Thursday, April 10, 2014

Remembering the Emigrant Irish

When I look out over the Cliffs of Moher, one of my favourite places on this earth, I think about how difficult it must have been for those forced to leave such a place of beauty, the land of their ancestors, and I am very grateful that none of my ancestors were forced to make such a decision.

What is it that those bound to emigrate away from Ireland thought about as they looked out over the sea? What was in their hearts? What kind of life did they hope would be waiting for them away from Ireland's shores? As we view these images and read the poem, 'The Emigrant Irish' by Eavan Boland, we have the opportunity to take a moment to contemplate what many Irish had to face, and we can be grateful for every wonderful moment given to us on this earth.

'The Emigrant Irish'

Like oil lamps, we put them out the back——

of our houses, of our minds. We had lights
better than, newer than and then

a time came, this time and now
we need them. Their dread, makeshift example:

they would have thrived on our necessities.
What they survived we could not even live.
By their lights now it is time to
imagine how they stood there, what they stood with,
that their possessions may become our power:

Cardboard. Iron. Their hardships parceled in them.
Patience. Fortitude. Long-suffering
in the bruise-colored dusk of the New World.

And all the old songs. And nothing to lose.

Copyright ©1990 by Eavan Boland from Outside History

(This post originally appeared in 2012)
Click on photographs to view larger version.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Fearless Females: 'The Woman with the Joie de Vivre!'

On this last day of Women's History Month, I remember Mary Catherine 'Mollie' Magee Halpin, a grand-aunt who in my opinion exemplified the phrase 'joie de vivre'. On our family tree Mollie is my father's aunt, sister to his mother, my grandmother Anne Mary 'Annie' Magee Geraghty. Although she was our grand-aunt, we addressed her in the same way my dad did, and called her Auntie Mollie.

When I was a child it seemed to me that Auntie Mollie was the tallest woman I had ever seen; she appeared to stand head and shoulders above all of the women around her, and even some of the men.

Taken on 25 August, 1930, the studio portrait of Mollie on an oversized hobby horse accentuates just how tall she was, and reminds me of the 'joie de vivre' — literally: 'joy of living' — Mollie had for life. Although I was not given this photograph until long after Mollie had passed away, I can well imagine her laughing at the sight of it, and then sharing a story about it. Mollie had a great sense of humour, and her raspy voice and deep throaty laugh played off the timbre of her lovely Dublin accent.

Since my grandmother died years before I was born, in some ways Mollie filled that role for me. Sometimes I would write to Auntie Mollie, tell her about my hopes and dreams, and share my little stories. Mollie understood my love for literature and history, and she encouraged me to explore my own creative talents. When she was a young woman Mollie used to write poetry. At parties and family gatherings, she often recited her latest creation from a book of her own verse which she always carried.

Auntie Mollie loved wearing hats, and in addition to her penchant for hats, Mollie loved costume jewellery, especially dress pins which she would affix either at her shoulder or at her décolletage. It seemed the bigger the pin, the better Mollie liked it. Whenever she gave you a hug, you might come away from her embrace with the imprint of the pin, or a slight nick, on your forehead.

When it came to revealing her age, Mollie liked to tinker with the numbers a bit, so hopefully she will not be spinning in her grave when I tell you that she was born 23 March 1905 and lived until the age of 91. Christened Mary Catherine, but all her life called Mollie, she was the fifth and last born child of Patrick Magee and Mary Dunne. Mollie grew up in Stoneybatter, Dublin, with her elder siblings Michael Francis, Anne Mary and Francis Leo.

Auntie Mollie once told me that she was immensely proud of all the members of her family. Her father Patrick and brothers Michael and Francis were employed by Jameson Distillery. All three were scribers, men who engraved the Jameson logo and other information on the barrels. Both Patrick and Francis became managers, with Francis and his family eventually living onsite and overseeing the entire Smithfield distillery. Mollie's sister Anne had been a member of Cumann na mBan — the women's branch of the IRA — and their brother Michael had lost his life during the War of Independence, as a member of the Irish Volunteers. In their memory, in 1966 on the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, Auntie Mollie donned the medals her sister and brother had earned for their service and proudly marched in the parade to the GPO.

My father used to say Mollie was fiercely independent, so much so that apparently some members of the family wondered if she would ever marry. Mollie’s independent inclinations were perhaps spurred on by the fact that when she was a young woman she helped to support her family by working outside the home. When Mollie was a teenager she was employed as a ‘tailoress’ by the Cork & Bandon Clothing Company on Bridge Street, Dublin. Records from 1924 show that, by the age of 19 years, Mollie was employed by Cork & Bandon for eight months out of each year. She earned 15 shillings per week, almost all of which she contributed to the household.

Mollie with her beloved husband Willie
Mollie did marry. In the summer of 1932, at the age of 27 years, Mollie married a lovely gentleman named William Halpin, the son of Robert and Kathleen Halpin, and ever after they were Mollie and Willie. To me, he was Uncle Willie, a gentle soul with a shock of white hair, who was very kind and soft spoken, and had a wonderful sense of humour.

Unfortunately Mollie and Willie were never able to have children of their own. In a predominantly Catholic country in which motherhood is enshrined in the constitution, it must have been difficult for a childless woman like Mollie. Although she and Willie had no children, they were a good support for their nieces and nephews. When my father and his brother Patrick were children, Auntie Mollie and Uncle Willie often took the two boys along with them when they went on holiday in the summertime.

After she was married, Mollie continued to work outside the home. Mollie was employed by the Irish Sweepstakes Office in Dublin, something which thrilled me on a visit when I was a teenager. I remember her giving us a guided tour of the place, including a look at the original big drum in which all the tickets were spun.

During their married life, Mollie and Willie lived in the artisan's cottage at #11 Swords Street in Dublin, a home which was very much like the cottage on Ostman Place in which she grew up, and only seven minutes walk from it. The cottage on Swords Street was a lovely little house which she kept neat as a pin.

Mollie and Willie loved to travel, visiting us on this side of the pond a couple of times, but mostly preferring to travel to continental Europe. One of Mollie's favourite destinations was the South of France. She loved the bright sunshine, the azure blue waters, and the gentle warm breezes wafting in off the Mediterranean Sea. For her it was a world away from rainy Dublin.

On 3 November 1996, Auntie Mollie passed away at the age of 91 years. Uncle Willie had died ten years before her on 5 March 1986. She is interred with Willie and his parents in Deansgrange Cemetery, Blackrock, County Dublin.

The first time I visited their grave, I felt my heart break a little. Auntie Mollie and Uncle Willie had always seemed to me as though they would live forever. From my perspective, both were such warm and happy people, it seemed a shame that the world should no longer have them.

In Memoriam card for Mollie.
On my paternal family tree, my grand-aunt Mary Catherine 'Mollie' Magee Halpin is one of the women who best exemplifies 'joie de vive', the joy of life. Auntie Mollie not only dealt with what life gave her, but also used her talents to the best of her ability, and sought to live life fully, making her one of my fearless females.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Angels of Dublin: The Wingéd Victories & O'Connell's Monument

At the heart of Dublin City centre, at the head of what was in 1882 called Sackville Street — the name was changed to O’Connell Street in 1924 — stands the monument to the glory of ‘The Great Liberator’, Daniel O’Connell.

The monument is replete with figures and symbols of Irish history, and is composed is in three distinct sections of stone and bronze sculptures, with the statue of Daniel O’Connell standing at the very top. The middle section comprises a collection of nearly thirty individual figures in a three-dimensional frieze. Represented here are persons from all walks of life including the peasantry and the professions, the arts and the trades, and of course the Catholic Church.

At the forefront of the ring of figures in the frieze is the Maid of Erin. Her left hand holds a parchment bearing the 1829 Act of Catholic Emancipation, and her right arm is poised above her head with her finger pointing to the Great Liberator, Daniel O’Connell.

Although the monument stands 40 feet tall, with the cloaked bronze figure of O’Connell taking up 12 of those 40 feet, it is the angels — wingéd victories, as they were called at their inception — to which I have always been most drawn. From their places seated around the base of Daniel O'Connell's statue, they have fascinated me since I first laid eyes on them on my first trip to Dublin when I was a child. I feel a special sort of connection to them, because of the memories they evoke in my mind, and because they have stood witness to landmark events in Irish history.

Each one of the angels was crafted to represent a virtue most readily associated with Daniel O’Connell — courage, eloquence, fidelity and patriotism. It is said that each one also represents an individual province in Ireland, the provinces being Munster, Leinster, Ulster, and Connaught.

Three of the angels bear bullet holes — one in its left arm, two with a wound in the chest — markers of the 1916 Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence. The figure of fidelity has an Irish Wolfhound at her feet, a breed of dog which has existed in Ireland since at least the 4th century. Irish Wolfhounds often appear in nationalist images, possibly because the breed is prized for its noble bearing, intelligence and keen ability to recognize the difference between good and evil.

Great fanfare accompanied the unveiling of the monument on 15 August 1882. Thousands of Irish had already descended on the capital for various celebrations. Over 250,000 came to attend the Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition in the Rotunda Gardens, the principal focus of which was Irish products and industry, while others were in Dublin to mark the centenary of Grattan’s Parliament.

It is said that not only did a great roar rise up from ‘ten thousand throats’ as the veil was pulled revealing the monument, but that rain ceased and the sun broke through the clouds to light the monument and reveal it in all of its splendour. Interestingly, none of the winged victories bronzes was present at the time of the unveiling of the monument. Two had already been cast, but the decision was made not to add them until all four were complete. Finally in 1886, the four angels took their rightful place around the base of the plinth.

Those who donated money in order that the monument might come to fruition ranged from the requisite Esquires and Very Reverends to ‘a true Irishman’ and ‘a Liberal Protestant’, as well as a number of benefactors who wished to remain ‘anonymous’. The subscription list in the Report of the O'Connell Monument Committee is a marvellous document to peruse. Especially striking are those donations made by children, with a donation of one penny being given by ‘a widow’s mite’, and a donation of six pence made by “a little boy, it being his Patrick’s Day Contribution”. Members of the Chimney Cleaners’ Association and the Pawnbrokers Assistants’ Association of Dublin are among those who gave monies, along with Bootmakers, Cabinet Makers, school boys and those in the Silk Trade. The subscriptions listed cross all social classes and income levels, and were drawn from all over Ireland, from townlands and counties near and far, and even from beyond Ireland’s shores.


The Campaign for Catholic Emancipation, 1823-1829, University College Cork Multitext History Project, University College Cork.

The Freeman's Journal, Dublin, 16 August 1882.

The Very Rev. John Canon O'Hanlon, P.P., The Report of the O'Connell Monument Committee, J. Duffy and Co. Ltd., Dublin, 1888. (via the Open Library)

Thanks to Postcardy for suggesting the theme of statues and monuments for this Sepia Saturday #220. Be sure to stop by the Sepia Saturday blog to see how others have interpreted today's theme, and perhaps you'll be inspired too.

Click on images to view larger versions.
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