Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Irish Genes: 36 Million stories

Read today in the Huffington Post that 36 million of us can trace at least part of our heritage to Ireland. The Emerald Isle is tiny, but here we are alive and well, balancing our fine fannies on mahogany chairs tonight at one of the many Irish pubs in Boston, New York City, Providence, Washington, DC, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and elsewhere in this great green land of ours.

On this day more than any other, I think of my family making their way here to this country from the towns (and countries) they called home more than 100 years ago. They came from Poland, England, Quebec (Canada), and Ireland.

My Irish ancestors came from two counties -- Tipperary (O'Brien) and Kilkenny (Hogan). The story I know best is about Brigid McGrath leaving the port at Cork with eight or nine children in tow in 1851. Her husband, John O'Brien -- the father of my great-great grandpa Patrick O'Brien -- stayed behind in Ireland with two or three other children, a girl and two boys.

What they left behind that year was no party. We all know that story.

Brigid and the children's ship set sail on what I imagine to be a barebones journey across the Atlantic that would take almost a month. Her brother-in-law J. J. O'Brien, a priest at the Church of the Poor in Los Angeles, arranged passage for Brigid and the children to Rhode Island.

They ended up in Pawtucket. I know this because Brigid is buried in the cemetery at St. Anne's in that town. (I hear there's still one space open in the family plot there.)

I remember a disparaging phrase that my mother or my grandmother or my great uncle Rollo would say one occasion when they were mad at each other: "Aw, go to Pawtucket!" Hmmm. There's a reason my mom never took her kids there.

A few months after Brigid got settled, I guess with other relatives, her husband John came over in June. Records show his life in America was short. He died that September. We all wonder if he died of a broken heart from leaving his homeland no matter how miserable it was back then with all the blight and whatever else was going on.

So here's Brigid left with all these children. How she made it through is the stuff of fiction, I guess, since no one's around to tell the tale these days. Or maybe Frank McCourt will come back from the dead to tell the tale. As I heard the story, Patrick O'Brien grew up fast and helped support the family as best he could.

When he met Ann Hogan, she was living in South Providence when it was a good neighborhood. Patrick had black hair and eyes as blue and sparkling as Narragansett Bay. The engagement was a short one. They had a daughter, Mary, and a son, Christopher (Christy) who both spent time in LA. I have no details of their life in Southern California, but I'm imagining Hollywood, of course, and the birthing of the film industry.

Patrick and Ann's third child, Ellen, was their last. She was my great-grandmother, and everyone called Nellie.
The sad thing is that Patrick died on the day Ellen was born. Every photo of Ann I've ever seen shows her dressed in black - forever the widow.

Nellie grew up to teach grade school in Providence around the turn of the century. She fell in love with a French-Canadian pharmacist, Armand Vanasse, whom she married in 1902 (I think), and the story continues . . .

Here's to the Irish, my children Erin and Sean, memories of all that's gone before . . . and to whatever carries us across our tomorrows.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Baja and the Humpbacks

Back from the Baja . . . Imagine looking over the side of a little motor boat and seeing humpbacks swimming and jumping out of the water just a few feet away.

Not far from shore, in the Cabo San Lucas harbor, these baleen whales (who don't eat people, just krill and other tiny fish) teach their babies to survive in the water, which is full of humans in all kinds of boats.

People applaud the humpbacks, and the creatures seem to like it. But when I looked over the side of my little boat and saw a mother whale right underneath us, all the air left my body and everything stopped . . .

The water was so clear I could see the markings on her tail, which looked shell white through the waves. When she surfaced she made a deep sighing sound.

Surfacing just a few feet away from us, this whale had scars all over her back. Maybe you can see them in the top photo.

Erin, my daughter and travel companion on this trip, took these photos. With everything happening so fast, it's astonishing that she managed to capture any images at all. Remember the boat was rocking, the whales splashing, stomachs lurching . . .

More to come soon . . .