The Irish in America


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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…

 

 


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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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Three Sisters

Margaret, Rose & Agnes McMahon (early 1930s)

Margaret, Rose & Agnes McMahon (mid 1930s) ATMR Family Collection

When I think of the Irish in America, snapshots like this one come to mind. My grandma Agnes with two of her three older sisters, young and happy in the midst of the Great Depression.

The McMahon sisters were second generation Irish Americans. However, my grandma told me they didn’t spend any time thinking about their heritage when they were young. She made up for it when she grew older and had a highly inquisitive granddaughter. She shared with me stories and songs, old sayings and recipes, passed down to her from her parents and Irish-born grandparents. Grandma was my link to our family history.

I am not sure if this is at the house in Columbia Heights where the McMahons lived, or if it is in south Minneapolis at the Foley house. Maybe my mom will help us out and leave a comment!

I am currently scanning and organizing my grandma’s collection of photographs and ephemera. Moving forward I will share some of my favorite items.


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All The Single Ladies

As a single woman, I find myself drawn to the stories of the single women who populate my family tree. We see those conspicuous spots where the branch just stops. Sometimes these nubs result from the early deaths of  infants or children, but often they are the result of men and women who (gasp) never married nor had children.

Many of these men and women lived long meaningful lives, but with no descendants to keep their stories alive, they’ve been forgotten over the years. It is no wonder – I read somewhere the best people can hope for is to be remembered for 80 years after death.

In this series I am going to introduce you to some women I have come across in my family history research. They are daughters, sisters, aunts and great-aunts who deserve a little bit of attention.

I am straying a bit from my basic family tree for my first selection, Catherine Theresa Foley born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on September 17, 1884.

 

Catherine Foley

Catherine Foley

My great-grandmother was Mary Foley before she married and said she and Catherine Foley were “shirttail cousins”. Catherine’s nubby branch would only appear on the most comprehensive of my family trees, but I often heard references to Catherine and her family by my grandma and her sisters.

A more technical explanation of the shirt-tail cousin relationship follows – it’s a bit convoluted and boring. Personally, I like “shirt-tail cousins” better! Catherine’s parents were John Foley and Mary Casey, both born in Macroom, County Cork. My Foley great-great-grandparents (Patrick and Mary) were also born in that area of Cork, and once they immigrated to the United States, they lived in Fisherville, New Hampshire. So did Catherine’s parents. From what I can surmise, John Foley and Patrick Foley were first cousins.

Mary Foley married Thomas McMahon and the family farmed in Clontarf, Minnesota until 1924 when they moved to Minneapolis. My grandma’s sister Rose McMahon (known as Dodo to her family) worked for Catherine Foley in Minneapolis in the 1930s.

According to census and city directories, Dodo worked as a “housekeeper” at the Foley house, located at 1329 East 22nd Street in Minneapolis. Catherine’s father was a County Sheriff who had done quite well for himself.

The idea of Dodo as a “housekeeper” always made me chuckle. She didn’t seem the housekeeper type to me. Grandma said she spent most of her time lounging under trees, napping and eating apples, rather than doing her chores on the farm. I wondered how much work got done for Catherine Foley!

Although growing up I heard her name quite a bit, I know very little about Catherine. She was a musician. She gave private piano lessons and played the organ at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Minneapolis.

Catherine seemed to have excellent taste (or at least similar to me!) My favorite table-cloth is a woven Jacquard floral – red and piney green, which came to me from Catherine’s house via Dodo. I also have a wooden box with enamel decorated flowers on top that was Catherine’s. It is very fancy, lined in a padded pink satin. I wonder what treasures she used to keep in the box?

I enjoy those items, but perhaps Catherine Foley’s most important legacy to my family was her house at 1329 East 22nd Street, or simply, 1329. When Catherine died in 1937, Dodo and my grandma bought the house from Catherine’s brother. It became Grand Central Station for the McMahon family.  Everything happened at 1329 – from ping-pong matches at the kitchen table to my grandparent’s wedding reception. Many memories were made at 1329.

A few months ago I sent for Catherine’s death certificate. I was curious. Catherine died on September 30. 1937. Cause of death was a coronary thrombosis. She had an enlarged heart as a result of 11-years with endocarditis. She was just 53-years-old. I suspect she kept Dodo around as much for her company as her housekeeping skills. I can just hear Dodo laughing in this photo!

Rose McMahon: Not your typical housekeeper

Rose McMahon: Not your typical housekeeper

 

I wonder if there are any Foleys out there – descendants of John Foley and Mary Casey? It would be cool to hear from you……


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Day 29 of Irish American Favorites: Sisters

There are so many photos in our family’s collection that I absolutely love. Here is another one of my favorites. This is three of four of the McMahon girls (from left to right) Margaret, Rose, and Agnes. Agnes was my grandma. This photo is taken in Minneapolis in the late 1930s. The sisters were second-generation Irish American. Looks like they were having a ball, huh?

Grandma and her sisters


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DAY 18: Guinness

Looks good, huh?

Looks good, huh?

I love Guinness. Back in the 1990s when I started drinking it, there were only a few bars in the Twin Cities that served a decent pint. Lucky for me, Regan worked at one of them – Molly Malone’s in Minneapolis.

I had my first taste of Guinness in Ireland in 1995. It was so, so good. That year we visited the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, saw the multi-media presentation, learned the fascinating history of the black stuff, and enjoyed our free pints at the end of the tour.

Over the past twenty years, the Guinness at home has improved tremendously as it has grown in popularity. Bars sell more of it so it doesn’t sit around as long. Still, it is tough to beat a pint in Ireland.

It may not be Ireland, but I suspect I will manage to force down a couple pints of Guinness tonight at The Liffey in Saint Paul. Happy Birthday to me…

Aine_Guinness