My grandfather, Thomas Patrick Byrne, was born on March 12th, 1901 in Rathvilly, Co Carlow. Other than these basic facts of his birth, gleaned from his military discharge papers, no documents or memories of his first two decades survive among his descendants. We know that on March 1st, 1922 he “attested for the National Forces … at Carlow”. According to an army census book entry from November 1922, he served at Baltinglass Post, Third Division, Eastern Command. After a period of just under two years, he mustered out on January 14th, 1924. His daughter, my aunt Sissy, is not sure of my grandfather’s motivation in joining the Free State army, but she suspects it was an economic motive because she remembers her mother telling her Grandpa never had a steady job before joining and that what money he earned came from thatching roofs and whatever other odd jobs came along. She does not remember Grandma ever mentioning any political affiliations or involvements.
Separation papers note his address at that time as Tynock, Kiltegan, Co Wicklow, and his trade as sawyer. (On seeing the discharge papers recently my aunt Sissy commented that it was news to her that he had been at any time a “sawyer”.) Seventeen months later, on June 10th, 1925, in the Roman Catholic Oratory Chapel of Kiltegan, Thomas Byrne married Anne McDermott (known to family and friends as Annie), whose family had lived in Kiltegan for many generations. The record of their marriage in the General Register Office, Charlemont House, Dublin lists Thomas’s age as twenty-four, his “Condition” as Bachelor, and his “Rank or Profession” as Labourer. It notes the age of Annie (as she signed the document) as twenty-nine and her “Condition” as Spinster.
They settled among their kinsmen and, on April 4th, 1926, their first child, a son, was born. They named him Joseph Patrick. He was my father. In October of the next year a second son, Henry John, was born. Ultimately, Dad was the eldest of five sons and one daughter (the youngest), though only he and Henry (always known as Harry) were born in Ireland.
The story of Thomas and Anne Byrne is a familiar one in its broad outlines. Grandpa journeyed solo to America, seeking work that would allow him to gather sufficient funds to bring his family over. Lured by the promise of a better life that America seemed to offer, he set sail in early 1928. It being the eve of the Great Depression, the prospects for the future could hardly have been less propitious, but the looming disaster was not foreseen and the possibilities must have seemed bright to an immigrant willing to work hard. Initially, Grandpa stayed in Newark, New Jersey with his brother Joe, who was already settled there and who lent him the money for his passage. Grandpa was able to get a union book as a bricklayer tender in the International Hod Carriers and Common Laborers Union. A wage scale issued with the book shows that union workers were paid 87.5 cents per hour – when there was work.
Grandma stayed in Kiltegan, moving back in with her own family with their infant sons, taking care of the day-to-day, until it was possible to reunite the family in America. Because the worldwide economic downturn had not yet pauperised the largest segments of the economy, like construction, Grandpa was able at first to find work with sufficient regularity to finance the reunion in about a year. Back in Ireland, in January 1929, Grandma took the two boys down to Cobh (still widely referred to as Queenstown in those days) to get the necessary emigration documents. A month later they made the trip back to Cobh, boarded the SS Republic, and set out for America.
Once reunited, the young family stayed in Newark for a time, and then for a period in Jersey City. In both locations, being at the mercy of dwindling employment opportunities as the Depression deepened, they were forced to move repeatedly. Ultimately, they moved across the river to New York City – specifically to a neighbourhood known as Yorkville, which was predominantly made up of recent and more settled Irish immigrants and their descendants. By this time three more sons had joined the family: Thomas Patrick Jr (b 1930), Michael Francis (called Francis – b 1932) and John Peter (Jackie – b 1933). This last move came in April 1934, by which time the Depression had significantly blighted the economy, so that Grandpa was unable to find sufficient work as a hod carrier to keep his union book.
Their straitened circumstances as the Depression metastasised during the early years are displayed in their savings passbook. A balance in April 1931 of $100.96 dwindled steadily to $4.12 by June, and then a few dollars up a few down until a final entry of $1.22 in March 1932, followed by “Account Closed”. The children felt these lean years in simpler ways; the two oldest remembered periods of eating oatmeal three times a day.
The move to Yorkville was largely based on a job offer of superintendent of the building their apartment was in, which meant Thomas Patrick was responsible for all mechanical and janitorial issues. For his labour he got a small salary and a discount on the family’s rent. Given the economic tenor of the times, it must have seemed a godsend. Located on the upper east side of Manhattan, that building remained the address for the family for well over two decades.
The new situation in Yorkville temporarily brought them stability and for a while they thrived, relatively speaking. In 1936 the family grew again when a sixth child, this time a daughter, was born. Named Kathleen Anne, she was always called “Sister” by her brothers and was (and still is) known as “Aunt Sissy” to my generation.
In February 1940, the seeming idyll ended. Grandpa had been ill for months but, stoically, tried to push through it, keep working, take care of his family – the sort of simple heroism that often escapes notice. By February, however, he was forced to seek medical attention. The news was devastating: it was cancer, terminal, already widespread. Two months later he was dead. Everything changed.
The family was traditional in ways that many immigrant Irish (and other) families were, and among the values and beliefs that bound them, especially in circumstances such as these, were a mother’s fierce protective instincts and a focus on doing what seemed best for the whole family. A very traditional part of this focus on the greater good, in cases where the father passed away early, was the succession of the oldest male child to at least part of the mantle of leadership in the family, a move which could provide some stability in such an emotionally charged situation.
With a family of six children, ranging in age from fourteen to not quite four years old, the possibilities for a forty-four year old mother with no experience in the work force must have seemed very limited. In Grandma’s mind there was only one way to deal with the new economic situation, which was for my father to leave school and take a job. But, it seems, my father had developed his own views on the best means of surviving in the US.
Late in his life he told me one story of how the different viewpoints had played out, complicated by his sense of duty and the steadfast devotion to his mother that he shared with his siblings. He had just turned fourteen when Grandpa died and in two months was going to graduate from grammar school (which in America went up to eighth grade). “Joey,” she said to him the day of Grandpa’s funeral, “you’re the man of the house now. You’ve got to leave school and get a job.” He didn’t remember his exact response, only that he was certain beyond any doubt that a more long-term choice was the right way to go. So, with no little trepidation as he recalled, he told his mother that the only chance he had of helping out the family over the long run was to go beyond grammar school and graduate from high school. And he did just that, as did all five of his siblings.
Their circumstances after Grandpa’s death qualified them for public assistance, which Grandma accepted at first, but her pride and fiercely independent spirit soon ended that. Her breaking point came in less than two months. The school that Dad was graduating from required the boys to wear a suit, a thing none of the Byrne boys had. When Grandma petitioned the government agency for a small, one-time additional sum to purchase an inexpensive suit, explaining that the school required it, she was told gruffly by the caseworker: “He can wear what he’s got.” Grandma’s response – the exact wording is unknown, but when she was telling me this story Aunt Sissy chuckled – was to let the man know that they could keep their money, for the suit and everything else.
They survived by doing what they could to earn money and the other of life’s necessities through hard work and determination. The five boys did whatever odd jobs presented themselves: they shined shoes, hawked newspapers, swept out stores, and hung around grocery stores waiting for people who would pay to have their groceries delivered to their homes. These jobs usually earned a few pennies, sometimes a nickel. Aunt Sissy told me that occasionally one of her brothers would get to deliver the groceries of some well-to-do lady from Park Avenue and they would earn a dime. That was cause for celebration. The boys also participated, often victoriously, in local boxing matches where the winner in each weight class would get a new pair of shoes. According to Aunt Sissy, their new shoes were usually the only new article of clothing the boys had. She also remembers that their hard work made it possible that she always had a new dress for Christmas and Easter.
A couple of years after Grandpa passed away, Aunt Sissy started school, which allowed Grandma to seek employment. Her first job was cafeteria manager at a school; when that ended the only job she could find, cleaning offices, required her to work nights. But her tightly knit offspring were able to manage things by working together, when necessary with the guidance of the eldest. There were occasions, of course, when five strong-willed males had differing opinions of how things should run. One story, told to me on separate occasions by all three participants, illustrates how such situations were ultimately handled.
Thomas Jr decided at dinner one night that his idea about some family matter was better than Joe’s, and he voiced his opinion forcefully, thinking he’d have the support of the others. But in the middle of his mini-rebellion he was stopped short by a smack in the head. Puzzled, he looked over at Harry, who had delivered the smack and whom he thought would be an ally. Pointing to Joe, Harry simply said: “He’s the oldest.” End of discussion.
They all stayed close for the rest of their lives. (Only Francis and Sissy are still with us.) All five boys served in the military, most during times of war, then returned to the family home until they married. The building on the upper east side remained the family home for a while even after Grandma died, in September 1953. Later, when the four oldest were married and living elsewhere, the two youngest stayed with older siblings until they also married.
My generation includes twenty-one cousins from all six of Thomas and Anne’s offspring. These grandchildren all grew up in the New York metropolitan area and it was quite common during summers and vacation breaks for many of us to spend time in the households of aunts and uncles. Our Irish heritage was a conscious and quietly proud presence in all the homes, often blurring the distinction between cousin and sibling. And the bonds of family were continually reinvigorated in a collective sense, shared with many others in the Yorkville neighbourhood of equal Irishness, at the annual St Patrick’s Day gathering at Uncle Francis and Aunt Sheila’s home, which was held for more than thirty consecutive years.
Even today, though fully half of the grandchildren are now spread throughout the United States, the Irish flavour of our Irish-American identity remains an unbroken, if muted, thread that continues to bind us, bolstered by the marriage of many cousins to other Irish-Americans, and garnished, not diluted, by spouses of other ethnicities. Our shared Irishness remains a vital element of our blood relationships and these bonds spread roots among many of Thomas and Anne’s great-grandchildren – among whom, by the way, overtly Irish names (Liam, Siobhan, etc.) are more prevalent than among the grandchildren – as the latest generation of the Byrne family grew into its own adulthood.
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