Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A foray into Ireland and fiction - sort of

Author Joan Scanlon Bennett

By Joan Scanlon Bennett

My Great Grandfather

On the warm and foggy morning of June 24, 1864, Patrick Michael O' Fallion stood at the rail of the Argosy gazing on, for the first time, the shores of America.

Thus began Terence Fallon's biography of his great grandfather's life, which he had chosen to record for his Writing Class assignment.

Terence had become enthralled with the stories he had begun listening to as a small boy on his father's knee. They were always about family members and the trials and tribulations caused by England's aggressive seizure of lands and property that rightfully belonged to the Irish people.

Terence was particularly interested in his great grandfather's history, as he was the first male member of the O'Fallion family to emigrate to the United States at the end of the Irish Famine.
Early photo

A million or more natives of Eire died of starvation. Patrick Michael and his family barely survived. It was then with what little money the family could scrape up, passage was procured for Patrick on the Argosy bound for America.

Patrick Michael, Terence continued, was awed by what he beheld as the ship's captain maneuvered the vessel around ships anchored along the docks on either side of the wide Hudson River. Anxious to disembark as fast as possible Patrick hopped over the railing and landed on the dock twenty feet below.

Not knowing how to find Battery Park, where he was to meet a friend who had left home before Patrick and who had lodging he would share, he decided leaving the waterfront was wise but he'd better ask a copper for directions.

He was in luck as the officer, himself an Irishman, understood Patrick's brogue and steered him in the right direction.

Patrick's education has been cut short when the English government in Ireland closed the Catholic schools run by the orders of priests and brothers across the country. Patrick spoke and read the Gaelic Irish language but had not mastered English so he found it difficult looking for the street signs the copper had given him.

His only recourse was to ask fellow pedestrians for help. Many would ignore him while others laughed listening to his brogue. I will work on that he thought to himself. If I am going to make a life here in America I will learn to speak correctly.

Daniel Lynch began to worry, thinking that his friend might have missed the boat or was hopelessly lost in the unknown city of New York.

His concern turned to gladness when Patrick arrived tired but none the worse for wear. Tears filled the eyes of both men so happy they were to be reunited after years of separation.

Terence, of course, knew the rest of the story of his great grandfather's life so he continued with the tale. Perhaps his readers would find it amazing,  as he did.

Daniel brought Patrick to his humble lodgings on Houston Street, put the pot on the coal stove for tea and then began to explain what the life of an Irishman in New York City was like.

"We are not welcome in this city, Patrick," he began.

The only work we get is the grunt work, no matter we have skills or not. Some of us fellas who have proven ourselves have been able to join the fire department or even the police department but we're few and far between. Many a soul have joined the Army or Navy so as not to starve while looking for work."

The tea had steeped. Daniel filled two tin cups and continued the enlightenment of Patrick.

"You are welcome to stay here while you search for a job or you can come with me to the Navy recruiting office. I'm off to fight for the Union. Freedom for the slaves of the South, equality for all men."

Terence felt a great pride as he researched this part of his grandfather's history and typed it into his computer.

It took but a short time for Patrick to think about joining the Navy, saying "Danny boy, I'll be right behind you on that line tomorrow morning."

He was already thinking of what skills he would be taught that would serve him well in the future.

Unfortunately life as a sailor was very boring so Patrick spent every free moment perfecting his English and reading every book he could get his hands on. He read first the Bible as he had easy access to it then he perused the ship's training manuals in order to acquaint himself with various trades he might like to learn.

Nothing intrigued him but he was sure when he decided on a career, as he saw it, he would reach his goal.

One long year aboard the warship was enough for Patrick and when the Civil War ended, the North victorious, he was not required to remain in the Navy.

The Port of New York was teeming with soldiers, sailors and even Marines when his ship docked. Groups of longshoremen ran from ship to ship unloading cargo.

Patrick thought to himself, "I could do that kind of work, but no thanks. It's an honorable job but not for me."

He hurried away from the docks heading toward the Brooklyn Ferry. Back home, in Ireland, Patrick preferred country life to living in Dublin or Cork so rather than suffocating in New York City he knew he would find a less vibrant lifestyle in Brooklyn where he planned to take up residence.

The money Patrick earned while in the service was used to rent a small home walking distance to the ferry but rather than search for employment in New York he searched the local newspaper's want ads.

His first job was janitor in a small newspaper office. The managing editor noticed his love of the written word and began giving him stories to cover.

Thus began Patrick's writing career, wrote Terence toward the end of

the biography.

My great grandfather authored several books on a range of topics including the Irish famine, his experiences as a sailor during the Civil War, treatment of the Irish immigrants in America and the love of his life, my grandmother, Mary Rose McFadden, herself a poet.

Great grandfather, Terence concluded, was not an extraordinary man but in my eyes he used the intelligence he was gifted with to make a mark on the world and leave a legacy for his descendants to be proud of

Editor's note: This story, a mix of family history and fiction, is a new feature of this blog. Aye, and it celebrates that Ireland's Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University is right here in Great New Haven.


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