Sunday, March 17, 2013

An Irish Fairytale In America

This is my grandmother, her name was Elizabeth O'Leary. She was the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter. Supposedly, this means you have magical powers. I never really saw Nana do anything really magical. Unless you consider survival magical.
My grandmother was the daughter of Jeremiah O'Leary and Hannah Barry. They emigrated with their parents from County Cork, Ireland to New York  around 1884. 
I don't know a whole lot about my great grandparents, except that they had seven children. Unfortunately, they could not afford to keep my grandmother and they gave her to an orphanage. I never heard my grandmother mention her brothers and sisters, as far as I know she never saw them again. I can only imagine how this effected my Nana. She would tell us stories of how she had to scrub floors until her fingers bled. I don't doubt it. To me, there was no worse punishment than scrubbing the floor. So I could relate to my grandmothers horror stories. We didn't have the luxury of a mop when I was a kid. We had a scrub brush, a bucket and the dreaded bar of Fels Naptha  

There was nothing so time consuming and just plain old fashioned as cleaning with this stuff.  Thank God those days are over. My experience growing up was probably luxurious compared to my grandmother, even if I did have to scrub the floors with a bar of soap. I don't know how old my grandmother was when she escaped the orphanage. I know that she did have some kind of education. I also know that she did mention "the nuns".  I don't remember her telling me any happy school memories. I don't believe she ever graduated from high school. What I do know is somehow my grandmother went to Atlantic City and became a singer.
My grandmother loved to sing and dance and many an evening she would torture my brothers and sisters with the Lawrence Welk show. She had  a special way of dancing that makes me think she must have been a flapper, my Nana loved to party, I can think of no better place for her than Atlantic city in the 1920's. This is where she met my grandfather, who had emigrated from London in 1912. I would like to say that they both lived happily ever after but they didn't. My grandfather left Nana with three kids to fend for themselves. They lived in attics and basements and this was a source of great shame to my mother. I don't think there was any section 8 housing vouchers then. The kind of funds today's sequester is going to cut. (really, did you think I was going to tell a story without getting political?) There was something called "relief" I think you could get if you were destitute. I do know that somehow my grandmother took up nursing and worked in hospitals all her life*. She never owned a home. She never even drove a car. I can't help but think, my Nana didn't stand a chance, she didn't even have the advantage of the support of a family, she literally had nothing. Over the years my grandmother would visit us and sometimes I would go and visit her at her apartment. She loved the Dick Cavett show and that was usually on when I would visit. Thanks to Social Security and Medicare my grandmother was able to live a somewhat comfortable life. Something am not sure I or my kids will have. I am so grateful my grandmother did not have to live her golden years in the same desperate way she did when she was young. 
People called my grandmother O'Leary. It was like she didn't have a first name. Everything about our family was so Irish it took me years to figure out I was American. We always said we were Irish. We never ate corned beef on St. Patrick's day, we ate ham and cabbage. My mother said no Irishman in his right mind would kill a cow that you could get milk and cheese from. Somehow "the fairies" were responsible for lost items or any kind of mischief that occurred in the household. I'll never understand all the fascination with leprechauns because they aren't nice. 

Does he look nice to you? Most illustrations of these guys have him dancing around with a rainbow or a pot of gold. My grandmother told me that leprechauns were capable of all kinds of mischief and could carry out great harm. They kind of remind me of Paul Ryan. 
Looks like I'm not the only one who thinks so. 
According to my Nana you could tell where in Ireland a person came from by what whiskey they drank. Bushmills if you were from northern Ireland, Jamesons from the south. I don't know why green beer is served on St. Patrick's day, but I am sure my grandmother wouldn't have turned it down. I learned many things from my Nana. She was a real survivor. 
I can't help but think if there was such a thing as WIC at the turn of the century when O'Leary  was born or food stamps, maybe she could have stayed with her family. Perhaps she would have had a very different life. I know that the trauma of her childhood stayed with her all of her days. It seems like we are headed right back to the kind of Victorian America where you could just starve or be given to an orphanage. The elderly can just perish in poverty. We need social programs to avoid the kind of life my grandmother was forced to live through no fault of her own. Not everyone is born with a silver spoon, connections or a family to support you. 
The Republicans and Democrats who are willing to shred the social programs that F.D.R. put in place, do so at their own peril. America is already a laughingstock all over the world. Once we jettison the social programs that make this country humane, well, there will be a lot more people in America like my Nana, orphaned with no place to go. I don't know what Paul "voucher" Ryan is doing for St. Patrick's day, I am ashamed to think I have something in common with him, even if it is only my Irish heritage. It frightens me to think that we will be talking about the "good old day's" in America when there was Social Security and Medicare, WIC and foodstamps, because if Paul Ryan has his way, they will be a thing of the past. 
So today I'll bake soda bread and celebrate with my friends and remember my Nana and the happy times we spent together. This is my St. Patrick's Day gift to her. Happy St. Patrick's Day to you all! Slainte!
* Update, I just heard from my cousin who told me how my grandmother became a nurse, my Nana only had a fifth grade education. When she applied to nursing school she told them that her high school burned to the ground and that's why she had no transcripts. When she graduated the admissions person told her that she knew the school did not burn to the ground, but if this woman at 50 years of age wanted to become a nurse, she wasn't going to stand in her way. I'd say that's pretty magical. Thanks to my cousin Joanie for the information and magic.

Here's some Dropkick Murphys for you.


  1. Amen, sister!

    It seems like we are headed right back to the kind of Victorian America where you could just starve or be given to an orphanage. The elderly can just perish in poverty.

    Love ya,


  2. Wonderful story Patricia. Amazing how all this Irish history always seems to start from poverty, as was the case with my ancestors.

    Please don't take offense to this, but the story of your Grandfather leaving your Nana reminds me of one thing. The British have been screwing over the Irish for centuries.

    But it must be the Irish way. Keep scratching and clawing to do your best for your family. Happy St. Paddy's Day to you and yours.

  3. Thanks Susan, Love ya back!
    J.O.B., Happy St. Paddy's Day to you too! I think it's a good idea to keep away from the Brits. Not a good track record. Lol.

  4. I worked for 15 years at a distribution center where one of the clients was Fel-Naptha soap. I remember packing this strange soap with the old-fashioned packaging into a box and wondering what in the world it was for. Now I know.

    Like the part about your grandmother watching Dick Cavett. He used to have a lot of rock stars on, and I wonder what a flapper from the '20s thought of Janis Joplin.

    For what it's worth, I'm 1/8 Irish.

  5. Kirk, everyone is Irish on St. Patrick's Day! My Nana loved music, I am not sure if she liked Janis, but I still do! That is crazy that you actually know what Fels Naptha is. I'd like to think that one of those bars you shipped made it into my home, at one time I used it on my kids clothes for stains. I never did scrub floors with it again. Lol

  6. My great-grandmother was a young widow with two sons, and she had to put them up in an orphanage as well. My great-grandfather emigrated with the intent of moving on to Australia, where he had family, but arrived in San Francisco just in time for the earthquake and fire. Being a stonemason, he was "drafted" to work in the reconstruction efforts, and he decided to return to New York, where he met my great-grandmother, married, and had two kids, one of them my grandmother, with her. They were able to get my grandmother's half brothers out of the orphanage.

  7. Bad, what an amazing story. It would probably make an even more amazing book! I wonder how many children of immigrants ended up in orphanages because there were no social programs to help these families? I really fear that we will go back to those kind of desperate times if we can't stop the shredding of whats left of the social safety net. Thanks for sharing.

  8. The reason people like Paul Ryan get voted into power is that America has the collective memory of a wooden stump. That's why reminiscences like yours are so important. They serve to remind us that, with the exception of a few very rich people, most Americans are one pay check, or one hiccup in the stock market, or one mortgage meltdown away from penury.

    I do hope people will pass your family history along, with your political observation about what it means to every American Citizen. On St. Patrick's day we may all be Irish, but as long as people like Ryan threaten our Social Security and Medicare, and Medicaid, and Obamacare, (aided and abetted, alas, by some Democrats willing to "compromie" with our security) we are also all just a day away from poverty.

    The New York Crank

  9. Crank, the only reason I can think of that people like Paul Ryan get elected is that the "Puritan Ethic" is still alive and well. The idea that anyone can just raise themselves up by their bootstraps on Walmart wages is preposterous. There is a mean spirited mindset that is present in this country, which makes me very cranky. I don't know if these Tea Party freaks realize that Social Security is in place for a reason. So our elderly are not left to work till they drop or just die in the streets. Everyone should have healthcare as a basic human right, like every civilized country has in place. It is despicable and cruel what the GOP and Democrats too are doing to our social programs. It's not that these people have the collective memory of a wooden stump, it's that they have the feelings of a wooden stump, probably the intelligence of one too.