The Irish in America


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Dodo

My great-aunt Dodo was born on this day, December 28th, in 1908. I’ve mentioned her many times, often speculating about the origins of her nickname.

I love this photo of Rose Ann McMahon, aka Dodo. She is often laughing and smiling broadly in the early photographs. As she aged, her smile narrowed, but she always seemed up for a joke and a laugh.

Unrelated to jokes and laughs, I came across this while looking at my archive;

I can’t really picture Dodo as a receptionist, or a switchboard operator. But, she would have been looking for a new line of work in 1946. She worked at the New Brighton ammunition factory during World War II (an actual Rosie the Riveter!)

Today I have enjoyed taking time to reminisce about Dodo (breakfasts at Embers with the coupons), and recall my grandma’s stories (my favorite is the nieces’ Communion dresses). As always, it seems strange that it could be so long ago.

Happy Birthday, Dodo!

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Books, Books, Books

Some time ago, my dad dropped off a couple of boxes of “Irish books.” He was going through his library – refining his collection – and I told him I’d like to take a look at his cast-offs.

There is a good mix of books: novels, history, golf, biography, music, travel, and poetry. The two boxes would make a great “starter library” for someone interested in Irish and Irish American Studies.

When I started going through the books, I tried to not be offended when I came across books I had given Dad as gifts. They just didn’t make the cut, I guess. When I got to the bottom of the first box, hidden beneath several Morgan Llewelyn paperbacks and Great Golf Courses of Ireland, I couldn’t believe what I saw. How could Dad let go of this gem?!?

This book is just supposed to be on Dad’s bookshelf, I can picture it there, right alongside Alive! by Read, The Poetry of Robert Frost, and What Color is My Parachute? (Honestly, Dad had them arranged better than that, but images of those books are cemented in my memory.) Trinity by Leon Uris was hands down the most widely read book at our South Minneapolis home during the last quarterof the twentieth century. It made the rounds. One look at the state of the book will tell you how much we loved it.

For anyone who has not read Trinity, it is a sweeping tale covering the history of Ireland from Famine to 1916. Uris masterfully weaves the lives of rich, engaging, and complex characters into actual historic events. It is not just Catholic vs. Protestant, or even Irish vs. English, it is about the people who make history. The story draws you in and is so good that you really feel like you come away with an understanding (or at least a beginning of an understanding) of Irish history eventhough it also feels like pure entertainment.

Trinity was my literary introduction to the history of Ireland. It’s been awhile, but I think it is time to read it again. I was twelve and in my early U2-obsessed phase when I first read it. I revisited it often in high school and read it again in my twenties. I guess I’d say it was part of my youth. Time for a more mature perspective.

Read along with me, if you would like! I am going to see if any of the McCormacks want to join in reading as well. But they will have to get their own copies. This one is mine.

Leave a comment and let me know if you will be joining me in reading Leon Uris’ Trinity, or let me know about a book that made its way around your family when you were growing up.

Pick up a used copy of Trinity on eBay or Abe Books or ThriftBooks. Happy reading!


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Family Album: Minnesota’s Irish During the Depression

My grandma Agnes McMahon Regan graduated from Columbia Heights High School in 1930. She was the only one of the seven McMahon children to graduate. Her dad agreed to let her finish high school because she was smart and liked school and was just sixteen at the start of senior year (she skipped the second grade). Plus, he said she might as well stay in school since there were no jobs. After graduation, Agnes felt lucky to find part-time work in the office of an insurance broker, but she really wanted to get in at Sears. Her older sister Margaret worked at Sears and Agnes would go down to Chicago and Lake in Minneapolis once a week to check in with the Personnel Department about any job openings.

Grandma said her persistence paid off and Sears eventually hired her – temporarily at first, but she had her foot in the door. She stayed at Sears for the next ten years, until her first child was born.

On the weekends, Margaret and Agnes would often travel west to Benson, Minnesota to visit their older sister, Mary and her growing family of nieces. They would catch a ride with someone or hitchhike. Wonder whose car this was?

Margaret and Agnes McMahon, 1933 (Private Family Collection)


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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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Irish in Minnesota

I remember when Patricia Johnston’s book, Minnesota’s Irish first appeared at our house. It was 1984 and Ireland was my new obsession. I was reading everything I could get my hands on about Ireland or written by someone with an Irish name. I listened to nothing but U2 and poured over Mom’s Ireland of the Welcomes magazines, dreaming of living in a dramatic coastal castle or a quaint village cottage.

When I cracked open the book, I assumed it would mostly be about my family. We were the most Irish people I knew in Minnesota. I looked at the index first, expecting to see significant entries for my family names, McCormack, Regan, Foley, Flannery, McMahon. Imagine my surprise when there was nothing.

That is not entirely true. There was one photo of St. Malachy’s Church in Clontarf, the Swift County town where my maternal relatives lived. The people in the photo were all so tiny, there was no chance of identifying any individuals. I was disappointed. I thought my Irish family deserved at least a mention. I also thought Ms. Johnston should have called my grandma for some better material.

The book opened my twelve-year-old eyes to the idea that there were a lot of Irish people who made Minnesota home. I was not as unique as I believed. The experiences of the Irish in Minnesota were more diverse than I had been aware. Now, all these years later, my mom and I are taking a dive into the history of the Irish experience in Minnesota, beyond our own family’s history in Swift County and Minneapolis.

Unidentified Town Scene — private collection

My mom and I love to do research. We are great at identifying resources, following leads, discovering connections, uncovering hidden nuggets, and accumulating information. We find it difficult to stop researching, to feel like we are ever finished. This project has “work in progress” written all over it. There is so much to discover and the research is too much fun.

I would love to hear from you about where your Irish and Irish American relatives put down roots in Minnesota. Is there a township or a village in Minnesota you would like to learn more about? Need some help with research? I think of this as part genealogy, part local history, with some folklore and oral history thrown in the mix. I will share what Mom and I are finding here on the blog. Leave a comment below to get in touch!

The Irish in Minnesota came from every county in Ireland (I actually don’t know that for sure, but I will find out!), endured hardships and celebrated successes at every stage of their migration. Minnesota was the last stop for some Irish immigrants and their families, others pushed further west, and a few even returned to previous homes. Regardless, they all made contributions to the social, cultural, and political fabric of Minnesota.


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Be Like John Regan

It snows in Minnesota. Some years a lot, other years not enough for some people. It snows early (Halloween Blizzard of 1991) and it snows late (last April was a storm that dumped over 20-inches).

This is the snowiest February on record in Minnesota: 30.5 inches and counting. With a week to go in the month, more snow is expected. It snowed nearly eight inches this past Wednesday and as neighbors struggle in poorly plowed streets and snowbanks loom over my head at street corners, I think about my grandpa.

It snowed 79 inches in the Twin Cities during the winter of 1951-52, following a record-setting 88.9 inches the previous winter. My grandpa (and everyone else in the Twin Cities) was doing a lot of shoveling! Click for a list of the top ten snowiest winters in the Twin Cities.

This clipping may be yellowed and brittle, but it provides a clear glimpse into my grandpa’s character. When he wasn’t shoveling out fire hydrants Grandpa was an usher at church and he played chauffeur to my mom and her friends, driving them to parties and school dances before they had driver’s licenses of their own.

Grandpa was an only child, so he loved being part of my grandma’s expansive network of siblings, nieces, nephews, and cousins. My grandpa was many people’s first call if they ran into trouble and needed a hand. He never hesitated to do what he could to help.

My grandpa was a really good guy.

John Regan (left) with childhood friend, Lloyd Hughes (Private family collection)


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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.