Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Remembering Jack

Jack at Francis Gate
during our tour
The last time I spoke with Jack Flood was about a year ago.  It was April and the last of the snow was melting.  The call went something like this, “Dave, Jack Flood, what are you doing Saturday?  I want you to take a ride with me.”  Those of you who knew Jack know that could mean a lot of things.  He continued by saying he wanted to drive around the Acre with him before he started to forget things.  It was a command, and a plea. 
We met at his house and, as in the past, he had his dining room arrayed like a small museum.  His family made the Acre and St. Pat’s home since their arrival in the 1800s.  He displayed programs from the school, ribbons from parish events, and even stained glass from the 1904 fire.   They were his prized possessions.  It was the story of his family told in mementos gathered over lifetimes.
When it was time for the tour he insisted on driving.  We got into his ark of a car and I fastened my seatbelt.  If he wanted to stop, he would in the middle of the street.  Where there was no parking, he parked.  The rear end of the car bounced over more than one curb.  He was the tour guide, and I was along for the ride.
To be honest, Jack and I did not always see eye to eye.  He was always more than kind to my kids, could chat forever with my wife, and a friend to my Dad.  But more than once we disagreed.  The two of us truly loved the history of St. Pat’s and the Acre.  I love to research and gather facts.  But Jack had a different way to tell the story.  He lived much of what he told, stories about the Brothers, summer nights with fiddlers on Broadway, the Acre Shamrocks baseball team.  While I quoted sources, Jack spoke from the heart.  Jack loved to tell the story of how the downstairs altar fell through the floor after the 1904 fire.  Not true, it was moved there, but it was a great story and Jack never stopped telling it right up until this year.  Quite recently some visitors to the parish shared the story with me with amazement and I asked if I had heard the story.  When I questioned where they got it from.  They said it was a great older gentleman with a head of white hair- Jack was at it again.
The tour went on for about three hours.  Every building, every corner, every doorway had a story.  Some sad of sickness and poverty. Some joyful of returning home after the WWII.  Some amusing- being forced by his mom to carry a bouquet of flowers to school for the May Altar, or where a bookie would take his bets.  I couldn’t believe the wealth of info that was inside that head of shocking white hair.  I was the student at the feet of the master.
As the afternoon progressed his energy began to decline.  We stopped at Francis Folley, the bridge over the Pawtucket Canal on Broadway Street.  He stood there looking down into the water.  Though his body was there, it was obvious his thoughts were back 80 years ago- a young man jumping off the red bridge with his buddies.  He pointed to a hole in the wall of the canal and told the story from the 1930s when an uncle of mine was returning home from Cookoo O’Connell’s bar very much drunk.  My uncle looked over the side of the canal and fell over into the swirling water.  Jack and his crew dragged him out using the holes in the canal wall as grips to lift my uncle to safety.  Jack looked at me and said, “You know he was a real bastard.”  Jack always told it like it was, and in this case Jack was right.
When it came time to end our journey he asked if we could do this again some time.  Sure, no problem.  But the months passed and the dance of time stops for no one. We never had the chance to travel that road of memories again.
Needless to say, St. Patrick’s Day was the best day of the year for Jack.  The image I will have for him forever is the green hat with the giant green tie.  Often when you talked to Jack, he’d tell you about his many trips back to Ireland and the ancestral home which he held so dear and visited so many times with Sharon.  And now he has made the final journey.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam (May his soul be at God's right hand.)

Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Life in 3 Boxes

The amount of research that has been accomplished by Dr. Donnelly and his team and the work of Dr. Mitchell, along with many local historians concerning the role of the early Irish has made an indelible mark on the story of Lowell’s Irish.  Yet, we all refer to one particular source, the sort of Genesis of all studies, The Irish Catholic Genesis of Lowell written by George Francis O’Dwyer and published in 1920.  Yet, his own story is one worth telling as well. 

I visited the Boston College Library many years ago to view the O’Dwyer collection which consists of 3 cardboard boxes.  I think I was one of the few to open them since his death in 1942.   There was no rhyme or reason to its contents though the Burns Library is a Mecca for researchers in Irish Studies and its meticulous collections.  The condition of those boxes sadly resembled the author’s life.  Walt and I returned to BC this week to see the collection with a different eye than what I sought almost a decade ago.
The staff had everything prepared as they wheeled out the same 3 boxes, this time placed in some semblance of order.  The first box is a file box with maybe a thousand handwritten index cards.  After spending hours with those cards, and seeing the pencil markings on each one, you sense the passion and drive of the man.   Those who share the need to know more can easily empathize with him.  His modus operandi was to go through every newspaper and city document he had available to him.  Each time he met an Irish name he would jot it down on a little 3x5 card.  He recorded births, deaths, marriages, and real estate transactions.  Of course he did his work at the turn of the 20th century, and now at the 21st century much of the work he did over years, and as he states in a letter to a publisher that he has worked night and day for 10 years giving all of his life to this project, can be done with the click of a computer today.  So much of what he did is easily available online now.  There are some sources he did use that we no longer have available to us.  People.  It’s obvious that he brought his little notebooks with him and sat down with the children and the grandchildren of those early Irish and listened to their tales of days gone by in the Acre.  Some of the stories do not mix with known facts, but that is part of assessing oral histories.  He spoke with Sarah Smith who was baptized in the original wooden St Patrick’s Church in 1831.  He corresponded with Hugh Cummiskey’s granddaughter, Loyola McCann, teacher at the Elliot School, who recalled her grandfather.  Without these little vignettes into the past the human side of our story may have been lost forever
George O’Dwyer was born in Lowell in 1877 and spent much of his life in the family home on Midland Street in the Highlands.  His father, Jeremiah, emigrated from Ireland, possibly County Limerick  in 1872. His mother’s parents were both immigrants.  The O’Dwyer home must have been filled with storytelling and the recounting of days gone by.  From an early age Irish history and genealogy became an interest to young George.  As a young adult, he addressed the Lowell Irish Society about the early history of Ireland.  They were impressed by his knowledge.  While he did have jobs as a clerk and other positions, his real avocation was in his zeal for Irish and Irish-American history.
The remaining two boxes at BC tell more of his story.  He begins publishing small tracts on the Irish throughout New England, probably with his own funds.  He writes poetry and one act plays on religious topics and historical events.  He solicits jobs from organizations such as the American Irish Society, who hire him to solicit members throughout New England.  He does not have much success.  Sullivan Brothers prints the piece he has spent much of his life on and has placed all of his financial resources- The Irish Catholic Genesis of Lowell.  Four hundred copies are printed after a number of changes made to the original tract.  Sullivan Bros, sues O’Dwyer for non-payment.  They win and take possession of the remaining books.  This could account why there are so few remaining copies of the original text.  O’Dwyer writes a letter stating his shock at the poor selling of the book, even at the price of $2. 
The contents of those boxes are filled with his attempts to find backers for his projects.  He writes that he is totally dependent on the kindness of his sister for a bed and food.  But still he continues writing to newspapers promoting the Irish cause and collecting hundreds and hundreds of slips of paper with names and dates maybe for a future book.   He spends his last 10 years in Boston and his last three months in Long Island Hospital.  He dies in that hospital at the age of 64 in 1942.  The man who literally gave so much of his life to recording the story of the Irish in Lowell and New England has a simple 2 paragraph obituary, never mentioning the legacy he left to us.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


"The Slum" (Google image)
The cholera still lingers among the Irish people in this city.  On Saturday last, there were 4 deaths among this class and during the week, as will be seen as the report of the superintendent of burials; thirteen deaths, all but two, being among the Irish.  It is not surprising that the cholera lingers among them- living as they do.  We have heard of recent instances in which, when one of their number is seized with cholera, they set up a worse noise than can be heard at a wake, and immediately leave the patient to himself.  The city is very safe at this time- more so, we believe, than is usual at this season. (Lowell Journal, September 1849)
By the time this article hit the papers, people in Lowell, and especially the Acre, were beginning to breathe a sigh of relief.  While we in the 21st century think of August as the last days of summer vacations and barbeques, that was not so for our 19th century counterparts.  A very small portion of the population ever thought of weeks at the beach.  Summer meant the same routine as the rest of the year- long hours of hard labor in the torrid heat.  There was one thing that did dwell on the minds of those who lived in the cramped housing and poor conditions of places like Lowell- that was cholera, also known as cholera morbus.
The year 1849 was an especially bad outbreak.  A single case was found in June from a man who had gotten off the stage from New York and spent the night at the Washington Hotel.  The next morning, two doctors were brought in to confirm the case.  The end of summer was always the time when the disease spread its deadly effects through city neighborhoods.  The first death in 1849 was probably Mrs. Susan Googins, who died within 24 hours of contracting the disease in early August.  Within days, it began spreading at an alarming rate.  Newspapers in Boston and even in New York began reporting the death tolls in Lowell and similar cities.  Towards the end of the month of August, seven deaths were reported in 24 hours.  Within a week, 14 deaths were recorded in a two day period. 
The Registry of Deaths for the city showed a sad pattern.  The deaths became so frequent that the registrar began using the term ditto instead of the individual listing of cholera.  This shorthand was replaced with the simple symbol of “ as the death toll mounted.  Most of the deaths were those with Irish surnames living in the Acre, though many others passed as well.  Following the register day by day the disease can be traced down streets-  Fenwick, to Adams, to Suffolk, to Lowell to Cross.  Husbands died followed by wives.  The disease was especially hard on children and siblings who may have shared beds.  The surnames on the Registry of Death read like a litany- Quinn, Kelly, McDonald, Denihy, Donnelly, Harrington, Kelley, McNulty, Cassidy, McCabe, Doyle.  That represents 3 days with many of the names often repeated to include spouses and siblings.  Lowell's premier Irishman, Hugh Cummiskey, was not spared the devestation that spread its effects over the city.  His only son dies at age 8 in the middle of the plague.
Richard Duhig died of cholera
in the 1849 epidemic, St Patrick Cemetery
Why did cholera affect the Irish more than the rest of Lowell’s population?  Cholera was highly contagious and easily transmitted by food or water contaminated by the feces of those who had already contracted the disease.  It led to severe stomach cramping, dehydration, and severe diarrhea. Those who used canal water in the home or to dump waste into the canals helped spread the disease.  Pigs ran rampant in the Acre eating whatever they could find, dropping their feces.  Horse manure might lie on the street creating a breeding ground for germs. Visitors to the Acre often complained of the squalor.  It was believed that the disease could be spread by inhaling putrid fumes.  Living conditions were substandard with many people living in tight quarters, creating the perfect environment for contagion.  Children ran through the streets barefooted. Though there were wells for clean water even in the Acre, they may have been infected by the unsanitary conditions.   Probably the most prevalent factor for passing the disease was that many families shared the same toilet facilities and flushed waste into gutters.  The term “privy reaper” was well known.
The year 1849 was extreme for its deadliness.  There were outbreaks before that and after.  Slowly people became more educated about sanitation and preventative health care.  While the cry of cholera might bring alarm to those in the 19th century, there were a myriad of other diseases which they knew well could take their lives- typhus, influenza, even measles.  Life in the 19th century was predictably rough- and brief.

* After writing this entry I came upon a note about Patrick Heeren.  While others did run at the notice of cholera, Patrick was known to enter the homes of those infected and nurse them.  He lived another 40 years and is buried in St. Patrick's Cemetery.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Help Wanted

For the past 3 summers, Dr. Colm Donnelly and his teams from Queen’s Uni. in Belfast and UMass Lowell have been carrying out an archaeological dig in the front yard of St. Patrick Church.  The project has now entered the next phase- to take three years worth of data and begin the analysis of what it all means about that first generation of Irish living in the Acre.  Dr. Donnelly’s team will be returning next month to take a closer look at the hundreds of artifacts that were uncovered.  Dr. Donnelly and his wife, Dr. Murphy, have also been studying the slate stones at St. Patrick Cemetery.  The inscriptions on these stones tell us who was coming, what counties they came from, and why they were dying.   Dr. Donnelly is planning on photographing the shamrock stones to create a permanent record of this part of Lowell’s Irish past.  The church, a Patrick Keeley design from 1854, is an important artifact in itself.  The team Dr. Donnelly will bring with him will use the most recent technology to make a very detailed documentation of the art and architecture of St. Patrick’s.  That’s quite a job to get done in a few days.
This is where you come in.  Each year before the annual fall tour of the cemetery, a few of us go in and clean some stones.  The staff at the cemetery gives it a good grooming and we come by to sweep and tidy up around the stones.  This year we need to get the stones in tiptop shape so the archaeology team can get the best photographs.  They will be working in Yard One the week of September 16th.  I’d like to form a couple of work teams to come out and clean the two Saturdays before that (September 7 and 14).  We start early at 9 am and leave before noon.  Yard One has few trees so be sure to bring a hat and plenty of water.  If you can, please bring tools: knee pads, brooms, and a plastic ice scraper (it’s great for removing sod).  
We need your help.  The end product will be used by future generations to study the story of the Irish in Lowell.  Every time I visit the cemetery or stand alone in St. Pat’s church, I truly get the feeling that everything that has happened has been working towards this goal.  I believe I owe it to those who came before us, that their deeds and lives have not been forgotten.  For those who use Facebook, the Irish Cultural Committee’s page (Lowell Irish) will be having a signup area for the cemetery work.  If you can come either day, even for just an hour, it would help so much.
Even more news:  The Irish Cultural Committee has been making its presence known as of late.  You may have seen our show of flags at the Lowell Folk Festival.  We’ll be manning a tent at the Solas concert at Boardinghouse Park on August 31st.  We are on a major membership drive.  Come see our new banner and check out events for 2013-2014.  We even have some freebies to give away.  The ICC has hosted dozens of social, religious, and educational events and has donated over a quarter million dollars to help with the upkeep of St. Patrick’s Church and supported other like-minded organizations.  Our schedule is being formed now and will be released soon.  Fill out a membership form while you’re there!
And start getting the word out- our annual cemetery tour will be Saturday, October 12th.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

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.