S Rosenwasser 2011

On Bein’ Irish
by Suzanne McLain Rosenwasser (this is an adaptation of a feature that first appeared in The Shelter Island Reporter March 17, 1988)

My Irish-American Uncle Mike was the oldest of 14 children. At least that’s what his father, born James Joseph O’Neill 1874 in Barna on Galway Bay, claimed. However, his wife Ismy Kelley O’Neill, disputed that number. One would figure the mother should know, but James Joseph persisted while my grandmother cautioned him repeatedly about stretching the truth: There were 14 pregnancies, 11 children arrived alive. Ismy Kelley was born in England to Irish parents who worked at a Catholic Church in Marylebone. This mix of heritage was not a popular one in London and Ismy longed to get away from the life her parents led defending their Irish ancestors against insults. So at 17 in 1891, Ismy Letitia Kelley came to America and met an Irishman who’d come over the year before. James Joseph O’Neill fell in love with Ismy’s sense of propriety and he told her that in America, they didn’t care about the feuds of the Celtics across the sea. The O’Neills became a family at 438 East 66th Street in Manhattan. A baby was conceived every year of their marriage, including “Irish twins” who arrived ten months apart in the same calendar year. James worked as the superintendent of the 66th Street building and reported to a second job at night - stoking the furnace for evening performances at William Fox’s Academy of Music on East 14th Street. Ismy cooked three meals a day for her family which included a roast at lunch followed by a roast at dinner. She made everyone’s clothes, even tailoring the boys’ suits. She washed, dried, and ironed every piece of attire and linen used in the household and also contributed to the cleanliness of the interior and exterior of the 66th Street building in cooperation with her husband. James was a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Every St. Patrick’s Day he donned a suit, beribboned his chest in green and began his walk “across the avenues” to 59th Street where marchers assemble annually for the Fifth Avenue parade.

S Rosenwasser 2011

After the big event and a few toasts to “Glorious St. Patrick,” James headed home to share a pint of warm beer with Ismy while their children performed Irish songs for them in the parlor. Ismy had begun to settle in to American life; there was more Irish in her now than ever, she joked to her family. But her British birth caught the notice of her Irish neighbors and the resentments of years long gone started to affect Ismy’s children. It was on a St. Patrick’s Day that the O’Neills first felt the prejudice of their neighbors most keenly. Ismy had put an obvious touch of green on eight of her children before sending them off to school at St. Catherine’s of Sienna. The girls wore dresses hand-smocked with shamrocks and the boys had harps embroidered on their ties. They left the house imagining the nuns and priests would lavish the handiwork with high praise, until a group of Irish bullies - “hooligans” my Aunt Fran called them - set upon the O’Neills outside of schoolyard, calling them “Limies” and throwing well-aimed clods of dirt at their new finery. My Uncle Edwin was a known scrapper who bloodied a few noses that day and went on to log a record number of detention hours on his knees saying the rosary in St. Catherine’s cloak room. In later years another of his sisters, a Dominican nun, explained: “We took porcelain skin and fine grammar skills from our English mother, but our fighting spirits came from the very soul of Ireland.” It was that very same spirit which ultimately saved them. Ismy succumbed to tuberculosis at 40 and James died of grief five years later. The eldest girl, Mary Magdalene, raised the seven children still living at home with the same devotion she’d learned from her mother. Somehow they made it through the Depression and found lives beyond the roots of their complicated immigrant home. As it turned out their generation was more American than anything else, but they maintained the sense of celebration their parents had shared in the privacy of their parlor on 66th Street.

S Rosenwasser 2011

Each year my aunts and uncles gathered our families together over a huge beef roast with mounds of mashed potatoes, and hard, round loaves of soda bread prefaced by a surfeit of beer and whiskey. After dinner, they pressed the children to perform. I can see myself in my Uncle John’s living room in Jackson Heights, New York. It is March 17, 1956 and I am wearing a green dress with an enormous sash homemade by my Aunt Mary Magdalene. I’m singing the same song I do every year and my family is clapping: “Shake hands with me Uncle Mike me boy and kiss the colleens all - you’re as welcome as the flowers in Spring to dear ol’ Donegal.” My family is a group of young parents with dancing children in this memory and their Irish eyes are smiling.

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