Michael Lacey Says Good-bye

Dale Fehringer

© Copyright 2015 by Dale Fehringer



Painting of Michael Lacey.

Imagine how hard it must have been for our ancestors to say good-bye when they left home for America. They were facing hardship, loneliness, and knew they would probably never see their families again. This is Michael Lacey’s story.

On the shore of Ireland, in 1878, an 18-year-old named Michael Lacey is about to board a ship and sail to the United States.  He stands on the dock with his parents.  It’s cold and he’s nervous, but he doesn’t want to get emotional.  He hugs his siblings and shakes hands with his father, promising to write.  Then, all that is left to do is to kiss his mother, and that's when Michael loses it. He blinks back tears and tries to keep his voice from breaking as he tells her he loves her.  Being away from his mother will be the hardest part of all.

Michael is leaving his home town of Ramsgrange, a small village in County Wexford, to seek a new life in America.  He is the second child and oldest son of Martin Lacey and Mary Barron.  He is from a farm family, and his father grows potatoes and grain, keeps a vegetable garden, and runs a small dairy.  

The steamship whistle blows, which means Michael has to get on board. He says a final goodbye and then turns and walks up the gangplank and onto the ship. He stands at the railing and waves at his family, who get smaller and smaller as the ship pulls away. Finally, when they are just black dots, he takes a last look at the Irish coastline, turns, gathers his belongings, and heads for a berth in storage. He’s only been away from his family a few minutes and already he has a gnawing in his stomach.

The next two weeks are filled with daily routines of walking the deck, eating meals, reading, sleeping in crowded quarters, and staring out at the ocean. Conditions on the steamer while primitive, are clean. Fortunately, Michael stays healthy during the crossing.

It’s a big day when the steamship nears New York and the Statue of Liberty comes into view. Passengers crowd onto the deck to see Lady Liberty, and they talk excitedly about what will happen next. At Castle Garden, the New York Immigration Station, Michael and his fellow passengers receive a medical inspection, baggage check, and shower. Michael buys a railroad ticket for Chicago. The train trip takes three-days. There are no sleeping berths, but Michael is young and strong and he gets through it. When the train arrives, Michael is greeted by his aunt, Johanna, and her husband, James Hogan, who will be Michael’s hosts.  

Irish immigrants are not well-accepted in America, and Michael has trouble finding work. Some newspaper ads say “Irish need not apply.” He drops the "e" from Lacey, and hopes the new name will sound less Irish and increase his chances of finding a job. He works in a flourmill, in the malt department of a brewing company, and in the stockyards. Eight years after arriving in the U.S., Michael marries Anna Barry, a young woman from the same part of Ireland as Michael. Anna immigrated to the U.S. in 1881, at age 18, and after arriving in Chicago, she worked as a maid in private homes.

Anna and Michael live four years in a rented apartment in Chicago, where their first three children are born. In 1890, a priest tells them about an Irish community being started in Nebraska. They talk it over and decide to leave Chicago. They pack their few belongings and their three children and take a train across Illinois and Iowa to the plains of eastern Nebraska. Their new home is a farm outside the start-up community of O'Connor, Nebraska, and they later move a short distance to Leo Valley, Nebraska. Seven more children are born in Nebraska.

Michael becomes a farmer; growing wheat, corn, millet, oats and raising cattle, hogs, and chickens. He makes extra money farming for neighbors and people who move to the cities.

Michael and Anna labor to make payments on their farm and feed and clothe their family.   Michael retains his Irish brogue and continues to use a few Gaelic words.  His granddaughter, Margaret, remembers he said "cap peen" for cap and "spalpeen" which she thinks means child (but which actually means rascal or scamp).

Michael's Irish relatives remember him being "right good on the pen" (letter writing) and Anna is also a prolific writer.  While they never see their Irish families again, they stay as close as possible by writing frequent letters to them – letters filled with news of births, deaths, marriages, illnesses, politics, friends, and neighbors.  The letters are bittersweet to receive, and they are read over-and-over and discussed with family and friends.  

Among the items passed down from Michael Lacy is a handwritten note from his mother.  It likely accompanied a Christmas gift, possibly money.  The year is unknown, but it is probably within a year or two of Michael leaving Ireland.  The writing is in lovely cursive penmanship, on all four sides of a small, folded note:

"To Michael Lacey, from your loving Mother,

     Hoping this may find you in good health and wishing you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

       We are expecting a letter from you daily. Uncle Tom is very poorly.  The doctors say he has an overgrown liver.

     Give my best to your Aunt and Uncle and the children. Tell her we are most anxious to get a letter from her.

     Good-bye for this time. 

 I remain your affectionate Mother.

M. Lacey

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