Tuesday, March 17, 2009

When Irish Eyes Are Smilin'

I've known for some time that for a St. Patrick's Day post, I wanted to write about my Irish heritage.
And that brings us to the lady in this picture. This is my maternal great-great-grandmother Bridget. She is from the last generation of my maternal ancestors to have been born in Ireland.

My American lineage was borne of tragedy. But aren't tragedy and the Irish often found in the same breath?

The story goes that Bridget's mother was cooking over an open hearth when the sleeve of her blouse caught fire. She was badly burned and died shortly thereafter, leaving her husband with two small children. A widower with a farm to run and two small children was the beginning of my American ancestry.

My great-great-great-grandfather decided to leave County Mayo and follow his brothers to America, with Bridget and her brother Tobias in tow. (We can't confirm it, but we think that her brother died on the boat en route.) Bridget ended up with family friends when her father died just a few years later in the Civil War. She married one of that Irish family's sons.

She married very young, even by the standards of her day, and started having babies almost immediately. Several of them died. She would bury several more as adults. She’d lose a son in a railyard accident, another to some kind of accident at a Mexican mine, and still another to tuberculosis. She’d lose a daughter (and that daughter’s daughter) to cancer. Her husband died in 1890, leaving her to face many of those deaths alone. Maybe her lifetime of losses is what made her so tough.

By all accounts, Bridget was quite the character. She was a tiny woman, but fearless. It's said she once confronted a would-be burglar asking him in her thick Irish brogue, “By hell if there’s something you’d be a wantin’ in here, why don’t you ask a person for it rather than to be a stealin’ it?” The man supposedly was so shamed by this, he ran off empty-handed.

As children, my grandmother and her younger sister would take Bridget’s beer crock to the corner pub and get it filled. (My godmother still has this prized possession, though I think Bridget was the last – ‘til me – to even drink on occasion.) Bridget also was the caretaker of a cut crystal creamer and sugar bowl, apparently brought over on the boat from Ireland. It had been her mother’s and her mother’s mother’s and who knows how many generations before that. It passed to Bridget’s youngest daughter when she died in 1922.

That is how we get to this lady, my great-grandmother, Julia, mother to my beautiful grandmother. She, too, was another character though you’d be hard pressed to find anyone utter a single bad word about her.

She was well known for kindness and generosity and I was told even before the Depression, her home bore the “mark of the hobo.” (This was some kind of an X or squiggly or something by which a home was marked so that other hobos knew a meal might await them there.)

There was a catch though. Grandma Julia fed them – but they had to write a letter home to let their family know they were OK. She paid the postage.

I grew up with these stories and always wished I could have met these ladies. My grandmother loved both of them fiercely. Sadly, Julia died about 18 months before the mother was born. She would never see either of her two granddaughters or her three great-grandchildren.

In some ways, I feel like I have met them. Photos of Bridget and Henry, as well as of Julia and her husband Rufus, adorn the walls of This D*mn House. The creamer and sugar bowl that you could look at, but never touch, is proudly displayed in a china cabinet. In the 1970s, the mother shadow-boxed Julia’s 1909 wedding dress – something she was allowed to play with as a child – and it hangs in the dining room. Her personalized glass from the 1904 World’s Fair is among treasures to be found in a shadow box in my bedroom.

So, on this day, it only seems appropriate to pay homage to the last generation of Irish and first generation of Irish American in one of my lines. I’m not proud necessarily of where they came from though Ireland is a good enough place. More importantly, I’m proud of having come from them, these strong, loving, determined, and generous women whom we continue to speak of so reverently, many decades after their deaths.


Ty'sMommy said...

Fabulous post, NV! I love stories like that about a family's beginnings.

Kristy said...

Great stories and photos! I've been researching my family's history a lot lately and although I cherish knowing their names and from where they came.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post and pictures! You have every right to be proud of your roots. You come from good stock! But then, all of us who read your blog already suspected that!

Happy St. Patrick's Day! (:

Anonymous said...

This was so beautiful that it brought tears to my eyes. These are great women to be honored and remembered.

Happy St Patrick's Day


Vicki said...

Amazing stories! We've been reading about colonial times and burns from cooking were very common back then. This makes me want to start doing genealogy again. Thanks for sharing your history!

Why S? said...

You are so lucky to know (or to have uncovered) so much about your family history. I wish I knew my family's stories. Apparently, they were a reticent bunch. My paternal great-grandmother was a Julia too and she married into the Doyle family, so thanks to her good taste, I'm Irish too.

Happy St. Paddy's.

NV said...

Ty'smommy -- Thanks!It's fun to share them.

Kristy -- Thanks! I love discovering new ancestors and stories. I keep hoping to get photos of some I've never seen.

Star -- Aw, that's TOO sweet. Thanks!

Michele -- Thank you! I feel privileged to have had such remarkable women come before. Kind of hard to live up to those standards!

Vicki -- Thanks! It's amazing, isn't it? And fire destroyed so many records back then, too.

Why -- Cool! Nothing at all wrong with havin' a wee bit o' the Irish in ya. :-) I feel very fortunate to have heard these stories growing up and to have so many family things around the house.

Jayne said...

I love hearing family stories! When one of my friends was working at the Fort Osage Historic Site, she learned that fires were a leading cause of death among women, for the very reason you wrote about here. On a brighter note, how wonderful that you have the 1909 wedding dress preserved! Not many people can say that. And if I'm not mistaken, the hobo mark was--you'll like this--a cat. The cat symbol told other hobos that a kind-hearted woman lived in that house.

Kate Karyus Quinn said...

Hi, found your blog through Best Post of the Week. What a wonderful story to share, and how great it is to know so much about your heritage. The pictures were excellent as well!

bettyl said...

That is such a cool story! It's nice to know some facts about your family's history.