The PageTurner library discussion group I lead this past week was “Into the Beautiful North” by Alberto Luis Arrea. The last discussion question was, “Where did your ancestors emigrate from? Do you have any family stories from your heritage?” I shared some stories from my Irish immigrant ancestors, which were fresh in my mind today, St. Patrick’s Day, and prompted me to write them down here to share with my own family.
Denis and Bridget (O’Brien) Connolly lived in Skibbereen, Cork, Ireland during the Irish Potato Famine. They toughed it out through the worst of it, but by the 1870s, the future for 11 children was bleak. Seven (Cornelius “Con”, Patrick, Dennis, Thomas (my great-grandfather), Dan, Tim, and John) of the 9 boys and Ellen, the oldest girl, had all emigrated one-by-one, to Massachusetts. They didn’t stay in the city, but moved out to the rural communities of Dunstable, Pepperell and Groton to farm. In the 1890s, Thomas, now married to Ellen Kiely with 3 children (3 others died in infancy), caught Gold Rush Fever and traveled to the Yukon to stake a claim in the Klondike. He was there for two trips and a total of about 5 years, just eking out enough to pay off his farm before coming home. [I have the letters he wrote to his wife while he was away.]
Ellen (Kiely) Connolly was not very pleased when her youngest son, Francis Gregory, fell in love and married a French Canadien, Beatrice Edna Hawley. She had picked out a nice little Irish girl for her son, and although Bea was Catholic, it wasn’t enough to prevent Ellen from treating Bea poorly for the first few years of their marriage. For financial reasons, Bea and Francis had to initially live with Thomas and Ellen for those first years. Bea worked in a shoe-string factory in E. Pepperell while Francis worked at the Ford Motor Company in Fitchburg, repairing engines. Bea’s shift went late into the evening and she would come home after dinner had all been cleared away. Ellen would greet her with, “there’s cold potatoes in the ice box. They’ve been cooked once, I’m not heating them again!” and leave Bea to fend for herself. Bea’s daughter, Anne (my mom) remembers Ellen staying at their home for extended visits and as a child, didn’t notice any ill will–Bea never said anything negative about her mother-in-law–so Ellen must have worked out her issues eventually.
Bea and Francis left a legacy of hard work and determination. They build their own home using free “hurricane” lumber (harvested from the local forest, blown down by the strong winds), then helped three of their own sons to build their homes. During World War II Francis, too old to serve in the military, served as an Air Raid Warden in his local community of Dunstable. He was issued a helmet, a whistle and a flashlight, and would patrol the area looking for Germans (Dunstable is located near the former Army Base of Ft. Devens.)
Mom grew up not realizing she came from a poor family, as they always had food to eat (slaughtered their own pigs and chickens) and clothes to wear (hand-me-downs from her older sister, and gingham dresses made from grain sacks provided by the town.) It wasn’t until she took a job in the “big city” of Fitchburg and saw how others lived (running water, flush toilets, electricity) that she realized how primitive her life in the country had been. Maybe that is why she became a hoarder of hats and shoes…I love you, Mom, Happy St. Patrick’s Day! I love my Irish heritage!