The Gallagher girls with Nanny.
A few years ago, Viv and Eli gave me a small planting of clover. For a minute they perched on either side of the plant looking for a four leaf — a token of their Irish heritage? It’s March again and Irish eyes are shining. Diane sometimes places the Bryers Choice Irish dancer on the bow window. I purchased it as a reminder the year my mother was killed in a hit and run on Radcliffe Street. I like to remember that she was proud of her Irish heritage. More so probably than Father’s interest with anything Italian.
Growing up in Bristol Borough in the 1950-60s, my sisters and I were presented with a mix of Italian-Irish heritage. Since Catholics attend the maternal church, we were baptized and attended Irish Saint Mark’s. Saint Ann’s was the Italian parish. I’m not sure why but I favored the Italian culture. Food was certainly better and we had some exposure to good Italian cooks — Aunt Mary Profy in Harriman, Mrs. Mignoni across the street, Mari’s pizza on the corner; Mom even made a decent spaghetti and meatballs.
But in the mid 1970s, I read “Trinity” by Leon Uris. In his sweeping, epic style, Uris traces the history of Ireland from the Great Famine of the 1840s to the Easter Rising in 1916. It touched a nerve. Some of Mom’s family were probably Catholic farmers from a small town in County Donegal. Unfortunately none of the Gallaghers knew their exact origin. “Trinity” however was powerful, I wrote Mother and told her the Bristol divide aside, I would forever embraced my Irish heritage.
It was in the early 1980s, Diane, Jenny and I traveled for five weeks in Ireland. We landed in Dublin, rented a car and headed south, then up the western coast, to Northern Ireland and back down for a week in Dublin. The Dingle peninsula, the rocky western coast with its narrow roads, the cliffs of Moher, and the Giant’s Causeway. The countryside was beautiful — how many, so many, shades of green. Some nights we camped — along the coast, our tent floor covered with rocks, insurance against the winds. Other nights we we found a small B. and B. Ireland was enchanting; and the food wasn’t bad.
Since I didn’t have any names or addresses of Irish relatives; not even a town, I borrowed “Gallagher” heritage from a close friend Bill Gallagher. In Ireland, we went to a small country house in Donegal asking for I think William (same as my maternal grandfather). His wife said he was out but we could catch him in the pub come evening. We did. And we spent a delightful evening drinking Guinness and getting to know a William Gallagher.
I have one photograph of my grandfather William. That image came to life on the docks of Donegal. Some of the fisherman had to be relatives. I knew I was in the right county. Grandfather Gallagher was a habadasher — that’s a dealer in men’s clothes. His business was in a large building on the corner of Mill and Cedar streets in Bristol. The background of his wife, Hannah, for us, was also sketchy. She was Irish; had two sisters, Lucy and Allie. Lucy was a domestic living in the homes of her employers; Allie lived with her daughter, Mary, on Jefferson Avenue. William Gallagher and Hannah Deviney (?) were married and had three daughters — Ellen (the oldest), Cecelia (my mother) and Marie. They lived on Buckley street in Bristol’s 4th Ward, the Irish district.
Growing up we were told that grandfather William died young. When I coughed from smoking, my mother would remind me that her father died of TB. Hannah, Nanny as we grandkids called her, lived in an apartment over the former habadashery. I have no idea how she supported herself and the three Gallagher girls. Unfortunately I never asked the questions or if I did my mother never had answers.
Marie and Cis. Cis and Ellen
My images of the Gallagher girls from the 1920s to the 1940s come from books and movies not from real stories. I know they went to Saint Mark’s school and attended Bristol High School. I suspect they had jobs during the war. For a while Ellen worked in a Bristol distillery. Ellen and Cis married Italians from the other side of the tracks, (Frank Mignoni and my father Vince Profy). Both boys came from business families who lived on Mill street. The youngest sister, Marie married Irish. I suspect Hannah didn’t like any of their choices. She had strong opinions.
I’m not sure how my parents met. But Bristol is the classic small town. They both lived on the same 200 block of Mill street. Vince in an apartment behind his father’s GE appliance store; Cis above the habadashery. Although they both went to Bristol high school; they attended different Catholic churches — Italian or Irish. Similarly Frank, Ellen’s beau lived a block away in an apartment owned by his family.
Mother, my sister Cissi and me.
After the war, my father worked briefly in Rohm & Haas but left to work for his father’s store. He and Cis were married at St. Mark’s in 1946. Frank Mignoni was a realtor. He and Ellen married. Both couples lived on Mill street in family properties. Small town. They began families; worked and lived on Mill street and attended Saint Marks. Vacations were a week in a shared Long Beach Island rental.
Growing up, St. Mark’s parish was one sign of our Irish background. It wasn’t really a strong ethnic parish. Saint Ann’s several blocks away, for instance, had Italian speaking priests and celebrated Italian feast days. Saint Marks was more subtle. But as an alter boy I went with the priest to the Hibernian hall in the fourth Ward (remember, Bristol’s Irish neighborhood) after some evening service. I sat at the bar with Father and picked numbered balls from a glass container — the weekly lottery.
We were also aware of “Irish” relatives that lived in the 4th Ward neighborhood. Grandfather William had quite a few siblings and other relatives. There are different numbers depending on who does the ancestry. But we associated with a few. I recall at least one house wake (prior to a church funeral I guess). It was at Uncle Lawrence’s. There was a casket; a lot of eating and drinking. Somehow I was aware of what was thought to be an Irish custom. As the afternoon proceeded, I waited for them to take the deceased from the coffin and stand him in a corner with a glass of whiskey. Came close I think.
We weren’t real close to most of our Irish family. An ocassional 4th Ward visit, a wedding or funeral. I was aware of a bit of Irish brogue, aunts and cousins who had red hair and freckles. Pretty stereotyped. There were two elderly sisters, Nin and Hester. Not sure if they were blood relatives or friends. Aunt Annie was a hair dresser who operated out of her house. I visited her quite a bit. She got me collecting postcards, giving me many from the early 1900s. Another Aunt Alice lived nearby.
Ocassionally with my mother we visited Aunt Allie on Jefferson. When Aunt Lucy retired in the 1960s she moved into my grandmother’s apartment. Hannah soon moved in with Aunt Ellen. Lucy was always interesting. She was quite independent. Would take the train on shopping trips to Wanamaker’s. Always brought me a small gift. She collected stamps and would share them with me. Of all my Irish relatives, it was a bit of a shock, to learn about Nitter Ferry, a homeless alcoholic, who lived along the river behind our house.
Aunt Ellen and Mom were extremely close. Our families were in daily contact, shopped together, celebrated holidays and birthdays. I frequently had lunch and Sunday breakfast at the Mignoni house on Radcliffe. Cis never learned to drive so depended on Ellen who had a car. Neither Ellen or Cis were as close with sister Marie.
The Gallagher girls didn’t wear their Irish heritage on their arms. There weren’t constant reminders. But they were proud. Food is often part of ethnic heritage. Although Mom learned to make a decent spaghetti and meatballs for Father, we were served Irish stew — some beef, lots of potatoes, carrots, onions and spices. I think we had colcannon — potatoes and cabbage. Lots of meat and potatoes — baked, boiled, mashed. My grandmother wasn’t much of a cook. Don’t ever remember her ever cooking; even morning tea was more hot water and lemon than a real cup of breakfast tea.
If Mom enjoyed Irish culture — music, art and literature it may have been because of our influence. For several years in March we went to McCarter Theatre in Princeton to see The Chieftains. I know we took Mom and Dad one or more times. I recall giving her a copy of Joyce’s “The Dubliners” for Christmas. At a family dinner at the Old City pub, The Plough and the Stars, we discovered Barrie Maguire’s painting “I Will Give You Ireland.” It’s shades of green. An old women is sewing a quilt, it’s Ireland. My sisters and I made arrangements to buy it for Mom.
Interestingly the Profy’s eventually rented the old Habadashery for an enlarged appliance store. For several years my parents, myself and first sister, Cissi lived in an apartment on the 2nd floor. Nanny lived on the third floor. At some point my father and Uncle Frank Mignoni bought out grandfather Gallagher partner’s interest in the building. I always thought it curious how my father rented from his own partnership.
Ellen and Cis may have married Italians with strong traditional views of marriage and a woman’s place in a relationship but both could be strong; some might say they allowed Vince and Frank to think they were in control. From my perspective, Mother was in charge of our house. As kids we had to listen (and sometimes fear) her. I only remember father getting upset once. He caught me; shook me; “don’t annoy your mother” was the message.
In the 1960s, Cis opened a dress shop. It provided her four girls, my sisters, with fashionable clothes. It asserted her independence. Father’s interest in travel was limited. To our amazement, Mom took off to Alaska with a local group. Later she would travel to Ireland. Father stayed home.
Mom life was cut short on December 10, 2008. She returned some books to the Grundy Library, a block from the apartment where she and my father lived. She was crossing the street to visit her sister Ellen and was the victim of a hit and run driver. She was 86 years old. Bagpipes were played at her burial, a sad reminder of her Celtic heritage. Aunt Ellen has since passed; Marie is the last living Gallagher girl. A trace of our Irish heritage.
When I think of mom I think of how she influenced my own curiosity and independence. Like the old woman in the painting, I see her sewing a piece of Ireland.
“May the road rise to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face. And rains fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.”