think about her every day, not just on April 26th.


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Aunt Dodo

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my Great Aunt Dodo. Ever since I opened my hall closet and a vintage overnight case tumbled down from a high shelf, hit me on the head, and landed a few feet away.

Rose Ann “Dodo” McMahon Oien (Photo: Private family collection)

It is a pretty cool old bag – black with a zip-top, dome-shape and two handles. There is a small window on the front of the bag where the owner could slide a slip of paper with their name for identification purposes. “Rose Oien.” Rose was Dodo’s real name and Oien comes from her husband, Bernie Oien, whom she married in 1955.

I love this photo of Dodo. It is from the early 1940s. Rose Ann McMahon was born on December 28, 1908, in Tara Township near Clontarf, Minnesota. She was four years older than my grandma and the middle of seven children. How she came by the nickname Dodo, no one could ever tell me. Nicknames are sometimes like that.

Dodo always seemed like an old woman to me, with thinning white hair, printed cotton muumuus, and sensible black shoes. And it was always “Dodo and Bernie.” I don’t think I ever remember Dodo without Bernie, and I saw them fairly often when I was growing up. Bernie didn’t do anything to make Dodo seem less old. I could never really understand what he was saying. And Bernie had a wooden leg.

Bernie lost his real one in an elevator accident. It was a long time before I realized it was a grain elevator accident. I had always pictured the doors closing on Bernie as he just makes it into the elevator car. One of his legs stays behind in the lobby, pinched off in the heavy outer set of doors while the rest of Bernie keeps going up and up…

“Don’t be silly, Annie. That couldn’t happen,” I remember my mom saying when I mentioned something about how Bernie lost his leg.

Dodo and Bernie were married later in life and didn’t have children. When I was a kid, I thought that was the only reason people got married, so I asked my grandma why Dodo married Bernie.

“I guess Dodo wanted to go to a wedding.”

What a line.

When I think about Dodo, I will now always picture her as she is in this photo, with nicely styled hair, a regular dress, and that great smile.


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Four Nickels

Thomas Patrick McMahon was born August 30, 1907, in Tara Township, Minnesota. Tom was the third of seven children to parents Thomas and Mary (Foley) McMahon. Tom was one of my grandma’s older brothers.

 

Grandma remembered the time she complained to Tom that she had a headache. He looked at her, sighed and shook his head gently. “No, Agnes, no,” he said quietly, “You need to have brains to get a headache. What you have is rheumatism of the skull.”

McMahon siblings on the farm – Grandma is in front with hair in her eyes, Tom on the right, 1919 (Agnes Regan Family Collection)

Grandma said she could feel her eyes well up, but then Tom placed a hand on her shoulder and she immediately felt better. They had a good laugh. Tom was never mean-spirited, he just had a way with words. Tom was very bright and he enjoyed working on the farm with his dad. He was always a great help, as well as great company to his dad.

Tom on the farm outside Benson, Minnesota, 1919 (Agnes Regan Family Collection)

The McMahon family moved to Minneapolis from the farm in 1924. Life completely changed for the McMahons. They all eventually adapted to life in the city, finding their ways, except for Tom. He never quite fit in. There was no place for farmers in the city and treating telephone poles in the pole yard with his dad wasn’t quite the same as working on the farm with him. Tom started drinking, started missing work and eventually stopped coming home.

Mary McMahon and her son Tom, 1939 (Agnes Regan Family Collection)

My grandma had a currency collection – buffalo head nickels, Barr dollars, drummer boy quarters, and “wheat pennies” – the penny minted in the US from 1909-1956 (see picture at left). I was at Grandma’s one day when I was about fifteen-years-old. I had found a couple of wheat pennies for Grandma to add to her collection.

As Grandma pulled the plastic bread bag of wheat-backed pennies from the drop-down desk, a small envelope fell to the floor. It was one of those tiny manilla envelopes, the kind a landlord might give you with the key to your new apartment.

“What’s this?” I asked Grandma as I bent to pick up the envelope. It looked old.

She took the envelope from my hand, pushed back the flap and poured the contents into her hand. “Four nickels. Twenty cents. This was what my brother Tom had in his pocket when they found his body. Four nickels. It was all he had in the world.” Grandma clasped the nickels in her hand and motioned for me to sit. Then she told me all about Tom, how smart and funny and kind he was and how that all disappeared when they moved to the city and he began drinking.

Tom died on September 5, 1949, or at least that’s when they found his body down by the Mississippi River. He drowned. No foul play, most likely slipped and fell, they said. Tom had no ID, no home, no possessions. The police knew who to call when they found him. They had picked Tom up many times over the years, and it was my grandpa who’d come pick him up. Tom would stay for a day or two – he could have stayed with Grandma forever – but then he’d move on. When my grandpa went to identify the body, the envelope was the only thing he came home with. It was all Tom had.

My grandma kept the envelope tucked up among her collection of bills and coins. I am sure it fell out from time to time and I can see her opening the flap and pouring the nickels into her hand as she did with me that day. My grandma was never one to dwell on the past, on the sadness of life, but I bet she allowed herself a moment to hold on to those coins and remember her brother Tom.


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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…