GATEWAY The main Ellis Island building in 1905, many emigrants’ first experience of America. Pic: Library of Congress, Washington DC
Thomas Seán Purdy
My Irish grandmother, Nora Oates Sheils, died tragically in 1922 when my mother was 18 months old. When I learned how – and when – she died, the details forever changed the way I celebrate St Patrick’s Day.
Nora Oates emigrated from Kiltimagh, County Mayo to the United States sometime in the early 1900s as a young and I believe a vibrant woman. Just as so many Irish immigrants were doing, she crossed the ocean by steamship to New York and passed through Ellis Island. She settled in Chicago, a city with a thriving community of Irish immigrants.
My mom told me it was there in Chicago she met my Irish grandfather James Sheils. He also had emigrated from County Mayo. They married in 1920, the year my mother Anna Mae and her twin sister Dorothy were born.
As my mom was growing up Irish relatives spoke of Nora Sheils as being very active in Chicago’s Irish community, organizing social get-togethers and dances. In early 1922, she went out to buy groceries to cook a meal for a couple of her husband’s business associates. Afterward she became sick and died.
Throngs of people came to Grandmother Nora’s funeral in Chicago, and the bouquets of flowers filled the church. Until last year I didn’t have many more details about my grandmother and her death other than these few shared by my mom.
My mom said her father tried for a year to raise his twin daughters as a single parent. The story goes he dropped his daughters off at a Chicago police station. An uncle tried to adopt them, but local child services authorities wouldn’t allow it because he already had several children of his own and little income. My mother and aunt were raised in an orphanage until they were 18 years old.
PART OF LIFE
Growing up in the south suburbs of Chicago, my mom made Irish culture a part of our household. My dad was a willing facilitator to these efforts though he didn’t claim any Irish ancestry. He would load our family of eight into our station wagon and drive us into the city to visit with mom’s Irish relatives, who were mostly second and third cousins. Many of those relatives still had traces of an Irish accent. The accent was music to the ears of my five siblings and I.
St Patrick’s Day was special to my family. At home we would have a special meal. My parents were both music lovers and would play albums by Irish artists, especially the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Guitars, banjos, vocals, fiddles, tin whistles and bodhrán drums enlivened our holiday.
The featured meat would be that typical American misrepresentation of Irish food, corned beef, first substituted for the bacon back home by 19th Century Irish immigrants. There would be the more traditional cabbage, carrots and potatoes all boiled together in a large stockpot. How amazing the kitchen smelled!
As a college student in Illinois I began the descent into excess that typifies so much of what Americans and people around the world associate with St. Patrick’s Day. There would be Irish music and corned beef and cabbage to be sure, but the emphasis was on drinking. And more drinking.
With perhaps a genetic predisposition to wanderlust, through my American university I signed up to study abroad at a college in London, England for a year. Though I would take a ferry to Calais, France on several occasions as an exchange student and spend Christmas in Barcelona, to my shame I never went west to Ireland.
Most of my adult life my friends and I would party on St Patrick’s Day holidays with abandon. There were years that if the holiday fell on the right day of the week, and responsibilities were at a minimum or could be ignored entirely, I would be well soaked by early afternoon. Just as likely, sleeping it off.
There were the annual parades in downtown Chicago, where the river would be dyed green. You would stand on the sidewalk along State Street four or five people deep. Marching bands provided energy, and politicians would ride by in convertibles and floats eager to hitch their election fortunes to the holiday.
I was happily and intensely Irish at least for that day. During the rest of the year I may have Irish coffee or Baileys Irish Cream some evenings, but I was Irish more in name only than everyday life.
As my parents eased into their senior years I would occasionally drive them into the city where we would gather with my mom’s Irish relatives at weddings and funerals. During one of these gatherings a distant cousin told me that because my maternal grandparents were born in Ireland, I could get dual citizenship and an Irish passport. I soon had the paper application mailed to me from the Irish consulate in Chicago but didn’t follow through by tracking down the necessary documents – yet.
My dad passed away in 2003 at the age of 80. After that when I would visit I would be sure to help my mom honour our Irish heritage. I would play CDs of Irish music, The Clancy Brothers still as well as The Irish Tenors. When she could still walk, there might be a little dancing in the living room. And on St Patrick’s Day, we would wear green clothes and eat our meal of corned beef and cabbage. I would be sure to get close to more than a few glasses of Guinness.
I had been back and forth to England several times over the years to visit friends from college but I still had not made a pilgrimage to Ireland. My mom entered a nursing home and her health began to fade. We had one last awesome St Patrick’s Day together in the nursing home’s visiting room.
My nephew and his wife brought dinner, you can easily guess what it was, and my girlfriend and I brought decorations. There were bright green paper shamrocks and necklaces, and a bouquet of gorgeous green Bells of Ireland. My mom sang Irish songs she could still remember from her youth. That evening, I promised her that one day soon I would travel to Ireland and County Mayo to pay respects to the land where her parents came from.
My mom died a few weeks later in April of 2019, easing gracefully into the next life without pain. In October of 2019 after visiting London to watch an American football game, I kept my promise and went alone to Ireland.
My plane landed in Dublin and I traveled by bus to County Mayo, the better to see the beguiling countryside along the way. When booking my hotel room by phone at the Park Hotel Kiltimagh, I asked if there was anyone who could help me learn more about the area. The owner suggested I contact Basil Burke, a local historian. He volunteered to meet me at the bus stop in Swinford and take me to the hotel to check in. Later he came by and took me to a local pub that had live traditional music.
The pub Teach Ó Hora gave me much more than a fine evening out. There was a session of traditional music starting at 9pm. The walls were wooden, there were stained glass windows and the ceiling was low. My spirits soared by the second.
My guide introduced me around to the locals, including to Paddy Walsh. Mr Walsh asked about my mother’s family and where in America I was from. I told him Chicago and he soon left our table. About 15 minutes later he returned. He had scribbled some names on a scrap of paper.
Mr Walsh said, “Are you by chance related to any of these people?” I looked at the names and my head began to spin. “What the -- sure Paddy some of these are my Irish relatives in Chicago!”
Mr Walsh then asked if I wanted to join him and fellow members of the Mayo Genealogy Group at a meeting the next day at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life, outside of Castlebar. We arranged to meet in the Tea Room in the early afternoon.
I arrived at the Museum’s Tea Room to join five fine gentlemen, seated around a café table with their laptops at-ready. Paddy introduced me and I gave them an overview of my quest. I told them I wanted to track down the birth dates of my maternal grandparents. To keep a promise to my mom I had the intention of getting the documents and records I needed to apply for Irish citizenship on the basis of my Irish-born grandparents.
I explained my mom had said the spelling of my grandfather’s family name was different than what she used as her maiden name, Shields. My grandfather’s name most likely was Sheils. I could name one of his brothers. My grandmother’s family name might also vary, appearing as Oats or Oates.
What followed was the most intense 90-plus minutes of my life that I ever had sitting down.
The gentlemen peppered me and each other with questions. ‘What did I know about when and where my grandparents were born?’ I could give them the name of an estate near Kiltimagh. My mother said her grandparents worked and lived there as laborers when her mother Nora was born. ‘How old were my mother’s parents when she was born?’ I knew their approximate ages when my mom and her twin sister were born.
The gentlemen traded and shared ideas on name spellings, genealogy resources and databases. They explained to me it wasn’t unusual for birth names to be entered phonetically in records. Spellings could accidentally change when these names were entered, transcribed or typed into 20th Century records – including those records made upon arrival at Ellis Island. My head was swimming.
I felt like I was moving back and forth through time as we attempted to track the lives of family members of long ago. Then came the shock of discovery and success: Nearly two hours after I sat down with my cup of tea and a glimmer of hope, the Genealogy Group found Grandmother Nora’s birth record from 1882.
Her name appeared in the birth record as ‘Honor’, a variation of the Irish and English language ‘Honora’. Shortly thereafter, the Genealogy Group found the record for Grandfather James from 1881. There on laptops in 2019 were images from the 19th Century birth registries.
Now in possession of dates as well as document and page numbers from the birth registries, I could go to the Mayo County Council records office in Castlebar and get copies of the original civil birth certificates. These key documents are among those needed to complete a Foreign Birth Registration application. That is the first step required by the Republic of Ireland to secure Irish citizenship.
If the pilgrimage to Ireland and getting the birth records of my grandparents was a high, the life-changing low came back in the United States.
In late January of 2020 I started researching, locating and requesting the remainder of the records. I would need the marriage certificate for my grandparents, my mom’s birth certificate and my grandmother’s death certificate. I also needed a certified copy of my own birth record.
The good news was that all of these events took place in Cook County, Illinois, the county that includes Chicago. That good fortune was reduced and the task made more difficult by that old bugaboo, the different spellings attached to people represented by the records.
The marriage record for my grandparents spelled my grandfather’s name as Shiels, my grandmother’s family name as Otis. Recall that on the birth records I acquired in Castlebar those family names were Sheil and Oats respectively. But I did with hours of effort and far less excitement than experienced with the Genealogy Group locate the information I needed to request the records.
So in early February through the website for the Bureau of Vital Records in Cook County, I downloaded request forms for the records. I sent off the request forms, self-addressed return envelopes and personal cheques to secure the records, one each for every record required.
The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the precautionary closing of Cook County offices brought my efforts to a standstill. Though I could see from my online bank statements that my personal cheques had cleared and my account debited the funds, no return envelopes from the Bureau of Vital Records appeared in my mailbox.
Several years earlier I had learned from my mother that my grandmother was buried in Mt Carmel Catholic Cemetery west of Chicago. Using the cemetery website I had found the location of Grandmother Nora’s burial plot. I had given the information back then to my oldest brother Brian. He and my sister Dee Dee had used the information to visit the gravesite previously.
Now I felt compelled to go there and honour my grandmother Nora. I would celebrate St Patrick’s Day with her. I poured a small quantity of Jameson Irish Whiskey for a graveside toast into a portable container and took to the highway.
I couldn’t find the grave, however. At that time of year there were too many fallen, decaying leaves obscuring the grave markers like my grandmother’s that were flush with the ground.
For three hours, with the temperature falling and the sun sliding down I walked the section of the cemetery where I knew her gravesite had to be. I used my foot to sweep decaying leaves from possible locations but to no avail.
Shivering, with the light of day nearly gone and the cemetery about to lock its gates I went back to my car. I played some Irish music through the stereo and raised my container of Jameson in the general direction of where I knew my grandmother’s grave had to be. I offered up a toast to her, my mother and my Irish ancestry.
Then the impact of the pandemic came hard and fast. In the three intervening months, the world and offices such as Cook County’s Bureau of Vital Records were shutting down or limiting what services they provided. But in June I received a few envelopes from Vital Records, and then the shock.
There on the copy of the Standard Certificate of Death, was the information that rocked my world. My grandmother Nora had died on March 17, 1922. St Patrick’s Day.
The information struck me as if I had just received a phone call telling me of the sudden death of a close family member. My eyes darted around the document for any clues to what happened.
In the fill-in-the-blank area of the document for cause of death, the doctor’s handwritten entries indicated he had attended the deceased from March 13 to March 17. He had last seen her alive on March 16. She died at 5am. The cause of death ‘was as follows’ Lobar Pneumonia.
I scrambled to my laptop and its search engine to find out what the word Lobar meant. I learned it meant the pneumonia had attacked one side of my grandmother’s lungs.
At the bottom of that section was a blank line labeled ‘Contributory (Secondary)’. If I had been heartstruck by finding out my grandmother Nora had died on St Patrick’s Day, the entry for that blank sent me in an emotional free fall. The handwritten entry was ‘5 Mos Pregnant’.
My mom and my aunt would have had another sibling! But how could being pregnant contribute to death from pneumonia? I learned through online research that pregnant women may be more prone to the flu and reduced lung capacity. This makes pregnant women more susceptible to complications like pneumonia.
I found little comfort in knowing these medical details and their likely impact for their own sake. My grandmother Nora was now a tragic heroine to me. Still reeling that same afternoon, I telephoned an Irish friend in Dublin who offered a comforting idea. The friend noted that Grandmother Nora had been suffering for days with pneumonia, first diagnosed by her doctor on March 13.
But Grandmother Nora clung to life. She held on so she could die on St Patrick’s Day, March 17, the traditional anniversary date for the death of the patron saint of Ireland. In that way, Grandmother Nora would always be connected to her native Ireland and Irish culture. She could be remembered on that day along with the patron saint.
I remain in awe of my grandmother Nora for having left County Mayo and Ireland in the early 1900s as a young woman, hoping for a better life. I am also saddened and pained.
St Patrick’s Day will never be the same for me. There won’t be the kind of excess or participation in celebrations that critics in recent decades have said reinforce negative stereotypes of the Irish people. No green beer. Probably no corned beef and cabbage either.
Instead, I’ll find a new way to honour St Patrick’s Day, just as the Irish and people of Irish descent all over the world must do in this age of Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns.
I’ll honour those family members like Grandmother Nora that have gone on before. I’ll listen to all kinds of Irish music and Irish performers. I’ll bake some scones and probably eat most of them. I’ll have a videoconference in the early afternoon with my new friends in the Mayo Genealogy Group. I’ll direct my laptop to the virtual events on Ireland’s St Patrick’s Festival TV (stpatricksfestival.ie).
And then with a little daylight left I’ll head to the cemetery where Grandmother Nora is buried. I’ll say a little prayer by her graveside, and tell her how very proud I am to be her grandson. And I’ll promise her that I’ll return to Ireland and County Mayo as soon as the lifting of travel restrictions permit. Amen.