This column didn’t run for two weeks last month because I went back to Ireland to find the cottage where my great-grandmother, Kate McDonnell, lived. Traveling with me were my wife, my mother, Mary (Haggerty) McLaughlin (84) and her brother - my Uncle Joe Haggerty (90). They knew Kate - their grandmother - when she was an old woman and they were children.
My mother and uncle are spry, but I suspected the red-eye flight from Boston would wear them out. We landed in Shannon at 6:30 am Irish time and, figuring they would need to rest, I arranged an early check-in at a B&B in nearby Doolin so they could lay down while my wife and I toured the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher. Instead, they opted to come with us. We toured County Clare all day and came back to O’Connor’s Pub in Doolin that night. After dinner and a couple of pints of Guinness, I was nodding off and I had to drag the two senior citizens out of the pub so I could go to bed. They had more staying power than I did.
The next morning, we took a ferry to the Aran Islands. Weather was unusually good and Joe said it was the best day of his life. Aran natives speak Irish (Gaelic) as a first language, but switched to English as they graciously answered our questions. The next day, we toured Connemara in County Galway. Day four, we toured County Mayo, then went to a pub while my wife climbed Croagh Patrick in the drizzle - a mountain that looks just like Baldface in Chatham, NH. On day five we arrived in Crossmolina.
Great Grandmother Kate McDonnell left a village near Crossmolina in County Mayo and emigrated to Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania somewhere around 1880-85. If people from northern Mayo went to America, that’s where they tended to go because they’d know people who’d gone over before them. I’ve had to reconstruct Kate’s story because a great-aunt’s detailed records were lost in a flood. From what I’ve gathered, Kate wasn’t born in Crossmolina but her father moved the family there “from the south.” South Mayo? South Ireland? We don’t know. The McDonnells went to Crossmolina with another family - the Haggertys or “Hegartys” as they spell it there. Were they poor? Hungry? Politically oppressed? All three? We don’t know. Peter Hegarty evidently wanted Kate McDonnell, but something took him to Donegal. When he returned, he learned Kate had gone to Pennsylvania. He followed her there and married her when she was sixteen. We could think of that as a nice love story, but there’s another version: When Peter went to Donegal, Kate emigrated to avoid an arranged marriage. He pursued her to America and called in the obligation. I’d prefer the first story were true, but who knows? Kate didn’t talk about Ireland. Whatever happened, their first child was my grandfather, John Haggerty, born around 1886. I knew him. He died when I was six.
As was the case last summer when I was in County Donegal looking for Great-Grandfather James McLaughlin’s farm, Mayo people went out of their way to help us find Kate McDonnell’s cottage. Another relative had visited there thirty years ago and found it, but her directions weren’t specific except that it was in a hamlet called “Rathkell” near Crossmolina. There are lots of McDonnells and Hegartys thereabouts, but I couldn’t use the local records because neither Kate nor Peter had been born there, hadn’t died there, hadn’t married there, and didn’t have children there. Also, they left nearly a hundred thirty years ago. However, we found what we believe to be the ruins of her cottage.
The McDonnells and Haggertys interest me because, unlike every other branch of my family, there’s no apparent history of alcoholism. Kate’s father, Mark, had been a schoolmaster banned from teaching, and that jives with Irish history I’ve studied. In their efforts to Anglicize Ireland, British conquerors passed laws prohibiting many aspects of Irish culture such as speaking Gaelic, practicing Roman Catholicism, or teaching Irish history. Most of these “Penal Laws” were repealed by the early 1800s, but discrimination lingered all over Ireland into the early 20th century, and in Ulster into the 21st.
Mark McDonnell taught his own children however, and a good education was unusual in a poor Irish immigrant girl like Kate among Wilkes Barre’s coal-mining families. When her husband, Peter, died at forty of black lung disease in the mines, Kate took her family to Boston so my grandfather wouldn’t follow him into the hole. She placed a high value on education for her children too, and my grandfather was the only one who didn’t go to college. He apprenticed as a cigar roller - a trade that went the way of buggy whip makers. The McDonnell/Haggerty branch of my ancestors were “lace-curtain” Irish, whereas the rest were “shanty” Irish I hate to say, but the more research I do the more that notion is reinforced.
Next I’ll research the Sullivans and the Fitzgeralds, both from the south of Ireland somewhere. Great-grandfather Eugene Sullivan became a cop in Cambridge while Great-grandfather John Fitzgerald played piano in Boston barrooms. Both were known to be over-fond of whiskey. Should be interesting.