Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Irish diaspora brought us The Great Shame and -- for many -- much better lives

Looking for some especially depressing books to read during St. Patrick's Day week, I chose The Great Shame, and the triumph of the Irish in the English-speaking world by Thomas Keneally. Keneally is an Australian of Irish descent who wrote such great books as Schindler's List, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and To Asmara. I've met Keneally several times and he looks a bit like a leprechaun (see book jacket). A leprechaun who can write!

It's an old story. Irish peasant gets sideways with his landlord, goes to jail and is convicted, and eventually is deported to Australia. Hugh Larkin was his ancestor who was shipped away in chains and, strangely enough, into a better life. He missed the Great Potato Famine, for one thing. There were jailers and landlords in Australia but not nearly so many. A man with grit and wit could make it there.

That's what so many Irish found during the diaspora. If they survived.

Thomas O'Shea, who somewhere along the line changed his surname to Shay, was born in County Clare, Ireland, on Dec. 20, 1815. He died in Clear Creek Township in Johnson County, Iowa, on May 14, 1879. According to his very precise gravestone at St. Joseph's Cemetery in Iowa City, he was "63 years, 4 mos, and 24 days." Not sure about the hours and minutes.

His wife was Ann (Anna, Annie) Agnes Burns, born somewhere in Ireland about 1825. My daughter Annie bears her name. My daughter was born on March 9, 1993, in Cheyenne in County Laramie, USA. Wonder how much of the Irish Annie is in our Annie? She's stubborn as hell and beautiful and smart. I wonder if she would have made it to the U.S. intact from famine-ravaged Ireland. I think so.

Annie and Thomas emigrated around 1850. It could have been earlier. But the cause is clear -- threat of starvation. The 1850 New York census shows Thomas Shay, 30, and Annie Shay, 23, living with their three children in Brockport in Monroe County, just a bit west of Rochester. The family left for Iowa about 1859, just in time to avoid most of the Civil War.

The 1870 federal census records show that Thomas Shay owned real estate worth $4,000 in Clear Creek Township, Iowa. It was 96 acres. He and Annie, 43, now had eight children. The youngest was Michael, 6. The family owned three horses, four mules, four milk cows, four "other cattle," and 18 swine. He and his family farmed wheat, corn, oats and (of course) "Irish potatoes." They harvested 15 tons of hay and produced 300 pounds of butter and 30 gallons of molasses.

Beats the hell out of eating weeds or grass, the only crops growing in the Irish countryside. Not an easy journey across the ocean and across half of the country. But, in the end, Thomas probably thought it was worth it.

Ann Burns Shay was buried next to her husband in 1909. By then, her youngest son Michael's first-born son Raymond was 16. Raymond's son Thomas was born in 1923 and, after he married Anna Marie Shay in February, 1950, I was born 10 months later.

There are many family stories mixed in with the data. And so many relatives named Michael and Patrick and Molly. Show a little imagination people! Our names are traded like baseball cards. My father was named after his great-grandfather Thomas from Ireland and his uncle Thomas, who died in 1918 from the Spanish flu. He was in the Iowa National Guard at the time with his older brother Ray. They were in France with the AEF. More Johnson County boys died of the flu than died in battle during World War I.

My middle name is Thomas. I have a younger brother Thomas. We call him Tom or Tommy. I have a nephew Thomas who is trying to get into medical school. My sister Molly is his mother.

We've done pretty well here in the States. My parents never traveled to Ireland to look up relatives. Neither did I. Maybe we're beyond that. The Republic of Ireland, until recently, was known as the Celtic Tiger and some Americans of Irish descent traveled back to The Old Sod to work. They may be back soon.

Happy St. Patrick's Day on Thursday.

I'll raise a pint to the dear departed -- here's to you, Pat! -- the living, and all those Michaels and Annies and Patricks and Mollys yet to come.


Anonymous said...

I did go back and try to look up relatives on Anna Marie's side-turns out her name is French!
de la Hett

Tani (Rabbitmoon) said...

Love this account of family....we are from the Scot decent with German....but, love family names and where they come from....at the end...did you forget the name Thomas? grin. Here's to all the Shay's I've know in the past and now the present! RIP Patrick~~our (my late husband) first Shay friend till the end. clank the bottles/glasses on Thursday. Sincerely Tani

Michael Shay said...

I do mention Thomas quite a few times, Tani. How could I leave it out -- it's my middle name!

tani said...

I know Michael Thomas and all the others you listed....just had to mention.....grin. have a grand St. Patrick's Day! (My maiden name is French too!)

Michael Shay said...

"The Year of the French" is one of the best historical novels about Irish history. In 1798, the Irish peasants rise up, as they did every other week or so, and the French come to the rescue. It ends badly. Perhaps one of those French soldiers stayed around long enough to dally with and even marry an Irish lass.