PLUNK GENEALOGY -- see "Family" label on this blog and/or write Mike at

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Irish Branch of the Tree

When a youngster asks, “Where did I come from?”, parents usually provide one of those birds & bees pamphlets to explain the sensitive process. What young people might mean and should ask is, “Grammy, where did our family come from?”

Most of us never had those conversations with our grandparents and, therefore, have lost connections to family history that made us who we are. Fortunately, I’m married to a part-time genealogist who has introduced me to my past which, it turns out, is a microcosm of the immigrant experience in this country.

Let me take you on the first couple of steps back. My handsome, red-headed father, William Palmer Thomas, was the only child of his red-haired parentsWilliam Edwynn Thomas and the petite Mary Michael Manley Thomas. As a child, I dubbed her Mikie. This might be a good place to remind faithful readers that my first name is Mary, and I’m married to a Michael. Fate?

Mikie was in her family’s first generation born in this country. Her parents, Michael James Manley and Mary Elizabeth Galvin Manley, entered this country during a wave of Irish Catholic immigration. He was born in 1846. She was born in 1853.

Potato Famine

The1845 Potato Famine in Ireland is often credited with launching the second wave of Irish immigration to America. The overwhelming failure of the potato crop brought poverty and famine. Starvation plagued Ireland and, within five years, a million Irish were dead while half a million had fled to America.

One way that landlords rid themselves of poor farmers who could no longer pay their rent was to make extravagant promises of funds that would be given to them upon arrival in America – and then dump the starving and sometimes sick Irish on British ships bound for this country.

Coffin Ships

The crafts that brought the immigrants to America were overcrowded British sailing vessels, poorly built, often unseaworthy, and soon nicknamed “coffin ships.” They were crammed full of people – sometimes up to double each ship's capacity. I read that in one case, an unseaworthy ship full of Irish sailed out of port, then sank within sight of those on land who had just waved good-bye to family and friends.

In the overcrowded, lice-infested holds of the ships, typhus and dysentery flourished. The food provided was at starvation quantities, and there was no ship doctor. Belowdecks, hundreds of men, women and children huddled together in the dark on bare wooden floors with no ventilation, breathing a stench of vomit and human waste.

Of the 100,000 Irish who journeyed to America in 1847, an estimated one out of five died from disease and malnutrition. Their bodies were unceremoniously dumped overboard.

This is the way my great-grandparents traveled to America with their families. Mary Elizabeth was only a year old. It might be a small miracle that she survived the trip.

Life in Memphis

Mike has learned that Michael James was a tinsmith. He also found Mary Elizabeth and Bridget (who we think was her sister) working as maids in the big houses belonging to wealthy Memphians. It makes me think of every old movie I’ve seen with the stereotypical Irish maid in a long, black dress and white apron. That would have been my great-grandmother.

Mike estimates that Mary Elizabeth and Michael James married in 1872 whereupon she stopped working and started keeping house and having babies. We know they had six children. There’s a seventh child who shows up in records as a childhood death who may also have been theirs. An eighth Manley offspring may have been Theresa who died at age three in 1878 in the yellow fever epidemic. Because of the number of years between the births of the first two known children, we think there may have been other births, young deaths and miscarriages. Only two children – my grandmother Mary Michael and great-aunt Edna – survived and lived long lives.

Margaret was born in 1873, the year after her parents’ marriage. She died at five years old in 1878, perhaps their second child to die in the devastating Memphis yellow fever epidemic.

Ella was born in 1878, the year her older sister died. She died two years later of pneumonia when her younger brother was only three months old.

John James was born in 1880 and died just before his third birthday.

Kate was next, born in 1882, a year before her older brother died. Kate lived to be 13 and died of TB on Christmas Day 1895.

A baby named Mary appears in records and may be another Manley child, but little has been proved on her so far except that she died young.

Great-Aunt Edna was born in 1884, and Mikie became the youngest and last in1886.

Mary Elizabeth was pregnant with my grandmother when her husband Michael James passed away. What a strong, tragic figure she was. She survived the horrific journey to America, worked hard, married, saw at least four children die, and then she lost her husband while she had two toddlers and another baby on the way. Mike has looked at the Probate Court records following Michael James’ death and learned that all she had inherited was a few pieces of furniture. She never remarried. She was only 33.

The Pinch District

The Manley family lived in Memphis’ Pinch District, an area in the north Main St. part of downtown. It was a large neighborhood of immigrants, mostly Irish, but which also contained German, Italian and Russian immigrants. The area was originally known as Pinch-Gut, an unflattering term that referred to the community’s starving Irish immigrants who were so thin that their stomachs were pinched by their belts.

Memphis was not unlike most major cities that had their "Irish Town" or "Shanty Town" where the Irish clung together. These immigrant ancestors were not welcome in America. Ads for employment often were followed by "NO IRISH NEED APPLY." They were forced to live in cellars and shanties. Plumbing and running water were not always available.These living conditions bred sickness and early death. In that era it was estimated that 80 percent of all infants born to Irish immigrants in New York City died.

In my research, I found a letter from an Irish immigrant who wrote to his family in Ireland: "Our position in America is one of shame and poverty." It is said that no group was considered lower than an Irishman in America during the 1850s.

Yet in those immigrant neighborhoods there was love and a strong sense of community. Mikie, my grandmother, frequently referred to her mother as a saint, a woman strongly devoted to her Catholic faith and someone who tended to the needs of her neighbors.

In my favorite story, there was a neighbor child who had been badly burned. Mary Elizabeth visited the family daily, but they soon realized that the little boy was dying. The family was Jewish, and Mary Elizabeth was greatly troubled about the immortal soul of this boy she loved. Naturally he had not been baptized and, according to her faith, he was doomed. She would not interfere with another family’s religion, but one day she went to visit with a bottle of holy water tucked into her apron pocket. As soon as she was alone with the dying boy, she performed her own baptism of the child and left believing that she had ensured his entry into heaven.

The New Century

In 1903, at 17, Mikie went to work as a telephone operator. That was in the infancy of the telephone, so it might have been a risky venture. Great-Aunt Edna had gone to work as a stenographer. Finally both girls were bringing income into the house. We don’t know how Mary Elizabeth survived raising two girls by herself. Our guess is that she might have taken in laundry, ironing and sewing to keep their heads above water.

In 1906, Mikie married William Edwynn, and the next year my father was born.

The family had come a long way from near-starvation in Ireland and the treacherous voyage to America. The crumbling headstone pictured above belongs to Mary Elizabeth who died in 1925. We managed to find it in the old, unmapped section of Calvary Cemetery. I wish I had known Mary Elizabeth.


Zehr_Family said...

Hey Diane,

I did not know your first name is Mary. That is too funny, we have that in common. We also got those from our Grandmothers, one more thing in common. Funny we both by our middle names, another thing in common. I knew there was something I liked about you...LOL!! Love you cuz!!

Scarlett said...

Kristi -
Here's how smart my mother was. My Irish Catholic g'mother Mary Michael was distressed that I wasn't being christened in the Catholic church. Mother thought it would make things better if I had a saint's name that also belong to my g'mother (and great-g'mother).

When she was with them, I was named for Mary Michael. When she was with the Petroff clan, I was named for your g'mother.

It all worked. Pretty smart, huh?

Zehr_Family said...

LOL!! Yes that was very smart!!! I love that we have this connection.

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