The Irish in America


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They’re Coming to America

Not to stay, just for a visit. For the first time since I was just a squirming, bald-headed baby, members of the Irish branch of the McCormack family are coming to the Twin Cities.

Jim, Eileen, Regan, and Aine McCormack – Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1972 (photo by Paddy Kelly)

Paddy Kelly was on a GAA tour of the States in 1972 when he swung my great-aunt Nellie Marrin’s home in South Minneapolis. That’s where he snapped this photo. The photo resurfaced in 2011 when the four of us in this photo had dinner with our cousins the Kelly family in County Laois.  I kind of like the idea that this snapshot of us had been in Ireland for most of my life. Even in the years I was not aware or relatives in Ireland, that photo sat in some album or box, like the old photographs of my great-grandfather who left Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century.

But in less than a month, Martin and Marian McCormack will be joining us in Saint Paul. We’ve met up with them in Ireland when we visit, but I can’t wait to see them on our turf.

A bunch of McCormacks in 2011 at Lisheen Castle County Tipperary (Martin and Marian are on left end, front and back)

This is not their first time to the States, but it will be their first trip to Minnesota. I think the Twin Cities will show off pretty well in the September weather. Marian said she wasn’t interested in shopping, so I think we will skip the Mall of America. Several years ago Martin expressed that he didn’t need to see another pyramid or temple so I won’t suggest a tour of the Cathedral of Saint Paul.

Luckily, there are plenty of other things to do and see here, so I am not worried. I wonder, though, what other Irish people who visit the United States like to do while they are here? Or what do they find unique about America? I know what I like to do in Ireland, but I wonder what Irish people like to do when they are here?

I will let you know how the visit goes…

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DAY 8: Ashbrook Arms

Photos of The Ashbrook Arms Restaurant and Guesthouse, Durrow
This photo of The Ashbrook Arms Restaurant and Guesthouse is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Last October, I had an incredible meal at the Ashbrook Arms with Regan, my cousin Jimmy, and his wife, Helen. It was our last night in County Laois, which usually makes me a bit melancholy, but on this night there was a distraction.

We had arranged our special dinner in part because it was our last night, but mostly as a decoy. Jimmy had planned a surprise party for Helen’s birthday and needed to get her away from her stomping grounds in Rathdowney while all the guests converged upon Touhys Bar for the party.

Helen and Jimmy McCormack

Helen and Jimmy McCormack

Since Jimmy was concerned that dinner would not take long enough, I took the opportunity to make my last dinner in Ireland really count. Beginning with a starter of delicious goat cheese on toasted brioche, with a tomato (I believe) chutney. I don’t recall what my dinner companions had that night, but I savored a delightful free-range chicken breast, and ended my meal with the Eton Mess. What’s an Eton Mess? From the Ashbrook menu: Crushed Meringue bound with Whipped Cream and a Raspberry Compote and Served with Vanilla Ice Cream. Divine!

Planning a surprise for Helen is no easy task; she knows everything that goes on. I confess, it was hilarious to see Jimmy fidget each time we would meet a friend in town the week before the party. He was so paranoid that one of them would blow the surprise. When we arrived at the Ashbrook Arms in Durrow, County Laois, Jimmy may have been sweating bullets, but I felt relaxed and looked forward to a great evening.

Jimmy wanted to be sure to give all the invited guests enough time to arrive at the party, so following dinner we stopped across the road for a drink at Bob’s Bar.  Bob’s is a great place. But it was back to Rathdowney and a bar-full of friends and family waiting to celebrate Helen. She was surprised, although she claimed to know we were up to something.

We had a great night, and Ashbrook Arms became my favorite spot for a special meal in Ireland.

Ashbrook Arms, photo courtesy of TripAdvisor

Ashbrook Arms, photo courtesy of TripAdvisor


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The Proof is in the Picture

“You know, Jim, my brother Paddy met you before. It was in the early Seventies at Nellie Marrin’s home in Minneapolis,” Michael Kelly told my dad one afternoon last month shortly after we arrived in Ireland.

“I don’t think so…he must have me confused with someone else…I really don’t remember that at all,” my dad replied shaking his head.

Regardless of whether Paddy met my dad, I was curious how Paddy Kelly found himself at my grand-aunt Nellie McCormack Marrin’s house in South Minneapolis. I had heard my dad mention the Kelly name when he referenced his genealogy work in recent years, but this was the first time I had met a Kelly.

Paddy and Michael’s mother, Katie Loughman Kelly, was a first cousin of my grandfather Bill McCormack and his sister Nellie McCormack Marrin. This makes my dad, Paddy and Michael second cousins.

Michael shared a number of entertaining stories with us that afternoon. Over the years, he collected stories from his mother Katie, and passed her memories on to us with keen understanding and insight.

Katie considered her American cousins Nellie and Bill “kindred spirits” and enjoyed a life-long correspondence with Nellie. Katie never met Nellie in person, but Bill visited Ireland in 1934-35 and the two of them became good friends.

Michael invited us to dinner the following Sunday. We had a great time at their lovely home. Michael’s wife Moira is known for her culinary and hosting skills and the entire Kelly family was delightful.

Paddy Kelly stopped by and after introductions were made, Michael mentioned to Paddy that my dad didn’t remember meeting him. Paddy stood his ground – indeed they had met – and he went on to tell us how Nellie sat in her rocking chair, closed her eyes and recounted the name of every family on the road from Ballyedmond (County Laois, where her father’s home) to Rathdowney. This was truly a stroll down her father’s memory lane – the families Nellie listed were her father Andy McCormack’s neighbors before leaving for America. Nellie must have heard her father’s litany often enough for her to commit it to her own memory.

Paddy turned to my sister, mom, and me and said that he also met the three of us that day at Nellie’s.

Paddy let us stew a few minutes before pulling out a photograph taken at Nellie Marrin’s in 1972:

Jim, Eileen, Regan, and Aine McCormack - 1972

Sure enough…the four of us posed for a photograph for an Irish cousin (I am the camera-shy one on the right!) We had all met a Kelly before.

I don’t blame my dad for not remembering. After all he was twenty-seven-years-old, busy with his young family and his life.

So often people lament not talking to older relatives about family history or not asking more questions when they were young and there were people still around who could answer them. I say don’t be so hard on yourselves! As young people, most of us don’t care that much about what old people have to say, and sometimes the old people don’t want to talk anyway.

The photograph Paddy produced reminded me of the dozens of old, unidentified photos in my family collection. I think I will begin labelling them all as “cousins” of whichever relative they most closely resemble!

Next time I will take a look at the other side of the family history obstacle – when no one wants to talk about it. When we were in Ireland I finally learned a few things about my grandfather.