In search of William and Nora: Finding his grandparents roots brings a new feeling of home

The Mobile Register, Sunday,June 18, 2000

In search of William and Nora: Finding his grandparents roots brings a new feeling of home


Staff reporter

COBH, Ireland — I traveled here for Nora and William, as much as for myself.

Like millions of Irish, my mother’s parents emigrated from this harborside village near Cork, in southern Ireland, to a new life in America, never returning to the family or country they left behind.

Like many Irish-Americans, I arrived here years later with a desire to walk the same waterfront, returning to where I never set out, exploring the first half of my hyphenated heritage.

Along the way, I enjoyed the renowned charm of Ireland’s people and the verdant beauty that attracts millions every year and captivates them for a lifetime.

I also found a nation of rapid development driven by a youthful population, new high-tech economy and precarious peace in the long-troubled northern province.

My grandparents, at the time unknown to one another, crossed the Atlantic eight months apart in fall 1912 and spring 1913, each bound for relatives in Pennsylvania.

By coincidence, they each made the one week journey aboard the steamship Baltic of the White Star Line, owners of the ill-fated Titanic that sunk days after leaving the same port in April 1912.

By further coincidence, the two 20-year-olds had grown up about 10 miles apart along the same stretch of County Kerry coastline, most likely taking a train from Tralee to the station at Cobh, pronounced “Cove.”

Then, still a few years before the creation of an independent Irish Republic and partition of Northern Ireland, the port was known as Queenstown, in honor of England’s Victoria, who visited in 1849.

Today, the waterfront train station serves as the Cobh Heritage Center. The story of Irish emigration, starting with the potato famine of the late 1840s, is told through diary passages and newspaper clips, ships’ records, photographs and personal belongings.

During the 100 year period to 1950, more than 6 million Irish emigrated from the island, with nearly half embarking from Cobh. Families frequently held an “American Wake” for those leaving the island: it was assumed, as if dead, that they would never return.

“Having presented their tickets at the agent’s office, and seen their luggage safely stowed away, they have now to wile away the anxious interval till the arrival of the steamer,” The Cork Examiner reported in 1866.

“The time is usually spent in strolling about the streets of the town. … True also to the national attachment to religion, our emigrants seldom fail to enter the church which they meet in their ramble, and offer there a rude but earnest prayer for those whom they leave behind, while they invoke a blessing on their journey,” the paper said.

When she stepped aboard the Baltic on Sept. 13, 1912, Nora was 5-foot, 4-inches tall with a “fresh” complexion, “dark” hair and “blue” eyes, according to the ship’s manifest record, obtained through the National Archives in WashingtonDC. She carried with her $25.

William was in “good” physical and mental condition, according to the May 10, 1913, entry of his passage on the Baltic. An official wrote “no” next to the questions “Whether a Polygamist” and “Whether an Anarchist.”

Outside the CobhHeritageCenter, a statue of Annie Moore and her two brothers stands along the waterfront. The Irish girl is said to be the first emigrant processed at Ellis Island when it opened on New Year’s Day, 1892.

A replica statue is on display at the New York immigration site.

The heritage center also details the “double tragedy” of the Titanic and the Lusitania.

The Titanic sailed from here April 11, 1912, and sank after striking an iceberg three days later. The Lusitania was en route from New York to Liverpool on May 7, 1915, when a torpedo from a German submarine pierced the hull and sunk the ship 16 miles off the Irish coast.

Nearly 2,000 of the Lusitania‘s passengers died, but local fishermen rescued 761 survivors and brought them to Cobh. As they recovered, workers that year finished the spire atop St. Colman’s Cathedral, a French Gothic-style church that dominates the town’s hillside profile of tiny row homes painted in pastel colors

As I walked up the steep streets leading to the cathedral, it occurred to me that Nora and William never saw the spire as their ship pulled away from Cobh. From the church grounds, the vista of Cobh’s island-studded harbor and the Atlantic beyond was fixed in my mind forever.

My grandparents were born in farming communities in northwest CountyKerry, where the River Shannon widens into the Atlantic Ocean. Honorah, as her name was in Irish, was raised along the river’s estuary near Ballylongford; William on the hillside overlooking Ballybunion and the sea.

Then, as now, dairy and sheep grazing and food crops were the main sources of income. But today the area increasingly relies on tourism for revenue.

Several fine beaches are tucked between the Ballybunion cliffs, where caves are revealed at low tide and hot seaweed baths are available most of the year. “Rich Americans” and “people from the city” are building vacation homes as the town paves more roads.

A chain-link fence protects the ruins of BallybunionCastle, the town’s landmark, a 16th-century fortress perched on a cliff steadily eroded by the ocean. Across Ireland, historic preservation officials are trying to save other sites from development.

Near Ballylongford, CarrigafoyleCastle and Lislaughtin Friary, built in the mid-1400s, are holding up much better. Like many Irish ruins, the sites are still accessible for free.

In September 1998, Bill Clinton played the famous Ballybunion Golf Course. A statue of the president swinging his driver stands in front of the local Garda, or police, station near the center of town.

“You’d have thought people never saw a man before,” one middle-aged waitress quipped about the visit. “It was madness.”

Despite the inconvenience, and the scandal over his dalliance with a young intern, the waitress, like many Irish I spoke with, had a favorable opinion of Clinton because of his efforts to secure peace in Northern Ireland.

Ulster, its regional name, covers roughly as much territory as Mobile, Baldwin, Washington and Clarke counties. The entire Irish island is about two-thirds the size of Alabama, with a slightly higher population near 5 million people.

Since an historic peace agreement was signed on Good Friday, 1998, Northern Ireland has made incremental progress — two steps forward, one step back — with a power-sharing government of the Protestant majority and Catholic minority. Violence that plagued the region for the last three decades has eased, but centuries-old mistrust lingers between the two groups.

Still, some view as a sign of progress the lack of bloodshed in an ongoing battle over flying the British flag favored by the Protestant “unionists” or the Irish tricolor of Catholic “republicans.” Their arguments about heritage and oppression sound familiar to debates in the American South about flying the Confederate Battle Flag.

In the Republic, too, the Irish have plenty of their own political scandals to bother much with Clinton’s indiscretions or illegalities. Recently, the papers were filled with stories that former leader Charles Haughey took kickbacks from developers while in office.

But on the walls of a reception room inside the Dáil, or parliament building, Ireland’s close relationship with the United States is as clear as the photographs of Clinton, Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy giving speeches inside the main chamber.

There, a member of the parliament introduced by an Irish journalist, jokingly asked if I’d “come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee.” More flattering, a teen-age school girl at a family reception in Navan, northwest of Dublin, recognized the Mobile Register as the newspaper read by Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

In their time, Nora and William probably attended school until about age 14, learning to read before going to work full-time on their family farms, then on to America. Today, Ireland’s well-educated work force has helped fuel a roaring economy nicknamed the Celtic Tiger.

“For better than a thousand years, Ireland had been at the bottom of Europe’s ladder of economic wealth,” the Industrial Development Agency of Ireland recently reported. “Now, Ireland is making moves in the world of E-commerce which are already showing dividends and which hold great promise to vault the country into a new area of sustained rapid economic growth.”

Ireland is second only to the United States in software exports, according to the agency. Unemployment is less than 5 percent.

In America, William worked as a laborer, then later as a streetcar conductor. Nora was employed as what was commonly known as “a domestic,” a paid housekeeper.

Each lived in Pittsburgh for 10 years among other Irish before finally meeting and being married in 1924, two years after William became a naturalized United States citizen. Because of immigration laws at the time, Nora did not become an American upon her marriage.

She waited until 1938 before taking the citizenship oath, renouncing “all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty.” It was 26 years since her voyage on the Baltic began in Cobh.

In 1956, legislators at the Dáil passed the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act as a way of breaking the waves of emigration by encouraging the Diaspora to return home. Part of the law also allows a person to claim dual Irish citizenship through family descent.

Such dual citizenship has no adverse affect on U.S. citizenship, according to the State Department.

It took me nearly two years to complete the paper trail of birth certificates, marriage licenses and other records to claim Irish citizenship, which was granted with my registration in the Foreign Births Entry Book. Afterward, obtaining my Irish passport was a snap.

When I landed in Dublin last month, I breezed through the short “Irish Only” line instead of waiting with the “Others,” flashing my crimson (no, it’s not green) “Eire” passport instead of my navy American document. Then I drove to Cobh.

William died suddenly in 1941, at 47, within days of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, leaving Nora to raise six girls, including my mother. Ireland wasn’t the only place with hardship.

I’ve seen only one black and white picture of William. But in Kerry, a relative invited me to dinner in the house where he was born in 1894. I also muddied my boots near the Shannon estuary, where Nora surely picked wildflowers as a girl.

She died in 1983, at 93, when I was 24. My grandmother never talked much about her life in Ireland, and at the time I didn’t have the questions that I do today.

Margaret, her niece, told me “everything has changed” as we surveyed the Kerry landscape from the top of CarrigafoyleCastle.

I’ve never met a woman who looked and sounded as much as Nora. At nearly 80, she had climbed the castle’s spiral stone staircase of more than 100 steps without missing a breath.

A plume of white smoke curled from an electricity plant on the far shore of the Shannon.

Across Ireland, I’d seen hand-lettered signs that demanded “No more pylons.” But others clamor for the poles that carry electricity to new subdivisions outside Dublin and other towns and villages through the countryside.

Today, Ireland has the youngest population in Europe, with 40 percent of the citizens 25or younger. For the first time since the potato famine, the country has more people coming in than going out.

Ireland is also attracting refugees from Eastern Europe and Africa. One hundred mobile homes were hauled into CountyKerry recently to accommodate the newcomers as the country faces tough questions about racist and xenophobic attitudes. Some here were fatalistic about the zooming economy, sure tough times would return soon enough.

I told Margaret that I was thinking about moving to Ireland, to make the most of my dual citizenship and live in the footsteps of Nora and William. She was not impressed.

“For the honor of God,” she said in a stern brogue, “stay where you have a good life.”

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