As St. Patrick’s Day approaches the St. Louis Irish prepare to celebrate roots that run deep within us. Roots that bind us to everything from castle ruins to the green, green fields of Erin. We tune the harps, limber up our fingers for the penny whistles and rosin our bows. Brush up centuries-old dance steps and take Irish flags out of storage to hang in our windows and doors. Some of us thumb through family recipes for soda bread, trifle, potato soup and colcannon while others warm up in neighborhood streets or nearby parks for the race downtown.
The third-largest immigrant group to settle in St. Louis (after Germans and Bosnians), we fill city streets and stop traffic along parade routes with music and dancing in and around March 17th. We do not dye the Mississippi green as our northern compatriots do the Chicago River. Though we wear plenty of it – proud to represent a land that so many of our people parted from in anguish, never forgot and brought us up to cherish. Although thousands of Irish settled in areas that became known as the Kerry Patch and Dogtown there is no one Irish neighborhood in St. Louis. Fiercely independent, each family is in a sense its own neighborhood invisibly linked to countless others, viscerally and spiritually. You can recognize us by the shamrocks on our clothing, Claddagh rings (hands clasped around a heart) on our fingers, the lilt in our voices and a twinkle in the eye that portends mischief.
Irish have elected to live all over the city of St. Louis and its surrounding counties from Carondelet to Old North St. Louis, Florissant, Clayton to the Chesterfield Valley. Tracing Irish genealogy here can be complicated. Many of the first Irish in St. Louis spoke English as well as their native language so they had no need to live in Irish-speaking communities. When they could afford to, they often bought land “in the country” that reminded them of home. They loved to gather in each others’ houses – especially around St. Patrick’s Day – roll up the carpet in the front room and dance as their musicians played. Stories were told, recitations given, and rounds of songs sung, in a tradition dating back time out of mind.
My Step-Grandmother, Annie Tiernan Hayes Burke, read a newspaper in Irish (along with the Post-Dispatch and the morning Globe in English), the typography of which was as magical and puzzling to me as that of the Chinese newspaper which could also be found on South Grand Blvd. at one time. She sang little rhymes in Irish as she danced me on her knees. And lulled me to sleep with stories of faeries and the mountains of Connemara where she’d walked barefoot to school. Gaelic words spoken in a whisper-soft brogue that I didn’t understand but which awakened the memories in my genes.
I am gifted with a voice for singing. I was told from childhood that it came from my grandfathers, who were known for their beautiful singing. I must trust the recollections of my aunts and uncles for this legacy because my granddads died long before I was born.
Michael O’Connor of Ardfert, County Kerry was a St. Louis police officer who died in the line of duty. He married my grandmother, Nora Mulqueen of Croom, County Limerick here in 1903. Eighteen years later, on April 22, 1922 Michael was shot and killed along with his partner, Bernard Mengel (a German immigrant), while attempting to prevent a holdup at the Morris Packing Company at 3000 South Broadway.*
He was guarding the South Side Trust Company, twelve blocks from home, when someone rushed into the bank and said that a robbery was taking place across the street. He never made it home that day. My Aunt Franny was twelve years old, my dad was was ten. He, too, had a beautiful voice.
Tom Kirkpatrick of Carrabawn, County Mayo was many years dead when his daughter Anabel married my father, Vincent O’Connor. A teamster, who managed the largest team of horses in St. Louis, transporting goods from Illinois to Missouri across James Eads’ Bridge, my Grandfather Tom (according to my Uncle Bob) sang all the time when he was at home. He couldn’t enter a room without people calling out, “Give us a song, Tom.”** The song most often requested of him was, “Where the River Shannon Flows”. His voice is a legacy to me through my mother.
There’s a pretty spot in Ireland, I always claim for my land; Where the faeries and the blarney will never, never die, ‘Tis the land of the shillelagh; My heart goes back there daily, To the girl I left behind me, When we kissed and said good-bye. James Russell 1904
In another part of St. Louis from where I grew up my husband, Tom, long before I met him, was learning to sing at his father’s knee. Jack Kavanaugh (John Keaveney) of Englishtown, Glenamaddy sang as naturally as he spoke, the words tripping from his lips ad infinitum, one song after another, as his own father James, had sung to him.
When Tom brought me home to meet his parents (we met as teenagers) I experienced the rare joy of hearing for the first time since my grandmother died someone praying in Irish and filling the kitchen with song.
My husband’s paternal grandparents, James Keaveney and Catherine Mahon, had a farm in County Galway. As so many of the Irish did, James worked winters in England, and sang in a pub where he learned many of the songs and ballads in his considerable repertoire.
Each of their nine children had his or her favorite. And once he’d started he had to continue ’til he’d sung them all. It’s a rich house that’s filled with music. As older adults five of these Keaveney siblings had the most musical way of telling a story – pausing every so many phrases and breaking softly into bits of song before continuing on.
Which made me realize that if you wanted the full impact of James Joyce’s, Finnegan’s Wake, you’d have to sing your way through half of it. (Seven of the Keaveney children are pictured above with their parents. From the left they are: Catherine, Michael, Teresa on her mother’s lap, Mark, Margaret behind them, John to the right of his father, and James. Malachy Francis had not yet been born. We think, but cannot be sure, that Patrick was taking the photo before he left for America.)
My father-in-law emigrated to St. Louis at the age of eighteen. It was for Jack, as it was for the rest of the city’s immigrants, a rough go. But he worked his way up from carrying the hod, to laying bricks, to patrolling streets as a city police officer. Along the way Jack fell in love with and married Julia Connally and began to teach their children to sing the songs his father had taught to him.
to hear to a priceless family recording in the Kavanaugh living room of Jack Kavanaugh singing, and reciting a prayer in Irish.
“The Bold Fenian Men” was written by Peadar Kearney 1916.
Jack was aided in his first years here by a dynamic Irish priest who became a St. Louis legend. In this photograph given to my husband by Margaret Lavin who has it from her father Richard, Jack stands to the left of Monsignor Timothy Dempsey outside of St. Patrick’s School, St. Patrick’s Day circa 1926.
Pictured on the far right is Margaret’s father, Richard Lavin of Kiltimagh, County Mayo. A master fiddler who began playing at the age of nine, Richard learned to play bagpipes at the request of Msgr. Demspey, who purchased the instruments and the uniforms for the band.***Also pictured are piper, Michael Fahey and second to the right of Msgr. Dempsey, Mike Kavanaugh (Jack’s older brother). Faugh A Ballagh (the writing on the bus) translates as “Clear the Way.”
Born in Ireland in 1867, Timothy Dempsey was ordained at age twenty-four to serve the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He would guide the Mother Church of the St. Louis Irish Community, old St. Patrick’s at 6th and Biddle Streets, most of his priestly life; earning devotion for his service to the working poor, regardless of their religion or race.
Renowned for his work with not only the Irish but other immigrant groups swelling the 10th Ward, Fr. Tim opened a hotel he called “Exiles Rest” for working men in 1906. He followed that with another for working women 1911 and a third for African-American workers in 1922.
During the Great Depression he maintained a free lunch room**** and earned another reputation – as mediator in close to fifty labor disputes. In 1909 Rev. Timothy Dempsey purchased a large section in Calvary Cemetery, a final “Exiles Rest” for many who had no families here. He’s buried there with 226 of his former residents and his charities continue to this day.****
Singing the beautiful, sometimes funny, often haunting songs of Ireland became a cherished tradition in my husband’s St. Louis family. After we married Tom and I began singing the songs with his older brother, John – our repertoire enriched by a continuous stream of suggestions from his Keaveney Higgins cousins in Galway, who are musicians in their own rite. Friends who shared our love of Irish music joined us from time to time, over many years of concerts, mostly at St. Louis University where Rev. John Kavanaugh, S.J. taught philosophy.
Tom’s and my children, John O’Connor, Jennifer Niamh and Thomas Patrick grew up in the music. We were delighted the night the older two sent the littlest one down to ask if they could join “the group”. They were about eight, seven and four years old at the time. They learned instrumental music in their school band – cornet, flute and saxophone – but played guitars, tin whistles, wooden flutes and bodhran (round, goatskin drum) when we did Irish music together.
Thousands of St. Louis children have grown up in the Irish Arts of Music and Dance under the expert tutelage of Helen and Dr. Patrick Gannon who emigrated to St. Louis in 1967; many of them mastering their arts to the proficiency level of All Ireland Champions.
In our house the music and song evolved in different ways. They were for us a way to relax as a family, to learn and interpret beautiful music in an informal setting. In time the living room seemed to naturally open up to auditorium and theater. Several years ago my husband captured his family legacy in song.
composed in about 1975 and sung here by my husband, Thomas Kavanaugh.
As seven grandchildren have widened our family circle we’ve continued to sing at home. Now these fifteen to four year olds, whose faces light up at a song that captures their fancy, listen and beg for it over and over til they have it by heart, “Wild Mountain Thyme,” “The Minstrel Boy”, “Asthore Machree,” and so it goes. Singing the songs our dads and grandads sang; their moms and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers sing; an unbroken circle of song. We are proud descendants of an isle of song, of music and dance, faith and mirth.
I leave you this St. Patrick’s Day 2016 with a bit of music from our house to yours (through the generosity of Triune Communications and the wizardry of Jo Ann Ang-Hulsey).
* IN THE LINE OF DUTY: St. Louis Police Officers Who Made the Ultimate Sacrifice – Barbara Miksicek, David McElreath and Stephen Pollihan,The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, 1991; **Rev. Robert Kirkpatrick, CSSR; ***Margaret Lavin; ****Connie Nisinger – archivist & historian at Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis.
Illustration Credits: Seannachie by Jack B. Yeats – personal collection of Maureen & Thomas Kavanaugh; Faeries by Arthur Rackham and Antique St. Patrick’s Day Card – both in the public domain at karenswhimsey.com.
Photo Credits: Dunluce Castle, County Antrim – wikimediacommons.org., Irish Step Dancing in a St Patrick’s Day Parade in Fort Collins, CO, March 12, 2005 – author Matthew Trump – at Wikimedia Commons; Clew Bay as Seen from Croagh Patrick by Duncan Hornby – in the public domain at wikipedia.com;Wedding Portrait of Nora Mulqueen and Michael O’Connor, 1903 – kindness of their granddaughter & my cousin – Patricia Byrne Perry; Wedding Portrait of Anabel Kirkpatrick Burke and Vincent O’Connor (including their Flower Girl, Patricia Byrne Perry) & Wedding Portrait of Julia Connally and John Kavanaugh, also Jack Kavanaugh with Thomas Kavanaugh, Sr. circa 1953 – O’Connor/Kavanaugh family collection; Keaveney Family in Front of Their Farmhouse in County Galway, Ireland Circa 1918 – Kavanaugh family collection; Msgr. Timothy Dempsey and His Pipers – photographer unknown used with the kind permission of Margaret Lavin; Burial Site of Msgr. Timothy Dempsey in Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, MO – used with the kind permission of Connie Nisinger, the photographer; Irish Imports Concert Photos of John Kavanaugh and of Tom, Jenny and Tom Kavanaugh, Jr. – Rob Murphy; Black & White Photo of Kavanaugh Family Musicians – Chuck Dresner; The Children of Lir Sculpture in the Garden of Remembrance – Maureen Kavanaugh; Aerial View of Ireland – in the public domain at wikipedia.com.