Up From Desperation
From Famine In Timoleague To The Tough Streets Of Philadelphia, The Regan Family Fought To Create A Better Life.
By Margaret Regan
MARCH 20, 2000: EVERY EVENING AFTER supper my father would have his cup of tea.
First my mother would pour it, out of a pot so big and heavy she was the only one who could lift it. Then my father would take a spoonful of sugar and stir it into his cup. He'd scoop up a second spoonful, but somehow it would get diverted on its journey to the cup and detour directly into his mouth. The third spoonful was a toss-up -- cup or tongue? If the tongue won out, then the cup needed another spoonful. Once satisfied that the tea was saturated with as much sugar as chemically possible without becoming a solid, he'd top it off with a goodly amount of milk.
Next he'd tackle his bread and butter. Same sugar procedure. First the butter would go onto the bread, then copious spoonfuls of sugar, with more than one traveling directly to his mouth.
This sweet treat, which inevitably attracted the current toddler to his end of the long dining room table, followed up a fine supper of mashed potatoes and roast beef, or boiled potatoes and codfish, or fried potato cakes and liver and bacon, or after my mother started getting fancy, baked potatoes and salmon loaf. He loved my mother's cooking -- anytime he'd been away from home he would sit at the familiar table again with a sigh of relief -- but he always insisted on sugared bread at meal's end.
When he had the bread in hand, carefully folded in half, he'd lean back and say, "Discuss."
And discuss he would, over the din of his nine offspring, born in the span of 12 years. He might discuss that day's job. He was a roving accountant for the firm that in its most recent incarnation became PricewaterhouseCoopers, and he reveled in learning about all the different businesses whose books he audited: Hamilton Watch, Scranton University, Barber Oil, a Delaware school for the developmentally disabled. He'd tell us about an heiress of large fortune or a kindly nurse at the school or a Hamilton watch of exquisite accuracy.
Or he might dive into one of his war stories, about Japanese bombs raining down on him in the jungles of New Guinea, or about Army food so dreadful it was no sacrifice to give it up for Lent. Another night it would be tales of his own father, Fathe (pronounced like Father with the second syllable precipitously cut off), who grew up an orphan living by his wits on the mean streets of North Philadelphia, and who later chased his wicked sons with a carpet beater over the back fence of fabled Ogden Street in West Philadelphia.
Sometimes the tales would be cut off abruptly, by some fracas at the other end of the table, and he'd unthinkingly re-enact Fathe's chase in present time. "Oh, Bill!" my mother would cry out in dismay, as he tore off after one of his own sons, waving his leather belt in the air.
In short, my father was about as Irish as Americans come. He had the blue eyes, the fair skin, the round cheeks and the black hair, which later metamorphosed into a great shock of white. He had the quick wit, the gift with words and storytelling, even the singing voice, though his songs were more likely to be Tin Pan Alley than Irish folk. He had the temper and the melancholy, the fondness for tea and sugar and potatoes, but not, thank God, the alcoholism. He would often warn us of the "Regan curse." To say that his father and all five of his brothers drank is to indulge in an understatement of monstrous proportions. He himself, he said, took only a single glass of beer in his life, at a high school graduation party. He didn't like it.
He was the good son. The grandson of Irish immigrants who died young, and the son of a father orphaned at age 11; he went on not only to complete high school but to become the first ever in his family to go to college and enter a profession. His three sisters doted on him, calling him "our Billy." He loved both his parents, and just a few years ago at my dining-room table in Tucson he wept over his mother's too-early death 60 years after the fact. He was devoted to Fathe in his old age, and he was the one who closed Fathe's eyes the final time. He was a faithful husband and a good provider.
To be sure, he had his demons. He was bossy towards my mother and at times downright knuckleheaded toward my brothers. His rages were a frightening anomaly in a Daddy who was endlessly imaginative in playing with his children. He made up wonderful stories for us and drew us, badly, in cartoon pictures he'd mail to us when he was working out of town. Most thrillingly he'd be the Woompus, chasing us in the dark backyard of our suburban Philadelphia house.
Though he came out of great privation, he launched us all into comfortable lives. It's a common story: he made sure that all nine of us went to college so we would never have to go through what he and his family did. His family story pretty much follows the arc of the great wave of Irish immigrants to America, as they moved from destitution to working class isolation to middle class assimilation. The separatist Irish Catholic world he and his forebears created and lived in is all but gone now. My father's death last year seemed to me the endpoint of a great saga, one that lasted 150 years. It's not exactly Up from Slavery, but it's nevertheless a heroic story of Up from Desperation.
The day was fine, with a rare sun beaming down on Timoleague, a place so green it's nearly blue in the very southern tip of Ireland, in County Cork. But there was an odor in the air. The smell of rot. And the potato plants, so healthy and green the day before, were black. When Timothy experimentally grasped them in his fingers, the black leaves disintegrated into dust.
A potato blight, Phytophthora infestans, had invaded the crops literally overnight. Timothy's life was about to change, and not for the better. Like the rest of the Irish poor, his family ate little but potatoes. Adults regularly downed 8 to 10 pounds of spuds a day. This was not by choice. English conquerors had savagely wrested the land from its people back in the 17th century; Timoleague's own abbey, destroyed by a rampaging Oliver Cromwell, still stood as a crumbling stone monument to their rapaciousness. Tim could see it from the end of his road.
Ever since, poor tenant farmers like the O'Regans had paid "rack" rents, a singularly descriptive term, to English landlords for the privilege of living on Irish land. During the 19th century, things got even worse as landlords decided to "modernize," kicking off small tenant farmers so they could concentrate on commercial crops for export. Crowded into ever tinier plots of land, the rural Irish grew for themselves the only plant that can survive in so small a space: the potato. It literally kept Ireland alive.
So when the blight came, the Irish died. From the summer of 1845, when Timothy first went crying to his mam that something was wrong with the potatoes, until the early 1850s, every harvest failed. During that period, nearly two million famished people fled to North America; at home in Ireland, more than a million Irish perished of starvation and disease.
Timothy, my great-grandfather, and his family stayed put. How he, his brother Cornelius and sister Catherine managed to survive their childhood is almost beyond imagining. And it's a mystery how, after five years of general starvation, my great-grandmother, Mary Comey, was conceived in another Timoleague family, carried to term and brought to life in 1850.
The Irish called this calamity the Great Hunger, not the Famine. Only the potato was hit by the blight; fine crops of grain and rafts of beef were shipped as per usual to market in England, rumbling past the skeletal Irish who lay dying in the country lanes. On a single day, November 18, 1848, the port of Cork shipped out to England 147 bales of bacon, 120 casks and barrels of pork, five casks of hams, 300 bags of flour, 300 head of cattle, 239 sheep and 542 boxes of eggs.
Tim and Con and Kate might have watched the armed convoys taking this largesse to the port, which wasn't far from their village. Historians record that the armed men loaded down with food passed "hollow-eyed men, women and children whose mouths were green from eating grass."
After the devastation of the Hunger years, families had to be coldly realistic about survival. They stopped dividing up their rented land. One child, usually the oldest son, was selected as heir; the rest had little choice but to emigrate. Cornelius and Timothy probably farmed together into their early 30s, but it was Cornelius who was to get the farm. He got married in the late 1860s, to Ellen McCarthy. The babies came quickly, their first, Jeremiah, in 1870, and their second, Catherine, in 1871.
The tiny cottage was getting crowded. And anyway Timothy had had his eye on Mary Comey for some time, though she was 10 years younger than he. Family legend has it that they did their courting by strolling to the nearby market town of Bandon. Together, perhaps, they plotted their adventure. They could board a ship to Philadelphia in nearby Cobh. In 1872, at the ages of 32 and 22, they made their move. Timothy and Mary probably got a ride on a cart the short 25 miles to the port from Timoleague and walked down the hill to the docked steamship.
Having never before been beyond the nearest village, Mary and Timothy left Ireland's rolling green fields and set sail across the ocean for America, never to return.
"I'm Margaret Regan, your cousin from America," I announce. The door swings open. Eileen O'Regan O'Flynn, granddaughter of Cornelius, waves me into the tiny living room.
"God be praised," she says, and downs a shot of whiskey.
Philadelphia had other promising points. Where New York Irish crowded into tenements that yielded the highest death rates in the world at that time, Philadelphia Irish could expect to live in little houses. Sometimes these were shanties put up in the back alleys; sometimes they were the tiny two-story row houses that give Philadelphia its distinctive character.
The City of Brotherly Love may have needed their labor, but it was not exactly welcoming. The thousands of Irish pouring into the country were the first great mass of foreigners to disturb the homogeneity of the century-old Republic. The Irish practiced the despised popish religion (led, as the Republicans recently let us know, by an antichrist), they were desperately poor, and some of them still spoke Irish. Philadelphians were alarmed by the hordes of foreigners in their neighborhoods and, more ominously, on the job.
In 1844, the city had actually been ransacked by anti-Catholic rioters over the perennial issue of religion in the public schools. Catholics objected to the reading lessons given in the King James Bible of the Protestants. Believing that Catholics were hijacking public education, the rioters burned two Irish Catholic churches, a convent and dozens of Catholic homes.
The hatred of Protestants of English ancestry was nothing new to the Irish. But here in Philadelphia Irish Catholics were a minority, and they set about building a protective parallel universe. Impoverished immigrant workers contributed their pennies to build an astonishing system of Catholic churches, schools, hospitals, orphanages and colleges, overlaying a new Catholic geography on the old Quaker city. The question became not "Where do you live?" but "What parish are you from?"
By the time Timothy and Mary arrived, Philadelphia boasted 36 Catholic parishes. Their new church, St. Elizabeth's, opened on North 23rd Street the same year they arrived. The Catholic parish was familiar and comforting; like the tight-knit Irish village, it provided a sense of protection from the larger Protestant world, friends from home and a priest to bless life's events from cradle to grave. Two years later, they had a happy occasion to use the priest's services. Their firstborn son, Jeremiah Timothy -- the future Fathe -- was born on July 19, 1874, and christened the same day at St. Elizabeth's. His godparents were relatives, Uncle Daniel Comey and Aunt Catherine Regan. In fact, a whole raft of Regans and Comeys stood godparents to the couple's three children, the extended family gathering together in exile.
Perhaps tired and hot from the hand-washing she'd been doing in the kitchen, Mary Regan stood on the stoop to answer the man's questions, a fussy Timmy on her hip. "I was born in County Cork," she told him, thinking of the cool June she might be having now back home. "And indeed I can read and write." She stayed home and kept house, she told the man, the U.S. census taker, while the three other adults went out to work, sister-in-law Kate as a housekeeper, brother Dennis and husband Timothy as laborers.
Timothy might once have known all there was to know about the passage of the weak Irish sun across the sky or the coming of the rains, but in Philadelphia he took whatever work he could get. That meant digging ditches or hot scut work in the new textile factories and ironworks, or even standing on a corner hoping to be picked up for day labor. And the Regans' arrival in Philadelphia had unfortunately coincided with a disastrous depression, the worst America had before the Great Depression of the 1930s. Wages were low and jobs scarce.
Ironically, back on the farm in Timoleague, Cornelius and Ellen were having good luck. The crops were good in the 1870s, and the couple almost fulfilled the Irish blessing that calls for "a child every year to you." They had 10 children, eight of whom survived to adulthood. But by the time their last child, Patrick, was born in 1889, Timothy and Mary, their closest American relatives, were already dead.
Irish immigrants in the 19th century lived on average six or seven years after arriving in America. Fourteen months after the census taker's visit that hot June day, Timothy Regan lay dead at the age of 41. The cause could have been tuberculosis, exposure to toxins in a factory, an industrial accident, or an infection, complicated by years of marginal nutrition. Having survived the Famine, he died in the Land of Plenty in August 1881, leaving his 31-year-old widow, and children, Jerry, 7, and Kate, 5. The family lost little Timothy too, perhaps around the time of his father's death.
Four years later Mary would follow. She died around 1885, at the age of 35, making Jerry and Kate orphans. This catastrophe destroyed the family. An aunt, possibly Catherine Regan, Timothy's sister, took 9-year-old Kate into her boarding house. She was Jerry's godmother but she didn't want him, so he went out into the world as a working man. It's a puzzle that the cluster of relatives who so cheerfully stood godparents to the children could not have added one 11-year-old boy to their households, but in those days a boy his age was considered on the verge of adulthood. Jerry remained close to his sister Kate all his life -- Superlative Kate, she was called, for her high spirits -- but he never forgot the bitterness of his childhood abandonment.
"I was sitting on a couch with Fathe," my father remembered later. "It was a long room. Fathe sat there and pointed at her. She was all in black, quite old. He said, 'Billy. See that woman there? She's the woman who threw me out on the street when I was 11 years old.'
"She showed no reaction, but everybody heard."
Besides being remembered for her shyness -- to avoid meeting people on the way to the store, my father claimed, she used to walk down the alley -- Mothe is famous mostly for her spectacular fertility. She had her first child, Francis, in 1899 at the age of 19, and her 12th child, Eugene, 25 years later at 44. She was to bury three of them in early childhood.
She and her husband were still living in cramped boarding houses in Jerry's old neighborhood when she gave birth to the first three. But he was smart and on his way to becoming a skilled craftsman, a big step up from his father's rank of unskilled laborer. He got a good job as a tinsmith, constructing metal coal heaters right in people's basements; eventually he was promoted to salesman and even got a little company car. He was riding high.
He and Rose were able to move the family out of dense North Philadelphia to a newer part of town. West Philadelphia had row houses too, but they had tiny front porches and vest-pocket backyards. They moved into the proudly named parish Our Lady of Victory; its tall church towered triumphantly over the two-story houses.
In every house they lived, Rose gave birth to children. My father, William Leonard, was born in 1914 on Conestoga Street. He got his name, he swore, only because Mothe was busily devouring a fictional series about a hero named William in the Evening Bulletin at the time. Maybe, maybe not, but it was a good story for a man who would love newspapers all his life. Billy was 3 years old when they moved to Ogden Street, setting of countless dinnertime tales in later years.
Fathe had not had much of a childhood, but he knew how to work. He was always a good provider until the Depression hit. He even managed to buy the row house on Ogden Street after renting for a few years, a great feat though its three bedrooms were a tight squeeze for his numerous offspring. He loved his large family, though he found it prudent to wolf down his dinner each evening and quickly retreat to the living room to read. Perhaps it was the sorrows of his youth that triggered his outbursts of temper and his occasional weekend toots. He'd be almost alcohol-free for months, just sharing the occasional glass of beer with Rose in the kitchen, and then suddenly disappear for days. It was his son Billy who'd go looking for him, finding him urine-drenched in a gutter or passed out in a garage, and Billy who would bring him home.
All Fathe's sons went out to work at an early age. Like his father before him, Billy started a job at age 11, every day after school and on Saturdays. He was an errand boy for an eccentric butcher on the block, a mustachioed fellow who insisted that his young employee salute him daily, while saying "Hiya, Colonel," in clipped military fashion. After the colonel, there was a paper route, and then caddying at a golf course in the near suburbs. Unlike his father, though, he had a stable home that allowed him to keep up his schooling.
Following on eight years with the nuns at Our Lady of Victory, "tough, tough, tough," they were, Billy went on to study under the similarly tough Christian Brothers at West Catholic High School for Boys. He swore he one day saw a brother smash a kid's head with a typewriter -- and the kid later died of a brain tumor -- but there was another, more benevolent Christian Brother who changed the Regan family fortunes. My father had signed up for the commercial course, taking typing and shorthand, with thoughts of going to work in an office after high school. But this Brother noticed his quick intelligence and rescued him forever from a life in the steno pool.
"I have an idea for you," Brother said. "We have a college, LaSalle. Would you consider going there?"
"We could never swing it," Billy replied. Brother pushed harder. "Maybe you could. They have an exam coming up in two weeks."
Billy demurred; Brother insisted; Billy took the test. He won a half-scholarship, but he still thought college was a bad idea. This was 1931, deep into the Depression, and his wages were sorely needed at home. Fathe's company had gone bankrupt, and after working nonstop from the age of 11, he suddenly was unemployed. Billy figured the family needed whatever wages he might be able to bring in.
Fathe took the long view. After all, his other sons were no great shakes. The eldest, Francis, whom Fathe dubbed The Duke, had already embarked on a long career as a ne'er-do-well. He was wonderfully entertaining, chronically unemployed and always drunk. Gerald was a hard-drinking fireman, and Vince a hard-drinking plumbing supply salesman. Billy was different, studious and disinclined to the bottle. Like his father, he loved to read, spending hours in the kitchen with a book, his feet propped on the coal stove. Fathe thought this boy might have a future.
He took him up to LaSalle, a Catholic college founded in 1863 in North Philadelphia, scene of Fathe's childhood traumas. Fathe sat listening during an interview with the enthusiastic president, and then spoke. "Why don't you go for one year? We'll pay your way." The money would come from a little savings account he had. Succumbing to the combined forces of Brother, Fathe and the college president, Billy went. "But after that," he remembered later, "nothing ever was said again about quitting after a year."
The unexpected college education did more than propel Billy into the middle class. Through an adjunct accounting professor -- my other grandfather -- he met my mother, gentle Mary Howe, then 17 years old, and fell in love for a lifetime. ("The only girlfriend I ever had," he would say of her.) And the accounting skills he learned in college may literally have saved his life. He married my mother in 1944, on St. Patrick's Day naturally, and was shipped off a week later to the war in the South Pacific. He tried everything he could to get back to his new wife, applying for any Army training program that came along, even medical school. One day in 1945, after 14 months overseas, he returned to his sweltering tent in a Philippine jungle to find a change of orders on his bunk. He was to report immediately to his new accounting assignment -- in Chicago.
The Catholic schools were in their final years as a massive alternate system to the public schools -- Vatican II was poised to sweep away their medieval dogma, and the declining numbers of nuns would erase their free labor pool. When I was a schoolchild I was still taught the same lessons my father had learned at Our Lady of Victory, and Fathe, for a little while, at St. Elizabeth's: about the fine distinctions between venial and mortal sins, about the one, true Church and about the dangers of "mixed marriages" -- meaning unions with Protestants. St. Andrew's offered a total experience, just as St. Elizabeth's had to my great-grandparents: God, friends and education, all rolled up into one dusty, Latinate package.
Fathe wakes up and takes in the scene. A half-dozen praying children, Billy almost in tears. It doesn't look good. Still, he resists the obvious.
"What the hell are you praying for?" he demands.
We'd cruise in our station wagon past the row houses where the immigrant Irish once struggled, and where African-American immigrants from the Deep South now were repeating their sad stories of destitution. And we'd silently drive by Skid Row, where we would see the homeless men standing in the cold, bottles in hand.
My father loved his patch of green backyard, and as he grew old he spent more and more time under the red-leaf maple, his Philadelphia Inquirer, a book and iced tea (sweetened) always to hand. Leafy Drexel Hill, in its way, was making up for Timothy and Mary's loss of green Timoleague. And when I look at a map of Philadelphia, I see the Regans never traveled much again after the ancestors' long, doomed journey. Fathe moved maybe three miles west of his birthplace, and my father lived all his life about five miles west of his own.
His children spun out from the world he'd made them, and that's the only thing that got him traveling. But some things never change. In Tucson what my father liked to do best was visit San Xavier, read out in the sunny backyard, entertain the children by taking out his false teeth, and sit at the dinner table and discuss.
When he developed prostate cancer in 1994, he wrote me that he imagined St. Peter pondering his fate in heaven. "Shall we roll the dice again?" he had St. Peter saying. "No. He's Irish and they live forever. He beats the dice every time." He didn't of course, not in the end, no more than Fathe or Timothy did. A stroke two years ago compounded his ills. He ended up in a nursing home, Catholic of course, populated by Bills and Roses and Marys. Though my mother visited almost every day, he missed her terribly, and he told and retold the story of how he fell in love with her at Cape May in the summer of 1938. His own sisters Rose and Helen were there too, but they were Alzheimer's patients, and not much company. This unfortunate reunion was the cause of much black humor -- "We ought to get a discount Regan rate" -- but I was happy to meet up again with Regans I had seen rarely since childhood.
"I'm Billy's daughter," I would tell Aunt Rose. "He's here too." Her face would light up. "Our Billy?" she'd ask.
I could see he was dying when I visited last May; I wanted to say good-bye while he was still alert. He had already bequeathed me many more gifts than I could possibly mention -- his literary bent, his skepticism, his contempt for all things pompous. Some of the most important things I know -- about bigotry and poverty and hard work and education -- I learned from his family stories.
"You've always been a good father to me, Daddy," I say. He looks up at me and the tears shoot straight out of his blue eyes, in an amazing horizontal arc. He knows what I'm doing. I struggle for speech. "I want you to know that I've always felt loved by you. And even after you're" -- I can't quite form the word -- "gone...I'll always have that."
My mother, after faithful care of my father, suffered a brain injury in a fall not three months after his death. She's come a long way in her recovery but, after a marriage of 55 years, she tends to forget that Bill is dead. I talked to her a few days ago by phone, gingerly bringing up the topic of St. Patrick's Day, their wedding anniversary.
"Daddy wants to have a party," she said. "But I don't think he's giving a speech."
No speech? I wouldn't bet on it.
For this article, Margaret Regan consulted the books Emigrants and Exiles by Kerby A. Miller (Oxford University Press, 1988); The Irish in Philadelphia by Dennis Clark (Temple University Press, 1973); and The Irish in America by Terry Golway et al. (Hyperion, 1997). She also wishes to thank the staff at the Tucson Family History Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Prof. Maureen Fitzgerald of William and Mary College, expert on Irish immigration; her cousin, Gerri Snyder, keeper of the family archive; and her late father, William L. Regan, for a lifetime of stories.
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