Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Seeing Nellie Home

From 1835 newspaper story
To friends and family she was Nellie, but her given name was Ellen O’Neill. She lived with her brother and mother in a small house on Lee Street, near the Unitarian Church (currently St. Joseph Shrine). Her parents, Patrick and Mary Jane, were both Irish immigrants, and when they arrived in Lowell Mr. O’Neill opened a copper plating business that made tags for the Merrimack Print Works. They also supplied signs, cards, and invitations to those who required their services. Patrick O’Neill passed away in 1848, leaving his wife to care for the children. She continued the printing business herself and was able to keep their small home on Lee Street.
Merrimack Street runs parallel to Lee Street and in between the two a small alley opened between, with buildings on either side. The back door of the O’Neill home opened directly to the back door of Rugg’s Music store at 99 Merrimack Street. And this is where our story becomes part of the City’s history. A young Irish immigrant cornet player and up and coming band leader by the name of Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore spent much time at Mr. Rugg’s store. Mr. Gilmore was a member of many local bands and led the very popular Salem Cadet Band. Mr. Rugg's store was often the meeting place for the band before they performed in the area, such as their many concerts at Huntington Hall.  At some point the back doors between the music store and the O'Neill home opened at the same time and their eyes met. An American love story began. With the help of Philip Haggerty, a musician himself and the choir director of St. Patrick Church, P. S. Gilmore began to woo the fair Miss O’Neill. Since she was a member of the church’s choir it was reported Mr. Gilmore accompanied her to St. Pat’s and possibly joined the choir.

Google image
Miss Gilmore had an Aunt Dinah who lived across the bridge in Pawtucketville. Being the proper gentleman he was, and wanting to spend as much time as he could with her. P. S. Gilmore accompanied Ellen to the quilting bees held at the Aunt’s home where singing and conversation went late into the night. Seeing the moon cast its reflection on the Merrimack River touched the romantic cords of the young man’s heart.  He must have been quite smitten by her as he wrote When I Saw Sweet Nellie Home. The song may not be quite familiar to today’s audience, but in the last century it was a number one favorite for generations. The tune went through a number of evolutions and different composers have penned their names to it, but it started right here in Lowell.

Father John O’Brien of St Patrick Church married the couple, he 28 years old and she 21, in the rectory on Fenwick Street in May of 1858. The bride’s mother made specially engraved invitations for the nuptials (one was still in existence a century ago). The Gilmores left Lowell to begin a career that brought them much travel and fame. Mrs. O'Neill sold the engraving business the same year and possibly traveled with her daughter.  Gilmore is remembered today, along with John Philip Sousa, as the Father of the American Band. He is best known for his rendition of When Johnny Comes Marching Home. He started the tradition of music on New Year’s Eve in Times Square, the Gilmore's Music Garden later becoming Madison Square Garden, and led the music for the nation's Centennial celebration as well as the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. The list goes on. Nellie accompanied him wherever he went. She remained quiet and often in the background, possibly because of the scars left by smallpox.
And what of the little house on Lee Street? In the 1930s it was decided that it should be torn down. It was in the way of progress of the big stores on Merrimack Street that needed space. A sign attesting to the fact that the building would be demolished was nailed to the front door.  Across the country pleas went out to save the home. Many couples recalled their own days of handholding listening to Seeing Nellie Home. A radio program was created to dramatize the meeting between Patrick and Nellie. A last minute effort went out recommending that the home be turned into a tea room. Surely couples from all over would want to sit in Nellie’s parlor. But time marches on and newer, more modern buildings took the place of the small wooden home.
One of the missions of the Irish Cultural Committee is to help preserve Saint Patrick Church. The Resurrection window was recently restored through generous benefactors. The heating system installed in 1906 finally passed away and had to be totally redone, thanks to benefactors. Many of the small windows in the lower church need repair and stones need re-pointing. The work of the ICC helps support such endeavors. Over a quarter of a million dollars has been donated in the last 35 years. The Patrick Keyes home (the old Cosmo) on Market Street is one of the oldest structures in the city. The future of the building is not good.  Imagine this as an Acre cultural center?  It will more than likely go the way of Nellie’s home, Cardinal O’Connell’s birthplace, the house where Edgar Allen Poe visited, Lucy Larcom’s boardinghouse, and how many others?
Here’s a YouTube video of Johnny Cash’s rendition:


  1. What a great story! I had never heard it before this. Where was Huntington Hall located?

  2. It was part of the depot on Merrimack Street, where the old YMCA was located. It burned down in 1904.. Check out The Forgotten New England blog for a great story about it.

  3. Wow!...Great read... I had never heard this before...leave it Lowell to have a hand in does one become involved with the Irish Cultural Comity, I should know being a graduate of St Patrick School and a parishioner for years, but I don't!

  4. We're trying with great difficulty to find a webhost for a site, but until then check out our Facebook page. Lowell Irish Cultural Committee. We're already planning our events for the coming year!