I didn’t feel it coming but tears pretty much exploded from my eyes when I casually clicked on a link and was suddenly confronted with my paternal Great Grandfather’s ‘Naturalization’ documents. There he was: John Henry Kelly, 25 years old, a brand new American. Logical, I thought, given the circumstances in Ireland at that time, to pick up and move to a new country, to a city like Boston where the Irish were already well established. I knew that my ancestral family, on both sides, hailed from Ireland. What I soon learned was that this branch had made a generational stop in Canada.
Starved out of Ireland, thousands of poor, mostly young Irish were crossing the Atlantic to British North America in “Coffin” ships, so called because conservatively one in five died during the miserable passages. Deprived of water, food and warmth, many had already contracted Typhus. Deceived by unscrupulous agents in Ireland promising a modest relocation payment to those who “voluntarily” emigrated, they were most often greeted only with fear and loathing. To help control the spread of disease, they disembarked at the quarantine station at Grosse Isle, in the St. Lawrence River downstream from the City of Québec. From there young Irish immigrants like John’s father and mother were transported on open barges, up the St. Lawrence to other Canadian cities. God knows what they did to survive, but survive they did. Indeed, my great grandfather John was born in Montreal in March of 1847, at the height of a Typhoid epidemic.
Once in America John found employment. He and his new wife Theresa put down roots and eventually had my grandfather and his siblings. They took in less fortunate extended family members and built their lives. Children died in infancy, the influenza took others. A few suffered mental illness. They dug in and worked as truck drivers, saloon-keepers, meat packers and the like. Utterly determined, their children went to school and the next generation, my father’s generation, went to college and beyond.
If you’ve never read it, How The Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill (1995) is a well-researched, great read. It is also a good alternative to the Paddy jokes and green beer so popular at this time of year, not that the Irish and we Americans with Irish roots don’t love a good party. On second thought, this St. Patrick’s Day why not give a nod to the courageous Syrian refugees risking their lives to flee the hell of an endless war with only the clothes on their backs? That really would be the Irish thing to do.