Sunday, October 16, 2016

A Sunday in the Acre- 1876

Ad in Lowell Citizen, 1860

Sunday, the day of rest.  How we observe the Sabbath today is quite different than our 19th century ancestors did.  Or is it?  Today a Sunday afternoon might be watching the Pats with a Bud Lite (okay, personal preference here).  In the 19th century liquor laws were quite severe.  Having a libation might put you before the magistrate if you were caught.  In 1876 , a young Irish “lad” by the name of Caroline was found drunk by the seizure police (sort of a Sabbath police who checked on liquor imbibing on Sundays).  He told the officers where he was served in his alcoholic delirium.  Once he sobered up he swore he was only given birch beer.  Even though he was only 16 he was kept in jail until his court date later in the week.

Over at P & J O’Rourke’s on Gorham St. they “found five buffers who looked as though they were having a good time and improving the Sabbath.” They also found a young man concealing a deck of cards (another breech of the law).  At Tom Murray’s establishment he refused the officers entrance.  They were about to leave when someone inside tripped over a dog causing the officers to force their way in.  They took away quantities of gin and whisky.  On a good note at Peter McSorley’s, when the officers checked on him they found him “pleasant and polite as usual” and no violations.

Meanwhile in the Acre: “The seizure officers accompanied by two from the regular force, made a descent Sunday forenoon on a vacant tenement in Mack's yard, off Market street. There were more than 50 men in one small room, the officers say, drinking from a washtub of ale, which was being served in schooners as fast as it could be ladled out. Such a panic as seized the crowd the officers have rarely witnessed. They blocked the doorway, jumped through five windows and a trap door in their eagerness to escape, and in doing so prevented the officers gaining an entrance until the proprietor of the liquor also had escaped.  The officer found a barrel of ale, fixtures, the washtub full and four schooners full which had been left untasted in the crowd's panic to get away.  The place was being run by a man who did not get a license for his saloon, nearby, and he had chosen the unoccupied tenement to ward off suspicion.” (Lowell Citizen)

Sunday, September 25, 2016

St Patrick School Alumni Reunion - A Reflection

When I was a kid attending school at St. Pat’s, each March we’d learn Irish songs we’d sing at the annual reunion show.  One was Oh the Days of the Kerry Dancing.  Part of the lyrics goes like this:
Oh, the days of the Kerry dancing
Oh, the ring of the piper's tune
Oh, for one of those hours of gladness
Gone, alas, like our youth, too soon!
When the boys began to gather
In the glen of a summer's night
And the Kerry piper's tuning
Made us long with wild delight!
Oh, to think of it
Oh, to dream of it
Fills my heart with tears!

As alumni left Mass concelebrated by Fr. Frank Silva (alum) and Fr. Charles McGrail (former church choir director) they were greeted outside the school by step dancers.  Later the young girls were joined by some slightly older dancers from the 1960s reliving their Kerry dancing days.  As I looked on the crowd of over 150 alumni and friends, the words of the song hit home.  Here we were, some of us decades later, returning to the place we called home for 8 years.  The sun was lowering across the North Common as alumni from the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90, and even the millennials made their way up the front steps of the school.  Just as the song says, for some of us our youth has gone too soon.  I stood there watching as graduates from each decade were called into the school. The most senior of us walked up slowly using the handrail, while the last group, representing the future, walked in taking 2 steps at a time.

There is something unique about St. Patrick’s.  A fact that you may not know, St. Pat’s is one of the oldest continuously operating   parochial schools in the country, starting in 1852.  As Sr. Joanne stated, many colleges and high schools have alumni groups, but not elementary schools.  Then why does St. Pat’s?  I’m not sure, but I have a thought.  As each group entered the school I thought of the paper chains we made when we were kids.  We’d cut paper and glue them together making these long continuous lines.  Seeing those in their eighties, sixties, forties, and twenties all mingling and sharing stories united us into a special union, that long line into the past.

When I attended St. Pat’s, tuition was $1 a week.  That was a lot for many families in the Acre.  Many of us lived in the housing or tenements along Broadway.  Even then the Acre had a reputation, but maybe that is where we found our strength.  The Sisters and lay faculty who taught us held us to a high standard and wouldn’t accept anything less. Maybe that’s why so many who were there last night can today count themselves among Lowell’s politicians, lawyers, government service workers, caregivers, educators, financial officers, skilled professionals, and on and on.  (On a side note, I did notice a very high number of teachers in the group.  Coincidence?  And a high number of police and correction personnel.  Another coincidence?)  Folks who had not seen each other since graduation day greeted each other as if time had not passed. 

That link, that chain, had not broken.  Our time at St. Pat’s was built upon what the previous generation had left us.  A major reason for the school being  there today is because of the chain built by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and those alumni and friends who give of themselves today.  The chain continues. 

One of the lines in Kerry Dancing talks about the tears of recalling days gone by.  More than once that evening I saw women and men wiping their eyes as they saw their old friends, either in person or old black and white photos.

A last thought.  As I was helping to set up a few hours before the start, a young man, maybe 20 wearing a white t-shirt and arms covered in tats came to the door.  I told him we weren’t open yet.  He simply said, please.  About 15 minutes later I encountered him again as he was leaving the building.  I asked how his visit went.  He was wiping tears from his eyes.  His said, memories.  I asked, Good ones?  He replied, All good, all good.  I’ll be back someday.  Who said, You can’t go home again. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Dutton Street Mural

From the Folks at Community Teamwork.  I'm sure many of you will recall the mural or the image it brings back.

 Our Youth Build program, together with local artist Don Maker, is currently undergoing the restoration of the Dutton Street Mural across from the Worthen Restaurant in Lowell. In this mural you can see the Irish brick layer and the Nuns leading the children at St. Patrick’s. Work is currently underway. We have repointed all the bricks and created a blank slate to work from. Everyone has been hard at work. Once it is completed, a light installation will be included which will highlight the mural and light up the Worthen Restaurant Parking lot. Like all such projects, the restoration is costing Community Teamwork a large sum of money (over $35k). We are reaching out to people for help. Anything you could do to spread the word about this restoration would be much appreciated. There will be an unveiling of the completed project on September 28th – complete with food from the Worthen! You and your associates are cordially invited – time is 5-6:30ish. Below there is a link to a great article the Sun recently wrote and some information about how people can donate.

Dutton Street once housed Community Teamwork’s Headquarters with the mural above gracing the Worthen Street side of the building.  In 2011, when the agency relocated its headquarters to the Bon Marche Building on Merrimack Street, the agency’s Youth Build of Greater Lowell program moved into the Dutton Street location.

The Dutton Street Mural was designed by Leo Panos of the University of Lowell (as it was called at the time) and created in the late 1970’s as part of a larger project to install ethnic-themed murals around the city.   In celebration of the immigrant heritage of the city, other murals including Franco-American, Portuguese-American, and Polish-American were painted in different locations.
The original painting of the mural was done by summer workers in the Neighborhood Youth Corps. Later, in the 1980’s the mural was repaired and repainted with the design changing somewhat.  Now more than 30 years later, under the artistic direction of Lowell artist Donald Maker, the students of our Youth Build Program will assist in the restoration of this visual record of  Lowell’s rich cultural history.
The Irish-Acre mural facing Worthen Street is one of the last, if not the last, remaining mural from this era. The project is underway and will be completed by mid-fall.  You can be a part of revitalizing this piece of our community’s history! Your gift of any amount will help support the cost of this project.
Follow the restoration on Twitter and Instagram.  #DuttonStMural

Have a memory or picture of the mural?  Share it with us!

Check out this great article and video : that recently appeared in The Sun!

Folks can donate online:
By texting: COMMTEAM to 41444

By mail: Please send your check (payable to Community Teamwork) to 155 Merrimack Street, Lowell MA 01852, ATTN: Development Dept.

Thank you for reading all of this and considering our effort and passion about restoring this mural. Your help is so appreciated!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

An Acre Memory- A Summer Story

"Little Rascals" Google image.
The dog is man’s best friend.  Well that’s what we’ve been told.  Scruffy.  Rover. Lassie. Rin Tin Tin.  Snoopy.  When you hear names like that you think of sweet little puppies and doggie heroes.  To some when they hear the bark of a dog it’s like hearing a voice say, “Hey I’m over here.   Let’s play fetch.”  A wagging tale means, “Gee, I like you.”  To me a barking dog has the same effect as the open jaws of a great white, or the tell-tale rattle of a rattle snake.  Why you ask?  Well, let me tell you.

Mike’s Field was the place to play when I was little.  It was the only piece of grassland in my neighborhood of close 3 story tenements.  It had tall grass and the only trees that you could climb in.  In order to get to Mike’s you had to walk up Broadway Street.  It wasn’t far, but you had to pass the Goons house.  I don’t know if anyone knew their real name so we just called them the Goon family.  There were  2 boys who were in their 20s and just sat on their porch with their old haggard mother.  If they were on the porch, you ran by their house.  And if they weren’t, you looked in the windows often to see one of them looking back at you.  Like an added incentive to get past the house as quick as you could there was a dog.  Not some sweet little pup.  Not a fancy looking poodle or a friendly retriever.  No the Goons owned the biggest, meanest, most ornery German shepherd you ever met.  Its fur was the color of coal.  Its paws were big enough to make indents in the ground where it stalked.  If you looked in its eyes you became hypnotized like a cobra does with its prey.  The one thing that separated us from the Goon dog was a six foot fence that surrounded their property.  There was no way for the Goon dog to get out.  Or so I thought.

It was July.  The locusts were making that sound they make when it gets hot.  The sun was high in the sky.  We were all playing army.  There was Ricky, Johnny, Harold, Ricky’s brother Ronny and FraFra.  FraFra was crazy and would eat anything.  He once swallowed a quarter and would proudly show it off after it made its way out.  Later that summer he ate a live hornet.  That’s another story.

As soldiers we were planning our attack on the enemy.  We were leading a charge to bomb their headquarters.  Between the yells of the attacking forces there was another sound.  It was deeper than the rest.  The others heard it too.  Time stopped.  Without turning around I knew it was behind me- the Goon Dog.  My friends saw him before I did.  I saw fear in their faces.  RUN  someone commanded.  Fear took hold of my feet I couldn’t go anywhere.  I felt his breath before I felt the pain.  Goon Dog had me on the ground and stood over me.  He outweighed me and I lay there like a opossum.  The growl came from deep with him.  His teeth were bared and drool dangled from his mouth.  

The next thing I remembered was the sound of the locusts and staring into the sun.  I was still there lying on my back.  My friends had deserted me.  I looked around and Goon Dog was gone.  I looked to my left and there was one of the Goon Boys standing by the 6 foot fence.  All I could see was his outline with his hands leaning on the fence but I knew he was looking at me.

Did he unleash the dog on us?  Or had he saved me from the beast.  I’d never know.  But when I hear a barking dog once again I’m a little kid in Mike’s Field with  the hot breath of killer beast breathing down my neck.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Joseph Smith's call to the Irish of Lowell, 1916

Smith's grave at the Lowell Cemetery
“God save Ireland,” he shouted out to the crowd.  “Repeat it!”  And they did.  Every seat on the floor and in the gallery of Jackson Hall was filled to capacity.  The crowds even poured out into the streets.  The one who had stood up and shouted out to the crowd causing them to stand in unison was Lowell’s own Joseph Smith.  Former Congressman O’Connell and Lowell’s Mayor O’Donnell had just concluded a night of speeches and resolutions calling on Lowell’s Irish-American population to come to Ireland’s defense and aid once the execution of the “rebels” of 1916 had begun.

Lowell, like much of the rest of the world, did not immediately side with what would be called the Easter Rising of 1916.  But once the executions began the tide turned.  In Lowell mass Indignation Meetings took place beginning in May of 1916.  Groups such as Lowell’s branch of the Clan na Gael and the newly formed Padraic H. Pearse branch of the Friends of Irish Freedom held regular meetings to call on the British government to cease the executions and to raise funds to support the people of Dublin who lost homes and livelihoods due to the bombing of the city. 

 Joseph Smith was already in his 60s when his passion for his native Ireland brought him into the limelight of the world.  Born in Dublin he came to America as a young man and immediately enlisted into the U. S. Army.  He ended up fighting in the Mexican War, followed by extensive travels in Arizona, New Mexico, and throughout South America.  He spent time working at various jobs including the Merrimack Print Works and J C Ayer. He became interested in city politics beginning with the election of William F Courtney as mayor in 1895.  Writing was the man’s true vocation and at this time he took it up as his occupation.  He wrote articles for many Lowell papers magazines including Life, and was known for his sarcasm and quick wit.   Though a Protestant, he came to the immediate defense of the Church when confronted by anti-Catholic writing.

Many groups across the country began collecting funds when they heard of women and children begging for food and fire wood in Dublin.  In Lowell, Smith even organized a “tag day” where the ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians solicited funds from downtown shoppers. Smith made many passionate speeches on behalf of his native Ireland and spoke words such as. “The men who fought and failed in Dublin have passed beyond the stage of criticism; they are now among the immortals; stars in the firmament of freedom, and their names will be the rallying cries of the lovers of liberty as long as the grass grows and water runs.  The epithets and slanders hurled at the men who loved liberty better than life are as harmless and useless as the barking of dogs that bay at the moon; the dead of Dublin have nothing to gain from the verdicts of time and posterity; it is the living of Ireland and America who must keep watch and ward and to have and to hold what we posses of liberty against the English plotter.”   One can imagine the white-haired man with the large mustache standing before the crowds rousing everyone with his words.  Each speech he gave is filled with the language of a poet.  A writer of verse he also wrote,

“There is blood on the stones of Dublin,
There are dead in her ancient streets;
That stare with blind eyes at the ancient skies;
And are deaf to the war drums’ beats.”

As one of the national directors of the Friends of Irish freedom he and Mr. & Mrs. Thomas Hughes  Kelly of New York were elected to bring $50,000 collected by the organization and churches.  The money was to be given to the Cardinal of Dublin to see that it was used for aid.  When their ship arrived in Liverpool, England the group was detained and then refused admittance.  For days the newspaper kept the story going.  Calls were made to the British embassy and to President Wilson demanding a reason why they were not allowed to continue their journey.  The British government’s response was that Americans were free to enter, but a “member” of this group seemed “hostile” and thus they were barred.

Upon his return to the States, Smith attained near celebrity status, even touring with Nora Connolly, the martyred James Connolly’s daughter.  In no way did this deter him from his goal.  When he returned to Lowell, he continued his speech-making and had the OMI Cadets give out pledge cards asking those in attendance to keep up pressure on the British for a free Ireland.

He soon left Lowell to write for Boston papers and often wrote for Boston’s catholic newspaper, the Pilot where he became friends with John Boyle O’Reilly.  Mayor James Michael Curly of Boston hired him to be his “publicity agent,” where he used his writing skills to great advantage.

He and his wife made their home on Beacon Street in Boston where he remained until his death in 1929.  His funeral in Boston was attended by many from politics and the newspapers.  His wish was to be buried in the Lowell Cemetery alongside his wife and young daughter.   Though he had been gone many years the chapel was filled with old acquaintances as the priest from St. Ann’s conducted the committal prayers. A moving inscription in part reads, “The day of death is done.  They have gone out beyond the stars… where their souls are united.  Where peace and happiness are eternal and the everlasting God abides.”   Upon the reading of his will, large donations were made to Lowell General Hospital and Boston College. 

In one of his speeches he wrote, “As God lives, these men shall live to inspire generations yet unborn, to dwell in the hearts of men, and the songs of singers for the blood of the martyrs is the seed of liberty.”

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

An Acre Memory - Summertime

Me in my
Rifleman t-shirt
I never got to operate a lawn mower until I was in my 30s.  Growing up on the corner of Broadway and Walker didn’t give much opportunity to do so.  What we did have was the blacktop in back of the blocks that ran along Broadway Street.  In-between the blocks were alleys that were inches thick with pigeon dropping.  At dawn and evening, the dozens of pigeons that made the roof their homes would serenade the inhabitants of the blocks with their cooing.  Sometimes young fledglings would fall from the roofs, and my humane father would take them into our cellar where he would hand feed them and then bring them outside to exercise until they would take wing on their own.  A summer ritual was the annual scraping of the dung in the alleyway with massive quantities of creosote.  I later found that this substance was regarded as highly toxic and potentially carcinogenic, but my parents thought cleaning the alley a neighborly duty.   The smell of the chemicals would permeate the backyard for days.  My mother explained it away by saying it was better than pigeon smell.
There were no air conditioners or even a fan.  Lying on the cool linoleum might alleviate some of the heat.  Opening and closing the screen door let in hordes of flies.  We often left doors open overnight, never fearing anyone would walk in.  The flyswatter was ever at the ready and if that didn’t work there was fly paper.  My mother would keep one above the kitchen table and more than once a wing or a leg would be pulled off some poor insect and land on a supper plate.
There was little you could do to alleviate the heat of the summer especially when it radiated off of the blacktop.  One refuge was Mike’s Field in back of the Lovejoy estate—today, the parking lot for UMass on the corner of Wilder and Broadway.  The estate had been in disrepair decades before I was brave enough to make my way up there.  Everyone knew a madman lived in the basement (or was it the attic?) and if you got close enough he’d use a hatchet on you.  By the time I was old enough (or brave enough) to get close to the building there was just enough glass left in the windows to make a crash and then run away.  There were a few apple trees that had gone rogue on the property and if it was warm enough, we’d climb up and pick a few, always wary of potential worms.  Mike’s Field was a 10 year-old’s dream.  I have no idea who Mike was or what the land was used for, but it was dotted with massive trenches dug out by man or machine that had to be 6 to 8 feet deep.  It was the 60s and playing War was how we spent most of our days.  Combat and Twelve O’clock High were necessary TV viewing for many families.  The trenches of Mike’s Field were our foxholes.  We’d fill penny candy bags with dirt and hurl them as sort of grenades into the other holes where the enemy was hiding.  If you did it correctly, the bag would open over the heads of the enemy and cover them in dirt.  Though it would be terribly politically incorrect today, we were all armed with plastic helmets and very life-like rifles.  Our fathers had served in WWII and the Cold War was on.  We knew what those yellow CD signs on buildings meant.  We heard the sirens every Friday that were tested in case the Russians attacked.  Mike’s Field was our battleground and we were there to defend it.
When we got bored with war, we might walk down Walker Street and make our way to Gage’s Ice
Google Maps. corner of Broadway & Walker Streets
House.  If we were fortunate enough to go to the beach, my Dad would come down to Gage’s to buy a cube of ice, and I mean A cube.  You’d put your money in the slot and one huge block of ice would slide down a chute.  You’d then have to take it home to break up with an ice pick to put in the heavy metal CocaCola cooler.  On super hot days we’d check out Gage’s and see if any ice chips had fallen onto the straw where the giant cubes would land at the end of the chute.  Odd how we never got sick from any of this.
If we were really lucky, we’d go to Burbeck’s Ice Cream on Pawtucket Street.  This was really rare.  This is also where my friend Ricky taught me a trick.  You’d order an ice cream cone, eat half, drop it on the ground, and they’d give you a new one.  He used that ploy several times.  The first time I tried it, the teenage clerk just walked away.  I guess I didn’t look sad enough. 
There was one thing to which we were all sworn to.  My mother made me swear on a stack of Bibles, a real stack, and that God would personally punish me if I broke the promise- that I was to never go to the river or in the canal.  She had good reason to.  Those who lived by the canals in Lowell knew that each summer a number of daredevils would jump in the canal and be dragged under.  Each time it happened she made me read the article.  I do recall watching the police, or firemen, along the Pawtucket Canal dragging a large rope, which we volunteered to help.  I was later told that at the end of the rope was a grappling hook looking for a body.  That wasn’t the only occasion.  Once my cousin Armand brought me to see a similar scene along the Merrimack canal, and yet another was when we ran out of a friend’s birthday party after the news had spread someone drowned at Francis Folley on the Pawtucket.  We were sure to return in time for cake.  These events must have made their mark, as to this day I still do not know how to swim.
Since we lived on the corner of Broadway and Walker it was a great place to set up a lemonade stand.  The city bus would disembark people on the corner, and they’d get off the bus all hot and sweaty from the ride and the long day’s work.  Sales were slow until Ricky’s brother started crying that he wanted some lemonade, but had no money.  A kind bus rider pinched his cute little face and gave the nickel for the lemonade.  Hmmm, if it worked once…..   From then on each time the bus pulled up Ricky’s brother would turn on the tears and out would come the nickels.  We must have made a fortune, or at least enough for a Mr. Softee.  We knew a good thing when we saw it and set up the stand the next day.  The same riders disembarked, but once our ploy was recognized we were put out of business.
After much pleading, we might get a nickel and go to Dostaler’s Market on the corner.  The penny candy display had all the good stuff: squirrel nuts, peach stones, mint juleps, sugar straws, flying saucers (that served as hosts when playing Mass), and black licorice records with the red dot in the middle.  Another favorite was a candy necklace that you could bite of a piece as the day wore on.  Wearing the necklace then eating it after a game of tag or Red Rover often gave the candy a sweaty flavor, but it didn’t faze us.  On those super hot days, the only thing to work was a cool orange Popsicle.  Grape and cherry were good, but orange had a greater cooling effect.  There would be 2 sticks so you could break it in two and share with a friend.  Then you’d stick your tongue out to be sure it was orange.  That was part of summer too- sharing with friends.
My fondest memory of summer was Thursday night after food shopping at the Giant Store, my dad and I would go down to the river to fish.  We’d dig up worms along the riverbed and stick them on a hook.  I only had a drop line, but it worked just fine.  The only thing I remember catching was hornpout, black catfish.  Those whiskers could really inflict damage so my dad would take the hook out.  He got stuck more than once and let out a string of curses each time.  We didn’t talk much.  That was his way, but we’d sit along the river wall tugging at the drop line.  We’d watch the orange sun set along the curve of the river.  He had fished that same spot in the river when he was my age.  As the last rays of light departed we’d gather our gear and turn up Walker Street to home.