Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Broadway Social & Athletic Club

Happy Kelly
It made the front page of the Lowell Sun in June of 1915.  The Broadway Social and Athletic Club held what would become the first of its annual banquets.  The club was formed the year before by a group of Acre neighbors who wanted a place to get together talk politics and have a game of baseball.  Originally the club was on Broadway Street itself, near where the White Electric building used to be.  The club soon relocated to what many will be remembered as the Marine Club or the Firefighter’s Club at the intersection of Fletcher, Cross, and Willie.

The club, though only a year old in 1915, grew quickly gathering athletes and politicians alike in its ranks.  Though located in not the most prestigious neighborhood of the city, some of Lowell’s most well-known movers and shakers sought membership cards.  Being a member not only gave individuals a chance to make contacts with city councilors or job potentials, but it also mixed different classes.  Most of its members resided in the Acre, but there were many others who lived elsewhere and whose roots began in the Acre.  Reading a list of members and attendees to that banquet in 1915 reads like a page from the Dublin white pages.  There were: the McCanns, O’Sullivans, Murphys, and Caseys; There were the Feeneys, Scanalls, Hessians, and Dohertys too.

Of that night the Sun said it “to be one of the most successful affairs of its kind ever held in this city,” and would be the talk of the town for many years.  The rooms on “upper Broadway” were festooned with streamers of red, white, and blue on the outside with a large welcome sign.  Inside potted palms and flowering plants filled the hall.  The evening started off with the grand procession by its members into the hall followed by a turkey dinner.  Mayor Dennis J. Murphy was in attendance while Rep. When It’s Moonlight in Mayo.  Francis Connor sang, Ireland, I Love You.  When Frank Clough finished his musical number the audience requested 5 more encores from him, perhaps to curtail the speeches.  It’s interesting to note how the speakers encouraged its younger members to seek education by attending Lowell Textile School.  Another speaker encouraged all to embody, especially the younger members, the goals of the club; “friendship, fidelity, and community.”  There was much talk of citizenship, love of country, the growth of bigotry in the country and believing in and spreading of false rumors in the news.  Little did these men know that in a few years many would be called to defend these rights and liberties in the Great War.
Walter H Hickey
Dennis A. Murphy, an Acre man himself, was toastmaster.  The speeches continued with club President McCann recounting the group’s mission to provide social events for a few friends, and how it had expanded, and even just purchased a summer camp exclusive for its members.  In between the speeches were a number of musical numbers.  James Dowling sang

Let’s not forget the other title in club’s name- athletics.  The North Common had been hosting ball games probably since the first days of Abner Doubleday invented baseball.  In the late 1800s the Columbians of St. Patrick’s Boys School was one of the first teams playing there.  Then the Emeralds and the Sanctuary Team from St. Pat’s.   As the Sun said in 1916, the Broadway Club boys, many from old St. Pat’s “is going to uphold the traditional valor of the Acre lads on the baseball diamond.”  The traditional rivals of the Acre teams were those from the South Common.  In the beginning crowds up to 3000 people would come to watch the games.  Soon those numbers triples.  The rivalry between the North and South Commons had been going on for 50 years.  A writer commented that those not wanting to watch the game could observe the 101 arguments that were going on amongst the spectators as to who had the better team.  Baseball wasn’t the only sport the club engaged in.  They sponsored boxing matches as well.

The competition got so bad that in 1916 it was commented that the North Common supporters should “learn to be good losers as well as good winners.”  It seems that spectators from the Club were interfering with the other team’s players.  They were warned that other teams would not want to come to the North Common if such activity continued.  It cautioned them to, “curb (your) over demonstrative partisans and insist on fair play.”  They were later described as “the Broadways, whose habitat is the North Common, are a fighting bunch willing to take on anything.”
For many decades the group sponsored dances (tickets cost 35 cents), political rallies, minstrel shows, and were active in wider community events.  They were regular marchers during 4th of July festivities.  Members marched wearing dark suits, and straw hats while carrying gold canes with American flags attached. 

Patrick Kearns, "Big Jack's Bartender"
By the 1940s the mission of the Broadway Social and Athletic Club had been reached. Its members were now among Lowell’s educated, political, and business leaders.  Soon the only mention of the club was in its aged members obituaries.  After World War II the club was sold and turned into the Marine Club.


The Photos: almost 30 years ago someone handed me a group of aged photos and said if I didn’t give them a home they were being thrown out.  That’s how a lot of things have come my way.  The photos are 3x4 inches in sepia tone, probably 30-40 of them.  In rough penmanship each is identified.  They are all of members of the Broadway Social and Athletic Club.  Probably the only artifacts remaining from a time long ago.  

Thursday, April 13, 2017

An Acre Memory- Easter

Easter on Walker St., 1960

There was a strict rule in my home on the corner of Broadway and Walker that you can’t have Easter without Lent.  It all started on Ash Wednesday when the Sisters would march us over to church to receive ashes on our foreheads.  We’d stand there comparing who had the biggest smudges like they were badges of honor.  It wasn’t uncommon to see most people in the neighborhood wearing ashes.  It was accepted that it was something we as a community did.  Not too long ago after wearing my ashes downtown, a teenage girl asked why I had something on my forehead.  Her mother shushed her out of embarrassment.  How times have changed. 

Before I continue I have to tell you that my mother was a strict observer.  As a matter of fact I found out many years later she often made up her own rules.  For example even though I was maybe 8 or 9 everyone in the house had to keep a strict fast for the 40 days.  This was not the church’s rule, but Ma’s rule which superseded any canon of the church.  Supper on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent were meatless.  That was no big deal we were used to that.  Lunch at school was always white American cheese with butter on Wonder bread.  That was it.  My friends would have peanut butter and jelly or tuna, but not in our house.  It was Lent!  There was a Sister on duty in the school cafeteria where we ate in silence.  If the smell of baloney (or is it bologna now?) wafted across the room, the Sister would make a bee line to the offender and remove the victual before mortal sin could be committed.  A soul was saved!

Suppers weren’t too different; maybe grilled cheese or tomato soup.  Because of my mother’s Canadian background we might have crepes with Vermont Maid maple syrup.   I don’t think there was ever a bottle of Aunt Jemima’s or Mrs. Butterworth’s in our home.  

Since we couldn’t eat anything between meals I came up with a plan on how to stretch supper out and fill my belly.  We’d have supper at 5 and then I’d run over to my friend Ricky’s house where they had supper at 5:30.  His Mom would invite me in and I’d sit at the table.  So for 40 days I ate 2 suppers almost every day.  Some Catholics used the fasting to shed some winter pounds.  Me?  I gained them.

My mother must not have been too good at math because according to her Saturday and Sunday did not count as Lenten fast days.  That meant a food free for all on weekends.  I recall one time I emptied out my piggy bank and bought one of those giant Hershey bars and ate the entire thing on one Saturday afternoon.  I was sure the belly ache I had was God’s vengeance for trying to outsmart Him.

When Passion Sunday would arrive every statue in church was covered in purple.  Palm Sunday was the Gospel that would never end, but it didn’t matter to us we’d be slapping each other with palm branches while it was going on.  Then on Good Friday there were the 3 hours of silence from noon to three.  I’ve heard others say they had to do the same, but I swear my mother invented it just to keep us quiet.
Without any exaggeration my earliest memory was of an Easter morning.  I couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 but the trauma has strayed with me.  I’m sitting on the living room floor and my sister grabs my Easter basket.  It haunts me to this day.  Now that I think about it, this could be the reason why I still hide candy around the house.

Because of fasting regulation we could not eat for 3 hours before Communion, which meant the Easter basket would be in my room when I awoke, but nothing could be eaten until after Mass.  (This might have been the last of the Lenten disciplines.)  Our basket was a straw one from Green’s 5 & 10.  It had this terrible grass on the bottom on which any candy that was unwrapped would stay permanently stuck and you’d end up ingesting cellophane grass.  (We often found pieces of grass days later in the cat’s litter box.  Don’t ask questions.)  The centerpiece was a giant coconut egg, which some years was consumed on the same day.  (Read: bellyache)    Of course there were those gross yellow Peeps, also stuck to the cellophane grass, some robin’s eggs, and to fill in the rest of the basket at least 5 pounds of jelly beans.  One year I found empty peeps cartons in the garbage before Easter.  I asked who was eating candy during Lent.  My mother swore it was not her, then she’d put on her kerchief to go to confession.

We did not go out for Easter dinner.  My mother would never spend good money on what she could cook at home.  The menu was always the same baked ham basted in Chelmsford ginger ale (seriously, try it!), carrots, cabbage, and mashed potatoes.  Dessert was a bunny cake.  Yes, a bunny cake.  Two round cakes cut into the shape of a bunny’s face.  It sort of looked demonic with its black jelly bean eyes, but it was tradition.  The rest of the afternoon was filled with watching Victor Mature in The Robe, Victor Mature in Samson and Delilah, and Victor Mature in Demetrius and the Gladiators.   

My mother always received a one pound box of chocolates from Mrs. Nelson’s Candy House.  She’d bite the end off each one.  What she didn’t like she’d hand to my father for him to finish off.  I’d sit on the rug and sort my 5 lbs of jelly beans watching TV as Nero set fire to Rome and Victor Mature would battle in the Coliseum. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Grand St Patrick's Day Parade in Lowell - 1904

Edison Film, 1904
Each year after the opening Mass for Irish Cultural Week a few hardy souls brave the usually, frigid, often snowy, frequently windy weather that March throws at us and parade down Suffolk Street to Merrimac Street to City Hall.  The procession is made up of members of the AOH and LAOH, members of St. Patrick’s Parish, representatives from the Lowell Police and Fire Departments, and some folks who wish to preserve the Irish tradition.  At City Hall, speeches are made, anthems are sung, and the Irish and American flags are raised.  As the years pass it seems the numbers have decreased.  What many don’t realize is that they are carrying on what their ancestors began over 175 years ago in Lowell.  After their arrival in 1822, it did not take long before the Irish began celebrating their patron’s feast day. 

As the numbers increased so did the festivities, even causing problems in the mills with Irish taking unpaid leave to celebrate with Mass, entertainments, and toasts reaching far into the night.  The day was almost considered a holy day of obligation with every Catholic church having special liturgies.  Of course Saint Patrick’s, being the mother Church, would be filled with parishioners and those who returned to the family roots.  Mentioned is made in accounts through the 19th century of parades being formed and later more formal processions with bands and social groups being formed.  The mother of all these parades was held in 1904.  Days before the newspapers built excitement with posting of the routes and the many organizations that were to take part.  Court was even closed early so all could be part of the day.  Individual citizens and groups took it upon themselves to decorate street signs, store fronts, and homes with bunting and cloth flowers.
Edison Film, 1904


We’re uniquely fortunate that there is actually moving film of the parade itself.  (The Library of Congress has preserved the film at American Memory http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mKzcjKDgxHY )  Thomas Alva Edison had begun sending crews around to record American events.  The clip is only 3 minutes long, but says so much.  The parade began by St. Michael’s Church down by the mills, hooking onto Suffolk to Broadway to City hall, to Merrimack, to Central, to Sacred Heart Church.  There were over 1500 marchers.  The city’s fire alarm sounded once to let the citizens who thronged the streets know the marchers were on their way.  The City police forces led the way many of them on horseback with the horses festooned with green carnations.  It was also noted the numbers of bouquets that were carried by many of the marchers, the city had not seen so many flowers before.  The officials of the parade rode in carriages.  Three full divisions followed the marshals.  Division after division of Hibernians from Nashua, Lawrence, Haverhill, and Chelmsford made up the first division.  Bands and fife and drum corps played patriotic and Irish airs.    “The Harp That Once Thru Tara’s halls” was a favorite of the crowd.  Drum majors threw their batons in the air stirring the crowd.  Military and veteran groups marched in formation dressed in full uniforms and carrying rifles.  Mr. McEvoy’s jaunting cart, direct from Ireland, was a must see.  The oldest Irish organization in the city, the Irish Benevolent Society, marched proudly as they had since the first parades in the 1840s. 

Edison Film, 1904
Saint Patrick’s Church’s fire in January of that year necessitated a move to Sacred Heart Church where everyone gathered for Mass following the parade.  (Die-hard parishioners still gathered in the basement of the church to carry on the tradition that began since the first Irish arrived.)  Following Mass, marchers and spectators alike filled every hall and tavern in the city to sing their songs and recite the deeds of their ancestors.  They promised themselves that the tradition would continue year after year.

When I read the account from 1904, I thought of how Lowell celebrates the Saint’s day today and how our culture will continue.  I recalled this year’s flag raising and the hearty souls who showed up.  I imagine what it was like 100 years ago and ask myself what our ancestors would say of us. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Mr. Boott's Irish Gardener

Kirk Boott's Home (Mill and Mansion)
When Kirk Boot was given the task of managing the new mill town being built on the Merrimack, he was leaving behind the family mansion in Boston and the life of the socially elite to which he was accustomed.  Back in Boston, the Boot’s were well known for their mansion on Bowdoin Street and its fine art and architecture.  The family was also known for its beautiful gardens, greenhouses, and especially for their roses.  So it was providential in 1822 that when Mr. Boott was building his Greek-Revival mansion in East Chelmsford, soon to be Lowell, he would include space for the cultivated lawns and landscaping to which he was accustomed.  His blueprint for the construction of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company would include a landscaped entrance area to the mill along with plants and flowers placed between the different buildings.
 To achieve that end Mr. Boott brought John Green up from Boston to serve as his gardener and steward.  History does not tell us how the two men met.  Perhaps he worked for the Boott family in Boston?  John Green was born in Aughavading, Co. Leitrim in 1798.  He arrived in Boston in 1823 living there for a short time before settling in Lowell.  Green’s name appears in several histories of Lowell being listed as one of the prominent Irishmen of the period.  His first mention in Lowell was paying the poll tax in 1826.  His occupation was regularly listed in the Town/City Directories as gardener working at Boott’s.  After his death his son, John J Green, reminisced about his father being the superintendent of landscaping at the Merrimack and being part of the planning of the North Common.
When Mr. Boott died unexpectedly in 1837, Green continued working as a gardener at the 
Lowell Map, 1850
 “Company farm.”   In Boott’s will, he bequeathed Green $72 in wages, a very hefty sum for a gardener.  Later Green was listed as “botanic physician.”  He became a US citizen and started acquiring property.  He moved into a new home on the corner of Willie and Cross Streets where he lived for the remainder of his days.  The 1850 census showed he owned $10,000 in real estate.  Few Irishmen of this period had such holdings.  By the time he reached the age of 60, John Green considered himself a “gentleman.”  One can imagine him in his garden on Willie Street, pruning and weeding.  Then he would stroll through the North Common making his way to Saint Patrick’s Church for Mass.  His niece, Anne Flynn, moved into the home to act as his nurse.  Upon his death he recognized her help by granting her a small stipend.  His will divided his properties among his survivors, but his final hope was that the family would remain together and share the holdings.  In 1866 he joined his fellow Irish pioneers in Yard One of St. Patrick Cemetery.  His brief obituary, obituaries not even being common practice at the time, testified to his fine character and reiterated the bond he had with Mr. Boott almost 30 years previous.   He left Ireland a poor man, but died wealthy in more ways than one.

His son, John J Green, was a member of the Lowell chapter of the Irish American Historical Society, which attempted to preserve the Irish history of Lowell.  Unfortunately none of the minutes of the group survive today that recorded the actual recollections of those early Irish pioneers.  In 1921 John J Green tried to persuade the city to memorialize the walk of Hugh Cummiskey and the first Irish laborers with parades, lectures, church services, and the erection of a suitable monument on the North Common. 

Not many people offer comments to this site.  Sometimes I think I'm writing for the cloud.  But I have an idea.  2022 will be the 200th anniversary of Cummiskey's walk.  How about we recreate the walk!  We'll work out  a route between Charlestown and Lowell and folks can sign up to walk a mile or 2 of the path!  Maybe we could finish with a group walk into Lowell from Belvidere?  Maybe we could put up that memorial they never got around to doing back in 1922?
Like John J Green, George O’Dwyer (author of Irish Catholic Genesis of Lowell), and others, the Irish Cultural Committee of St. Patrick Parish tries to preserve Lowell’s Irish past.  Please join us this March as we present the 38th annual Irish Cultural Week. https://www.facebook.com/#!/LowellIrish

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Knights of St. Patrick (One returns home)

The Knights sash returned to Lowell
In the latter half of the 19th century right into the 20th a myriad of fraternal and social groups sprang up among Lowell’s Irish. Each parish had its own societies to take care of their poor and to set the young ones on the right path. There were also organizations outside of the church itself that saw to it that the Irish were taking care of their own and were passing on their culture. A brief listing would include: Emerald Associates, Lowell Irish Benevolent Society, Young Men’s Catholic Library Association, Ancient Order of Hibernians No. 1, No. 2, & No. 3, Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians, American Society of Hibernians, St Patrick’s Temperance Society, Immaculate Conception Temperance Society, Father Mathew Total Temperance Society, Sargeant Light Guard, American-Irish Historical Society, The Celtics, Irish Catholic Order of Foresters, The Emerald Club, and Catholic Young Men’s Lyceum. The list is far from complete as organizations grew and passed away according to needs, interests, and politics.
One of the longest lasting societies was formed in 1869 and called the Knights of St. Patrick.  It was “organized for the purpose of encouraging social and manly exercise.”  The group had their annual cycle of events; summer outings at Willowdale, being part of the city parade on the “glorious fourth,” marching through the city streets on St. Patrick’s Day, and regular meetings with speakers on numerous topics. 

During the summer the group often played baseball and football.  There were even horse races where the prizes were horse whips and blankets.  Those attending the banquets on St. Patrick’s Day often numbered in the hundreds. In the morning they attended Mass then marched wearing black clothing, tall silk hats, white gloves and the Knight’s sash.  The “supper” began at 9 pm and carried on into the wee hours.  Toasts were a regular feature recalling the heroes of freedom and democracy from their adopted home and Ireland.  Pictures of St. Patrick, Daniel O’Connell, and Robert Emmet made the backdrop of the head table.  Regular suppers were held throughout the year at locations like the St. Charles Hotel and the Farragut House.  American author, Mark Twain, was invited to speak at one of their suppers, but had to decline.  He did write a lengthy letter commending the Irish and the pursuit of freedom in their new home.  On one of their summer excursions in 1871, the carriage that was bringing them to Tyngsboro overturned near the bridge.  Their commander, who was injured and strapped onto a chair was drowned along with the horse that pulled the wagon.  Fundraisers were held throughout the year.  One raised almost $300 for St. John’s Hospital.   In 1876 the Knights were the largest Irish organization in the city.

As the decades progressed the membership aged and began to wane.  There were several attempts to rejuvenate the group.  Notices were printed in local newspapers reminding the children of Irish immigrants that the goal of the club was to keep their heritage alive.  For most of its life the Knights were a men’s only group.  Near the end women were invited to join.  Soon the only mention of the group was in members’ obituaries.  Those who remained would wear their regalia to attend a funeral and accompany him to the grave.

The last mention of the group was made in 1926 for the funeral of their last commander, Owen Corbett, ages 93, a native of Co. Clare.


An original Knights of St. Patrick sash has come home.  The sash will be on display at our Walking Tour on Saturday, March 11 at 10 am.  Meet at LNHP Visitor Center on Market St.  (If you have photos, diplomas, or items that record the history of the Irish in Lowell or the Acre neighborhood.  Let us know.  We will give them a good home.  Other items donated this year are neighborhood and family photos and old St Patrick School report cards.)

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Scots in the Mill City

Duncan Rankin McKean,
 in Glasgow, 1880s.
The Irish were not the only Celts to help build the city of Lowell.  Before anyone protests, of course the Irish were Lowell’s first immigrant group.  That would make the Scots Lowell’s second wave of immigration.  In one of Lowell’s early histories an 1833 writer is quoted as saying the Scots were, “the most intelligent of our foreign population.”  The writer was a Yankee and it might be fair to say not a fan of the Irish.

To dig a little deeper, Lowell’s existence is partially due to the Scots.  Francis Cabot Lowell himself had Scottish roots, and it was only after his 2 year stint visiting England and Scotland with his family that the idea of textile manufacturing on such a scale as he saw in Manchester and Paisley would come to America. 

Scots had been living in the area since the time of the colonies.  Before Lowell was Lowell, there were farmers and tradesmen from Ulster (Scots-Irish) in Chelmsford and Dracut.  Even the Pawtucketville Congregational Church once identified itself as Presbyterian.  As textile mills were erected professional workers who knew the secrets of the textile trade had to be imported to share their knowledge.  James Sanderson, a native Scot, was brought solely because he knew had to dye skeins indigo blue, a color much in vogue at the time and not easily produced previously in America.

The major wave of Scots into Lowell occurred in 1828 with Alexander Wright. “A colony from Refrewshire, Scotland settled in Lowell and engaged in the manufacture of carpets.  It included many sons and daughters of the Kirk of Scotland and was reintroduced from time to time by other immigrants.” (ORHA)  Soon another group from Lanarkshire, Scotland joined the group increasing the Scots population and carpet manufacturing.

Like the Irish, many of the Scots chose to live among their own.  One group settled along Market Street in areas called “Scotch block” and “Scotch Row” according to Lowell Directories.  The tiny district includes name such as; McAlpine, Bosworth, McOvey, Johnson, McCreck, McArthur, Knowles, and Wilson.

With the Scots came their faith, Presbyterianism.  They were the descendants of the Covenanters. By the 1860s there were enough to form their own church that was erected on Appleton Street on the corner of Davis, known as the First Presbyterian.  An early account says that those who were “old school Presbyterians” were forming a society. It continues to say there were enough like-minded people to have already had a Sunday school.  A Rev. Dr. Robertson was the preacher and succeeded by Revs. Calhoun and Rankin.  That is not to say that there were no Catholic Scots as well.  In St. Patrick Cemetery there are a number of 19th century graves with Scotland listed as place of birth.  And don’t forget St. Margaret’s Church was actually names after St. Margret of Scotland.
They also brought their customs and traditions.  One that continues in Scotland today and was first celebrated in Lowell in 1833 was Robert Burns Night.  Celebrating Scotland’s most famous poet, they gathered, many of Lowell’s Yankee elite, to toast the bard and to share the haggis.  A Mr. Waugh made the haggis, a sort of pudding made of entrails and boiled in a sheep’s stomach.  The Ode to the haggis was recited and singing songs like, “O Willie brew’d a pack o’maut.”   The evening ended with the traditional “Auld Lang Syne.”  It must have been a rowdy evening since the writer commented that the other guest in the hotel must have appreciated the night coming to a close.
For many years Scottish athletic games were held here in the city.  Mention is made of Scots in their “native costumes” (kilts) parading through the city with pipe bands and athletes marching to the athletic fields in Centraville.  The local Caledonian Club sponsored the “annual games of the Bonnie Scots,” which drew athletes from U.S. and Canada participating in the caber toss and throwing the hammer.  A world record for such was made in Lowell.

One of the last vestiges of Scottish culture in Lowell was Clan Grant 141 OSC (Order of Scottish Clans).  There may have been other such organizations, but Clan Grant appears to have been the most active and most recent.  Clan Grant held annual Burns Night dinners, dances, lectures, and gatherings which kept the Scottish tradition alive in Lowell.  The last major function seems to have been in the 1970s with the Kiltie Pipe Band of Worcester and a number of singers entertaining a huge crowd.  The officers of the ladies auxiliary appeared in their white dresses and tartan sashes.  (Members of my own family once held posts in the organization.)

Many Scots who came to Lowell brought their skills to open shops and become entrepreneurs in the city.   The Nesmith brothers, Thomas and John, who were Ulster Scots, became very wealthy in business ventures so much so they had a street names after them in Belvidere.  The Bowers family originally came from Scotland and became owners of farm and dairy land in Lowell.  Nineteenth century physician, Dr Shaw was born in Glasgow.  The first ice cream manufacturer in Lowell, Alexander Cruichshank was born in the Scottish Highlands.  Another Glasgow native, Alexander Cumnock, became nationally famous for his work in cotton manufacturing. A friend of Kirk Boott, John Waugh, along with fellow Scotsman, James Wilson, became the leading suppliers of slate roofing in Lowell’s earliest days.  Many of these men remain in our history having had streets and buildings named after them. 

One of the last Scots native to be recalled was James Johnston Mr. Johnston, a native Scot’s speaker opened a bakery on Westford Street.  The family occupied the 2nd floor on top of the business.  The family kept the business until the 1980s.  In my family it was traditional at Christmas to go to Johnston’s to buy shortbread.  On the day the bakery closed I went pleading to buy the shortbread molds, but the family rightfully held onto them. 

Not all Scots would make it into the history books.  My own grandfather was born in Milngavie, Scotland.  His family had been working as calico printers for 3 generations.  No wonder he made it to Lowell.  His Scottish burr (accent) remained with him until the end.  He was baptized in the Church of Scotland and converted to Catholicism to marry my grandmother at St. Patrick’s.  He was known to break into, “Roamin in the Gloamin.”  He never told why he left Scotland and had little contact with his family back in Glasgow except for a box at Christmas that contained dulse (seaweed), shortbread, and oatcakes. 


Thursday, January 12, 2017

Chasing my Family Tree or What You Can’t Learn from DNA

Image from Pintrest
My grandparents all passed before I became interested in genealogy.  Since I never got to speak to them about our past, maybe that’s why I’ve searching all these years.  Now my French-Canadian side was a no-brainer.  Within a few hours I was able to trace my line back to the 17th century.  Those French knew how to keep records.  That’s how I found our 7th great-grandparents murdered their son-in-law.  (But that’s another blog entry.) My Celtic side is a whole other story.

My father’s parents were both born in Glasgow, Scotland.  His father, Duncan Rankin McKean, was a proud Scotsman.  I recall him telling me, “Never let anyone know you’re part Irish.”  My dad’s mother was Jenny Sweeney.  Though born in Glasgow, her parents were born in Ireland, but emigrated to Scotland during the Great Famine.  A number of years ago I paid a research group in Scotland to research the two lines.  What I found was that Scotland did not require birth certificates or a census until the mid-nineteenth century.  That left little to find out about the McKean line.  The Sweeney line did not do much better.  There was such a massive migration of Irish into Scotland during this period churches and the government could not keep up with the numbers.  So after spending a few pounds I ended up knowing little more than I had before.

Then those awesome commercials started appearing on television.  You know the ones where people send a swab of their DNA and they find out everything they wanted to know about their lineage.  I thought this was the Holy Grail.  This is what I’ve been waiting for.  Before I forked over a couple of hundred more dollars, I checked in with Walter.  Walter worked for decades with the National Archives, and he and wife Karen are top of the line genealogists.  When I asked Walter about DNA testing he said to hold off.  The whole thing is based on how much data each company has.  Though hundreds of thousands might have swabbed their cheeks, how many of those share your DNA?  His advice was to hold off until hundreds of thousands more add their data.  Only then will the results show what I was  looking for.  Needless to say I ignored his advice. 

Just before Christmas I got the results by email.  Because I have the Y chromosome, the advertisement said my results would be deeper.  I chose the Y-37 test, not the cheapest and not the most expensive, smack in the middle.  I was really excited. The first page was a map of the world. It reminded me of something I drew for Sr. Agnes Mary, my 7th grade social studies teacher.   My line starts tens of thousands of years ago in Africa.  Wait, I’m African?  Not really.  The line moves into Asia.  Wait, I’m Asian?  No, the line moves to Europe and then Western Europe.  I’m European!  Eureka!  Wait, I knew that.  The next page was another map.  It was of Western Europe with a large circle over Great Britain and Ireland.  That was it.  So I’m part Scot and part Irish.  Whew!  The code had been cracked.  Not!  There was one more page.  It was a list of thousands of potential relatives that shared my DNA profile.  According to the document each name shared a part of my genetic code.  Each one was a potential cousin, or cousin of a cousin, twice, three, or even four times removed.

Each week since then I have received an email encouraging me to continue testing to find more results.  I joined every forum I could to ask advice.  Each response has encouraged me to continue testing to find more results.  “Try the Y-64.  If that doesn’t help go to the ultimate, Y-111.  It’ll bring you right back to Cro-Magnon man.”  Okay, that’s another exaggeration, but not too far from the truth. 


So my search continues.  Maybe one of my potential 10,000 cousins will hold the key.  Or maybe I’ll take Walter’s advice and wait a few decades and try again.