Welcome to my kitchen! Clear yourself a spot and pull up a seat around the table. I hope you don't mind the papers, I've been writing a letter to the next generation in my family. I was inspired today by Cookiebear's diary about the lessons of the Irish Potato Famine and have decided to write a bit of my own family's history down for the next generation, starting with one of my great-grandfathers. Care to take a look? Pour a Guiness or a hot Irish Coffee and follow me below the jump.
Let's start with Pop. Pop was born in Chicago in September of 1866. His parents were Thomas and Mary Ellen Flaherty. Mary Ellen’s maiden name was also Flaherty, and they were both born in a tiny village called Croom in County Limerick, in the west of Ireland. Now Flaherty is not an uncommon name in Ireland , and in fact there were kings (probably what we would now call warlords or chieftains) named Flaherty going well back into the middle ages. It is, however, not a common name in Limerick, and around 1840 – 1850 there were only twelve reported Flaherty families in Limerick – of course people had many more children in those days, so twelve families could have accounted for plenty of Flahertys.
The fathers of Thomas and Mary Ellen were both named Thomas Flaherty, but apparently they were not so closely related as to present an impediment to the marriage, (but I’m getting ahead of myself.) Thomas Flaherty, the father of Thomas, was married to a woman named Margaret McNamara. Thomas Flaherty, the father of Mary Ellen, was married to Anne or Anastasia Leahy. We know this because baptismal records from the Church in Croom show the baptism of your great-great grandfather in 1837, and also show the baptism of a child of Thomas Flaherty and Margaret McNamara also in the 1830s. It appears that Mary Ellen was a little older than her husband, as her birth does not appear on the records from the 1837-1846. A common diminuitive of the name Ellen was "Nellie" and perhaps she was named for the ballad Nell Flaherty's Drake, which put a curse on those who murdered the Irish patriot Robert Emmett.
If you study western history, you will learn that in the late 1840s there was a great famine in Ireland. Actually, it wasn’t a famine at all, but a huge case of a blight which destroyed the potato crop. The Irish, who for the most part were living as tenant farmers on land overseen by British landlords, relied on the potato crop for their subsistence. Other crops, perceived as more valuable in the marketplace, were shipped back to England. (If you wish to learn more some day, I recommend a book called The Great Hunger.) The long and short of it is that the Irish were left to starve, - the news reports at the time had many of them literally eating grass like so many sheep - and then, because they had nothing to sell and could not pay the landlords, were evicted from their homes. This was generally accomplished by the local militia coming and actually destroying the homes, which were simple structures with dirt floors and thatched roofs, by force or by fire. It was a brutal undertaking.
Naturally under these circumstances, people were desperate. We don’t really know what happened to Thomas and Anne, or to Thomas and Margaret, but we do know that at the end of the 1840s there was a Thomas Flaherty convicted of the theft of a cow in the court at Rathkeale, Limerick, very near to Croom. Whether it was one of your great-great grandfathers I cannot say, but as there were only twelve Flaherty families in the County, and at least two were headed by men named Thomas, it’s a distinct possibility that this was a relation of yours. That unfortunate Flaherty was sentenced by the Court to seven years "transportation" which meant being shipped to Australia, away from his family, for forced labor (probably never to return). This was how the Brits built the infrastructure in their colonies – on the backs of poor Irish, convicted of offenses which were the natural outcropping of their economic desperation. Indeed, I’ve learned that there is at least one family in New Zealand today that traces its roots back to the Croom, Limerick Flahertys.
What we do know is that young Thomas, at the age of fourteen, which would have been about 1851, left his parents’ village in Ireland to seek his fortune in the new world. As far as we know, he came alone, but it’s not impossible he had a brother or companion with him. I don’t know what ship he was on, or where he left from, but we do know that at the time there was a tremendous imbalance of trade, and the US, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, was a major exporter and not nearly as much of an importer. (My, how times have changed!) So when the sailing ships got to Europe and were unloaded, there was not enough weight being loaded upon them to safely make the return voyage. Enterprising businessmen created the travel industry by advertising passage in the "steerage" portion of the boats – basically the cargo hold. Desperate Irish gladly scraped together whatever they could to pay for the privilege of weighing the boats safely down into the water. Often they would find themselves locked below so that they could not riot or mutiny. In short, but for the shackles, the conditions weren’t much better than for the slaves who had made the passage up to just a few years earlier.
The usual length of the trip was six weeks. Young Thomas’ ship was not so lucky, however, and was blown far off course. While I don’t know the details, he did later tell his children that the crossing took fourteen weeks. As you can imagine, the provisions had been long depleted and things were worse than grim. Many people died, their remains anonymously interred in the icy North Atlantic. Eventually, however, the boat and its human cargo made their way to the east coast, where the American ports would not permit a landing of such a sorry lot. Finally, the hapless little vessel was permitted to land in Canada, where it’s sick, starving and destitute survivors, filthy and suffering no doubt from malnutrition and every form of parasite, were left to find their way in the world. If there had been anyone expecting Thomas’ arrival in the states, they had surely long since given him up for lost.
We don’t know how young Thomas spent the next thirteen years or so, but surely he had wits to live by, as that period of time took in the American Civil War, and he no doubt led a difficult and dangerous life. He probably worked laying railroad track, as he made the transition to manhood. Alone in a strange country, he would have had to grow up very fast indeed. What we do know is that he eventually found himself in Brooklyn, where he worked in the
Brooklyn Naval Yard and somehow met Mary Ellen (known more commonly as "Nellie") It is from Nellie, Rob and Jamie, that you get those big brown eyes. She gave them to Pop, who gave them to your grandmother, and the rest is history. There is some indication that Tom may have been in the famous "Fighting 69th" of New York, but we've not been able to confirm that any of the Thomas Flahertys were him.
We also don’t really know anything about how Nellie got here, or who she came with, but we do know that she was on the typical career path of the young Irish woman in the US – that is, she was a domestic (servant) in the home of a presumably well-to-do New York family. Most likely, she learned her trade in one of the schools set up by Archbishop "Dagger John" Hughes However they met, they were both probably thrilled to find someone from Croom, and no doubt eagerly shared whatever news from home they could glean. This, and their common bond of being Irish and Catholic in America, apparently became the building blocks of their love affair, and on July 6, 1864 they were married in St. Patrick’s Church at 285 Willoughby (Kent Ave.,) Brooklyn, New York. We do know that the parish priest was concerned because of their common last name and village, and demanded proof that they were not so closely related that the marriage would be forbidden by Church law, which is to say, third cousins or less. Being satisfied by the evidence they produced, which may have included writing back to Croom and waiting many months for an answer to come by ship, the diocese issued its approval and they were finally wed.
Apparently they left Brooklyn almost immediately, as they soon were relocated to Chicago. If they had scraped together the funds, they probably would have come by train. The national railroad system was in its infancy, and virtually all railroads had a terminal in Chicago (dramatic foreshadowing of O’Hare as the busiest airport in the world). They settled in a tenement on the near north side. It’s still a tenement: Cabrini Green, perhaps the most notorious housing project in the nation, now stands in that part of the city, but all things must pass, and this has finally become valuable real estate, so the projects’ days are numbered.
In time, their marriage was blessed with a son – young Michael Henry Flaherty, born September 29, 1866 . Now, Irish naming tradition generally provides that the first son would be named for the father’s father, the second son for the father, the third for the mother’s father and then the brothers etc. Pop, however, was born on the feast of St. Michael the Archangel, and there was apparently a religious motivation in the choice to name him for his patron saint. The civil war had just ended. Lincoln had been assassinated, and Andrew Johnson was the president. Chicago, because it had become the railroad hub, and because it was therefore becoming a transfer point for livestock, shipped from western ranches to eastern markets, was starting to boom.
If you read the papers today, you know that there is much talk about immigration of all kinds, especially the impoverished illegals who are willing to take dangerous chances to get here. Those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder are jealous and concerned that immigrants will take their jobs. Those at the top are happy to exploit the misfortune of others to get cheap labor and increase their profits. Neither of them, nor those in the middle, want to associate with the newcomers, for fear that their strange ways present a danger to their way of life. Well the same was true in nineteenth century America, only it was the Irish immigrants, not the Hispanics, Asians or Middle Easterners who were the object of suspicion and contempt. Remember, too, that at that time they were mostly illiterate (the Brits having discouraged, if not forbidden, the education of the Irish), and many of them spoke English as a second language, not a first. And they practiced a strange religion – Catholicism – which had rituals in yet another foreign tongue – Latin, and was itself grounds for social ostracism. Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, was known to harbor ill will toward the Irish immigrants, due in part to his political fears that they might be organized as a voting block, even as their labor was harnessed to build the national railroad system and to fight in the Union Army . No doubt you’ve heard the expression "paddy wagon" referring to a police squadrol. The phrase dates back to this time, and refers to the fact that police cargo consisted primarily of young Irish men, or "Paddys" (short for Padraig, the Irish spelling of Patrick) hauled off to the jails, often for offenses which were the nineteenth century equivalent of a DWB. In short, the Irish immigrants were regarded as the "scum of the earth" and it was not uncommon in the late nineteenth century for "help wanted" signs to include the bitter coda: No Irish need apply
As if the derision of the natives is not bad enough, there are always those immigrants who arrive first in a new place and promptly figure out how to win the confidence of those of their people that follow, and then take unscrupulous advantage of them through various forms of trickery. The Irish who did this were called "Gombeen men" after those who had done the bidding of the landlords in the old country, and they were as predatory as any payday lender. Young Thomas and Nellie surely found themselves walking in a minefield of potential calamity in what was supposed to have been the promised land.
Be that as it may, fortune smiled a little bit on Thomas, and he found work with the Chicago and Northwestern Railway. In fact, he was one of the very first Irish immigrants to be hired by the C&NW. (He must have proved a good worker, because the railroads soon had a large workforce of Irish immigrants) We don’t know exactly what he did, the census just describes him as a "laborer." We know he did not work as an engineer or fireman on the trains, nor did he serve as a conductor or trainman on the passenger trains. Those jobs were all too good for poor paddys. Most likely his work involved some laying or maintaining track, or possibly warehouse work – loading and unloading. Whatever it was, it was surely backbreaking physical labor, exposed to the weather year round, and many of his co-workers succumbed to crippling injuries or death on the job. So when you ride a train today, whether the Amtrak or a just a commuter line, remember that you do so by the blood and sweat of your forebears.
We don’t know how big a man Thomas was, but Pop stood about 5’9 or 5’10, and was not regarded as a small man in his day. Thomas, with his limited diet primarily of potatoes and cabbage as a child was probably smaller – likely not more than 5’6 or 5’7. The one existing photo suggests a wiry build. At the time it was taken he was an older man and with a balding head and just a wispy beard, looking something like the "Smith Brothers" on the cough drop boxes.
In short order the Flahertys were blessed with more children, and by 1871, they were a family of five. Margaret, born circa 1868, and named for Nellie’s mother and little Thomas, born circa 1870. As their family grew, so did the city. Chicago then was not like you think of it now. In fact, much of what is now the city was originally built on a swamp. There were no sidewalks, but walkways had to be constructed to keep people’s feet out of the mud – and so they were, out of wooden planks. Each builder put in his own sidewalk, not necessarily level with his neighbor, and there were so many stairs from lot to lot that it was sometimes referred to as "the city of ups and downs." The streets, too, were made of wooden planks. Finally, the vast majority of houses were built of wood in a manner known as the "balloon frame" construction.
On October 8th of that year, just after Pop’s fifth birthday, and a long, hot, dry summer, disaster struck the city. There had been no rain for three weeks, and the wooden streets and sidewalks were covered with the dry, dead leaves that had fallen from the trees that still grew everywhere in the city. The fire began as a spark on the south side of the city, but rapidly consumed the wooden buildings and sidewalks and worked its way north. Strong winds whipped the flames ever farther northward, and it became apparent to those on the north side in the tenement where the Flahertys lived that they, too, would soon be imperiled.
Because the river lay between the fiery south side and the near north, there was a little time, and they made a decision to attempt to save some of their worldly goods. Thomas, and probably most of his neighbors, worked furiously to dig in the soil behind the house and bury their meager belongings – mostly furniture – with dirt in the hopes that they could be spared from the fire. (Perhaps this was a technique he’d learned watching the soon-to-be evicted in Ireland trying to save their possessions.) We know the buried furniture story to be true because one table was left with a leg standing above the earth, and that leg was burned flush to the ground. (That table remained in Pop’s house probably until after the WWII.) Some Chicagoans who had the money made their way to the C&NW and crammed into the last trains fleeing northwest towards Wisconsin.
Within a few hours, however, it became apparent that there was no more time for possessions, and that the young parents must act swiftly to save themselves and their children. As a railroad worker, Thomas knew that the Chicago Avenue roundhouse on Goose Island where it might be safe. He and Nellie grabbed the children and ran several blocks to the bridge. According to Pop, Nellie, who was five months pregnant at the time, carried baby Thomas in her arms during the whole terrifying journey, as they dragged young Michael and his toddler sister Margaret along. Imagine Nellie’s heart pounding as she and Thomas reached the bridge, with their small children crying and hanging on for dear life. What anxious thoughts must have raced through their minds as they ran? How could they protect their little ones from this unthinkable peril? Had they escaped certain starvation in Ireland and the possibility of a watery grave in the Atlantic only to perish in a conflagration worse than any fire and brimstone preached in church? She tripped on the bridge and broke a bone in her leg, but in her desperation to escape the blaze, with Tom's help she pulled herself up and continued on the leg, a run which would hobble her for the rest of her days.
According to Pop, by the time they reached the bridge, it had become clear to those on the island side that they dared not leave that wooden bridge connected to the fiery mainland side of the river, and Tom and Nellie had barely made it across before the bridge was drawn up, with those behind left to face the inferno now raging north of the river. "The sky" as Pop later described it, "was all one red blaze." One of Pop’s more gruesome memories involved seeing a little girl whose hair had caught fire, running but unable to escape the flames that had overtaken her. The haunting events made such an impression upon Pop that he could still describe it in detail, ninety years after the fact.
We don't have any idea exactly what dishes young Tom may have eaten in Ireland before the blight, but quite possibly his mother prepared colcannon, as it was made from those items that had been easily obtainable. Like most Irish food, it's not complicated.
Four boiled potatoes
One small head of cabbage, chopped
One leek or yellow onion, chopped
Salt and Pepper
Lots of butter
Boil the potatoes until not quite-fork tender, then slice as to fry. Place in well-buttered skillet with chopped cabbage and onion, adding butter generously as you fry until the cabbage and onion are thoroughly wilted and the potatoes have begun to crisp. Add salt and pepper to taste. There are versions of this dish in which the potatoes are mashed with a bit of milk, but I like mine crispy.
There's a "taste" of my family history, why don't you tell me about yours? When did your kin get here? What part of the arc of history did they travel? And did they bring any good food with them?