I wish I had known my seanmháthair

Leigh Margaret O'Brien

© Copyright 2023 by Leigh Margaret O'Brien

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I never knew my Irish grandmother, Margaret Mary Manning, as she died when my father was just 12. However, I know that she was large, quite tall for the time in which she lived – 5’10” when she registered at Ellis Island upon her arrival in the U.S. at the age of 23 on April 23, 1916 – and sturdy; big-boned, some might say. These physical attributes were probably a reflection of the Manning family’s Norse ancestry. Certainly the Celts, who settled Ireland long before the Viking raids began, were not large people as a rule. One of the two pictures I have of her hangs on a narrow slice of wall at the bottom of our staircase. It appears to have been taken before she left Ireland and shows a young woman wearing a soft white blouse and dark skirt, with a fabric flower pinned at her waist, thick unruly brown hair, and large eyes downcast, perhaps suggesting she was demure. But she had to be strong to cross the Atlantic by herself with naught but what she could carry; I like to think that her Viking ancestry stood her in good stead during the voyage.

The trip on the steamer Saint Louis, which started in Cobh, Ireland, and struck out across the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean from Liverpool, England, was most likely hellish as her family didn’t have much money and so steerage with the multitudinous other impoverished Irish was her likely fate. When I asked my father why she left her home, he told me, “There was nothing left there for her.” Since Ireland at the time was still recovering from the famine years, Margaret’s family was large, and one of her brothers would inherit Rathcallan, the family home, he was probably right. In fact, she was just one of close to 250,000 young, unmarried Irish women from the province of Munster (where demographic and economic changes had had a significant impact) who emigrated to the U.S. between 1885 and 1920. Munster lost a quarter of its population, the majority of whom were female, to emigration during this time.

Margaret was well-educated and well-read for a woman of her time, especially one raised in Ladysbridge, a small rural town (with the clichéd two pubs and two churches on each corner of the only intersection) in County Cork, close to the ocean but not much else. As with the imperative to leave home, however, being well-educated was apparently not as rare as I had thought. Janet Nolan, the author of the fascinating book Ourselves Alone, notes that young Irish women from rural areas were, in essence, being “trained” to emigrate by staying in school longer, thereby acquiring the skills needed to succeed in urban areas abroad. In sum, emigration provided a relief from worsening conditions at home, as well as a route to an independent adult status abroad.

Margaret’s life before emigration most likely comprised typical female roles of the time and place: cooking, cleaning, taking care of the little ones and the menfolk, perhaps spending some time in household service at a nearby farm. Her early life took part during the economic stagnation of Ireland during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in the south and southwest; this was very likely a precipitating factor in her leaving home, as it was for so many other young, unmarried Irish women. For most rural women, the only way during this time to realize their material expectations and achieve economic independence was to emigrate to cities abroad, especially in the United States. Their emigration was often financially subsidized by relatives who had already moved abroad as was the case with my grandmother. This support was then typically repaid by those living and working in the U.S. sending what they could afford to help family members who remained in Ireland.

Many young Irish women achieved a high degree of economic and social independence abroad. Domestic service also freed these women from direct participation in the rough and tumble conditions of capitalism in American cities at the time. While household service may have been arduous and the hours long, health and safety conditions for workers in middle-class homes were far better than those experienced by women in unregulated factories, sweatshops, and tenements. Furthermore, by learning the manners and mores of the middle class during their time in service, they were facilitating the later assimilation of their American-born children.

However, although many Irish women were, following immigration, willing to work in domestic service and remain within the family economy, they also expected to earn a decent wage, marry, and have children – all aspects of Irish life in the first half of the 19th century. Early and universal marriage remained a trend. In addition, the Irish women living in England and the U.S. also tended to marry other Irish; their Catholic faith was central to this inclination, but cultural factors were also central to this endogamy among the Irish in America. Not only did most Irish abroad marry other Irish, they tended to marry those from the same area of Ireland. My grandmother is a case in point as she married a Catholic Irishman who, prior to immigration, had lived nearby, although it’s not clear if they knew each other then.


After she made her way through the rigors and embarrassments of immigration (Irish proscription: You don’t wash your dirty linen in public), she took the train from the metropolis of New York City to the suburbs of Wakefield, Massachusetts (about 12 miles from downtown Boston), where she lived with relatives who had emigrated before her. She soon found work as a domestic, as so many young Irish immigrant women did. Once again, their fate was her fate. A few years later she met and married my grandfather, David O’Brien, who, as it happened, came from Garryvoe, a town hard by the sea, just three miles south of Ladysbridge. Theirs was a marriage of convenience, as most marriages of the time were, although the second picture I have of her suggests she was not unhappy: she’s smiling for the camera, standing next to my nattily dressed, cigar smoking, and slightly shorter grandfather outside the typical Boston-area duplex they owned and in which they were raising their four children.

They brought the culture of the island where they were born and raised with them, of course, and this church- and family-focus was, I gather, relatively easy to maintain as they were surrounded by large numbers of Irish immigrants of the same age and with the same, or very similar, backgrounds. Later, my father, the “golden boy,” according to his sister, broke the code and married not just a woman who was not Irish, but one who was, saints preserve us, not Catholic. I wonder how his mother would have responded had she still be alive when this transpired…

My father and his older sister, Mary Margaret, the first-born child and only daughter, had nothing negative to say about their mother. Unlike her husband, who had his own work to attend to, she read to her children – books, poetry, and Bible verses – and made sure they were well fed, dressed in clean clothes, supported in their schoolwork at Saint Agnes, and knew they were loved. My dad told me that when she died, of kidney failure following a difficult pregnancy and delivery at the age of 43, people tried to comfort him by saying, “she’s with God now.” He was having none of it. As a 12-year-old, he needed her to stay with him; he wanted to wail, “But what about me?” It’s not totally clear why she died at such a young age, although my father believed it was because his family didn’t have enough money to continue to pay for her medical care. Margaret’s younger sister, my grand-aunt Tess, believed – and wasn’t shy about saying – that if David had just left her alone, she would not have died. And my aunt Mary believed, as she relayed it to me, that when her father was bringing her mother home from the hospital to die, she asked him if she could see the ocean one last time. Apparently, he had chores to do and did not want to detour on their way home. She did not get her wish.

Go mbeadh Dia leat, Grandmother.

From my earliest days, I’ve been a prodigious reader and hence have informally learned how to write to capture the reader’s attention (I hope). I’ve also been interested in – and very much enjoyed – teaching since I was first asked to teach swimming lessons at the pool where my siblings and I spent most of our summers. After I finished my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, both in Education, I became a preschool teacher and administrator before returning to college to earn a doctorate focused on why teachers in various settings teach as they do. I then spent 30 years in post-secondary education where I had the opportunity – and often the obligation – to write and publish so that I could gain tenure and be promoted.

I also took writing classes on and off for years. Now, I’m using my retirement, in part, to move past academic writing to both fiction and non-fiction writing. I’ve been working on a memoir, for example, hoping it will soon be the right time to find an agent and see if I can get the book published, and I currently have three short pieces under review for a literary publication from our local library.  

I have 28 refereed academic publications (several co-authored), one co-edited book, six book chapters, and numerous book and article reviews, as well as a few other publications to my name.

While I’ve submitted non-academic work occasionally and have had a few pieces published online and one poem published in a college collection, I haven’t been as “successful” as I had hoped to be. This is now my focus.

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