Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Problems of Digging Up the Family Tree

Duncan Rankin McKean
I only remember him as an old man with a shock of snow white hair.  His face showed little sign of his 86 years.  His sky blue eyes gave the notion he had stories to tell.  He spoke with that distinctive burr that some born in Scotland would have, though I rarely recall him speaking of his youth in Glasgow.   He spoke so softly you had to listen to hear what he was trying to say.  The smile (some say a grin) was a permanent fixture on his face.  He was immensely proud of his Scottish heritage often telling his grandchildren not to admit to their Irish side from their grandmother.  (Research would show Clan McKean made many trips originating in Donegal and moving to Scotland over the centuries.)  He would sit in the chair in the corner of his apartment in the housing at 323 Adams Street, rarely having much to say.  It was only after he was gone we learned the truth of my grandfather’s story. 
Duncan Rankin McKean was born in the bleaching fields of the township of Milngivie, Scotland in 1875.  The family story was that he left at 16 to work on a cattle boat to make his way to Lowell.  That was all he would admit to.  But technology changed that as I went in search of my grandfather’s roots.  Both his parents worked jobs in the woolen mills.  He was one of 6 children before his father died when Duncan was still a boy.  The young mother was left with the children and her father in law to take care of.  The family situation declined quickly with the death of the grandfather leaving the mother alone.  Soon she is pregnant and gives birth to another child with a different surname. That surname reappeared soon after when she married a much younger man whose father owned the factory where she was employed.  It is at this point that Duncan leaves Scotland.  Under what conditions no one knows, but one can only surmise.  He was working in Glasgow as a shoemaker.  He traveled alone to Rhode Island where he continues the same occupation living with a family member, maybe an uncle or cousin.  The only possession he carried with him was a photo of himself taken just before he left.
He stayed briefly with family before making his way to Lowell where he worked at the Lowell Machine Shop.  He met Jennie Sweeney and they married at the Rectory of St. Patrick Church.  The day before the nuptials, he was baptized a Catholic forsaking the Church of Scotland.  He rarely entered another Catholic church again until his own funeral, but kept his promise and saw that all his children were raised Catholic.  He kept his King James Bible and told people, “You read yours, and I’ll read mine.”
Research can sometimes have its downfalls.  My grandfather, like so many others of this period, did not have an easy life.  The more I dug the more I found he was haunted by his demons.  He never saw his mother again.  In the 1900s there were pleas for money.  Then there were pleas for tickets for passage over, then the announcement that she was dead.  That’s when his name appears in police blogs time and time again.  His life took on a series of misfortunes.  Years later his wife died too soon, and that’s when he transforms to the kindly old man I remember.
Fifty years ago I was in the 4th grade at St. Patrick’s.  It was recess time.  We were out in the freezing cold.  The bell in the church tower began the funeral toll.  I stopped and turned to see them carry my grandfather down the steps of the church to the waiting hearse.  The school bell rang for us to line up.  I stayed in the yard.  Sr. Margaret Paul came over and asked why I was crying.  I told her that was my grandfather.  She walked me back to the line.  It is the last memory I have of him.
Should I have researched his story?  Should I have stopped when I saw what happened in Glasgow?  Should I have hid his life from my own genealogical accounts?  Maybe so.  When my aunts were still living I thought it wise to share his story and his encounters with them.  I was sorely mistaken.  They did not want to hear about his previous life, or merely wished to deny it.  They smiled and told happier stories of times past.  But his story is probably not that much different from others.  I cannot imagine going through what he did or how I would react.  So I share this with you and let you judge. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Poem- A Winter in Ireland

Portadown, geography.ie
In keeping with the season an entry from Daniel Patrick Murphy who writes: Mary Sweeney was a gentle poet with many children. She was born in County Cork, Ireland and immigrated to this country as a young woman and always wanted to visit her homeland but never had the resources to do so. I read some of her poems and the words in italics in my poem are her words. Mary Sweeney was the mother-in-law of a close friend of mine who is also a poet.

The characters of Deidre, Cuchulainn, and Oisin are well known figures in ancient Irish folklore.

Christmas In Ireland
(For Mary Sweeney, age 88)
I don’t know who came first, poets or friends.
Nevertheless, it was the funeral parlor
That caused me to meet Mary Sweeney.
She lay in a casket surrounded by
Flowers, family, and neighbors;
The scent of green distant mountains,
 Weathered valleys and waterfalls.
A seal was heard sounding,
A voice, yielding and mournful.
Coastal waters rumbled rhythmically.

 Blind villagers danced a reel,
Old Timmy lilted along.
Deirdre danced on the tip of a wave.
Cúchulainn and Oisín argued over
Who would be pallbearers.
Isn’t interesting how the sound
Of a poem begins like railroad tracks
And the train isn’t seen till the end.
Sure, God be thanked, we’re all together
Beneath one roof.

And the train arrived on schedule.
Flowers, family, and neighbors got aboard.
A seal sat up front, singing;
O, the cares of tomorrow must wait ‘til this day is done.
Several fine villagers sat down in relief,
Timmy had finally taken a nap
Deirdre sat next to Cúchulainn,
And Oisín kept notes. You and I smiled,
For didn’t we know,
There’s hope from the ocean,
But there’s none from the grave.

 As the train tugged uphill, we glanced backward.
Mary Sweeney stood there waving goodbye.
There was a shout for music, festivity and fiddles.
And her father placed a Yule log on the fire;
The countryside awakened with white.
Christmas bells rebounded over the valley below.
Mary was at peace, arrangements had been made
For her to stay a little while in Ireland.
--Daniel Patrick Murphy

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Days That Went Before Us - films from the 1920s

Almost 30 years ago an older gentleman rang the bell at St. Patrick rectory and asked to see me.  He handed m a cardboard box.  Inside were 6 reels of 16mm film.  He told me they belonged to Fr. James Supple who served as a curate at St. Pat’s in the 1920s.  He was a friend of the family and left the films with them when the priest was transferred, possibly in the 1930s.  He had no idea what was on the films, and so they sat in the box for a decade or so.  An interested volunteer showed the fragile films in 1996, and they have sat in that same box ever since, until now.
Technology is not my forte.  Luckily it is for Bob Rafferty.  Bob heard of the films and is preparing a mini documentary for 2014’s Irish Cultural Week.  The films, which could disintegrate any day, have been digitalized along with a number of VHS tapes that have been gathering dust in the parish archives.  The films are going to be permanently archives by the Irish Film Board.  A gentle reminder that any of you out there with old pictures, booklets, uniforms, etc are invited to pass them to us to give them a home.  Most of our archives is made up of donations.  It amazes everyone that a parish that is approaching its 200th anniversary never bothered recording its own past.
The films the good Father left us are a window to life in the 1920s.  He took a trip to Ireland and recorded what he saw in places like Dublin and Glendalogh.  He has footage of soldiers marching down O’Connell Street, a fiddler outside a cottage, and a woman weaving on a spinning wheel.  He also has local scenes of kids coming out of the St Patrick Boys’ School, a girl’s group at Canobie Lake, and a Corpus Christi procession in front of the church. 
Here are some teasers to whet your appetite.

A few weeks ago Ed Furey gave a great lecture on architect, Patrick Keely.  Phil Lupsiewicz videotaped the event for us and uploaded it to YouTube.  Here’s the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1B-1-WUS-vo   Thank you, Phil. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

In the Deep of December

19th cent print, Google image
The weather was bitter the winter of 1831-32.  Northern temperatures had measured 16 degrees below zero for several days in a row.  Areas were reporting shortages of word and coal.  Boston reporters wrote of their concern of finding the poor and indigent frozen to death in their homes.
In Lowell conditions must have been much the same.  The poor of Chapel Hill and the Paddy Camps must have been suffering the same fate.  The earliest account of life for the Irish living in Lowell dates to 1829 where the “wretchedness and poverty {of} every description” was apparent.  The “village” was made up of “huts of boards elevated on banks of mud, chimneys made of barrels with mere apertures for windows- and then the filth within.”  The description in the Portsmouth Journal of 1831 backs this up adding that 500 Irish are living within an acre of land. 
But how did they survive living in wooden shanties where the wind would blow in between the boards?   Children and women often made their way through town gathering scraps of wood from the workshops of the mills and tradesmen.  Children also scurried along the railroad tracks hoping to find bits of coal that had fallen off the coal bins.  The archaeological dig that took place in the front yard of the church uncovered large amounts of slag that was produced by the burning of cheap coal.  It also produced shank bones from cows, the cheapest cut, and large amounts of oyster shells, another inexpensive food that would be bought by the barrel and kept for the winter for protein.
The plight of the poor, including the Irish poor, was not forgotten by the rest of the Yankee population.  The Irish were regular recipients of donations of wood from the Lowell Fuel Society.  An 1835 account praised Fr. Peter Connolly for his efforts in encouraging the Irish population to contribute to the fund as other churches had done.  It also commended him for encouraging the Irish in ways of “industry, temperance, and economy.”
Trying to keep warm led to dangerous conditions as noted by the number of fires and deaths by fire during such cold snaps.  The great fire of 1841 leveled 5 blocks of wooden buildings and shops right around St. Patrick Church.  The few remaining cemetery records from this early period show the number of deaths rise exponentially during the cold months.
So in this season, as you pass by the red buckets with the bell ringer, remember our forebears who huddled in their shanties, and drop a coin in memory of them.