The Irish in America


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Family Album: Your Grandpa’s People

My grandma kept a cardboard box of family photos on the closet shelf under the Monopoly game. Every once in a while I pulled the box down and we’d go through the photos. I marveled at Grandma’s ability to not only identify the people in the pictures but to recall dates and outline connections.

Once we had gone through the old photographs of her parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents, we’d move on to the “modern” snapshots of Grandma and her friends in the 1930s, weddings, and outdoor groups. Finally, we’d come to the bottom of the box and a cache of unidentified photos.

“Those would be your grandpa’s people.”

My grandpa was an only child and died the year before I was born. It has taken a bit of research (and a dose of serendipity) for us to identify “Grandpa’s people” and it is definitely a work in progress!

It turned out “Grandpa’s People” referred to my grandpa’s mother’s people. Like this photo of Mary Hill O’Brien, one of my great-grandmother Annie Hill Regan’s four sisters. Mary came to the United States from Kill, County Kildare, Ireland in 1892. She married a widowed farmer (Thomas O’Brien) in Tara Township, Minnesota in 1894. Annie joined her sister in Minnesota in 1899. Mary and the O’Brien family moved to Montana in 1914.

Mary Hill O’Brien – Chinook, Montana 1920 (Private Family Collection)

There were a couple of postcards in the bottom of that old box, too. Here’s one from Chinook to “Anty” Annie in Tara Township…


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She Liked Nice Things

Over the past several months, I have used the items left behind by my great-grandmother Annie Hill Regan to help tell the story of an Irish woman who came to the United States at the turn of the last century.

Items have included a sweet Christmas card from a sister in Ireland, a small photo-pin of a priest, some memorial cards, and a Whitsun postcard.

I find these remnants from Annie’s life fascinating, and they have provided tiny, yet invaluable peeks into her life.  They have also complicated my vision of Annie, creating new questions and contributing to ongoing mysteries.  This is especially the case with the photographs.

Nearly all of Annie’s photographs are unidentified.  There is ONE photo with the label, John’s Aunt Mary.

John's Aunt Mary

Initially I was so excited to find an identification that I forgot I had no idea who this Aunt Mary was!  I assumed the “John” was my grandpa, and he had an Aunt Mary Regan, but she died when she was thirty-years-old.  This Aunt Mary appeared older than thirty.  And the photo was one of Annie’s, so this Aunt Mary must have come from her side.  I knew so little about Annie’s family, so I set the photo aside and I would think about it later.

Later turned out to be seven years ago my mother and I began looking into our family history.  When we learned that Annie had a sister named Mary Hill O’Brien who lived in Montana, I remembered the photo.  Some lucky timing brought me in contact with Mary’s grandson who still lived in Montana.  Jack O’Brien has this same photograph of his grandmother, Mary.

Here is one last postcard that was among Annie’s things.  This is from Mary to Annie:

Lucille O'Brien amongst the sheep

from Mary to Annie

Annie, ca. 1900

Click here to read my story in the current issue of Irish America magazine about how meeting two of my great-grandmother’s nephews has brought me closer to developing an understanding of the woman Annie was.