Twentieth century Irish history is marked by political turmoil, starting with the birth of the Republic right on through to the long, violent period known simply as “The Troubles.”
Throughout his years at Council Rock High School, Ryan Conner, a recent graduate of William & Mary, absorbed a good deal of United States and world history—but the island’s turbulent recent history never showed up in the high school curriculum. So now, he is writing the book he wishes he had been given to study.
The book has a tentative title, subject to change to something more user-friendly before publication—“One Man, One Vote: Northern Ireland’s Civil Rights Movement 1963 to 1972”—and it is currently undergoing additional research and revisions.
Conner’s book traces its origins to an initiative called the Book Creators Program, run through the Creator Institute, and overseen by a professor at Georgetown University. He learned about it from a friend.
“It’s a very, very popular program,” Conner says. “I started the program and the first five or six months were dedicated to doing the research and creating a roughly 25,000-word draft. In my case, that required getting the first draft done by mid-June, which I did successfully. One of the benefits of the program is that the professor has a relationship with a publishing house called New Degree Press. Assuming the authors meet their checkpoints and deadlines, produce enough words of quality material, and take the standard amount of time for revision and editing, then there’s a path to publishing (through New Degree).”
Above: William Brennan, left, and Sean McMenamin, point out some items of interest in the Irish Center’s library to Irish Ambassador Michael Collins.
Frank Hollingsworth, a board member of the Commodore Barry Arts and Cultural Center, recalls a time when William Brennan was a guest at Villanova for a ceremony celebrating the digitization of the Commodore John Barry papers.
About 25 people were there, including the chairman of the board of Ireland’s County Wexford, Lori Dillard Rech, president of Independence Seaport Museum, and Villanova President Father Peter M. Donohue.
One by one, guests were invited up to the dais to give a brief talk about the historic event. When Brennan was asked to say a few words, Hollingsworth recalls, he stood up and offered these comments: “I think just about everything that can be said has been said. I don’t have anything additional.”
And then, Hollingsworth recalls with a chuckle, Brennan sat down.
Ironically, there was probably no one in the room who knew more about Barry than William “Billy” Brennan. His knowledge of Irish history, and in particular, the story of the Irish in Philadelphia, was encyclopedic, rivaling that of the late Dennis Clark. He was a keeper of the flame.
Brennan passed away July 28 at the age of 83.
In some ways, viewed from the standpoint of so many immigrant stories, this one is unremarkable.
Five sisters, all from the Galvin family, from a dairy farm in the little town Clounmacon, five miles outside Listowel, County Kerry, emigrated to the United States—Philadelphia, to be specific. They sought new lives in what likely seemed by comparison to their desperately poor homeland like the land of plenty.
The Galvin girls followed the usual practice: One sister moved to the U.S., saved her money, and sent for the next—and so on until they were all ensconced in Philadelphia, four of them working 10 hours a day, five hard days a week, in the Apex Hosiery Factory at 5th and Luzerne, the fifth a hairdresser.
But everything changed not long after Bridie Galvin moved to the city. A few weeks after her arrival, the Stock Market crashed. The oldest sister, Anna, had been investing—wisely, it seemed at the time—but after the crash, the sisters’ fortunes changed.
As with so many Irish immigrant stories, the details of the sisters’ lives from that challenging time weren’t discussed from one generation to the next.
Anakronos: Caitríona O’Leary, Deirdre O’Leary, Nick Roth, and Francesco Turrisi (photograph by Tara Slye)
It’s been almost 700 years since Kilkenny’s discordant 14th century Bishop of Ossory, Richard de Ledrede, held sway over the souls of his parishioners, but 17 of his medieval poems are on track to reach the listening ears of a 21st century audience on the newly released CD, “The Red Book of Ossory.” And thanks to Caitriona O’Leary and the group Anakronos, what an innovative and exalted musical experience it has been transformed into.
But in order to wax properly eloquent on the newly released CD, there first needs to be some background on the origins of the Red Book of Ossory itself.
Richard de Ledrede was a man of massive contradictions. English-born, and a student of the Franciscan order, he was appointed Bishop of Ossory in 1317 by the Papal Court in Avignon. Immediately after his arrival in Kilkenny, he set about doing things his way, and his way meant a strict adherence to the Church laws and beliefs as he saw them. He set a high bar where morality was concerned and that included a moratorium on the singing of “bawdy” secular songs. He composed 60 poems that are included in the Red Book of Ossory (the original manuscript is housed at St. Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny) with the instructions: “for the vicars of the cathedral of the church, for the priests and for his clerks, to be sung on important holidays and at celebrations in order that their throats and mouths, consecrated to God, may not be polluted by songs which are lewd, secular and associated with revelry and since they are trained singers let them provide themselves with suitable tunes according to what these sets of words require.” Poetry that Caitriona O’ Leary describes as “beautiful, esoteric and richly imagistic.”
On the one hand, the Great Hunger in Ireland and the Dust Bowl in the United States would seem to have little in common. On the other hand, well … you’d be wrong.
True, The Great Hunger, or An Gorta Mór, in the 1840s—commonly known as the potato famine, but it was more complicated than that—resulted in the death by starvation of a million Irish people, and the emigration of a million more. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, while incredibly tragic, resulted in the deaths of comparatively few—roughly 7,000—but also resulted in new migration patterns amounting in the tens of thousands of Americans, many of them to California, and unparalleled poverty.
But it’s not as simple as that, says Bill McCray, volunteer with a background in training and development and facilitator of a new two-week virtual Irish Diaspora Center study group called “The History of An Gorta Mór and the Dust Bowl.”
The group meets by Zoom Tuesday, July 28, at 7 p.m. and Tuesday, August 4, at 8:30 p.m.
“Through their personal interaction with the Irish Bridget, native-born Americans came to see the Irish less as ‘others,’ and more as fellow humans. Credit is due to the Irish Bridget for pioneering the way for the Irish to become accepted by native-born Americans and for helping the Irish, as a group, move into the American middle class.” ~ Margaret Lynch-Brennan ~ The Irish Bridget: Irish Immigrant Women in Domestic Service in America, 1840-1930
Just to be clear, the term Irish Bridget, coined sometime in the mid nineteenth century, was not meant to be in any way complimentary. Beginning around 1840 and continuing in increasing numbers through the years of An Gorta Mór and beyond, young Irish women immigrated to the United States. What made these women different from the ones who had come before them was their ages (some as young as 13), their single status, they often traveled unaccompanied, and they arrived determined to work hard, save money and eventually marry and have families of their own. Their best path to realizing these dreams, they discovered, was to obtain employment as live-in domestic servants in the homes of middle and upper-class families.
As the numbers of young Irish women employed in domestic service in the U.S. grew, a stereotypical representation of the Irish maid developed; she was characterized as inept, ill-mannered, and incompetent. She was seen as something of a buffoon. The name Bridget stuck to this version of the girl who arrived from Ireland and found herself willing and eager to work, but untrained for the duties and responsibilities she would face in the American household. While the exact number of Irish born women who worked in domestic service from the second half of the 19th century to the first third of the 20th century will never be known, it’s been estimated that in East Coast cities in the 1850s, they made up the largest single group among servants. And by 1900, 54 percent of women who had been born in Ireland and were living in the U.S. were employed as domestic servants, and another 6.5 percent worked as laundresses.
In the search for our sometimes elusive ancestors, we all hit the proverbial brick wall. It’s incredibly frustrating when we get stuck on a particular line and can’t seem to find any new information. Sometimes, in order to find our own ancestors, we have to expand our tree to include not just our lines, but those of the other families in the neighborhood.
This is very true in researching Irish genealogy, where many families emigrated over multiple generations. It’s not unusual to discover the same surnames popping up in a town or region in Pennsylvania, and it can be a real challenge to figure out which Thomas Ryan or Bridget McGee is the one you’re looking for.
The coal mining regions of the north central parts of Pennsylvania in particular drew many immigrants from Ireland, and names associated with County Donegal families show up quite frequently. Which is why you see the counties of Lackawanna, Luzerne, Carbon, Schuylkill, Columbia and Northumberland filled with O’Donnells, Boyles, Gallaghers, Dohertys, McGees and McGills.
It’s a daunting task to sit down and try to sort out your line, but if your ancestors came to Pennsylvania in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there are two resources in particular that can be invaluable. Both are accessible only through subscription databases, but if you’re serious about finding your roots, they’re worth at least a short time membership. It’s going to take some dedication, and I definitely recommend taking a lot of notes and doing a lot of printing.
“Ireland has its own language?”
This is a question I have been asked several times since moving to the United States and every time I hear it, my heart breaks a little more. Yes, Ireland does have its own language. It’s not the most well-known or the most romantic language but it has been through more trials and tribulations than many. And more impressive than that, it has survived. Our mother tongue has endured and is now rightfully enjoying a period of prosperity and popularity.
The history of the Irish language is complicated and at times bleak. During colonial rule the English saw it as a weapon and moved to ban it before it could be used against them. Sadly, the language has never truly recovered from this time and has not yet reached the heights of its pre-penal law usage and fluency.
The origins of Ancient Irish are rooted in Celtic times. Examples can be seen as inscriptions on Ogham stones around Ireland and date back to as early as the 3rd century. The Celts appear to have been a well-travelled people as in 1989 archaeologist Robert Pyle discovered a bone needle etched with Ogham writing in Wyoming County, West Virginia.
Middle Irish, which existed between 900-1200 AD, included some Scandinavian influences as Anglo-Normans began settling in Ireland. Despite this, the Irish literary traditions remained strong and several manuscripts have survived from this time. Middle Irish is the language of a large swathe of literature including the entire Ulster Cycle or the Red Branch Cycle, a collection of Irish mythology.