My Irish Journey
By Thomas F. Walsh
My mother, Catherine Reagan of Eden, County Roscommon, Ireland, came to the States in her late teens. While living with her sister’s family, she was studying to be a nurse. She later moved to Philadelphia and worked at Bellevue Hospital. My dad, Martin Walsh, of Aughamore, Ireland, worked on ships as a trimmer, the Lusitania being the last ship he worked on.
Before my dad knew my mother he was working on the Lusitania when it made its final trip out of New York.; however, my dad became inebriated at a hotel, so he literally “missed the boat”. When my wife, Lula Maye, and I visited Ireland in the 1990’s we checked the manifest of the Lusitania and my dad was listed as a non-survivor. Fortunately, that is an inaccurate record, or I would not be here today to tell my tale.
Today, we call it “Pub Night” when once a month the Irish meet at a designated pub to share company, beer and blarney. When my parents were young, the Irish would meet at someone’s house in West Philly. Mom and Dad met at one of those gatherings in West Philly, became engaged, and were married in April, 1917 at Holy Souls Parish. They settled in Philadelphia and my oldest sister, Mary, was born in March, 1918, followed the next year by the birth of my older brother, Joe (deceased) in September of 1919.
My dad worked at this time for Exide Storage Battery where he developed an illness called “lead belly”. Doctors told him if he wanted to live he would have to leave his job, and move to an area where the air was pure. My parents agreed it was best to return to Ireland. They settled in Aughamore, County Mayo, with my dad’s parents. In December of 1920, I was born in the same thatched cottage where my father was born. About a year later we moved to the county east of Mayo called Roscommon. The home was a small, thatched two room cottage. There was a fire-place that provided heat for the home, a place to boil the water, and cook our food. There was no coal, and wood was scarce, so we used turf (peat) primarily as our fuel source. We cut our own turf in the bog, carted it back home, and stacked it outside the house to dry. At that time we used lanterns for light because there was no electricity in the area. We had to bring water in daily from a small nearby stream. My brother, sister, myself, and sometimes my mom would walk a fourth of a mile to a pond used mostly by geese. We would chase them off, wait for the water to settle, and then fill up our buckets. The water was used for drinking, washing dishes, clothes, cooking and last, but not least, bathing (we only took a bath occasionally for obvious reasons, and rinsed off with the same water we bathed in).
There were no toilet facilities inside or out, so you just went outside and “picked a spot” a good distance from the house. Of course this posed a problem especially for children at night, so a pan was left on the floor for them.
Two of my sisters, Rita and Kitty, were born in Roscommon. Our church was located in French Park, about a mile from the house. We would walk there for mass on Sundays. Our school-house was located about a mile in the opposite direction. The school consisted of one large room with a partition and bleacher type seats on each side of the partition dividing the room You sat on the bleacher seats designated by your grade level. I sat on the first row, and my brother and sister sat on the one behind me. We had a woman teacher, and the children on the opposite side of the room had a male instructor.
My mother packed a lunch for each of us to take to school. It consisted of a large slice of buttered bread with sugar sprinkled on top. We also got a handful of raisins because fruit was not readily available at that time. We inquired about where raisins came from and no one provided a satisfactory answer. We started investigating for ourselves in the trees, and bushes, and along the country paths. One day while playing in the fields we found what appeared to be raisins. They seemed to be growing on the side of the small foot path we often traveled. We ate some and took some home to show our mother. Our mother was not impressed, and told us these were not raisins, but goat currants and we shouldn’t be eating them. Well, we had heard the word currants applied to raisins, so we were confused; however, we kept eating them because we figured they were good for us. After all, we drank goats’ milk every day, why not eat goats’ currants?
When our parents decided to return to the U.S. my father went first and got a job as a machinist with a steel company; and, after several years, he sent for us.
I was asked many times if I was going to miss Ireland; however, I was kind of excited because we were going to ride in a car with isinglass windows and then we were to take a train to an ocean liner that would carry us across the ocean to America. I had never ridden in a car or a train, and certainly had never been on a ship, so this was an adventure in my young mind!
The ship was a three stack from the Cunard White Star Line. We had a private room for five with a port-hole. Every day we would play on the wooden deck. The weather was excellent until we were about a day outside New York. There was a terrible storm and the captain decided to turn the ship to avoid the severity of it. In doing so he exposed its flanks and the ship tilted. There was a lot of serious concern after dinner that night with the ship tilting and the storm raging around us. There was a great deal of commotion with dishes crashing, people crying, screaming, and praying.
We returned to our room and my mom and sister were on their knees with rosaries in hand praying feverishly. I climbed up into my top bunk and it wasn’t long before I fell asleep. When I woke up the next morning the sun was shining, the sea was calm, and I could see the Statue of Liberty outside my porthole window. The captain was told the New York port had lost contact with us, and the New York papers had reported us as lost at sea.
Before we left the ship we had to be medically inspected. The men were moved to one side of the ship and women to the other end. If you failed the inspection, you had to remain on the ship and return to your country of origin. However, we passed and were allowed to get on the ferry which took us to Ellis Island. We checked through there to the train which would take us to Philadelphia.
When we arrived there we were met by my dad, my Aunt Margaret, and some cousins. My Mom and three sisters went to Aunt Margaret’s house in Foxchase, Pennsylvania. My brother Joe and I went with my dad and an Irishman named Fitzie. We headed toward my Aunt Margaret’s house, but along the way the driver of the car, my dad, and Fitzie, decided they needed a drink so they stopped off at a saloon. My brother and I were left in the car until they returned. We finally arrived at Aunt Margaret’s house at about midnight.
We lived in Fox Chase for a few weeks, then moved to 9th & Venango, Philadelphia. We went to St. Veronica’s Catholic School where the Nun seemed to be enjoying my brogue. She would have me read from a book, and then my classmates would laugh. Once I realized they were laughing at the way I pronounced the words I made strides to correct it – maybe I shouldn’t have!
Later we moved to a house on Bouvier Street where there were 60 homes on one block without a front porch; all two-storied, straight front brick wall with 3 steps from the threshold of the door to the sidewalk. Each household had an average of 4 children.
The country was entering a depression and unemployment was very high and those that were working were making very little. My father was working in a steel mill and his weekly salary was small. Rent was $45.00 a month and we had to squeeze his salary to make it. Prohibition became effective about this same time – the Irish could cope with depression, but not with prohibition. My dad bought a still and I helped him make whiskey on Friday evenings. Sometimes we would work until 2 am, but he didn’t sell any of it, as it was just for his own personal use.
One Friday evening at about 11 pm, our front door bell rang. We looked out a window and saw 3 men at the door wearing felt hats. Well, anyone wearing a felt hat was considered a federal. After about 10 minutes the Feds left, so we quickly broke down the still and disposed of all the alcohol. We cut up all the parts and carried them outside to a wooded area and disposed of them one at a time. On Saturday morning, the Feds returned, showed their badges, and checked the house – and left smiling.
Later on, an Irish woman by the name of Big Ann who made her own liquor, hired me to deliver pints to customers. She sold the pints for ninety cents each, and she gave me 10 cents for each pint delivered. She did this to support her family as many probably did.
I became a naturalized U.S.Citizen at age 15, through my father who had become a citizen. I lived and worked in Philadelphia until I was drafted in 1943.
I went in as a buck private, and spent 27 years serving in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. I retired as a full Colonel in 1970.
I returned to my home in Ireland in 1962, visiting many relatives and places, and have been back many times since. I hope to return once more to the Old Sod.
In between all these years, I married and raised five children, and now have four grandchildren and two great grandsons.
Dallas, November 2005