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The Irish and Other Immigrants

March 18, 2012

For the first time in my life, I’m reading A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

My heritage is nearly completely Irish – just one Englishman in the mix. My paternal great-grandfather was a young English immigrant who married an Irish girl with whom he fell in love on the boat to America. He worked in a hat factory in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and died in his early 30’s from exposure to the dyes, which contained mercury. His baby son, my grandfather, was sweeping bar room floors at age five to help his mother (who took a factory job) support their little family of three, which included another baby boy. As my grandfather got older he sang in the bar rooms, too. He worked hard, saved money, and put himself through medical school.

Life was a lot easier for the next two generations because of my grandfather’s drive.

Tonight an email came to my inbox from my two brothers in charge of my mother’s will. My mother died in November, seventeen years after my father. The time has come to disperse, from east coast to west and points in between, the accumulations of their lifetime, including heirlooms from their parents. The email came in as I was sorting some of my photos and, as it’s St. Patrick’s Day, listening to Eric Clapton’s version of Danny Boy.

I am to receive, through my mother’s will, among other things, a porcelain statue that was given to my Irish mother when she was five-years old and recovering from scarlet fever. In her home city of Lawrence, Massachusetts, German neighbors came by and gave her a porcelain figure of a little black boy, who became her only friend while she and her home were quarantined and she slowly regained health. The statue remained on a shelf in my mother’s room, wherever she lived, her whole life.

Betty Smith, the author of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, was born Elisabeth Wehner. She was the daughter of German immigrants. The main character of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Francie, is the daughter of an Irish and an Austrian immigrant.

My grandfather, the bar room sweeper/singer, married an Irish girl from Brooklyn.

Can you feel the mingling of reflections that prompted me to write this post, and on St. Patrick’s Day?

Here now, listen to an Englishman play an instrumental version of what has become a traditional Irish-American song (though it was written by an Englishman):

Eric Clapton’s Danny Boy.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2012 8:57 am

    Nice story, Mary. You convey the meaningfullness of that statue in such a simple yet so tender way. What a keepsake it will be for you. And.. never having thought much of Danny Boy… I am surprised at how much I like the Eric Clapton version. So sweet– thanks for sharing. – Trish


    • March 18, 2012 8:41 pm

      Thanks, Trish.
      So much to think about these days – the passage of time, loss, and other changes.
      More to come at sublimedays.
      Hope all is well –


  2. March 18, 2012 12:30 am

    I love your post. I find it intriguing. My paternal side has lots of Irish ancestors, but I must say, your story needs to be told. So, tell us more!!!


    • March 18, 2012 1:10 am

      Thanks –
      I’ve just published a novella (via Kindle) – The Setting of The Sun – a story that takes place in Lawrence MA at the turn of the century and into the 1900’s. Though the story is complete fiction, it was inspired by the love I saw between my maternal grandparents. And the main character is based on a combination of my grandmother, my grandmother-in-law, and my own mother as she aged. I tried to bring some immigrant history into the book, based on research and my mother’s memories.
      I’m in the process of writing two full length novels now – neither with family lore! But I do think about trying to capture my mother’s family in a story. I don’t know enough about my father’s side – most of what I know is in that post!
      Thanks for visiting sublimedays and thanks for your comment. I hope you listened to and enjoyed Eric Clapton!


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