Friday, December 30, 2011


What would 2 red blooded American males do on a day off?  Why go cemetery hunting of course!  Walter Hickey and I (along with my daughter, Cait) took off to find more of Clan Cummiskey.  First we drove to St Francis de Sales Church in Charlestown.  How the good people of Charlestown negotiate the hills I'll never know.  On top of that, most of the parking is residential only.  The cemetery is usually locked, but the folks at the Catholic Cemetery Assoc made the contact to St Francis to have it open.  Sometimes in doing research you find folks don't open their doors too wide, but not in this case.  I am really grateful for their cooperation.  Once we climbed the hill there was the church sexton waiting for us.  He could tell Walter and Cait were out of breath (not myself since I am in tip top condition).  He smiled when he informed us the cemetery is on the other side of the hill.  So what goes up, must go down, and then back up. 

Our quest was to find James Cummiskey.  All evidence says that James might have been Hugh's brother.  The entrance to the Cemetery has a beautiful Celtic cross that is at the head of the field of stones.  Looking over it we knew we had a daunting task to find James.  The saints must have been guiding us for exactly where we stood was James Cummiskey.  The stone was slate with the traditional willow pattern.  He's buried there with his wife, both "from the parish of Dromore, County Tyrone."

The Cemetery is is in back of the church.  It is wonderfully maintained with respect for those who rest there.  Originally, it was the encampment for the "Brits" during the Battle of Bunker Hill.  As someone who has spent a lot of time in old burial grounds, this place was a gold mine.  Almost all the stones are upright and legible.  One of the first items we noticed was the varied types of slate used compared to our area.  There went very light to dark grey tones.  The next point of interest was the style of carving.  You can actually tell the carver since each developed his own style.  The Charlestown carvers carved their lettering much deeper than the carvers in Lowell, such as Warren and Day.  One line repeated itself on a number of stones A Cary Fecit (A Cary made this.)  A good number of the stones had the identical icon of IHS with some decoration under.  This was obvious as stone after stone appeared the same, but then the carver used some very unique stenciling not seen anywhere in our area.  The sunburst was another motif used throughout the cemetery.  One stone I've never seen before was a lamb on slate material.  The carving needed to do such, had to be made by an expert hand.  I had a personal interest in finding any shamrock stones on slate.  To this date St Pat's appears to be the only such examples anywhere on either side of the Atlantic.

The trip down to the car was a lot easier than the way up. With time on our hands we made our way to North Cambridge Catholic Cemetery to find another Cummiskey, Captain Hugh.  Like St Pat's, Cambridge tells a story.  The Cemetery is a heavy mix of old stones next to new.  The mid-nineteenth century Irish names evolve into Italian and then a mix.  Where to begin?  I stopped the car, looked to my right, and there he was.  Providence once again pointed the way.  The grave is that of boat captain Hugh Cummiskey.  He makes quite a name for himself in guiding boats through the harbor and shipping.  Another native of Tyrone, was he a cousin?  Research cannot tell us anymore- yet.  But in this journey surprising things have turned up.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Nollaig Chridheil (Merry Christmas)

One of my areas of interest is ancient Celtic poetry, especially from the monastic period.  There is a beauty that transcends time, theologies, and culture.     As we celebrate Christmas, I'd like to send you a beautiful thought for this season written by an anonymous, 9th century monk.  To close, I'd like to leave you with a bit of music from my visit to the Belfast Museum in August.  Peace

I have news for you:
The stag bells, winter snows, summer has gone
Wind high and cold, the sun low, short its course
The sea running high.
Deep red the bracken; its shape is lost;
The wild goose has raised its accustomed cry,
cold has seized the birds' wings;
season of ice, this is my news.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

An Acre Christmas Memory

The icicles had to be placed just right

Some of my friends had those new sparkling aluminum tree with the color wheel that spun around.  Their ornaments were the fancy, Styrofoam ones wrapped in colored silk thread.  Not us, we had old fashioned glass ornaments, some 10, 15, or 20 years old.  There were delicate glass strawberries , enormous red balls, beautifully painted shapes that mirrored the colored lights.  We had some very old ones from memere’s.  I especially remember a little cloth Santa that had its place on the tree.  The icicles.  We had dozens of these hard plastic white icicles that were placed ever so gingerly on the tips of the branches.  Then came the tinsel.  They don’t even sell tinsel any more.  I think it was one of the causes of global warming.  My mother bought boxes of it.  I would throw gobs of it at the tree.  In frustration my mother would tell me to leave as she went about adding her piece de resistance.  Every individual strand had to be placed just right.  In my memory I can see it now the entire tree shimmering and shining, the tinsel making the tree look like an ice glazed wonder.  The star we used was another ancient piece dating from WWII period.  It was white with a slight outline in red.  When a bulb was inserted in the base the glow was soft and tranquil and set the perfect image of peace on earth, goodwill towards men.  All of that was so until the cat ate a piece of tinsel and we had to pull it out of her rear, or until my mother would topple into the tree as she was trying to perfect her already perfect tree.

While the tree was the focus of our decorating frenzy there were other additions to our attempts of making our Christmas Wonderland.  Probably the first sign of the season to appear would be the wreath on the door.  Today’s Martha Stewart hyper stylized self important frou frou wreaths paled in comparison by what hung on the doors along

Broadway Street
.  There were the white tissue paper wreaths that were made from bent coat hangers with dozens of tiny torn pieces of tissue wrapped around the form.  The good Sisters at Saint Patrick School began the project early in the season.  By early December students brought them home in many stages of completion.  Some homes displayed full rich wreaths that must have taken a tree’s worth of tissue paper to fill.  Other looked half done and hung sadly from a nail.  The worst tragedy is if we had a wet snow and then dozens of toilet paper wreaths met their doom.  On other doorways wreaths were made of folded computer cards (which was accompanied by the infamous folded TV Guide Christmas tree that matched).  Of course there was the economical plastic wreath that barring a nuclear explosion could last in a state of preservation into the next millennium.  One of my mother’s pride and joys was the gold sprayed pine cone wreath made by my Aunt Nita.  It was by far the largest and most luxurious of wreaths in the neighborhood.  It lasted many years and even though each year one or another of the pine cones would fall off or disintegrate it hung until it breathed its last many years later.

It seemed almost every family put electric candles in the windows.  The meaning of this ancient sign of welcome may have been unknown to the residents of the Acre but the effect it made on the snow-covered streets was spectacular.  Almost everyone used orange or red.  That may have been one of those unwritten rules of Christmas that was enforced by peer pressure.  Those who could afford it may even have a 3 candle candolier.  Soon followed the 5, then 7 candle condoliers showed up in windows  Even in the 1960s people tried to outdo their neighbor.  There were always the renegades who used blue or white lights, or even God forbid multi-colored lights!  The ladies of the tenement neighborhood would remark that while everyone in the block had orange Mrs. So-and-so wanted to defy standards and put green bulbs in her electric candles.  Soon enough the malcontent would do her penance and change her bulbs to the right color.  Peace was restored to the Acre. 

Stamps must have been far cheaper in that era because the Christmas card was a major decorating item in that period.  The mailman often made two trips to the mailboxes and even worked on the Sunday before Christmas.  Lord knows who sent all those cards, but we received dozens if not many dozens of Christmas cards.  I had no idea who many of the cards were sent by.  They were cousins of cousins and then there was the frantic, “Oh my God I didn’t send one to them!!!”  This was followed by a mad dash to the mail box in front of Dostaler’s Market.  With tape in hand my sister and I would line every door jamb with the season’s greetings.  “Be sure the horizontal cards were along the top and the verticals went along the side.”  It was a contest with my cousins who had the most cards hanging.

In between the living room and the “good” room was always displayed the red paper tissue folded bell.  These were inexpensive items that were picked up easily at the local Woolworth’s, Kressge’s, or Green’s. Other items of d├ęcor included an illuminated Santa with a bubble light in his hand.   Again, I have no recollection where the item came from or why poor Santa carried a bubbling light bulb in his hand but the Santa was used as a night light on the kitchen table during the season.  My sister had the Frosty the Snowman light.  With a blue bulb inserted in the back it was just like a real snowman, that in your dreams may come alive and march through the house.  I never liked that figure.  My mother also bought 4 Santa Claus mugs from Stuart’s Department Store on

Market Street
.  As the years passed the poor Santas lost their paint until finally he looked like a victim of the plague.  Advent calendars were opened daily revealing little pictures as the big day approached.  Every now and then my mother would one that when the window was opened there was a Bible verse.  Why would someone put Bible verses on Advent calendars?  The meaning was lost on an 8 year old boy.

Friday, December 9, 2011

An Acre Christmas Memory - Part III

The Santa from Green's (right).  The Santa on the left is from my memere's tree, circa, 1900s.

I would sit next to that tree and watch Santa Claus on channel 9.  The New Hampshire local station had this guys named Gus Lemire.  He would read letters sent in by kids, and read the list of what they wanted.  For some unknown reason, even though I never sent Santa a letter I would sit there and listen to this guy read letter after letter hoping somehow in his infinite wisdom Santa would know just what I wanted, and he would say my name on tv.  If only once, just once it would happen.  But alas it never did. 

A trip to the downtown Santa would have to suffice.  The Bon Marche had a very nice Santa and they had all those Christmas trees lit up on the overhang along Merrimack Street.  They also had the large manger in the storefront.  This was at a time when no one was afraid of mentioning what Christmas was all about.  The other Santa at Pollards was quite nice too.  There were other Santas scattered throughout downtown, but these were the cheapo knockoffs.  Instead of a throne and images of the North Pole.  They sat on a kitchen chair and had wrapping paper as a backdrop.  I was no country bumpkin.  I knew the real Santa was just too busy to come to Lowell and these were his helpers.  One particular visit stands in mind.  It was the first year we had a car, a 2 door, blue, 1951 Ford.  My dad parked on Lee Street and as I was trying to get out the driver’s side door.  My dad closed the door and hit me square on the head.  I flew back and landed on the seat.  You would have thought I had committed a crime.  Perhaps I had passed out for just a moment, but when my wits were once again about me, my father was yelling to get out of the car and stop my whining.  The first stop was St. Joseph’s Shrine Gift Shop.  Located in the basement under the church, my mother felt obliged to buy a religious gift for the Sisters who taught my sister and me.  Why my mother thought nuns wanted something holy was beyond me, but I was assured she knew what she was doing.  Every year was the same thing stationary with a religious image on it.  The only choice that had to be made was what image to include.  The Miraculous Medal was always a big hit with the nun crowd, but of course Saint Jude was always a safe choice.  My mother felt it her yearly duty to explain that the good Sisters were never able to actually keep their stationary since they were under a vow of poverty and had to give their gift to Mother Superior.  I wondered what was the sense of even buying the gift in the first place if that was all true. 

Now it was time to see Santa and present my list to him.  The anxiety was almost too much.  What would he say?  Was I a good boy?  Could he see through me and tell I was lying everytime I nodded my head?  Did he really have a list?  Does he really check it twice? After presenting my petitions, all he’d say is. “We’ll see.”  We’ll see?  What the heck is that all about, I want commitment.  You should know by now which list I am on.  You just can’t get Santa helpers like you used to.

We’d stroll the downtown area looking at the displays in store windows and green lighted garlands that stretched across Merrimack and Central Streets.  When we got to Greens’ 5 & 10 soda fountain we all took a seat.  My folks got a coffee, but my sister and I got hot chocolate.  Then I saw the sign on the wall- a free plastic Santa to whoever ordered a hot chocolate.  I wanted one in the worst way.  The waitress with the big pink hankie with holly pinned to her uniform, was a friend of my mother’s, brought over 2 plastic Santa ornaments.  I was ecstatic.  It was like mega bucks and the Irish lottery rolled into one. As soon as we got into the house the Santa was given a proud placement on the tree.  I’m proud to say he still manages to do so today more than 50 years later.  Before getting back in the car we would walk over to the manger in front of City Hall.  The fifures were life sized.  The camels stood as tall as an adult and the feeling you got there made you think of the first Christmas night.  Often we stood there in silence, the smell of hay wafting in the cold night air.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Christmas Memory - Part II

I wrote this little Christmas story as a gift for my kids (or was it really for me?).  That same year my wife gave them family recipes photocopied from their grandmothers' own cards and habdwritten in her own.  I'm not sure if they appreciated it, but maybe someday they will feel called to write their own.  For those looking for more on Lowell's irish past, do not be concerned.  Plans are already in the making for another series of the most recent research.  So I offer to you part 2 of 4.  May you take the time to create your own memories.


If my memory serves me correctly at some point my mother was barred from the quest of getting the tree.  Since we had no car, as did most in that neighborhood, it was a traipse to the several neighborhood dealers.  Somehow we always picked the weekend when snow and the temperature had fallen to the point of frostbite.  My mother demanded the perfect tree.  Not too short, not too tall.  Not too narrow, not too full.  A skimpy tree meant there weren’t enough branches to hang the ornaments.  A tree too full wouldn’t allow the ornaments to hang just right.  After my mother commanding my father to try this tree and that, and then back to this tree and finally deciding on that one, only to find someone had bought it, there was an unspoken decision my father would play hunter-gatherer and get the tree himself.  And so, wearing double layers of socks, a pair of woolen leggings, the mandatory hat with earflaps pulled down and strapped under the chin, accompanied by the god-awful black rubber boots with the gazillion impossible buckles, we would leave the safety of the primeval cave and enter the world of the Christmas Tree Man. 
Now finding a tree was not a matter of shape or form to my father, but being the son of a Scotsman, was all about the price.  I truly believe in the whole time we lived in the Acre we never paid more than $3 for a tree and more likely $2.  Ahh, it was a dance that was performed between my father and Tree Man.  Banging the tree stump on the ground to proclaim the needles falling off.  The shaking of the head at how poor a selection Tree Man had.  The proverbial question of, “Is this all you have?”  Many times this was enough for Tree Man to give in and acquiesce to the Great White Tree Hunter.  But every now and then Tree Man held his ground.  That’s when my dad would pull out the big guns.  I think subconsciously my dad hoped he could pull off this coup-du-gras.  It had to be timed perfectly.  The hand gestures, facial expressions.  When Tree Man did not bite my Dad’s bait of “I’ll give you 2 bucks for this one,” my father would shake his head and say “Come on David, let’s go.”  I would lower my head and follow a few steps behind.  Inevitably just as we were leaving his lot, Tree Man would call out, “Wait!”  Though Tree Man couldn’t see it my father’s face would beam.  The hunt.  Now the kill.  With my Dad taking the lead, we would carry our catch down Broadway Street
hill.  I taking two steps to his every one.  The crunch of the snow beneath our boots helped keep the rhythm to our steps.  As the door opened to our house Dad would again tell the story of how once again Tree Man dared to take him on, and the victory of getting a two dollar and fifty cent tree.  To complete the annual expedition my mother would proclaim once again that she had no idea where was she going to hang the ornaments on such a skimpy tree. 

 Once the tree was brought home it had to be put into its stand, which consisted of a green metal bowl in which water would be poured to keep the tree moist.  Three red metal legs had to be attached to keep the stand steady.  A degree in engineering was needed to assemble the device.  Only the most delicate of maneuvers would hold the legs together in such a state to put the stump in the tree without it falling apart.  Placing of the tree was also of major concern.  “Move it to the right.  More.  More.  Too much.  Left.  I said left.  Put it back where it was.”  The Commanding Officer, my mother, would bark out the orders never content believing that turning it just the right way would make the difference.  There was an unwritten rule in the house that the tree had to “stand” for 24 hours.  It was the belief a lot like “no swimming for one full hour after eating before going in the water.”  If you decorated the tree before that time the needles would fall, and Christmas would be ruined forever and all time.