Oct 31, 2011

Samhain

Jack-o'-lantern
I was going to blog on this Celtic holiday, the season marking the beginning of the dark half of the year. But I really don't think I have anything new to add to what I posted last year.

So, visit this post if you are so inclined. And be sure to visit a Google page today if you haven't already.

Happy Halloween, All Hallowed Eve, or the Eve of All Saints Day!

Oct 28, 2011

Happy Birthday, Lady Liberty!


The Statue of Liberty, originally called Liberty Enlightening the World, turns 125 today!

You probably learned the usual things about the statue in elementary school: she was a gift from the country of France, she stands in the harbor near Manhattan, immigrants saw her as they approached Ellis Island, and she's memorized in a number of ways--on money, in movies...

You've probably also heard the poem, or at least part of it:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" 
You can read my post on The New Colossus, the 1883 poem by Emma Lazarus, who was not an immigrant, by the way.

Seeing the Statue of Liberty up close was one of highlights of my trip to New York City. It was a beautiful day with clear blue skies, as you can see in these pictures. None of my ancestors, so far as I can tell, came through Ellis Island and had the experience of seeing the statue as they approached America. But many Americans with Irish roots did. Several nationalities came during the time Ellis Island processed immigrants, and an experience I hadn't anticipated was that when I was there, I too was surrounded by people from several ethnicities, speaking different languages. But we were all experiencing much the same thing, just like the ancestors who proceded us. This is a symbol of America, perhaps the greatest symbol.

From the base of the statue to the torch is 151' 11". From the base of the pedestal to the tip of the torch, it's 305' 6". It's just amazing to stand at the base and look up. What an engineering feat! The interior is constructed the way skyscrapers were so it can withstand strong winds. And that was before skyscrapers were built! The inside of the statue is hollow. The exterior copper covering of the Statue of Liberty is 3/32 of an inch thick (less than the thickness of two pennies) and the light green patina is the result of natural weathering of the copper. During the time my novels are set my characters would have seen her mostly copper-colored.

The first immigrant passing through Ellis Island was Annie Moore, an Irish teenager. She is memorized at Ellis Island with a statue. One can only guess what she must have thought when she got her first glimpse at Lady Liberty.
The Annie Moore Statue at Ellis Island

View from Battery Park


Learn more about the statue here: http://www.nps.gov/stli/index.htm

Oct 21, 2011

The Definition of a Park

While I was in New York I snapped this picture in Madison Square Park and posted it on Facebook, commenting that it was a park where you were not allowed to walk on the grass. Now, to be fair there are parks in the city where you can walk on the grass, but this one surprised this midwesterner a little bit.

Then while researching I came across this from a publication called The Survey, Volume 6
 By Survey Associates, Charity Organization Society of the City of New York, Jan-June 1901. It is referring to the parks that at that time had been recently established.

They still belong to a class of open spaces of which we have many in America the sort of place in which one finds asphalt paths bordered with little posts with curly wire nailed along the top and grass between. Places of this sort are well called breathing spaces you can go there and breathe but there is very little else you can do.

Oct 20, 2011

One Grave That Won't Be Forgotten

This is not an especially Celtic story, although it could be without my knowing it since I don't know the name of the man involved. However, he was someone who was a major contributor to a Presbyterian church where many of the members were of Scots-Irish descent. (Piney Creek in Taneytown, MD)

While searching for my husband's Thomson ancestors, we had a pleasant time talking to the church's current pastor, The Rev. Paul Matthews. The photo below is the pastor in the middle, Tom on the right, and one of the church elders (we unfortunately forgot his name.)

Rev. Matthews told me a story about one of the graves in the churchyard. He said when a man's house slave passed away, he wanted to have her buried at Piney Creek. This is a church right on the Mason-Dixon line and the congregation said no way, this is for our white church members. He insisted. They said no. He said, fine then. I'll bury her somewhere else, but I'll go too and take my tithe with me. Apparently he was a wealthy and generous man so they relented, saying he could bury her in the furtherest corner of the graveyard.

It's a wonderful story of a man standing up for what he believed was right. This woman, Sarah Agnes Brown, had served this man's family well for many years. She was a part of the family. Money talks, certainly. But in this case it seems like a justified means. The current church members think so too. They've taken very good care of all the old grave sites in this small churchyard. They are slowly going about pouring new concrete footings for the old markers. One of the first they finished was Sarah's. Here it is:

Oct 14, 2011

A Little Patch of Ireland

Would you have guessed this picture was taken in the United States and not Ireland? And even more surprising is that this patch of Ireland is actually in Lower Manhattan on the banks of the Hudson River.

It's the Irish Hunger Memorial, designed by artist Brian Tolle to recognize the Great Hunger in the mid 19th century, and opened in 2002.

When you walk through a tunnel, on which various quotes from and about the Irish are inscribed on the walls, you can hear the voice of the Irish.


Recordings play continuously, as though the rocks themselves speak with the voices of our ancestors. The walls are made from ancient Irish limestone. Very cool.

What's also cool is that every county in Ireland (32 of them) is represented by a stone. The stones actually came from those Irish counties, which is incredible when you see the size of some of them. We photographed the ones from the counties where our ancestors were born. The names of the counties are engraved on the stones. These are from Derry and Down.


 Irish vegetation is planted throughout and a guide to what is what is available at the site.

It's a beautiful memorial and a unique experience. If you find yourself in NYC, you should visit.

Oct 12, 2011

On The Genealogy Trail

I have long known that the Thomsons were quite the characters (and I married into the family anyway!)

But seriously some years ago Tom's grandfather, Don Thomson, shared some genealogical information he had received from another family member. He was quite proud to say that the Thomsons were related to Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress. And they were wealthy barons from Scotland. And their direct line came from a Revolutionary War soldier who was commended for bravery by General George Washington himself.

Being the genealogy buff I am, I was intrigued, and maybe even a little skeptical. Families often spread stories that are bent in flattering ways and passed down generation to generation.

I discovered that our Thomsons are related to Charles Thomson, who not only was a patriot and a well educated man who married into a wealthy family, but also translated from the original Greek the first American printed Bible. He was friends with Ben Franklin and had written down his memoirs. Before he died Charles burned his diaries, proclaiming that there was information that would not be flattering to our country's founding fathers and he wanted to preserve the legacy that Americans held dear. Oh, my. We will never know the nitty gritty it seems.

But all this pertains to a distantly related relative. I sought to find out more about Charles's cousin William from whom comes our Thomson line. It was said that he served at Valley Forge and was commended. The truth is he did serve at Valley Forge. He enlisted in January 1778 (yes that terrible winter we've all heard about) and he was 67 years old at the time! William's oldest son, Hugh, also served in a different PA regiment. William was an Adjutant Officer. I'm not sure how the army defined that at that time. Anyone know? You can find his name here spelled with a p: http://valleyforgemusterroll.org/regiments/pa9.asp
Inside Washington's HQ at Valley Forge

William did receive something from Gen. Washington, but it was not what Grandpa Don had thought. In May of 1778 William Thompson (Thomson) received a court martial. Here is the note attached to his file: Charged with failing to report when summoned by Major Francis Nichols. Thompson was acquitted; however was convicted of using "ill language." Washington understood the reasons for Thompson using the language and remitted the conviction.

We all got a good laugh over that. Not sure how old Major Nichols was but can't you see a 67-year-old man giving that young fellow a piece of his mind?
William Thomson's grave, Piney Creek Cemetery

William Thomson lived to the ripe old age of 89 (dying July 4, 1800) and was buried at Piney Creek Cemetery next to a Presbyterian church of the same name. There is more to the family story that I'd like to explore. It's said that he sold his farm with the plans of moving to Kentucky with his wife and his son and his son's family. But the American money he accepted for his farm turned out to be worthless. And his wife died. So they abandoned those plans and William moved to Taneytown, MD, and rented a farm there. It's there he died. Several other Thomsons are buried in this small cemetery (all spelled this way and not with a "p" or without the "h" as previous genealogists have claimed.)
Piney Creek Cemetery and Church in Taneytown, MD


The pastor of the church helped us find the graves. He was very interested. I'll blog more about the cemetery (and another interesting story about who is buried there) in another post later. And I'll share more about those Scottish barons as well. ;-)

Oct 8, 2011

Catherine O'Leary's Cow

Norman Rockwell painting of Catherine O'Leary and her cow.
On this day in 1871 Chicago burned. How someone could blame a woman (an Irish woman no less) for leaving a lantern burning in a barn is a perfect example of laying the blame elsewhere. Chicago had a population explosion, resulting in haphazard immigrant buildings made of wood. And the sidewalks and bridges were wooden along with some streets. The river was full of wooden vessels and businesses were in the practice of dumping grease in the water. It had hardly rained a drop for months. Only one water station existed for over 300,000 residents. Chicago in 1871 was ripe for disaster and that's what happened--four miles burned. Three hundred people died in the fire and thousands were displaced--perhaps as much as one-third of the population.

How did Mrs. O'Leary and her cow get blamed for this? Blame the media. A newspaper journalist later admitted creating the tale, but not until more than twenty years had passed. Apparently, however, Catherine O'Leary and her husband Patrick were chastised and family members say Mrs. O'Leary was vilified for the rest of her life. (Reminds me of Fred Merkle, player for the New York Giants baseball team who bore the blame for the Giants losing the pennant in 1908 when he failed to complete a play. He never lived it down, even when he stopped playing. He even thought they'd engrave his error on his tombstone.) There was speculation that another man dropped a match in the O'Leary's barn. But the real blame should rest on the lack of city planning. Unfortunately sometimes tragedy has to hit before safety measures and just plain good sense take affect.

In the late 1990's Chicago exonerated Catherine O'Leary. Too little much too late for her, however.