Today, I have walked a wee bit in the footsteps of Martin Kearney.
Sean Cahillane and I had breakfast at my hotel, and he introduced me to Anna May Cavanaugh Reeves. She was born in in Mhuiríoch – a village on the Dingle Peninsula across from Smerwick Harbour between Baile an Fheirtéaraigh (Ballyferriter) and Baile na nGall (Ballydavid). She told me a bit about her early life and recounted some stories about her childhood and growing up on the mainland across Blasket Sound. We talked a bit about the situation in Ireland now – with the financial excesses of the last few years and the subsequent fall of the Fianna Fáil party – and the consequences for Ireland of being a part of the “common market” that is the European Union.
She remembers that, as a child, they had everything they wanted and needed – good, fresh food that they grew in the garden or raised or traded with neighbors for other food and things they needed, and plenty of fresh fish from the sea. Now, with new EU fishing rules and strict access regulations as well as new corporate farming business practices over the last few years, the cost of fish (for folks living on the peninsula and elsewhere in Ireland, as well as for restaurant owners) has skyrocketed and it’s “just plain hard to get fish.” The irony, says Sean, is that “the sea is right there.”
Sean then took me on a quick spin around Springfield and Chicopee, and told me stories about the places and events in this community that Martin would have been a part of – Our Lady of Hope church (we also drive by Sacred Heart church, Sean’s family’s church) in the Hungry Hill area of Springfield (which Sean says may have been so named by cops on the beat in this area, an area that had no restaurants or any other places to eat) and the restaurants where Martin had breakfast every morning and held court. Sean said it was a special, close-knit community, back in the day. You could take the bus to downtown Springfield or Chicopee from Hungry Hill – but within the community, you walked where they needed to go, you knew everyone (and were probably related to, in some way), and you could just walk in the front door to say hello or ask for help. There were no locked doors and there was both comfort and safety in that level of trust and tribalism in the community. And families and community members took care of each other.
Next, Sean delivered me to the Irish Cultural Center on the campus at Elms College in Chicopee, and I talked with Judith Kappenman, the Executive Director. She gave me some of the background on the founding of the Center and its mission, and we had a delightful discussion about the significance of the Blasket culture in this area and how beloved Martin Kearney is in this community.
I also talked with Sean about his side of the family on the Blaskets (he and Martin Kearney had the same Blasket grandfather). He talked about how much the community has changed over the decades, and that, as the last of these old Blakset islanders pass, much of their history, stories and way of life is going with them. We talked about identity in this community of Blasket Island descendants (now largely dispersed outward from Hungry Hill into surrounding towns and suburbs) and what it means to be Irish-America, in the context of having this amazing connection to Co. Kerry and the Blaskets.
My discussion with Mary Ellen Russell O’Brien, whose parents were from Ballydavid, Co. Kerry, was profoundly moving. The passion with which she talks about these places and these people is palpable. Her stories about Martin were lovely, and her recall of what Springfield used to be like and the history of the place is amazing. It was a magical day.
As the sun was just starting to go down, Marty (Martin’s oldest son) picked me up on his way home from work and drove me to his mother’s house (Eleanor, or Eli, as she likes to be called) – the house on Gold Street where Martin and Eli lived their whole married life and raised their five children. Marty arranged a Kearney family get-together, so that I could meet and talk with Eli, and other members/generations of the Kearney family. Some were working and couldn’t be there, but I hope the’ll share their stories on this blog – and I hope to come back in the summer and do additional interviews and research.
Eli’s stories about how she and Martin met, and their early life together were lovely – theirs has been a great love story, everyone says. She talked about the work they each did, how holidays were spent, and the love of home and family so central in this culture and community. I talked, also, with Marty (and big thanks to Marty’s Diane, who has been such a supporter of this project), two of Marty’s sisters (Lynn and Karen), Karen’s husband, Chris, and four of Martin Kearney’s grandchildren (Kimberly, Jason, Nick and Ian) and Erica, a future granddaughter-in-law). The grandkids ranged in age from 13-30, and they were amazed to hear stories they’d not heard before and they were very happy that their grandfather’s story would be told. We all piled into Eli’s living room, and as each person (or group) was sharing stories, other stories arose – there was much laughter and many tears – this was a man who was loved deeply by his family and his community. Everyone I have spoken with has told me that Marty was a sincere, quiet guy who liked to be in the background, and although never demonstrative, loved deeply and cared about everyone else’s welfare above his own.
We shared a comfortable dinner of pizza and salad, and said our goodbyes at the end of the evening – a wonderful evening where I learned more about Martin’s life on the Blaskets and in America.
I’ll share some of the stories, in later posts.
If you are a Blasket Island immigrant or descendant – or if you have stories to share about folks you have known or know now who are Blasket Island immigrants or descendants, please share your comments and stories here, or drop me a line!