Sunday, March 14, 2010

My WIld Irish Great-Grandmother

While I refuse to participate in the nonsense that is the American St. Patrick's Day celebration, I actually appreciate the more obscure events that happen at this time of year that are tied in to the holiday, like the beef stew luncheon I went to yesterday.

And today I was honoring my Irish heritage by sitting in the tiny Keeper's House at Shockoe Hill Cemetery listening to a talk by Dr. Nicolas Wolf about 19th and early 20th-century Irish immigrants.

My O'Donnell great-grandparents arrived in this country in the first decade of the 20th century, so I was curious.

I'd never been to this cemetery, nor did I realize how close it was to J-Ward; next time I'll walk.

I wondered briefly if the rain would postpone the event before it occurred to me that this was exceptionally Irish weather, gray and drizzly.

Dr. Wolf's first comment was to that effect, "How about this balmy warm weather? In Ireland, they'd be wearing shorts."

I was surprised to learn that of the half a million Irish who came to the colonies in the 18th century, fully three quarters of them were Protestant.

Between the high birth rates and the fact that most were tenant farmers, there was understandably a lot of pressure to leave.

Another million came in the 19th century, including even poorer and less skilled people.

By 1850, Tredegar Iron Works' menial work force was predominately Irish.

Wolf put it more bluntly.

"If it involved a shovel or heavy lifting, the Irish did it."

Apparently subsistence farming gives a person few marketable skills.

And the first St. Patrick's Day Parade in this country?

Georgia 1833; who knew?

By the time of the Civil War, the Irish were celebrating St. Pat's Day throughout this country, including the 2,100 Irish in Richmond.

But, as Wolf pointed out, not celebrating it quite like it is currently being done a la Shamrock the Block in the Slip.

"Did you see it down there yesterday?"

No, I didn't and for a good reason.

By the time my great grandparents arrived on our shores, there were far more Irish living outside Ireland than in it.

Accordingly, Wolf said that the history of Ireland can't be written without acknowledging the Irish living outside Ireland.

Which brings me to my great-grandparents.

My favorite story of my Irish great-grandmother came from my grandmother's early days as a new bride, living with her in laws.

Apparently Mrs. O'Donnell (as my great grandmother was known to all) listened religiously to her "stories" on the radio every afternoon.

One time, my grandmother was in a nearby room using the sewing machine when her finger got caught under the needle, piercing it through.

My grandmother was too afraid of disturbing Mrs. O'Donnell's soap operas to holler for help so she sat there with the needle embedded in her finger until my great-grandmother's stories ended.

Needle, bloody needle.

Such is the power of an Irish matriarch.


  1. Glad you enjoyed the event! Come back soon - lots of events are being scheduled there.

  2. Jeffry,
    First, I want to come back on a nice day and just explore the cemetery, but I'll definitely be back for events, too. What an interesting place to experience local history!