Finding My Irish Family

For St. Patrick’s Day here is the text of a talk I gave to the Maryland Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians in March 2019. I was scheduled to present it again at the Maryland Irish Festival in the fall of 2020, but for obvious reasons that never happened.

My display table at the talk

I’m going to tell you about a long and winding road of research and travel in search of my Irish family. But first a confession, unlike perhaps most of you I’m not Irish-American, I’m Irish-Flemish. I grew up in England with an Irish father and a Flemish mother. My mother grew up during the Nazi occupation of Belgium and my father was born to Irish immigrants in the northern English town of Manchester. My parents met when my father was a soldier with the British troops who liberated my mother’s town of Ghent in Belgium after D Day. They had a classic wartime romance, married in Ghent in 1947, and settled in the suburbs of London. My brothers and sister and I are quite proud of our unusual heritage. I once met a Flemish history professor from the University of Louvain. Of course I told him I am half Flemish. He asked what was my other half? When I told him Irish he reared back in mock horror and said “What a volatile combination.” Both peoples are known to be hot-headed and argumentative. Anyway that’s my family’s excuse for any number of sins!

Bridie Byrne

Growing up in England my Irish grandmother Bridget Byrne lived with us. I knew her maiden name was Carney, and that her family had called her Bridie. We knew her as Nanny. She was a very quiet, nervous woman, very religious. Her bedroom was like a little chapel, full of religious pictures and statues. She had a statue of a rather obscure saint, St. Philomena, by her bed. Later on I would learn its significance. Every morning before school we would kneel by her bed to say our prayers and then she would give us a mint, holding the round white candy out to us almost like the host at Mass. She never talked about Ireland or her family. When I was about 12 she had a nervous breakdown with paranoid delusions that my mother was going to run away and take us to live in Belgium. She was in a mental hospital for a time and when she recovered she went to live in a convent retirement home. My mother told me this was perfect for her; when she was a girl she had wanted to be a nun but her family couldn’t afford the dowry you had to pay to convents in Ireland in those days.

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This cycle of poems is dedicated to my son Patrick Francis Hanrahan 1979-2002. Today would be his birthday. I wrote them at different stages of his life, the third shortly after his death from complications of mono. It was inspired by the last photo taken of him on his 23rd birthday.

I. Boy

          Golden-haired quicksilver boy
          You crash and rage
          About the house,
          All knees and elbows,
          Tumble of limbs and words
          In daring, perfect poise
          Of near-falls, cries, yells.

          My golden-haired quicksilver boy,
          Dropped into sleep
          Your delicate, pale-moonglow face,
          Curled, uncoiled body
Continue reading “Triptych”

The Manchester Martyrs

On November 23rd 1867 three Irishmen, William Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien, were hanged on a hastily built scaffold outside Salford Gaol in Manchester. The execution was a botched affair, carried out by William Calcraft who was…

notoriously unable to calculate the correct length of rope required for each individual hanging; he frequently had to rush below the scaffold to pull on his victim’s legs to hasten death.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

This is what happened to the unfortunate Larkin. O’Brien suffered a lengthy ordeal when the attending priest prevented Calcraft from dispatching him in the same way. He hung twitching on the rope for three quarters of an hour as the priest held a crucifix before him. Allen was luckier and died instantly. 

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Duck Duck Gone

Long ago in an England far far away my sister Angela adopted a duck. Her motivation is lost to history. Perhaps it was nostalgia for our childhood Sunday picnics in Valentines Park, a short bus ride from home. I remember how much we enjoyed feeding the ducks from the bag of bread crusts we brought along. We didn’t yet know how harmful it is to feed wildlife. Perhaps a newly enlightened Angela was seeking atonement. The story of the adopted duck recently resurfaced when she found the documentation in a box of old papers.

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Tales of the Asylum

The ruins of Severalls Hospital

One day in the early 1960’s I came home to find that while I was in school my grandmother had been whisked away in an ambulance and taken to a mental hospital. The news followed several unsettling days, days of half heard whispered adult conversations, days when my grandmother kept to her room and my mother placed her meals on a tray outside the door. I learned a phrase I only half understood, paranoid delusions, but somehow I knew it meant my grandmother had gone mad. 

It all started one evening when our neighbor came to the door. I was doing homework in the kitchen and overheard the conversation. She explained that she waited until my Continue reading “Tales of the Asylum”

Leaving Ireland

Emigrants Leave Ireland by Henry Doyle

They left to escape the famine, poverty, an oppressive colonial government, then the violence of rebellion and civil war. They left to find work, to send money home to their families, to find opportunities in the big industrial cities far from their small rural cottages. Some sailed east to England, some west to America, and some south to Australia. Many, like my grandmother, never spoke of Ireland again. So I have had to piece together my Irish family’s history from snatches of conversation overheard in childhood, bits and bobs of story learned from relatives, facts discovered in online archives, and a box of Continue reading “Leaving Ireland”

An American Wedding

Bride White Red4The bride wore white. The bride wore red. It was an American wedding. The marriage of my cousin Christopher’s daughter Emily and Kunal, the son of Indian-Americans. 

Family members of the bride and groom traveled to the little town of Roslyn on Long Island. We came from near and far, from New York City and Long Island, from Kansas and Virginia, from San Francisco and Washington State, from Maryland and England. We came to celebrate the union of two people, two families, and two cultures. The couple are both the children of immigrants, the bride’s father from England, of Irish heritage, and Continue reading “An American Wedding”

The Cousins Lunch

Cousins Brian and Rita at lunch in New York

“Let me get this straight,” said my husband as he dropped me off at our local Metro station. “You’re going to New York to meet a guy you met on the internet?” We laughed. What he said was literally true, but it wasn’t quite as foolish as it sounded. I did meet Brian on the internet but it was on, not Tinder or some such shady meeting place. Though I suppose statistically a long lost second cousin is just as likely to be a serial killer as any random stranger. But Ancestry declared us a DNA match and we have nuns in common on our family trees. Surely a sign of divine favor. So I waved goodbye to Continue reading “The Cousins Lunch”

The Message in the Laundry


One day in 1944 my future existence hung by a tenuous thread. If a message secreted in a batch of laundry had not reached its intended recipient I would never have been born. On such tiny twists of fate and happenstance do our lives depend, though we rarely hear about them. But my mother often told this story in her dramatic continental style, and in my father’s papers I found his solemn account of the affair. Continue reading “The Message in the Laundry”