Friday, October 19, 2012

A New Book and a Surprise

     A few months ago my husband and I attended a benefit for a local scholarship fund.  Due no doubt to my Irish luck, I was the winner of one of the door prizes. I had my choice between a bottle of rum and a local history book entitled “Ontario County Transportation”.  Care to guess which I chose?  And no snickering. 
      Naturally, a geek like me picked the book; after all I grew up in Ontario County, NY.  On the drive home I began leafing through my prize and found its pages full of wonderful old photos, like one dated 1890 depicting men working in a gravel pit that once operated behind my grandmother’s house.  Others were of people, many of whom I could recall meeting as a child, decades after these photos were taken and I knew them as elderly persons.  Here they were, as vibrant young men and women and in several cases, children.
    I reached page 66 and was stopped dead in mid page flip, there looking up at me father!  My teenaged father, in a photo I’d never seen before.  He was leaning against his father’s ’47 Hudson in the high school parking lot with one hand on his hip, looking very 50’s era cool (the car not so much).  Though he is staring straight into the camera, my father has no recollection of this photo or who may have snapped it sixty some years ago.  Likely a school mate who kept it all these years until the call went out for pictures to illustrate the book.
      Which brings me to my point, and I do have one.  I’ve since discovered there are thousands of these books out there in a series called “Images of America”, covering locales from Oxnard to Cuyahoga Falls.  Type the word “Irish” next to “Images of America” in Amazon’s search box and up pop titles like “Irish Seattle’, Irish Butte, Irish Denver, etc. etc. etc.  It also works for other nationalities.  Just to check, I tried German and Italian and got plenty of hits.  There are some bargains to be had here too.  For example, a copy of Irish Chicago lists at $19, but a used copy can be purchased on Amazon’s site for one red cent!  Of course there is a shipping fee of $3.99, but it’s still a steal.
      I have now purchased “Ontario County The Golden Age of Railroads and Baseball”, since a number of my ancestors right up to my father worked for the Lehigh Valley Railroad in our hometown of Manchester, NY, and one entitled “Marion” for my husband whose family lived in Marion South Carolina in the 18thand 19th centuries.  I have thoroughly enjoyed these books and the nostalgic peek into my area’s past.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Wacky Weeklies

     You have to love the small town weeklies, I know I do.  By the 19th century most villages had one.  Evidently all that was needed was a printing press, some paper, a cranky, opinionated editor and you were in business.  Ever wonder how a small 19th century paper managed to learn of news from across the country and world?  News syndicates, that’s how.  Starting in 1865 the syndicates sent subscribing editors the newspaper with national and world news already printed on one or two pages, the editors then printed their news and ads on the remaining pages.  
      About half real news and half gossip and ads, these scandal sheets are chock full of genealogical tidbits.  For instance, I now know that in the fall of 1891 my 3x great Uncle Michael O’Hora was wrongly accused of robbing a shoe store.  The local weekly quickly came to his defense… well sort of.   The editor wrote, “Michael is a fine reliable young man, though somewhat addicted to the use of intoxicating substances.”  Huh?  Apparently Uncle Mike would have been a great guy if he had just lain off the sauce.  His younger brother Daniel was later arrested for selling hooch illegally.   Uncle Dan however was rightfully accused and plead guilty.
      I learned that their father, my 2x great-grandfather James O’Hora, was from County Carlow, Ireland , that he was a successful farmer, that he always voted a straight Democratic ticket, (as most immigrants did), and when his priest Father Lee died, James bought his horse.  I learned that his daughter Sarah suffered from “deforming rheumatism”, that his oldest son James Jr. died of “rheumatism of the brain “, (huh? again), that his son Michael ran a successful threshing business and his son Daniel, (the rum runner), worked for a time as a foreman at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  That’s quite a lot of information, and only a tiny, tiny fraction of what was found in their local paper.  When his sister in law Bridget McGarr Kinsella died the paper went all out, I quote: “…her tender heart and loving nature ever showered upon her children a mother’s care that will keep such love green and fragrant in memory’s casket until life’s close.” Green and fragrant?   Memory’s casket?  Talk about purple prose, that one’s magenta!
      These editors had no qualms about insulting people.  Take the August 25, 1883 edition, therein we find, “The editor of the Phelps newspaper is too ill to attend his duties; the paper already shows a marked improvement”.  They would print almost anything, things that today would earn you a condemnation by the NAACP or a defamation lawsuit.  But only if they liked you.  After studying them for years, I’ve come to the conclusion that only subscribers and the village drunk appeared in their columns very often.  The O’Horas made the cut at least once a month, and no, not for being drunk. Meanwhile, my Tipperary ancestors, who were illiterate and therefore had no use for a subscription, were rarely mentioned.
      Vintage newspapers aren’t hard to come by either.  Most if not all states have a newspaper project.  Some newspapers are digitized and others like New York State have microfilmed their papers.  Those films can easily be borrowed through inter-library loan from the NYS Library, I know, I’ve done it.  Local libraries and historical societies sometimes have microfilmed copies available for viewing, I’ve done that too.  New York newspapers are also online at
      There are other newspaper archive sites online too, but often they only have newspapers from larger cities.  Those have their place, but are nowhere near as slanderous and amusing as the small town weeklies.  They are well worth checking out, even if you don’t find your family mentioned by name you will still gain a better feel for the time and the place they called home.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Museum An Ghorta Mor

   I hope everyone has heard about the new museum at Quinnipiac University in Hamden CT.   In case you haven’t let me be the first to bring it to your attention.    Located at 3011 Whitney Ave., Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, (Museum An Ghorta Mor), will open Thursday the 11th of October.  Boasting the largest known collection of famine related art, papers and artifacts it promises to be a moving experience.

     The museum documents the most harrowing chapter of Irish history, and was made possible in large part by  Murray Lender.  While not Irish himself, Mr. Lender was deeply  moved upon hearing the story of the famine.  According to John Lahey, President of Quinnipiac, Mr. Lender told him, ‘John, I’ll give you a gift for the library, but I really want to have it go to educating people about the Great Hunger. I grew up in New Haven, I have a lot of Irish friends, and I knew nothing about the Great Hunger.’

     The museum plans to take the collection on the road at some point, but not for at least a year according to its director Grace Brady, so it sounds like I may have to take a road trip soon.  Sadly Mr. Lender is no longer with us, but a big thank you to him for wanting this story told!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Doors of Faith

       Rather than write about the church my family attended, I would like to write about one that has inspired and uplifted countless Irish Catholics, as it still does.  I’m talking about venerable St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, through whose doors millions of Catholics have passed and prayed and found solace.

   The year was 1847 when James O’Hora, my great great grandfather, joined the mass of people fleeing famine and disease ravaged Ireland.  They washed ashore all along the North American coast, but primarily, as James did, at the port of New York.  Entering the harbor was an overwhelming experience for a rural populace, with ships as far as the eye could see and crowds of people and tall buildings looming in the distance.  Many of those exhausted immigrants stepped onto Manhattan’s South Street wharves alone. 

     But not quite all alone.  Thanks to a New York Bishop named John Hughes, known as Dagger John in some circles for his militant style.   Six years earlier he had helped found the Irish Emigrant Society to offer assistance to the newly arrived Irish.  Himself born in Ireland in 1797, he had experienced firsthand the mistreatment of Catholics when his younger sister Mary died and English law forbade a priest to preside over her burial, a travesty he would never forget. To escape that persecution John’s father brought the family to America in 1817.  John entered the seminary in 1820 and was ordained in 1826.    

     After serving in the parishes of Philadelphia, Father Hughes was consecrated a bishop in 1838, a time when anti-Catholic nativists held sway.  They considered Catholicism a backwards, superstitious religion and the devotion of its adherents to the Pope a threat to liberty.   Protestant fundamentalists weren’t shy about trumpeting those beliefs in their newspapers and books, stirring up so much fear and hatred that burnings of Catholic churches and convents became commonplace.  Catholics were a decided minority at that time, but they had something better than numbers, they had Dagger John on their side.  He was determined that Irish Catholics in America would not become the second class citizens they were in their own country.

     Bishop Hughes hit the ground running.  He saw the immigrant’s need for an education were they ever to get ahead, and he tried to secure funding from the city, the same funding Protestant schools were already receiving.  After being rebuffed he stated, “We shall have to build the schoolhouse first and the church afterward, in our age the question of education is the question of the church.”  By the end of his career his diocese held over 100 schools providing solid Catholic educations, along with hospitals and orphanages.  

     But his biggest challenge came in 1845.  With the failure of the potato crop in Ireland,  the floodgates of immigration opened. Fortunately, Bishop Hughes was a man ahead of his time and precisely  the right man for this time. In addition to the Emigrant Society he started numerous neighborhood parishes and outreach programs.  He helped create mutual aid societies, brought the St. Vincent de Paul Society into the city to aid the suffering poor and worked tirelessly to find employment for his flock.

     The influx from the famine quickly swelled the number of Catholics in the city and in 1850  New York was made an archdiocese. Rome wisely also made John Joseph Hughes its Archbishop.  Around this time, Archbishop Hughes, began to dream of a cathedral, a grand one built and funded by New York Irish, one to raise their morale and sense of self worth.   On August 15, 1858 a crowd of more than 100,000 gathered at a building site that at the time was far outside the city.  They were there to witness the laying of the cornerstone of the new St. Patrick’s.  Only a fraction of the needed funds had been raised, but the Archbishop was a determined man.  Unfortunately, the cathedral’s construction was halted by the Civil War and not finished until 1879, long after Archbishop Hughes’ death in 1864.  He never saw his cathedral completed, but the mind’s eye of such a visionary man surely did.  At the dedication Mass on May 25, as an act of respect, John Cardinal McCloskey had Archbishop Hughes' coat of arms hung over St. Patrick's doors.

     St. Patrick’s Cathedral... just saying the name conjures up reverence and awe, the majesty of faith and the human spirit; along with a sense of belonging to something more powerful than ourselves that will go on long after ourselves.  It was exactly what was needed at the time it was conceived, and today we still need it; for exactly the same reasons.