Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Irish Confereence, Mr. O'Donovan, and an Acre Memory

Music can evoke strong memories in a person.   I can tell you the exact date and location the last time I heard the song.  It was St. Patrick’s Day of 1985.  I was driving down Gorham Street on my way to Saint Patrick’s Cemetery.  It was one of those raw, grey St. Patrick’s Days with the streets covered in black slush that forms on city streets like Lowell in mid-March.  While the weather was not cooperating with revelers who were making their way from bar to bar or who were shopping for corned beef, it fit my mood nicely.  My father was dying.  The doctor said it would be any day.  I was on my way to the cemetery to make the final payment for his plot.  As I turned into the cemetery the radio played:

Will you go, lassie, will you go?
And we'll all go together
To pull wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather,
Will you go, lassie, go?

For some reason the lyrics opened something inside me.  I’m embarrassed to say I cried.  My father was immensely proud of his Scottish heritage, as was his father who had been laid to rest just a few rows away from where I sat.  The words had a finality to them I wasn’t ready to accept.

He passed 3 days later.  A piper accompanied him to his grave.  There was no need for wills or lawyers.  There was no estate.  He had come into this world with nothing and left the same.  He never graduated high school or owned property.  He never sought accolades or won awards.  But he did leave me a legacy I carry with me today- a love of place and time.  The Acre, that sometimes forgotten neighborhood of Lowell, was more than where he lived.  It represented who he was.  He was born there, and even though near the end when things began to get tough we had moved him closer to us for better care, he finally moved himself back into the Acre.  I believe he knew he was dying and wanted to die where he began. 

Out of the blue he would recall his childhood on Worthen Street or learning to swim in the canals.  He’d take me to the river and tell me how the ice would come crashing down the Merrimack shaking buildings with its thunderous echoes through the streets.  The rag picker with his horse calling his trade on the cobblestones of Walker Street.  The gas light man whom he would help light the street lamps.  Stories of wakes and wedding and music in the streets.  That is what he left me.  It was his gift to me, and I try to share it with those who are willing to hear.

Myself & Brian O'Donovan
Every time I have heard the song on the radio, I have turned it off, the memories hurt too much.  Tonight, Brian O’Donovan of WGBH’s Celtic Sojourn feasted us with poetry and music.  He concluded it by having us join him in singing the verse to Will You Go Lassie Go.  This time, I let the music take me.  I closed my eyes and I was there with my Dad sitting by the river, him recounting  stories of a time forgotten.  I saw him with that tweed cap that never left him.  (My head’s too cold he would say.)   I made sure no one saw me wipe my eyes.  This week’s Irish Conference sponsored by UMass Lowell and Queen’s University is asking us to remember who we are, where we’ve come from, and asks us where we’re going.  Thank you to all who participated, speakers and listeners.  Thank you, Mr. O’Donovan, for sharing your gift.  And thank you, Dad

On the day of his funeral we left the house.  Before getting into the car, we looked in the snow and just peeking out was the first sprigs of heather.  We cut a piece and pinned it to his lapel before his final trip to church. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Long Journey Home- Michael O'Brien, 1900

Michael O'Brien 50th Anniv.
Ribbon, 1899,
Archives of St. PatrickParish
The news had spread across the city even before the tolling of the bell.  Father Michael O’Brien, the nephew and successor of Fathers Timothy and John O’Brien, and present pastor of St. Patrick Church was dead.  He had left Lowell weeks prior on a whirlwind trip of Rome and then to spend time with his family in County Tipperary where he was born.  He had left with his cousin, Father William O’Brien, pastor of St. Michael’s Church and a number of other diocesan priests.  While in Paris visiting the Eiffel Tower; he bumped into a fellow Lowellian, a local businessman, where the two greeted each other.  This was just days before his death.  While in Rome he had an audience with the Pope and wrote home that he was about to bring back the Papal Blessing to his parishioners. 
Michael O’Brien was born in 1825 into a large family in the little village of Ballina, Co. Tipperary, Ireland.  His family was well-known for vocations to the priesthood so it was no surprise that young Michael would enter All Hallows College in Dublin.  He envisioned himself in the missionary fields of the States and began his priestly career in the backcountry of New York which was then extended to include Pennsylvania.  Traveling by horse he would make his rounds going from town to town celebrating Mass and performing weddings and baptisms.  Life for the young priest was far from easy often being caught out in violent storms and extreme temperatures.  He related one incident when after traveling for some distance he came upon a town only to find there were no Catholics.  Things turned worse when he found that a gang of men employed to extend the railroad in that part of New York, had no liking for an Irishman, especially an Irish priest.  Fortunately, a Protestant gentleman came upon the scene and tossed the ringleader aside saving the priest.  On another occasion he came upon a shanty where whiskey was being brewed.  In anger at seeing the drunkenness of the railroad workers he promptly broke open casks and spilled the contents on the ground.  He was arrested for the task, but was soon released.  While in Rochester, NY he built St. Patrick’s Church.  There he also built a school and brought in the Christian Brothers to staff it.  It was believed to be one of the first parochial schools in the country.  Father Michael joined his aging uncle, Father John O’Brien in Lowell at St. Patrick’s, and upon his death became pastor.
Father Michael was spending the last few days of his trip anticipating the journey home.  He spent the night in Shallee a crossroads between Killaloe and Nenagh.  Just as he was about to retire he had a bout of apoplexy, what we would call today a stroke.  Several priests including his cousin, Fr. William O’Brien, were with him.  He remained conscious until just before he passed.  They were all shocked due to the fact of the good spirits and health he was in just prior to the attack.
The priest himself and his family were so revered that the road to St. Mary church in Nenagh was lined for 2 miles with those who wanted to pay their respects.  Fr William wanted to bring the body back to Lowell for burial, but American officials required a certificate proving embalming.  None could be found immediately in Ireland and one was sent from London.  The church of St Mary held the body and Masses were said before it was transported to Queenstown and its voyage home on the ship Saxonia.
Michael O'Brien Funeral Invite,
Archives of St. Patrick Parish
Back in Lowell plans were underway for the arrival of the body.  Many storefronts hung wreaths or made displays in their storefronts.  Even prominent Protestant businessmen covered their doors or made tributes.  Fr. Burke had been acting pastor since June and now preparations were up to him. Archbishop Williams would be the main celebrant and then there were all the clergy.  Dignitaries had to be invited and seated accordingly.  There was much discussion and one might imagine heated debate on who would escort the body and act as bearers.  Undertaker O’Donnell and 2 priests went in expectation of the steamer’s arrival.  Due to conditions at sea it was delayed several days and all plans had to be put on hold.  Finally the Saxonia arrived.  The undertaker and priests opened the casket to confirm the remains and instantly made the decision to not have an open casket due to the condition of the body.  The body was brought to a Boston undertaker where they had to be re-embalmed.  They rearranged the vestments he was robed in and closed the casket.
At the Lowell depot, people crowded on both sides of the railroad track making it difficult for the engine to enter the station.  It was agreed that the Cadet Band, founded by the late priest and made up of male youth of the parish accompanied the hearse from Fletcher and down Adam Streets.  The weight of the casket was such it took much effort to take it off the train and into the hearse.  Every society, fraternity, and organization it seemed wanted its place in the cortege to the church.  The altars of the church were draped in black crepe.  The stations of the cross were covered in black with white crosses.  The columns were covered in black with shafts of wheat tied with white bunting.  From the ceiling hung yards of the same material draping down onto the altar.  The outside doorways were also covered.
People pushed and shoved in the doorways as the casket was borne into the church.  The priests intoned the Office of the Dead.  The body lay in state from September 13th to the 17th where a constant vigil of prayers and Masses were said.  Reporters stated that many openly wept as they approached the catafalque on which the heavy metal casket rested.  On the day of the funeral crowds had to be kept back as there was limited space in the church.  The mayor even called off school, a decision that was later publically questioned by a Protestant minister as mixing church and state.  People stood outside the church as early as dawn in hopes of being allowed in for the funeral.  The entire main aisle was reserved for clergy and government officials.  When the doors opened there was a mad rush for the side aisles with many standing 2 or 3 deep in the back of the church.  The windows were kept open so those outside could hear the service.  Floral tributes filled the church and covered the casket, including one from “friends in Ireland.”
At 10 sharp the final Office of the Dead was chanted.  The choir, representing every Catholic parish in the city sang the Pontifical Mass.  A lengthy talk was given by a Bishop and finally the body was escorted out the door and down the front steps of the church that he had called home for much of his life.  As he wished, Father Michael O’Brien was interred in the front yard of the church alongside his uncles John and Timothy.  The De Profundis (Out of the depths I cry unto you, O Lord) was intoned by the clergy and the casket was lowered into the vault.
The Sun reported that without any exaggeration Lowell had never seen a funeral such as this.
Michael, John, and Timothy O’Brien remain today in the shadow of the church, and in the midst of the people, they loved so much.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Cemetery Clean Up Date: Saturday, September 13, 2014

As previously posted our annual tour will be on Saturday, September 27th.  This will follow the conference sponsored by UMass Lowell and Queen's Uni, Belfast.  (For more info go to the Irish Partnership page .)  The Lowell Irish Facebook page also has info about the conference.  Sign up early for a discount.

Even though it has only been a year since our last tour Mother Nature has done her work.  The summer weather was great for crabgrass and the geese have done their thing.  That means we gather our trusty volunteers to a little scraping and clipping to clear the stones for the tour.  That gives the workers at St. Pats time to cut the grass before the tour.  St. Pat's is a gem in telling the story of our ancestors.  We do a little history, a little walking, and a lot of storytelling.

But first those stones need a little TLC.  We work from about 9-11:30.  It tends to be sunny in Yard 1.  Bring water, a hat, knee pads, an old broom, maybe a plastic ice scraper, and clippers.  If you don't have any, we'll share.  If you have any old boxes or heavy duty plastic bags, we could use those to put the clippings and sod in.  Your help is really needed and most appreciated.  What better way to honor your past!  If possible, drop a line so we can know if you might be able to attend. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Peter Quinn, Acre Grocer

Rosemary K. Nunnally continues her series on Lowell's notable Irishmen of the 19th century. 

Over the past several weeks, a family of grocers has been in the news due to a dispute over who should run the company.  This family of Greek descent started doing business in Lowell, MA.   Many years earlier an Irish immigrant also ran a grocery store in Lowell.
Peter Quinn had a grocery store at 11 Salem Street.  Along with food, he also sold liquor and cigars.  In the 1860 census, Peter is listed as a 35 year old grocer with a personal estate of $2,000.00, a nice sum in those days.  In the 1870’s Peter had some trouble with the selling of liquor according to the Lowell Sun.  A report on Dec. 29, 1873 states that there was a complaint on Peter Quinn for “illegal keeping”.  He was fined $10 and costs.  In 1875 it was reported that Peter Quinn, grocer, was granted a liquor license.  (He later is an outstanding member of the Mathew Temperance Society. Ed) 

Through the many years of running his store at the same location on Salem St., Peter became well
known in the city.  There were many grocers doing business in Lowell but not all of them survived for over 25 years. An article in the Lowell Sun in June of 1882 commended Peter as one of the pioneer grocers in Lowell.  It mentioned how he was not only able to keep the business going while raising a large family, but also accumulated an independent fortune. “His advantages were such as are within the reach of all – honesty and close application to business”
Map, 1896
In 1883 Peter decided to retire. He was about 60 years old at the time. Peter turned the business over to his son John Quinn.

Peter was born in County Armagh in Ireland.  The index card for his naturalization gave a birthdate of July 22, 1823. He came to the United States about 1844 and was said to have come straight to Lowell. He married Mary Cosgrove. They had several children. Two of the sons became lawyers.

Peter died on March 30, 1899. His obituary stated he was one of Lowell’s oldest and best known citizens.  He was said to be a highly respected member of St. Patrick’s parish. (Peter was given the
honor of carrying the canopy over the Blessed Sacrament procession just a few years before his death.) 

Peter’s funeral was largely attended and was said to show “the esteem in which the deceased was held in the community”.  One of the bearers was his longtime friend Jeremiah Crowley, the mayor of Lowell.  Peter was buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery.