Photo Album: An Ocean Away
My paternal great-grandmother Violet May Carroll McHale was born in 1906 in Castlebar, Mayo, and raised as a farmer’s daughter. She and her sisters (Delia, Lucy, and Jane) did much of the grunt work that was usually reserved for males, since their father Martin had a bad leg and couldn’t do it on his own. Violet eventually had to leave school completely at about age 10 to help keep the farm going with jobs like cutting peat and bringing in the potato crop.
When Martin died in 1920, their mother Sarah sold the farm, and the women made their way to America under the sponsorship of Bill Elliott, as his part in a marriage arranged between him and Delia (or “Geenie”), the oldest. They settled in Brooklyn on Fulton Street, in a tenement where the subway ran just outside their window. Grieved, homesick, and fragile after a weeks-long voyage in steerage, Sarah did not last long in their new home, and died soon after arriving.
Violet helped support the family by working as a “liver-outer,” a maid who resides off-site. She would later work in a factory, making gauges during WWII. Before that, though, she married John Patrick McHale (a Liverpudlian with Irish parents) and they had five children: Violet (called “Snookie” after Fanny Brice’s radio persona Baby Snooks), Ellen, Anne (my grandmother), Jack, and Janie.
Living to be 103 awarded my nanny the distinction of being the oldest and first native Irish person I knew. Though she wouldn’t revisit Ireland until 1969 (she came back saying the place had regressed), she kept enough of it about her to passionately imprint her experience of it on her children and grandchildren. She loved attention and never wasted it, carrying on the oral tradition of the seanachies in a more unofficial but still essential way – holding forth at family gatherings with stories from her childhood. Without attempting voices, she brought each word and inflection to life with unique emphasis, so that we could see it unfolding ourselves.
She peppered our lives with sayings that still earn the odd look when mentioned outside the family circle. The disdainful proclamation of too light a meal as a “daisy in a cow’s mouth” rings in my ears to this day in her voice. I can’t even be sure I heard her say it myself; it might well come from my father, remembering the grandmother who epitomized the term “spitfire.” Talk of Nanny never fails to bring an ear-splitting grin to his face, a shake of the head and the declaration, “She was a nut.” Which she was – of the highest order.
She protected her family with a force of will bigger than she was: turning champion in the time it took to stretch out a hand to whomever needed her, and say “Come with me” – and off they’d go to slay a dragon.
That assertive nature lent itself to a temper which flared at infrequent moments, like the naming of her first great-grandchild, my cousin Sean. Nanny held that the correct spelling was S-H-A-W-N, even calling the Irish Consulate for support. No one heard the response, just a pause before she shouted “You’re wrong, you’re WRONG!” and slammed down the phone.
She found immense happiness and gratitude just in being alive. She must have missed home bitterly, so fierce was the effort she put into giving us all of it that she could. A life’s mission was to make tea drinkers out of her offspring, serving it on china and sweetening the deal with Twinkies. She taught herself to play the accordion at 42 and kept it up well into her 90s, insisting that without music, it wasn’t a party. With a “Give us a step!” from Nanny, her granddaughters Mary Anne and Kathleen would break into the step dances they learned in their lessons, to her utter delight.
At one event she attended, the highlight of the evening was supposed to be the Irish tenor performing. Nanny stole the spotlight, starting a conga line in the audience that no one dared to resist. After another gathering that was more spiritual than musical, she patted the host (my uncle Tom) soberly on the back, saying, “You did your best – but it was a flop.”
She lived through some hardships I don’t know and others I can’t bear to imagine, like losing her only son to a heart attack at 48, in that perversion of the natural order that would rock the foundations of most, and make smiles impossible. Yet her Catholic faith was rock-solid; she had a special devotion to the Blessed Mother and said the rosary every day, and I remember her as one of the happiest people I’ve ever known (“an advocate for the fun and lively,” as her daughter puts it). I’ve only now begun to realize what tenacity that must have taken, to be such a steady wellspring of joy for the little ones she loved so very much, whom she insisted could do no wrong. I know I’ve inherited her flair for drama; I hope I have some of her strength.
In her later years, my dad was inspired to record her. I thank God he did; I can watch Nanny in her element with the touch of a button, challenging small children to spell words like “transubstantiation” and “paragraph,” even spelling them proudly herself, for the benefit of the camera, the beloved grandson manning it, and her rapt posterity. I’d swear she can hear me laughing, that the twinkle in her eye is for me, as a proud speller and attention lover in my own right.
I am by descent a third-generation Irish American, a title I learned to employ only recently. In the older and deeper recesses of my mind, I am simply Irish, because Nanny told me I was, and made me want to be more than anything in the world. She instilled a nascent but passion-infused idea of what we take from that heritage: a love of family and home that transcends either’s presence; a hearty respect for a good story, which earns even more if it can also be a song, and wins the night if it has a beat fast enough to dance to; and a pervasive gratitude to God and the people who came before us, who formed our futures, sometimes at a cost to their own, with a heartrending spirit of self-sacrifice that inspires and terrifies me still. It’s to live in the present with a piece of your heart in the past, and a glass raised to what’s to come. ♦