The Irish in America


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Book of Names: Remembering Our Irish Women

Annie Hill Regan – circa 1900

Recently I submitted my great-grandmother Annie Hill Regan to Rachael Flynn’s  Irish Women of our Past – Book of Names project. Here’s how Rachael describes her very exciting project:

The BOOK OF NAMES is a project which aims to recognise the women in our past who have made the journey from Ireland to other lands.

Artist-researcher Rachael Flynn is currently working on an arts project through which people will be able to submit the names of their female Irish ancestors in order to build up a record that seeks to pay honour to their struggles and successes. 


By adding the names of their Irish mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers, aunts, cousins… the people who add names to this collection will have the chance to effectively ‘light a candle’ in memory of these relatives. 

Rachael asks for some basic information in order to add a female Irish relative to the  Book of Names: name, date and port of departure, destination, and your contact information. Very simple.

I had the data about my great-grandmother’s emigration, but I wanted to revisit the passenger list I had copied from Ancestry.com ages ago. I remembered how exciting it was to locate this information because I knew for certain it was my Annie. I struggle with genealogy at times,  becoming distracted and discouraged quite easily. It always seems to me that it shouldn’t be so difficult to find the information you are looking for…

I had spent hours looking for other relatives, so I prepared myself for a long search. There was the question of her first name – would she be listed as Annie, Anne, Anna, or Ann? It had appeared in each form in some official document or anther. Then her surname – Hill can be English, Irish, Swedish, German, etc. And she emigrated to the United States around 1900, along with hundreds of thousands of other people!

I lucked out and found Annie on a passenger list not long after I began the search. I had not expected the departure port to be Glasgow, and I was a bit surprised that the list said Annie came from Kilkenny (Kildare was her home county) but I was certain I had located the right Annie when I read that her passage was paid by her brother-in-law Mr. O’Brien of Clontarf, Minnesota and her final destination was also Clontarf. Clontarf was a tiny town, this had to be my great-grandmother.

This morning I came across the following posting on a RootsWeb message board from 2008:

From the London Times of April 21, 1899 comes this ad:

ANCHOR LINE.–GLASGOW to NEW YORK.
Furnesia, 5,495 tons, April 27; Ethiopia, 4,001 tons, May 11.
Excellent accommodation. Cabin fares from £9 9s.; second cabin,
from £6.–A.H. Groves, 14, Rue du Helder, Paris; T. Cook and
Son, Paris and London; Henderson Brothers, 18, Leadenhall st. E.C.

The following comes from the NY Times shipping news:

May 13: “SS Ethiopia. (Br.,) Capt. Wadsworth.
(from Glasgow.) sld. from Moville for New York to-day.”

For days the NY Times lists her as expected on
Sunday, May 21. On May 22, however, she is listed
as expected that day. On May 23, “SS Ethiopia,
(Br.,) Wadsworth, Glasgow May 11 and Moville 12,
with mdse. and passengers to Henderson Bros.
Southest of Fire Island at 5:35 P.M.

– submitted by Marj Kohli

S.S. Ethiopia

Thank you Marj Kohli of Canada! I wonder where Annie boarded the S.S. Ethiopia? In Glasgow (she had sisters living in Manchester, England) or did she make the journey up to Moville on Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula? I don’t believe it says on the passenger list, but I will check it again.

I also wonder what held the Ethiopia up? It was supposed to arrive in New York on May 21st, but didn’t make it until May 23rd. Adventure on the high seas? Too bad Annie didn’t keep a travel diary (or if she did, too bad it didn’t survive!)

Click here to read more about Annie.

I am honored to have her name included in Rachael’s Book of Names along with all of the other incredible Irish women who made the journey to a new life. I encourage all of you with an Irish mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, cousin, or auntie to submit their name and their story to Rachael’s project. Visit her website here and follow her on Twitter for all the latest information. It is really a very easy process – take a few minutes and honor your Irish relatives!

Who will you submit? I have some more Irish ladies to get to – a couple more great-grandmothers, some great-great-grandmothers, and a few great-grand-aunts. I better get busy!

Annie and her chickens on her farm in Tara Township, near Clontarf, Minnesota


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The Next Best Thing

I know I am not the only family historian with dreams of discovering a cache of old letters, hidden away in a dusty attic. These letters would answer all my questions and lead me to finally solve the mysteries I have pondered about my ancestors’ lives.

Well, this has not happened. In fact, my research seems to lead to all sorts of letters from and to everyone but my family! Reading these letters is fascinating, and they provide a ton of contextual information, but can they really be as good as the real thing?

For example, I came across several letters from Stephen Owens , a nineteenth-century Irish immigrant to Clontarf, Minnesota, to a niece back home in Skerries, County Dublin, Ireland.  The letters are in a file at the Swift County Historical Society. The letters were shared by Kerby Miller, professor of History at the University of Missouri and the preeminent authority on Irish emigration (see his book Emigrants and Exiles.)

The first letter in the collection is dated December 4, 1899. Mr. Owens is about seventy-years-old, has been in the United States for over fifty years and is very happy to have received a letter from his niece back home in Skerries. He writes, “I Thought I would never hear from my friends in Skerries again…”

Mr. Owens goes on to describe his family and his community. Here’s an excerpt:

I am pretty smart on the foot yet thanks be to God. Your Aunt don’t hear so well as I do, She is Pretty Old Looking. She is Able yet to do our Cooking and washing. We had to give up farming we were to old to work the farm any Longer So I sold it and moved to the Little Town of Clontarf near the Church…

Main Street of Clontarf, Minnesota - 1920

More than fifty years have passed since Mr. Owens left Ireland, but he still asks about old school friends, neighbors, and family:

When you write again Let me know iff your Uncle Michael Owens wife is living in Skerries or Daughter. Remember me to John Baulf and to James Russel the Shoemaker and his Brother Mathew and their sister Margret iff Living. All my Old School Mates I suppose are nearly all Dead, iff I landed in Skerries now i would hardly no one Person in the Town the would all be new People to me  my Generation are all Passed away Well Dear Niece Ceila I wont forget you night & morning in my Poor Prayers and I hope you wont forget your Old Uncle…

On March 19, 1900 Mr. Owens writes to his niece and thanks her for the shamrock she sent him. He goes on to describe the large St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Clontarf, and wagers that, “yous did not celebrate like this in Skerries.”

Mr. Owens has this to say about the Boer War taking place in South Africa:

We are all Irish to the Back bone out here and all Boer sympathizers out here. We are sorrow to hear of so many of our countrymen being slain in the war…the English will give them the Post of honor on the Battle field, but won’t give Home Rule.

In the letters Mr. Owens shares much with his niece about his American hometown of Clontarf, Minnesota. He talks about Church activities, the priest, and building projects in the town. When Mr. Owens says “We are all Irish to the Back bone out here and all Boer sympathizers…” I realize he is speaking of my ancestors – his neighbors in Clontarf and all fellow Irishmen who helped establish the community twenty-five years earlier.

So maybe my great-great-grandfathers Patrick Foley, John Regan, and Francis McMahon were Boer supporters, too? Clontarf was a small town, I imagine they all ran in the same circle – St. Malachy Catholic Church, the Hibernian Hall, McDermott General Store…actually there probably was just the one circle!

So, these letters were not found in a relative’s dusty old attic, nor do they even directly reference my ancestors. But they are the next best thing to finding my own family’s letters. It is often the small discoveries that keep family historians and genealogists going.

I will feature a few more excerpts from the Owens Letters in a future post. There are plenty more insights to the Irish experience in America that this nineteenth century Irish immigrant has to share!


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This Old Farmhouse

The first time I visited Ireland in 1988, I was struck by the number of derelict farmhouses dotting the countryside. “Why doesn’t someone just tear those old houses down?” I wondered. “That’s what we do in the good ol’ USA…we don’t leave houses to fall down on themselves. If we don’t want or need them, we get rid of them and build something new and better…”

Abandoned house near Ballyedmond, County Laois (all photos by Regan McCormack)

This sentiment came from a teenage girl from the city who spent more time in the countryside during six weeks in Ireland than she had in sixteen years back home – in the “good ol’ USA”. I thought I was so smart…

Fast-forward twenty years and I am closer to home, driving the country roads of Tara Township, crisscrossing its thirty-six square miles in Swift County, Minnesota. My maternal great-great-grandparents were among the pioneer 1870s settlers of this township on the vast prairie of Western Minnesota. This was my first visit to Tara. I had traveled three thousand miles from home on a number of occasions to visit Ireland, my “ancestral homeland”, yet I had never bothered to drive a few hours west to see where my people settled when they came to Minnesota.

Granted, as far as vacation destinations are concerned, Ireland is a bit more attractive than Western Minnesota, but it turns out, the two places have some things in common.

There are the obvious similarities in place names in this part of Minnesota. Bishop John Ireland established several colonies of Irish Catholic settlers with names like Avoca, Kildare, Tara, and Clontarf. Hundreds of Irish families from cities and communities in the Eastern United States seized the opportunity to own land and live in a community with its own church and priest, surrounded by fellow Irish Catholics.

The Depression came early to rural communities and persistent crop failures and changing farming practices combined to make farming unviable for most small farmers. My relatives moved to Minneapolis, as did several other Tara families. Some of the original Irish settlers had left Tara even earlier, moving further West, always in search of better land.

So, I wonder why I was surprised to find this in Tara Township?

Section 22 of Tara Township – the McMahon place

On nearly every section of land in the township stands an abandoned farmhouse, or at least a grove of trees planted by the original settlers to protect a house. And this in the “good ol’ USA” where we tear things down!

Folks in Ireland and Tara Township have the same reaction when I ask them why they don’t simply tear down the abandoned houses. They shrug and say that they are no bother and they can be used for storage. That is the practical response, but I wonder if there is something a bit more sentimental lurking beneath?

The abandoned houses got me thinking…A similar hopelessness that drove millions of Irish to America during the 19th and 20th centuries could be seen in rural Americans who fled the farm for the city in the 1920s. Major difference, of course, is there was not a famine like Ireland experienced, however there was tremendous poverty, crops failed miserably, families were split up, and life changed permanently and dramatically.

I am rather ashamed of my sixteen-year-old self for not being as smart as she thought she was. She should have realized that the same reason this stands today in Ireland…

Near Ballyedmond, County Laois – 2011

might be why this…

Cahir Castle, Tipperary – 2011

and this…

Rock of Dunamase, County Laois – 2011

and this…

Johnstown, County Kildare – 2009

are still here today. I doubt that the farmhouse ruins will have the staying power of the castles and abbeys of centuries gone by, but in the meantime they can remind us from where we came. Whether it is a farmhouse in Ireland or Tara Township, Minnesota.

Now, if I could only get Jimmy to fix up this old house…

Two Jimmy McCormacks at old family house in Ballyedmond – 2009


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Happy Birthday Minnie!

Mary “Minnie” Foley, 1875-76

Minnie was my great-grandmother, and according to my grandma she absolutely hated the nickname “Minnie”. Please forgive me, Great Grandmother, but I think it is a cute name, and since your real name Mary is shared by at least 75% of the women in your family tree, I chose to call you Minnie.

Minnie Foley was born in Fisherville, New Hampshire on January 2, 1875. She was the fourth of five children born to Patrick Foley and Mary Crowley (their eldest son did not survive infancy.) Patrick emigrated to the United States from Kilmichael, County Cork in 1864. Mary came a year earlier in 1863, also from County Cork.

Minnie was baptized on January 24, 1875 at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Concord, New Hampshire. John Foley and Mary Casey were her godparents.

Three years later, Minnie and her family moved west to Clontarf, Minnesota with several other Irish families from the Concord, New Hampshire area, including the Regan family. John Regan and Patrick Foley emigrated together in 1864 from Kilmichael. The families settled on farms in Tara township. Minnie and Nellie Regan were best friends from a very young age.

First-Generation American Girls: Minnie and Nellie in about 1886

My grandma told me that Minnie worked hard her entire life, and that included working on the family farm in Tara Township while she was growing up. Her sister Maggie worked inside, while Minnie and her younger brother Jackie worked outside. My grandma confessed, she wasn’t sure where Minnie’s older brother Tim worked!

The McMahons, an Irish family from County Fermanagh, lived about a mile from the Foleys in Tara. Minnie married Thomas McMahon at St. Malachy Catholic Church in Clontarf on June 28, 1904. Minnie’s sister Maggie and Tom’s brother Frank were their witnesses. I imagine Minnie and Hoosie (as Tom is referred to in Minnie’s autograph book) having secret meetings over hay bales and missing chickens during their courtship…

Minnie and Tom raised seven children and after giving farming all they had the McMahons moved to Minneapolis in 1925.

When she died in 1945, Minnie was living with my grandma, her husband John Regan, and their new baby (and my mother) Eileen. My grandma said that Minnie was smitten with Eileen. Minnie would say that she had never known a baby to sleep as much and as well as little Eileen. Minnie marvelled at how Eileen would even fall asleep with a bottle in her mouth.

In many ways things came full circle for Minnie. Also living with my grandma in 1945 was Neil Regan, Nellie’s older brother and my grandpa’s father. Eighty years earlier Patrick Foley and John Regan had journeyed to the United States. After Fisherville, New Hampshire and Clontarf, Minnesota, the families came together again in Minneapolis…a long way from Kilmichael.

In my grandma’s recipe book are a few recipes attributed to Minnie, her “Ma” – I think I will make “Ma’s Spice Cake” in Minnie’s honor today.

Nellie Regan Byrne and Minnie Foley McMahon, 1942


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Kilmichael Roots

In 2009 I visited with Father Jerry Cremin of Kilmichael Parish in County Cork.  He shared some records he had on my family.  Two of my great-great-grandfathers (John Regan and Patrick Foley) left the parish in 1864 and came to the United States.  Father Cremin’s descriptions of the history and the landscape of Kilmichael were enlightening and entertaining.

View from Kilmichael Ambush memorial, County Cork (2009, Regan McCormack)

When I saw this search topic that brought someone to The Irish in America –  Irish immigrants able to read and write? – I immediately thought of my visit with Father Cremin.  Census data from when John Regan settled in the U.S. shows that he was unable to read or write.  Father Cremin told me that this was not unusual for a man from Kilmichael in the mid-19th century.  He continued to say that John Regan most likely didn’t even speak English, let alone read or write it, when he left Kilmichael.

John Regan

I am a bit embarrassed admit that I had not even considered that any of my ancestors were Irish speakers, but it stands to reason.  Perhaps John Regan never gained command of the English language.  “Old Johnny Regan” is remembered by his grandchildren as a somewhat gruff man, who didn’t seem that interested in young children.

Patrick Foley, who also came from Kilmichael, was literate.  My grandma always told me that her grandfather Foley received his education in a hedge school in County Cork.  In the U.S., Patrick Foley was active in township government and held offices in the Ancient Order of Hibernians and St. Patrick’s Benevolent Society.  My grandma seemed proud of her grandfather, but she would say that the Foleys thought they were better than everyone else.

Patrick Foley

I have a book with Patrick Foley’s  name in gold on the cover, O’Halloran’s History of Ireland.  I am not sure of the exact origin of the book, but I suspect he acquired it while living in New Hampshire, after emigration.  Perhaps it was connected to his participation with the St. Patrick’s Benevolent Society or AOH.  Has anyone else seen this book?  Let me know by leaving a comment!

Last week a couple more search topics appeared on the list:

  • Regan family Kilmichael
  • Foley Macroom

I wish the person who searched for these items would have left a comment…maybe we are talking about the same families!  Click here to read about the first generation of Foleys and Regans born in the United States.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you all!


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Heaps of Love: A message from home

I am always interested to see what internet searches bring people to The Irish in America.  Here are some of the recent search topics:

  • Irish beginnings in America
  • Irish people searching for American relatives
  • What was the life of an Irish immigrant like in America?
  • Irish emigrant letters
  • Irish immigrants able to read and write?

Emigrant letters can be an important tool for Irish seeking information on relatives who came to America.  Many Irish people who have contacted me for assistance on locating relatives have some memory of letters from these emigrants.  Either the actual letter, or stories of the letters received over the years.  Some people still have the letters and can refer to them for details of the relative’s life in America.

In Irish family history research census data, passenger manifests, and birth and death certificates provide the pertinent information you need to complete a family tree.  If you go a little further, obituaries and newspaper clippings will expand your understanding of the individuals you are researching.  Photographs can put faces to the data, but letters can provide intimate glimpses into the lives of your ancestors.  The emigrant letter is fast becoming a treasured source for information on the experiences of Irish emigrants (see this article on a recent donation to the Cork City and County Archive.)

Of course, for those of us researching in America, we won’t find the emigrant letter, but rather, if we are lucky we might find a response to that letter.  I often day-dream of discovering a dusty box of letters in a long-forgotten attic, letters written to one of my ancestors that would provide some insight into the life they left behind in Ireland.  Alas, I have yet to find such a stash, but I do have a little something.

My great-grandmother Annie Hill Regan would have been my best bet for saving such correspondence.  We have many of her things – china, furniture, and photographs – but no letters, only a tidy envelope containing two Christmas cards and several postcards.

Christmas card, Katie Hill Howe to Annie Hill Regan (front)

Christmas card, Katie Hill Howe to Annie Hill Regan (inside)

The card pictured above was sent to Annie in 1930 by her sister Katie from Ireland.  I can only imagine the cards and letters the two sisters exchanged during the thirty years that passed since Annie left County Kildare to begin a new life in Clontarf, Minnesota.  Because people did not often save their correspondence, that makes this small packet of my great-grandmother’s so important to me.  Obviously the contents were important enough to her that she set them aside and saved them.  This tells me much about my great-grandmother, as well as provides a peak at the family she left behind in Ireland.

Katie Hill Howe and family, Johnstown, County Kildare (photo from MJ Harshmann)

I wanted to mention a great little book, The Reynolds Letters: An Irish Emigrant Family in Late Victorian Manchester.  This collection provides a glimpse into an Irish family’s emigration experience – from County Leitrim to Manchester, England and on to Chicago, Illinois.  Great read for anyone interested in the Irish who emigrated to England and America.

Next time I will address another item on the most common searches and how that may contribute to an absence of letters.


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The Young Americans

First Generations Americans      (click to enlarge)

This photo appeared in the December 2008/January 2009 issue of Irish America Magazine.  The following text accompanied the photo:

In March 1864, boyhood friends John Regan and Patrick Foley from Macroom, County Cork, arrived in New York port on the City of Baltimore sailing from Cobh.  They took to life in America quickly and in 1870 both were married.  John Regan married Mary Quinn and they had four sons and two daughters: Cornelius (Neil) , Ellen, John, Patrick, Jeremiah (Jerry), and Mary.  Patrick Foley married Mary Crowley and the couple had four children: Margaret, Timothy, Mary, and John.  After 15 years at work in the mills and machine shops of Fisherville, New Hampshire both families seized the opportunity to move west, own their own land, and raise their families in an Irish Catholic community.  By 1880, the Regan and Foley families were established in Tara Township near Clontarf, Minnesota – active in township government, members of St. Malachy Catholic Church, and proud farmers on land they owned.

This photograph of the sons of John Regan and Patrick Foley – four first generation Americans – captures one of those moments in American history when anything seemed possible.  It is the turn of the twentieth century and Neil, Jack, and Jerry Regan and John Foley look poised to take on what the world had to offer.  Their confidence is palpable and represents the optimism shared by many Americans at the time.

Over the years, confidence waned as youth faded and the realities of life took hold.  This included falling crop prices, farm failures, personal hardships, and economic depression, but on the day this photograph was taken, with cigars pursed in their lips and hats perched jauntily on their heads, these four young men look as if the world is their oyster.

The Regans and the Foleys came together again in the next generation –  Mary Foley  was my grandmother’s mother and Cornelius (Neil) Regan was my grandfather’s father.

(Submitted by Aine C. McCormack, Saint Paul, Minnesota)

Since the photo was published, I have learned that Patrick Foley and John Regan came from Kilmichael Parish in West Cork.

My great-grandfather Cornelius Regan is seated on the left, next to John Foley.  These two men were members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a fraternal organization formed in 1838 largely in response to discrimination faced by Irish Americans throughout the country.  These types of organizations became very important for new immigrants from Ireland, as well as to more established Irish Americans.  More to come about these Irish American fraternal societies in a future post…