The Irish in America

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DAY 24: W.B. Yeats

Think I am running out of favorite things? Not a chance! I have saved the best for the last seven days.


William Butler Yeats has been my favorite Irish poet for a long time. I guess I am not very original in my love for Yeats, but I don’t care. It just does not get any better.

In college I had to memorize and recite a poem in a literature course. This assignment mortified me, but I chose this poem, and everything was fine.

For Anne Gregory

by William Butler Yeats

“Never shall a young man,
Thrown into despair
By those great honey-coloured
Ramparts at your ear,
Love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.”

“But I can get a hair-dye
And set such colour there,
Brown, or black, or carrot,
That young men in despair
May love me for myself alone
And not my yellow hair.”

“I heard an old religious man
But yesternight declare
That he had found a text to prove
That only God, my dear,
Could love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.”

Yeats' Grave at Drumcliff churchyard, Sligo

Yeats’ Grave at Drumcliff churchyard, Sligo



Anything sound familiar?

Jennie Johnston Famine Ship, Dublin (photo by Regan McCormack)

Jennie Johnston Famine Ship, Dublin (photo Regan McCormack)

On occasion, a reader of the blog will leave a comment wondering if anyone has information on a specific Irish ancestor or family or even an Irish relative or friend who made their way to America.

These comments quickly become buried as new posts move to the top of the page. I would like to give a few recent comments a bit more attention here…take a look, and if anything strikes a chord, leave a comment. I will put you in touch with the source!


J.C. writes: “Hi there, What a great website, Doing a little research myself and am trying to find any details on an Anthony Mulligan who emigrated from Sligo through Queenstown, Cork Ireland in Oct 1914 on The Cedric and settled in Chicago and I think he worked for Armour Stock Yards.He signed a Reg Card No 2038 in 1940/41 and lived in 425-W-60 Street. Dont know whether he married , family, or anything else about him . He had a brother James who also lived in Chicago and a sister ” Sr Martin Mulligan ” a Sinsinawa Dominican nun but I have traced these two family members. Any help out there would be appreciated.”


Carol’s interested in these names from County Carlow.

1920s BOSTON 

This is an interesting one. I did a quick search, but I was unable to find Meg. Brenda writes: “I am looking for a Meg Reidy who lived in Clinton Ave. in Boston in the early twenties, as a tiny child. My husband’s mother was her nurse/housekeeper, and spoke of her all her life, she loved that baby. Anybody know her, or her descendants or family?”

County Waterford Coast (photo Regan McCormack)

County Waterford Coast (photo Regan McCormack)


I just learned from a comment on another blog I write that the Kavanaugh family who settled in the railroad town of Clontarf in Western Minnesota came from Bunmahon in County Waterford. This caught my eye since I actually drove through Bunmahon while visiting Waterford this autumn.

John commented that he had heard that several families who settled in Clontarf, Minnesota in the late 19th century had come from Bunmahon. This was news to me. Anybody out there know anything about emigration from Bunmahon, County Waterford?

Hope you all have a wonderful weekend, and if any of the names or places on this page sound familiar, please drop me a line!

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Merry Christmas (Happy Birthday)

The story goes that my great-grandmother, Margaret Mary Flannery, put the Christmas goose in the oven, then stepped into the side room and delivered her own special Christmas present. My grandmother Agnes Anastasia Celestine Flannery was born on December 25, 1915 in the house on Bayless in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Agnes Flannery, 1942

Agnes Flannery, 1942

Grandma’s father, James Patrick Flannery, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of Irish immigrants. Her mother, Margaret Mary Flannery, was born in County Sligo.

James Patrick and Margaret Mary Flannery (also known as "Pa and Ma")

James Patrick and Margaret Mary Flannery (also known as “Pa and Ma”)

I always felt sorry for Grandma. Of all the days to be born, she had to share a birthday with Jesus. I loved my birthday because in my family it is something that is all mine. It is the one day where I get all the attention – all the presents, a cake with candles, and a special song sung just for me. (Is it obvious that I am a middle child?)

There are some people for whom a Christmas birthday would be a problem, but my grandma didn’t seem to mind a bit. She loved everything to do with Christmas — the music, the parties, the pageantry. She felt honored to share her day with Jesus, and enjoyed the special attention her December 25th birthday garnered for her.

I remember my aunts would make a birthday cake and we would light candles and sing “Happy Birthday” after Christmas dinner. We even gave Grandma a special present wrapped in birthday paper. But you know, even without theses special efforts, I think Grandma carved out a tiny bit of the Christmas festivities her personal birthday celebration.

On the last Christmas/Birthday we celebrated in 2004, I asked Grandma to tell me her favorite Christmas carol. I knew the answer, and it was difficult for Grandma to speak because of a stroke, but I just wanted to see the twinkle in her beautiful blue eyes when she said it.

“O Holy Night.”

Happy Birthday, Grandma. This one is for you…



The Woman Behind Irish Lives Remembered

My sister Regan and I just returned from three weeks in Ireland. It was a great trip with the perfect blend of business, sightseeing, family, and relaxation. In upcoming posts I will share all the details about the fantastic folks we met and places we visited.

Our first stop was Dublin, where we met up with the lovely Eileen Munnelly, the managing director of Irish Lives Remembered genealogy magazine and website. It is great to meet face-to-face with someone you have emailed and tweeted with for months. Within minutes I felt as though I had known Eileen for years. Thanks for the great day in Dublin, Eileen.

With Regan and Eileen at the National Library in Dublin.

The October issue of Irish Lives Remembered Genealogy Magazine is available now. Click here to take a look. This month’s issue features an article by Jayne Shrimpton – Investigating Irish Family Photographs – a crash course in identifying and dating those family photos in your collection.

Ancestors from County Sligo? Turn to page 28 for the special section with an article on tracing your Sligo roots, a story on the Sligo town that died, and information on the Gathering 2013, Sligo-style. And don’t forget to check out my article exploring my great-grandmother’s connection to Manchester, England on page 50.

Click here to view the October issue!

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Exile and Savior: Fiddler Michael Coleman

How could Michael Coleman help but become a great musician? His childhood home in Knockgrania, County Sligo was often referred to as “Jamsey Coleman’s Music Hall” because his father James, a respected flute player, welcomed musicians from near and far into the home on a regular basis. This area of Sligo was (and still is) known for its traditional music – the Coleman’s neighbors included the likes of fiddle players Mattie Kiloran, John O’Dowd, and P.J. McDermott, each of whom would influence Michael Coleman’s playing.

Michael was born in 1891, the youngest child of James and Beatrice  Coleman. Michael was a twin, but his older brother died at birth. It is accepted that Michael learned to play fiddle at an early age, but who was his teacher? Some say his father taught him to play,while the local story is that on the way home from a house dance one night Michael came upon an ancient ring fort and fell asleep. When he awoke he could play – naturally it was the faeries that taught him!

Father or faerie, they did a good job teaching young Michael. He developed into a fine fiddle player. Michael also became an accomplished step dancer. After trying his hand at several jobs and a brief stint in Manchester, England, Michael knew he had to leave Sligo. There was no chance to earn a living playing the fiddle in Sligo, but in America…

In 1914, Michael arrived in America. He stayed with an aunt in Lowell, Massachusetts briefly before traveling across the United States as part of the Keith Circuit, the largest and most successful vaudeville operation of the time. In 1917, Michael settled in New York City, married, and started his own orchestra.

At this time, there was a growing interest in “real” ethnic music in New York. Previously, the Irish music distributed by the record companies had been recorded by “imitation Irish” musicians. A record shop owner in New York City named Ellen O’Byrne was certain that if talented, real Irish musicians recorded Irish music, those recordings would fly off the shelves. She encouraged Michael to make recordings of his music.

In 1921 Michael’s first recording was released on the Shannon label. Over eighty  recordings would follow before Michael’s death in 1945. Ellen O’Byrne was not surprised by the popularity of the recordings in the United States. What no one expected was for the recordings to become popular in Ireland. Shortly after the first recording was issued in 1921, Irish Americans shared them with family and friends, sending the 78 rpm records back home in Ireland.

American record companies caught up to this trend and began marketing the recordings directly to Ireland, which only cemented Michael’s popularity and influence. In 1974, on the road from Tubbercurry to Gurteen in his home county of Sligo, a memorial to Michael Coleman was erected by the Coleman Traditional Society:

To the memory of Michael Coleman, master of the fiddle, saviour of Irish traditional music. Born near this spot in 1891. Died in exile 1945. To the traditional musicians of an older generation who, in this area, inspired his genius – To those of a later generation who, after his passing, fostered and preserved the tradition for posterity.

That says it all. If you find yourself in South Sligo, be sure to visit the Coleman Irish Music Centre in Gurteen (exhibit, gift shop, replica of the Coleman Cottage – “Jamesy Coleman’s Music Hall”, music archive, theater and more!) And if you’re lucky, you will hear the sweet sounds of the Sligo-style fiddle wafting from the local pubs.

Thanks to J. Michael Finn for his article on Michael Coleman – especially for the story of the faeries!


The Famine: Views from Ireland and Abroad

“The Coffin trade is the most flourishing one at present here.”

This quote appeared in the January 8, 1847 edition of the Cork Examiner.  Steve Taylor of Vassar College has compiled a fascinating collection of newspapers, illustrations, and other items from Irish and British sources pertaining to the Great Famine.  The collection, Views of the Famine, is available online and provides a glimpse into how the press was reporting the crisis, and what people were doing (or not doing) to cope with the disaster.

"The causes of emigration in Ireland." 13 January 1849 (from Views of the Famine)

The collection includes excerpts from the Cork Examiner during 1846-47.  The weekly reports of death by starvation and disease and a pervasive sense of hopelessness can be difficult to read.  Entire families perished, their lifeless bodies found on the dirt floors of make-shift huts, post-mortem exams showing not even a trace of food in their stomachs and intestines.  Columns reporting over-capacity in the workhouses appear alongside advertisements for steerage passage to North America costing more than most Irish could ever afford.

On September 1, 1847, a column Emigrant Disasters ran in the Cork Examiner.  The column explains why the journeys of emigrants bound for the United States were more “successful” than those destined for Canada.  The major difference was the ships used to transport emigrants to Canada were timber ships, vessels utterly unsuitable for passengers.  The Examiner explains: “…less attention to be paid to their [ship’s] sea-worthiness, since they are laden half the way with what can’t sink, and the other with a freight, which is thought no loss if it do.”

The passage to Canada (British America) was cheaper and the preferred route for much of the “assisted emigration” that took place during the Famine years.  Owners of the large estates in Ireland who favored a more “humane” method of getting rid of tenants, chose to send them to Canada rather than merely evict them from the land.

The destination for many of these emigrant ships was New Brunswick, Canada.  The New Brunswick Archive offers a collection of online databases pertaining to the Irish who came to Canada.  Specifically, there are some useful resources related to assisted emigration.

The Fitzwilliam Estate Emigration Books 1848-1856 lists the tenants evicted from the Coolattin estate of Lord Fitzwilliam in County Wicklow, Ireland.  The archive provides an informative introduction, a narrative by Jim Rees providing context, a finding aid, and a transcript, complete with genealogical information.  Quite an interesting and useful tool.

The New Brunswick Archive also has a collection of letters, transcribed and available online.  I will address some of these letters in my next post, but I would like to turn your attention to a group of letters, Letters from Irish Emigrants and others, put in by Sir Robert Gore Booth Bart: [1846-1849].  Click here and scroll to the last group to read these letters.  Sir Robert owned an estate in Sligo.  These letters speak to the conditions and challenges faced by the Irish in the New World.

For more information on the Famine Irish in New Brunswick, read this essay by Dr. Stewart Donovan of St. Thomas University, In the Wake of Dark Passage: Irish Famine Migration to New Brunswick.

Just a couple more examples of the resources available online to help us better understand the Irish experience in America (and Canada, too!)


Views of the Famine

New Brunswick Irish Portal

Irish Canadian Cultural Association