Archive for the ‘Coming to America’ Category

Coming to America: How It Began

May 12, 2009

As I said earlier, both my parents had lived in the US when they were young—before they met, married, and began a family on a small farm in County Leitrim.  So what inspired them to pick up and emigrate with four young children in 1948?  My father was then 48 years old, my mother 40.

At some time I will tell more about our parish of Aughavas and our little townland of Graigeog.  I prefer “Graigeog” to the usual spelling “Gradoge”, by the way, because the latter would lead to one pronouncing it “grad-oge”; we always said “grad -joge”; it means “village” or “hamlet”.  But leaving all that aside …

Anyway, why did we emigrate?  Briefly:  my uncle,  John Francis Kenny, played a crucial role in this.  (I may have a lot more to say about Father John in the future).  After studying for the priesthood he went to the US in 1930, and was a priest in rural Missouri.  He enlisted as a chaplain in the US army  during the war (against his bishop’s wishes).


In 1945 he was with the American occupation forces in Germany, and somehow managed to get a pass from the Seventh Army commander, Gen. Alexander Patch, to visit his family in Ireland for Christmas.  There were complications because Eire had been neutral during the war; which may be why I remember him as wearing a funny white checked suit (not a uniform), always in a hurry to see and talk to everybody—at full volume!  So there were always crowds of people around.  He chain-smoked his American cigarettes, tossing them away when only half-consumed; and youngsters would pick up the “fags” and keep them from going to waste.

I might mention that Fr. John made quite a sensation when he told the neighbors what it was like to liberate a German concentration camp—which certainly dampened some of the pro-German feeling which went along with continuing bitterness toward England.  One item:  my brother John remembered him telling our father how he and the other officers had to take over the job of burying dead, starved prisoners (I think this was at Dachau?) – because the enlisted men assigned to that duty went berserk and began shooting the captured guards.  I guess it helped to unload this on his oldest brother; my dad could be a good and comforting listener.

But the other thing he talked to my dad about was the need to emigrate.  Fr. John probably had the shock of many a returning Irishman in those days, of seeing anew how backward his native land really was.  John F. Kenny could always be very persuasive when he was sure he was right!  And from that followed our emigration from Ireland, though not until nearly three years later.

For a man of 48 with a 40-year-old wife, starting over in a new country with four young children must have been a daunting task—even with the strong support of his priestly brother, and some (I think reluctant) promises of support from a relative already in the US who was in a position to help.  I wonder if my dad was familiar with the mournful old song of emigration:

A Stór Mo Chroí, in the stranger’s land
There is plenty of wealth and wailing.
Whilst gems adorn the great and the grand
There are faces with hunger paling.

But he and our mother made the fateful decision for us all.  We departed, leaving the little farm to my uncle Peter Kenny.  And it all worked out.


America, 1948: My sister remembers

May 5, 2009

From my sister Pat, who was 6 1/2  in Oct. 1948:

“New York: Going out on the roof and being amazed. But also feeling very closed in and trapped with all the buildings and no grass. I am a farm girl at heart.
“Immigration: standing in the lines for hours with all our stuff and being so tired, and Mom being worried that she or Daddy would not pass the physical exam. I think they still did the eyelid exam for something or other then.”

Very vivid– I hardly remembered any of that.  Did they do a test for exposure to  TB?  I always test positive for that, so if they didn’t it’s just as well– imagine having to go back for that!

TB was still pretty common in Ireland at that time– the new government, with Sean MacBride’s political partner Dr. Noel Browne as health minister, finally changed that.  There’s a fascinating Wikipedia article on Browne.  I’m glad our dad campaigned for his party just before we left.  Thanks for your input, Pat.  (You see how I always get sidetracked on another topic!)

To America, 1948 (Part 4: In New York)

May 4, 2009

My mother’s American-born cousin Mary Kelly was married to Pat Treacy, an immigrant.  It was funny to hear her very strong NY accent alongside his soft Galway brogue.  They lived in an apartment at 127 East 95th Street in Manhattan; and that’s where we stayed, for a week or so, before going on to St. Louis.

As mentioned previously, my mother had come to New York as a young immigrant in 1927; and my dad had also lived there in the early ’20s before going on to St. Louis— on Shakespeare Avenue in the Bronx, easy to remember.  Both of them had many friends and relatives in NY.  Besides the Treacys there was Mom’s brother Tom Conboy and his family; a number of O’Rourke relatives on the Kenny side; another, an older Michael Kenny living in White Plains.  And some Farleys, and other Aughavas people.  Plus old friends of our parents.  (We kids didn’t know who was who, didn’t ask, and our parents didn’t tell us; or if they did we soon forgot.)

But there were visits and parties!  Our dad took John and I to see that other Michael Kenny in White Plains—I wish I knew that relationship, obviously it was important to them.  And the Treacys had a party too—I think on our first evening there.  In that crowd in the little apartment (much like Ralph Cramden’s place in Jackie Gleason’s “The Honemooners”) I remember telling Mary Treacy that I was thirsty and would like a drink of water.  “Sure, you can get one at the kitchen sink.”  The sink?  I didn’t know what a kitchen sink was—we’d gotten our water from the well.  And the “sink” at home in Graigeog:  that was the oozing place, at the foot of the farmyard, where we’d dump garbage.  But I soon adjusted to running water and American plumbing.

In that apartment, from a window, we looked down one morning on American kids playing stickball in the street (it must have been on Sunday).  That was new and fascinating.  And one night there was some kind of political rally going on down there, with a crowd, and a vehicle broadcasting a speech.  Dewey or Truman? or probably some NY pol speaking for one or the other (it was just a few weeks before the 1948 election).  We didn’t know anything about US politics.  Should we be for the Democrats or the Republicans?  Maybe it was 6-year-old Patsy who said “well, Daddy’s a Republican!”  But of course we had a lot to learn.

With the Treacys we went to the beach (even though it was October).  This was Rockaway Beach, sometimes nicknamed “The Irish Riviera” (according to Terry Winch).  This was a trip by subway, another exciting experience.  I remember a shooting gallery, stereoscopic pictures and such carnival-like attractions, but not the ocean on that gray autumn day.  I conclude with this picture of a young immigrant boy, all dressed up, in what’s hardly a very scenic spot.


To America, 1948 (Part 3: The Voyage)

April 30, 2009

Our voyage to New York took 5 or 6 days, and it was a great event for four kids from a small Irish farm.  Both  of our parents had lived in the US previously.  Michael Kenny had emigrated in 1922 or ’23, having been on the losing Republican  side of the bitter civil war which followed when the Irish Free State was set up.  Margaret Conboy came to New York in 1927—on a day made memorable by the ticker-tape parade in honor of Charles Lindberg.  My dad returned to Ireland in 1930, my mom some time later.  There they eventually met, and married in 1937.  (Later on, I will tell about those earlier emigrations.)

Anyway, the Mauretania was a great adventure for us children.  Here are some things I remember:
1. Chris (the youngest) fell down a flight of stairs, but without serious injury.
2. We older three, John, Peter & Pat, had fine times exploring the ship– including places we weren’t supposed to be, like the first-class area.
3. There was a free movie theater, something we’d never experienced.  John & I saw what I think was a gangster film, but I didn’t understand it at all.  Was the hero named “Seán”(Irish) or “Jean”(French)?  Maybe the latter, for I couldn’t follow the dialogue.
4. Speaking of French:  we met a boy whose language we couldn’t understand.  John told me a phrase which he said was French:  “punch-a nah-wah, wee wee”.  Did he use his “French” on that kid?  No wonder he looked blank.
5. We dined in splendid style!  Three times a day, in a great dining room, served by a waiter in tie & tails.  I especially liked the “fruit cup” of diced peaches, grapes, etc.  Our mother told dad “Mike, now you realize we have to give him a good tip when we arrive—at least a pound note.”  Our dad, still conscious of our poverty:  “I swear to you I’ll not give him a pound!”  But I hoped he would relent, or I’d feel sorry for the poor man.
6. That other young man from the Dublin-Holyhead boat was also emigrating.  No doubt sad to be leaving home, he was still drunk every time we saw him (“Ah the poor fellow…”)

My parents were good at making friends, and we met some interesting people.  One was a Maryknoll priest who had returned to Ireland from Korea; he’d be going back there from the United States.  (I believe he was a Fr. Wood or Woods.)  He told them about Korea, which they might never have heard of before.  He was not optimistic about the future there.  After the 1950 invasion, he died (along with other missionaries) as a prisoner of the North Koreans.

Hearing talk of wars, strange countries and politics, John told me a story to explain the world situation:  Russia, the US, Britain and France wanted to divide up the world between them.  They set up a big globe as a target and blasted away—and whatever piece a marksman knocked off his country got to keep.  Maybe he’d seen a political cartoon on that theme?  Though I’m sure he was quite capable of making it up out of whole cloth.  (We were often like Lucy and Linus in “Peanuts”.)  Naive as I was, though, I don’t think I quite believed that one.

Arriving in New York harbor, I remember being disappointed on seeing the Statue of Liberty; it looked rather green and dirty to me.  And I don’t recall anything about customs and immigration processing – I guess we went thru Ellis Island, which was still in use until 1954?

What I do remember is the excitement of a week in Manhattan with Mom’s relatives the Treacys, meeting many other relatives– and lots of parties!  More on all that in my next posting.

To America, 1948 (Part 2)

April 26, 2009

In London (with a ham)  [some corrections, 4/28/09]

After the night boat to Holyhead and a train journey, we arrived in London. The London I remember from 1948 hadn’t recovered from the wartime blitz—and it was a cold and dreary place in October. I remember sitting at a counter in some dismal restaurant, sipping on a weak cup of cold tea (yes, Irish kids drank tea at an early age). And in a department store (as I think it was): the escalator to the upper floor was enclosed by doors; you entered, closed the door and pressed a button to start the mechanism. I know that seems odd, but I could hardly have dreamed it, could I? To save electricity, I suppose. I was afraid it would keep going and crush us all!

We were to sail from Southampton (the next day?).  I think it was in the East End of London that we walked up and down streets, looking for a place to stay the night. I can imagine Daddy saying to Mam “I’ll swear to you we won’t pay those prices for a hotel!” [They were still “daddy” and “mammy”—would only become Dad and Mom in the new world] But at the various houses with rooms “to let” our scruffy Irish family with suitcases and 4 children (Chris, not yet 3, carried by her daddy) – looking like “the raggle-taggle gypsies O” – were turned away. No room at the inn.

Until, as we walked back down a street we’d trudged before, a sharp-eyed old lady enquired of my mother: “What’s that you’re carrying there?”  And my mother showed her: an Irish ham!

“Margaret, why in God’s name are you taking that with you?” our dad had said as we set out from home. But she wouldn’t be dissuaded—”you never know…”. Maybe John & I echoed the question, for I remember her reciting with a little laugh:

Hams alive and their eyes wide open,

Pipes in their backsides and them smoking.

England in late ’48, three and a half years after the war, still had meat rationing (which lasted, I think, until the Labor gov’t was voted out in ’51). We got a place to stay for the night, and shared our Irish ham with the old couple. Our hosts related stories of how they survived the London blitz. Next day we visited the London zoo. I only vaguely remember the zoo animals, and nothing of the war stories.

And then we embarked on the Mauretania, bound for New York. We agreed to stay in touch with our hosts when we arrived in America; but we lost their address, unfortunately.

To America, 1948 (Part 1)

April 25, 2009

In October 1948 my family left Ireland and came to the US on the Cunard liner Mauretania.  Leaving our farm in County Leitrim we hired a car to take us to Dublin.  From there it was the night boat across to Hollyhead, Wales.  I was told it was the “cattle boat” but I don’t remember any cattle; just folks like us, often leaving Ireland for good, as many were doing about that time.

We befriended a young man on the boat; he was also America-bound, and he was quite drunk all the time (“ah, the poor fellow…”).

From Wales we traveled by train to London, still at night.  (I’ll relate my 8-year-old memories of the city in Part 2.)

We sailed from Southampton on the Mauretania.  I happened to see a model of that Cunard liner in the Maritime Museum in Newport News, Va.

Years ago an artist named William Hamilton (I don’t know if he’s still active) specialized in scenes of “bright young people” (I think that was  before the name “yuppies” was coined).  I wish I had saved one Hamilton cartoon, of a dinner party, with the lady of the house telling her guests:  “Oh no, our family didn’t come over on the Mayflower.  We came over on the Mauretania.”

Here is the model of our Mauretania– the one built in 1938 (there was an earlier one):