The Irish in America


Leave a comment

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)


2 Comments

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)


Leave a comment

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.


2 Comments

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)


2 Comments

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)


6 Comments

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.


Leave a comment

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)


1 Comment

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.


3 Comments

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…

 

 


4 Comments

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)