The Irish in America


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Behind the Windows

The inscriptions on two of the windows at St. Malachy’s were a mystery to my mom and me. We wondered about Axier and Milmoe. We know so many of the old Irish family names from our research into Tara Township, the village of Clontarf, and the railroad, but are much less familiar with the non-Irish families and those from Hoff Township.

Following are short profiles on the Axier and Milmoe families, based on some general Ancestry.com info and the St. Malachy’s account books. If anyone has anything to add to this, or has information on any of the other window donors, please leave a comment and let me know!

Photo by Anne Schirmer, 2021

THE FAMILIES BEHIND THE WINDOWS

Charles Axier Family

The Axier family called the Clontarf, Minnesota area home for less than twenty years, but, like so many families, they made their mark on the town, the Church, and the community. The most visible contribution is the stained glass window at the “new” St. Malachy Catholic Church (1896).

BRIEF HISTORY OF THE AXIER FAMILY IN THE UNITED STATES

Charles and Marie Axier were born in France in about 1830 and 1836 respectively. They came to the United States around 1849 and were married in 1856. In 1865, Charles is in the Illinois State Census living in Prairie du Rocher in Randolph County. Information is limited from this census, but the Axier family consists of three people and their livestock has a value of $25. Swift County records indicate that Charles Axier was a veteran of the U.S. Civil War.

In the 1880 U.S. Federal Census, the Axier family lives in Hoff Township, Pope County, Minnesota. Charles is 51 years old and Marie is listed at 35 years old. Their daughter, Julia (21) is listed in the household of Father Oster in Clontarf working as a domestic servant. The 1885 Minnesota State Census list Charles (age 55) and Marie (age 40) still in Hoff Township in Pope County

Charles and Marie moved to town, appearing in Clontarf in the 1895 Minnesota State Census living near the Church and rectory. Charles (64) and Marie (55) are employed as gardeners (due to their location and close association, likely for St. Malachy’s).

By 1900, like Father Oster, the Axiers are no longer living in the Clontarf area. Julia married August Boucher on May 8, 1900, in Swift County and the couple shows up in the 1900 Census in Otsego Township in Wright County. Julia is the stepmother to August’s two children – Emma (7) and Arthur (18).  Charles (70) and Marie (60) live with the Boucher family in Otsego.

In 1905, Charles 64) and Marie (55) have relocated to Anoka in Anoka County (per Minnesota State Census). Charles is employed as a laborer and Marie has no occupation listed. Charles dies in 1909 and is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Anoka, Minnesota. His gravestone states that Charles was born in 1835. (Note on the accuracy of ages: Census data is sometimes unreliable due to family members reporting information who don’t know the correct age, language barriers, mistrust of the census-taker, and simply individuals not wishing to reveal their age.)

Marie moves back to Julia’s home in Otsego. Julia’s husband, August, passes away on September 13, 1916 and by the 1920 Census, Marie (84) and Julia (64) are living alone at the house. Marie died on January 31, 1927, and is buried next to her husband in Anoka’s Calvary Cemetery. The date of birth given on her stone is January 13, 1936.

STAINED GLASS WINDOW

  • 8/8/1896 – Charles Axier partial due to window fund $10.00
  • 10/12/1896 – $5.00

SAMPLES OF OTHER AXIER FAMILY CONTRIBUTIONS

  • 10/25/1879 – Grave Yard Fund C. Axier $1.00
  • 6/15/1886 – Peter Pence collection Mrs. Axier $.15
  • 6/16/1886 – Charles Axier Church dues $29.00
  • 7/3/1887 – Dues Charles Axier $5.00
  • 6/2/1896 – To friend’s (Mrs. Axier) offering $.50

Milmoe and Mockler Families

John MIlmoe was born in Ireland about 1830. In 1870, he appears in the US Federal Census living in ward two of Oshkosh, Wisconsin with his wife Anna and family. John is employed as a blacksmith. Anna Angel was also born in Ireland around 1828 and after coming to the US, married Daniel McCarthy in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1845. McCarthy passed away in 1851. John and Anna married about 1855, creating a family of children from Anna’s first marriage and children of their own.

By 1880, the family has relocated to Hoff Township in Pope County near the village of Clontarf, where John is now a farmer. Anna Milmoe passed away in 1890 at the age of 62. Her death may have inspired the lovely stained-glass window at St. Malachy simply inscribed, Milmoe.

John and Anna’s daughter Mary married William Mockler of Hoff Township in 1886. The couple lived near the Milmoe farm, as well as other active St. Malachy’s parishioners – Goulets, Chamberlains, Chevaliers, Daniels, Axiers, and Milmoes. The ladies of these families are among those responsible for a second window donated by the Ladies of Pope County. Mary Milmoe Mockler was mentioned a number of times in the financial records of the church. She organized her friends and family in raising funds for multiple windows at Saint Malachy’s Church.

In 1900, John Milmoe is living with his daughter Mary Mockler, who is widowed with three small children aged 8-13. John Milmoe died in 1911. He is buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Hayward, Sawyer County, Wisconsin amongst Mockler family members.

MILMOE IN THE EARLY ACCOUNTS BOOK

9/17/1878 – Collection/pew rent – $5 James

MOCKLER IN THE ACCOUNTS BOOKS

10/6/1878 – Collection/pew rent – $2.00 John

4/13/1886 – C/P – $5.00 Edward

7/9/1887 – C/P – $15.00 Edward (T. Goulet and Isidore Daniel each gave $5.00)

Note:

Information in this article is from census data from Ancestry.com and the St. Malachy Financial Records, copies in Eileen McCormack’s files. These copies and the information contained here do not represent the complete financial record.          Eileen McCormack made the copies when the books were at the parish house in Clontarf, 2004-2005. The books are now located at St. Francis Catholic Church in Benson, Minnesota.

Eileen R. McCormack and Aine C. McCormack, March 9, 2022

Anne Schirmer, the local Clontarf historian, has put together a book of St. Malachy’s photos and Clontarf history. Let me know if you would like to purchase a copy! Last time I checked, they were $15 – shipping may be extra. Anne organized a “History Open House” in Clontarf in March and is planning on hosting another event soon. Leave a comment and I will get in touch. Thank you!


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The Windows of St. Malachy’s

When sunlight streams through the muted colored panes of glass, the church is filled with subtle warmth, comfort, and beauty. It is all about the windows at St. Malachy’s Catholic Church in Clontarf, Minnesota.

Window donated by Robert Riordan – inscription is in the center of the “ventilator” section near the bottom of the window. (Photo by Anne Schirmer, 2021)

The following is an informational listing on the windows of St. Malachy’s. The details are there: size, cost, payment, dates, and donors. If you are interested in any of these windows, go to Clontarf, Minnesota this Saturday, May 21st at 9am for the auction!

THE WINDOWS OF ST. MALACHY’S

The most striking feature of the 1896 St. Malachy Catholic Church building is the beautiful stained glass. The windows give character and a sense of elegance to the simple frame church. Father Oster wanted to put Clontarf and St. Malachy’s on the map, to represent the thriving, prosperous community it had become in less than twenty years. A St. Malachy parishioner (or group of parishioners) paid for each stained-glass window. Inscriptions of the donor’s name(s) appear on most of the windows.

Who made the windows?

Father Oster hired Brown & Haywood of St. Paul, Minnesota to design and manufacture all the stained-glass windows in the church. In the 1890s, Brown & Haywood was one of the most sought-after stained-glass studios in Minnesota, employing some of the top artists in the region. Many civic buildings and churches throughout Minnesota featured their stained glass, including St. Mary’s in Waverly, Minnesota. The company moved from St. Paul in 1898, shifted its focus, and was later sold to the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company.

Advertisement in the “Improvement Bulletin” Vol. XV. No 9. January 30, 1897.

How much did they cost?

An account of the full window charges from Brown & Haywood from November 13, 1896, appears in the financial book on the date of payment, December 27, 1896. The amounts listed represent windows and installation.

10     36×130 leaded     $325.00                (five on each side)

  2      36×70 leaded          $35.00               (left side “duplex” on front)

  2     36×70 leaded           $35.00               (right side “duplex” on front)

  1     56×56 leaded           $21.00               (“Rose” window)

  1     57×28 leaded           $11.00               (transept above door)

16     20X26 CATH            $  9.00               

12     Ventilators @2.50    $30.00

14     Inscriptions @.50   $  7.00

TOTAL CHARGES (including approx. 60% discount on two small windows): $454.20

When did St. Malachy’s pay?

December 5, 1896       $150.00

December 27, 1896     $256.70

January 15, 1897          $ 93.80

TOTAL PAYMENTS: $500.50 (missing pages might account for this perceived over-payment)

Who were the donors?

(Note: The following figures from 12/8/1896 differ slightly from earlier entries due to shipping or installation charges.)

TEN Main Windows (five on each side along length of building, all inscribed)

     -Ladies of Pope County – 3 windows – paid $60.90 (December 8-9, 1896)

36×130 leaded window (each)

Account entry for July 14, 1895, states that the July Fourth Fair raised $41.48 for stained glass windows.

This included proceeds from Mrs. Mockler’s fancy table ($21.18) and quilt raffle ($11.75).

     -Young Folks – 2 windows – paid $40.60 (December 8-9, 1896)

36×130 leaded glass (each)

Entry from July 10, 1896, lists $30.00, proceeds from “play by Clontarf Troop for windows.”

     -Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) – paid $20.30 (December 27, 1896 via J. O’Donnell)

36×130 leaded glass

Breakdown of Charges for 36×130 windows (listed under AOH):

32 ½ leaded glass              $16.25

Ventilator                           2.50

Inscription                           .50

Transportation                1.05

       TOTAL                             $20.30

     -Charles Axier – paid $20.30 (December 8-9, 1896)

36×130 leaded glass

     -John Milmoe – paid $20.30 (December 8-9, 1896)

36×130 leaded glass

     -Isidore Daniel – paid $20.30 (December 8-9, 1896)

36×130 leaded glass

     -Robert Riordon – paid $20.30 (December 8-9, 1896)

36×130 leaded glass

FOUR Front Windows (“Duplex” style on either side of façade)

     -Jos. Daniel – paid $21.60 (December 8-9, 1896)

     -J.B. Daniel – paid $21.60 (December 8-9, 1896)

ROSE Window (on front of building)

     -Eugene Daniel       $9.50   56×56  12/9/1896 (no inscription)

TRANSOM Window (above front door)              

     -Simon Conaty – Contractor/builder on project              $5.20   57×28  12/9/1896 (inscription)    

AGONY IN THE GARDEN (above and behind placement of the original altar)

     -The only window depicting a scene at St. Malachy’s

     -No specific information was found in the account books for this window  

Note:

Information in this article is from copied pages from the St. Malachy Financial Records from Eileen McCormack’s files. These copies and the information contained here do not represent the complete financial record. The excerpts were copied by Eileen McCormack when the books were at the parish house in Clontarf, 2004-2005. Record books are presently at St. Francis Catholic Church in Benson, Minnesota.

Eileen R. McCormack and Aine C. McCormack, March 9, 2022


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Anyone up for a game of checkers?

It might not look like much to you, but this somewhat crudely fashioned checkerboard has always been a treasured relic of my family history.

Patrick Foley’s checkerboard, circa 1870. Fisherville, NH.

I grew up in a house full of family heirlooms. My mom liked to incorporate them into her overall decorative scheme. She framed her grandparents’ wedding certificate and put it on the wall amongst old family photographs and used her great-grandmother’s china pitcher as a vase for lilacs and lilies of the valley in the springtime. Mom also lulled us to sleep in the same rocking chair her grandmother once rocked my grandpa. Old stuff and family history were all around the place.

But the checkerboard always intrigued me. It was tucked discretely in the space between a tall radiator and the dining room wall. When I was young I assumed that my mom intentionally put it there to hide it from potential thieves and jealous relatives. In my mind, the checkerboard was an extremely valuable antique.

The checkerboard (we always called it “the checkerboard” but I suppose it could be a chessboard) belonged to my great-great-grandfather, Patrick Foley. Patrick died the year my grandma was born (1913), but she shared what she had heard about her grandpa.

Grandma didn’t have stories about her grandpa, as much as she recounted some random details of a man’s life that survived the generations. My grandma was proud to say that Patrick was able to read and write (a rarity among her grandparents). Patrick was educated in a hedge school in County Cork, Ireland. He came to the United States as a young man with his friend John Regan and settled in Fisherville, NH. When Bishop Ireland started his colonies in Minnesota, Patrick moved west, bought a farm, and raised his family in Tara Township. Patrick was known as “Grandpa Petey” (or P.T. for his initials). He was a prosperous farmer in Tara and eventually moved into a nice house in the nearby larger town of Benson, Minnesota.

Patrick Foley, circa 1867, tintype (Private Family Collection)

I grew up in the 1970s, before the genealogy craze, Ancestry.com, and DNA matches, and was grateful for my grandma’s information, but I did want to learn more about Patrick. What did he do in Fisherville and where did he come from in Ireland? The checkerboard stirred my imagination and inspired me to learn more about my family history. I’ve visited Fisherville (Concord), New Hampshire and Kilmichael, County Cork and I have learned many more random details of Patrick Foley’s life. I guess it is my job to piece it all together and tell the story.

In case you are interested, here are the details of the checkerboard. Maybe you’ve seen something similar hidden in the nooks and crannies of your family home? Let me know!

The checkerboard measures about 20.5 inches (wide) by 19.5 inches (deep) and is about 3 inches thick. This is a substantial piece, I’d say it weighs nearly four pounds. Alternating stained and dark green painted squares create the playing surface (squares range in size 1.5 to 2 inches). In spite of these irregularities, I thought it was quite fancy because it was personalized. “Patrick Foley” is stenciled on one end and “Fisherville” on the other.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!


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Family Album: Aunt Kate

Catherine McMahon was the oldest daughter of Frank and Catherine (McAndrew) McMahon, born in Tara Township, Minnesota on October 17, 1877.

Catherine McMahon, circa 1900 (Private Family Collection)

I know very little about Catherine, except to call her Aunt Kate like my grandma and mom would. My mom remembers her as one of the old aunts. She married Jack Mears and the couple had no children. They lived in South Minneapolis, near downtown, and Jack was employed as a laborer. Before she was married, she lived in Clontarf with her family. The 1900 census says she was employed as a teacher. By the 1910 census she is “keeping house” – her mother passed away in 1908, so she was taking care of the house and her dad.

Aunt Kate, circa 1950 (Private Family Collection)

This is probably how my mom remembers Aunt Kate. She’ll let us know! I’m looking forward to learning a bit more about Aunt Kate. I am working on finding a marriage record and I want to take a look at her death certificate.


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That’s Pretty Old!

John Regan, circa 1872

John Regan, circa 1872

October 24th is the 185th anniversary of my great-great-grandfather John Regan’s birth.

John Regan was born in the townland of Clashbredane, Kilmichael, County Cork, Ireland on October 24, 1829. His parents were Cornelius and Ellen (Foley) Regan, and his godparents John Connor and Johanna Regan. John was the fourth of ten children, the second son.

When I first looked into John’s story, I was struck by how he never provided an accurate age when asked for it. Be it a ship’s officer, a census-taker, a priest, or a city clerk – never did John report his real age. John did not know how to read or write. English wasn’t even his native language. He could have not understood the question, but I have a hunch John thought his age was his own business.(I will always note his real age.)

In 1864, John arrived at New York harbor aboard the City of Baltimore. He is listed as a 24-year-old laborer (34). The names John Regan, Patrick Foley, and Timothy Galvin appear consecutively on the ship’s manifest. My grandma Agnes McMahon Regan always told me that John Regan and Patrick Foley came to America together from County Cork, that their families were close in the old country. According to John’s birth record, they were more than friends, they were cousins. Was Timothy Galvin an old friend from Ireland or a new friend from the ship? We will never know.

Once in the United States, Regan and Foley made their way north to find work in the jobs-rich industrialized Concord, New Hampshire, while Galvin went west and farmed in Illinois. Thirteen years later the three Irishmen would be reunited and among the pioneer settlers of Tara Township in Minnesota.

The 1870 United States Federal census lists an unmarried laborer John Regan, age twenty-five (40). He is living with seventy-year-old Ellen Regan, his mother. I wonder when Ellen joined John? Maybe she came with his younger brother Jeremiah, who also settled in New Hampshire? The 1870 census record is the only mention I have found of Ellen Regan in America.

The photo above is an old tintype and the only one I have of John Regan. I believe it was taken about the time of his marriage to Mary Quinn on May 19, 1872. The couple was united in Concord, New Hampshire. John was twenty-eight (42) and Mary was twenty-five.

Three children were born to John and Mary in New Hampshire – Cornelius, Ellen, and Patrick – while John worked at a local machine shop. By 1878, the Regans had saved enough money to move from the crowded city of Concord, west to Minnesota. On August 17, 1878 John Regan purchased 240 acres in section 7 of Tara Township near Clontarf, Minnesota for $1,745.24.

John added to his family and his land holdings over the next ten years. Three more children were born – John, Jeremiah, and Mary. John’s wife Mary died of consumption on June 17, 1895 at the age of forty-nine. Their youngest daughter Mary was just eight years old and John was fifty-six. By this time John had amassed over 600 acres in Tara Township.

Tara Twp 9 Oct 2007 Sec. 10 Jer. Regan place

Regan House – Tara Township

John continued to work hard on the farm until he sold his holdings for $31,650 on April 1, 1913. John must have seen his son Jerry as most likely to succeed him in farming, or perhaps most in need of his help. He purchased a section of land once owned by his old friend Timothy Galvin. John built a lovely two-story home which dominates the flat landscape of Tara Township to this day. John spent the rest of his life in this house. He died on January 21, 1924 of pneumonia. His death certificate says birth date was unknown, but age estimated at ninety-years-old (94).

Francis Byrne, a grandson of John, remembered only a gruff old man nearly blind with cataracts, but his mother told him stories of “Old Johnny”. He was tough as nails and fiercely independent. When the local postmaster and general store proprietor tried to tell Old Johnny how to vote, he defiantly went the other way. He was a determined man who kept to himself.

Even in the end, John’s age was not recorded correctly. After years of claiming to be younger than his real age, John’s gravestone says he is two years older.

 

John’s obituary is near the bottom

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Remembering Donald

They say that one of the first steps to learning about your family history is to talk to your oldest living relatives. They actually knew the people behind the names in your family tree print-out. These relatives have stories to tell, memories to share.

Nearly ten years ago my mom and I set out to learn more about our family and arranged to meet two of my grandpa’s cousins – Donald and Gerald Regan. The brothers taught us much more than we thought possible about my grandpa, the entire Regan family, and growing up in Clontarf, Minnesota .

Donald passed away last month, one day shy of his 96th birthday. He was a loving husband, father, and grandfather, a proud Navy veteran of World War II, a successful businessman, and a former mayor of DeGraff, Minnesota. Donald was friendly, outgoing, and charming. He loved to be in the mix and hear the latest news. Donald’s brother Gerald said he inherited these traits from the “Regan side” of the family. I will miss Donald’s delightful gift for storytelling and am grateful I had the chance to listen.

Donald and his sister, Kathryn.

Donald and his sister, Kathryn.

The first time I met Donald in early 2004*, he brought my mom and me on a driving tour of Tara Township. As we drove out from Clontarf, with what seemed to me to be an endless expanse of land on either side of the road, Donald began telling us who lived and farmed each section, beginning with the original nineteenth century settlers through the present-day owners. From the front seat, his brother Gerald filled in the gaps. I was in awe – I didn’t even know the names of the forty other residents of my condominium!

As we slowly rounded a corner, Donald pointed out a grove of trees set off from the road, and he stopped the car.

“Can you see a house in there? That’s where John was born. Let’s see if we can’t get closer.”

John was my grandpa and Donald’s first cousin. Donald and Gerald grew up across the railroad tracks from my grandpa in Clontarf. Donald took a sharp turn into the “driveway” – a muddy springtime mess of rocks and decaying twigs. I was certain we would get stuck, but Donald knew what he was doing. We got out of the car and walked up to the house. Donald made sure we didn’t get too close, it wasn’t safe. There was my grandpa’s birthplace, glass gone from the windows and walls gently caving in, but still standing thanks to that grove of trees.

Several years later, when Donald had moved into the Manor in Benson, he navigated his scooter down to the Whistle Stop Cafe to meet us for lunch, with the same purpose and confidence with which he drove up to Grandpa’s house that Spring day. I liked how Donald maintained his independence – with a touch of determination. Mom and I came to town a couple of times a year, meeting Donald and Gerald for lunch and a chat about “old times”. Without fail, Donald and Gerald dazzled us with entertaining tales of life in Clontarf.

At each meeting with the brothers, I waited patiently for Donald to break out his “Annie voice”. In a high-pitched tone he would say, “Oh, Sonny!” mimicking my great-grandmother Annie Hill Regan’s chastising her son for some transgression or another. I simply loved how Donald scrunched up his nose and exclaimed this phrase with a twinkle in his eye. This meant the world to me, and I think Donald got a kick out of it as well.

Donald helped fill in the gaps in our family history left by my grandpa’s early passing. My mom and I were a captive audience as Donald and Gerald reminisced about old times. As Donald helped me get to know my grandpa through his memories, he gave me a special glimpse into his own life. The Donald who was a protective older brother to Kathryn, a boy earning a little extra money sweeping out the furnace at McDermott’s in Clontarf with his brother Gerald, and Julia’s youngest son. We were lucky that Donald was so generous with his memories, his time, and his friendship. Rest in peace, Donald.

*I am sure I met Donald in the 1980s at a Regan Family picnic, but I didn’t get to know him until Spring of 2004 when my mom and I first visited Clontarf together.

Donald W. Regan

Benson
September 14, 1917 – September 13, 2013

Donald W. Regan, 95 of Benson died Friday, September 13, 2013 at Meadow Lane Nursing Home in Benson.  Mass of Christian burial will be 10:30 a.m. Saturday, October 5, 2013 at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church in DeGraff.  Burial will be in the church cemetery.  Visitation will be held from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. Friday at the church with a rosary at 4:30 p.m.  Visitation will continue on Saturday for one hour prior to the service.  Funeral arrangements are with the Harvey Anderson Funeral Home in Willmar.

Don_0Donald William Regan was born on September 14, 1917 in Clontarf, the son of Patrick and Julia (Duggan) Regan.  He attended Clontarf Elementary and Benson High School, graduating in 1936. After his schooling he entered the U.S. Navy where he served his country during WWII.   On December 27, 1945, Don was united in marriage to Margaret Helen Coy at the Catholic Church of Visitation in Danvers. They made their home in DeGraff where Don managed the DeGraff Lumber Company. They were able to share in 57 years of marriage before Margaret’s death on July 27,2002. Don enjoyed traveling, dancing, watching sports, especially Notre Dame football, Vikings and Twins.  He was the Commander of the Hughes-McCormack Post of the American Legion until his death, was a member of Knights of Columbus and had served on the school board, city council and was mayor of DeGraff.

Donald W. Regan died Friday, September 13, 2013 at Meadow Lane Nursing Home in Benson at the age of 95. He is survived by his children, William Regan of Benson, Julia (Everett) Richardson of Surprise, AZ, Dr.Timothy (Michelle) Regan of Santa Rosa, CA, Patrick Regan of Mpls, Duggan (Cindy) Regan of DeGraff and Daniel Regan of Blaine;  7 grandchildren; 3 step-grandchildren and 6 step-great-grandchildren.  Don was preceded in death by his wife, Margaret; son, Bruce; siblings, Clarence, Howard, Catherine, Agnes and Marjorie.

– from Harvey, Anderson & Johnson Funeral Home


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Day 14: Neil Regan

“You know, they string up the flags just for me!”

Neil circa 1890

Neil circa 1890

That’s what my great-grandfather Neil Regan used to say on Flag Day, June 14th. Cornelius “Neil” Regan was born on June 14, 1873 in Fisherville, New Hampshire, the oldest child of John and Mary (Quinn) Regan. He lived much of his life in the Clontarf area, arriving in Tara Township with his parents and siblings in 1879. After years on the farm, he moved into Clontarf in 1921 where he lived for over twenty years before moving to Minneapolis in the early 1940s to live with his son John – my grandpa. There he would stay until he passed away in 1951.

My mom, Eileen, remembers a dapper grandfather, dressed in a three-piece-suit every day and smelling of Listerine – Neil used Listerine to soothe pinching from too-tight nose pads on his glasses. Grandpa Neil read books to my mom. Her favorites were the Little Lulu comic books. Neil would say he had a genius on his hands when Eileen would take her turn and “read” these books to him. This was before she even started kindergarten. Of course, she wasn’t actually reading the books, she just memorized them!

Mom said Neil was a quiet man, very mild-mannered. Most days, weather permitting, Neil would take the streetcar downtown to play cards in the park with the other old guys. Neil was also devout. His nephew Gerald Regan recalls seeing Neil, kneeling next to a chair on the back porch early in the morning saying his rosary. He continued this practice his entire life. Mom recalled waiting for Neil to come out of his room in the morning while he finished up his prayers.

Gerald also remembers when my grandpa John would ask for money when he was young, Neil would get up, walk away, and pull out his wallet, inspecting its contents carefully before selecting the bills and handing them to John. Gerald always thought this a bit odd, but Neil was a very deliberate man, so he didn’t think too much about it. Only later did Gerald realize that Neil was not being circumspect at all, but rather the cataracts on his eyes made it impossible for him to see the bills in his wallet unless he had the light from the window.

Neil with his wife Annie and her nieces

Neil with his wife Annie and her nieces

Shortly after Neil moved to Minneapolis he had the cataracts removed at the University of Minnesota. My grandma remembered how Neil exclaimed, “It’s a miracle! I can see!” Apparently all those early morning rosaries paid off!

When Neil passed away on June 30, 1951, his wake was held at home. This was the only wake my mom ever remembered being in a home – by the 1950s the convention was to hold wakes at the funeral home. The front bedroom was cleared of furniture to make room for his casket and after waking for two nights, Neil returned to Clontarf, where he was buried next to his wife, Annie.

When I see the flags decorating the porches and the boulevards in my neighborhood today, I will smile to myself and think it is all for my great-grandfather Neil. Another of my Irish American favorites.

Happy Flag Day everyone and Happy Birthday Neil!

Neil is on bottom. left

Neil is on bottom. left


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Day 13 of Irish American Favorites: Tom McMahon

circa 1895

circa 1895

My great-grandfather, Thomas Edward McMahon, 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.

His youngest daughter was my grandma, Agnes McMahon Regan. She loved her dad and shared her memories with me over the years. Grandma said her dad was like a big kid. He loved to play with his children and joke around, and enjoyed nothing more than sitting in his chair on a winter’s evening with the family as his wife, Mary Foley McMahon, read stories aloud to them all.

Tom wed Mary Foley on June 9, 1904 at St. Malachy Catholic Church in Clontarf, Minnesota. The couple grew up about a mile apart on farms in Tara Township. They had seven children – four girls and three boys.

4 1904 Thomas and Mary McMahon wedding with Francis McMahon and Margaret Foley

Tom and Mary, seated.

Grandma said her dad was extremely good-natured and soft-spoken. She only remembered one occassion when he raised his voice at her. 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 and replied, “Pardon me?”

Grandma said it again, this time louder, since he 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 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, and her dad just brushed the black curls from her forehead and comforted her, “There, now, that’s the girl. It’s alright…”

Grandma said she could tell her dad felt as bad about the situation as she did. The two of them sat on the buggy while Grandma finished her dinner. Grandma learned her lesson, and this was the first and last time Tom raised his voice.

According to my 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.

Tom worked in the pole yard (telephone poles) for several years before he retired. A neighbor let Tom use a plot of vacant land nearby. Tom grew “every vegetable known to man” on that piece of land. My grandma said he never seemed happier. Tom had a nifty little trade set up whereby he exchanged fresh produce for groceries at the local shop. Grandma admitted that her dad gave away a lot of produce to neighbors throughout the 1930s. She said everyone did what they could to help each other out during the Depression.

Tom McMahon died on May 6, 1937. His wife, Mary, went out that day with a friend. When she returned home, she found her husband of nearly thirty-three years slumped in his favorite chair. One thing that Mary always said was that no one should be alone when they die, and she felt terrible she was not home for Tom – she was always home.

Because my grandma shared her memories of her loved ones with me, these relatives I never had the privilege to meet came to life for me. This is how a great-grandfather who passed away thirty-five years before I was born can be one of my Irish American favorites. I feel like I knew him and  now it is my job to keep his memory alive, for my grandma.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, TOM!

Tom is seated on the left, pictured with his sisters and brother.

Tom is seated on the left, pictured with his sisters and brother.


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Life is a Game of Cards

Agnes, with her younger brother, Frank McMahon -- ca 1920

Agnes, with her younger brother, Frank McMahon , about 1920.

This is my favorite photograph of my all-time favorite person – my maternal grandmother, Agnes McMahon Regan.

Today is the 100th anniversary of my grandma’s birth. Agnes  was born in Tara Township near Clontarf, Minnesota on January 12, 1913 on the farm her Fermanagh-born, American Civil War veteran grandfather, Francis McMahon, homesteaded in 1876. Agnes was the sixth child and fourth daughter of Thomas and Mary “Minnie” (Foley) McMahon.

McMahon Family ca.1914

Grandma is standing on the chair, surrounded by her siblings and her mom in 1914.

One of my grandma’s favorite pastimes was playing cards. From Bridge and 500 with her card clubs, to Crazy Eights and Go Fish with her grandchildren, and everything in between, Grandma loved a game of cards. No visit to Grandma’s was complete without at least one game. Not sure if it was an addiction or not, but we can safely blame/credit her Irish Grandpa McMahon, or Grandpa Bushy, as he was known, for her life-long love of cards.

Grandpa Bushy, years before he would teach little Agnes to play cards.

Grandpa Bushy, years before he would teach little Agnes to play cards. Does it look like he is twiddling his thumbs? Something else my grandma got from him!

Grandpa Bushy lived with grandma’s family for a couple of years when she was small. While her older brothers and sisters were at school, Grandpa Bushy taught Grandma the finer points of rummy. She was just four-years-old, but Grandma caught on right away and  never looked back.

Grandma lived her life much like she played cards. Grandma always played the cards that were dealt her. She never complained, really never. Grandma handled tragedy, heart-break, illness, and pain with grace. She believed that her problems were no more devastating than those of the next person.

The coolest thing about Grandma was that she rarely gave her opinion unsolicited, and when it was asked for, she was very careful in what she said. Grandma never gossiped. All that being said, Grandma did not hesitate to stand up for the underdog, or seek justice when someone was treated badly or unfairly. Grandma was very competitive, but she figured out how to win by following the rules.

Grandma didn’t need to tell everyone, everything. She kept things to herself. Odds are if someone told Grandma a secret, she took it to the grave. I managed to get a couple of minor secrets about people long dead out of her over the years, but I gave her my word that I wouldn’t tell a soul. Grandma never showed her hand, and she was the most widely liked person I have ever known.

I know it wasn’t just cards. Life experience is a great teacher. But I can’t help but think that her sweet little Grandpa Bushy, with his big beard and a gleam in his eye, knew that he was instructing his granddaughter on more than just rummy.

Grandma was always teaching us – her children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews – just by living her life and asking us to stay for a game of cards. Much more effective than lectures! And by most accounts, we all picked up on these more subtle life lessons.

I remember asking Grandma (when she was the advanced age of about sixty-six) to what age she hoped to live. She never gave me a number, instead she said, “I want to live as long as I have my wits about me.” When she died in 2004, she definitely still had her wits about her, it was her heart that didn’t cooperate. She passed away just like she lived: quietly, on her own terms, with dignity and class.

We miss you a lot, Grandma, and we are sure that at the “big card game in the sky” (as my sister,Regan, and I like to think about it) you are taking all the tricks.

Grandma's on the left. Does she look like a card shark?

Grandma’s on the left. Does she look like a card shark?

Throughout the year I will revisit my grandma’s life as a second-generation Irish American, growing up in Minnesota.