‘Them Poor Irish Lads’ in Pennsylvania

MacsuibeBreandán Mac Suibhne at the Dublin Review of Books:

And so it was that some four or five generations came of age around Glenties and Castlederg, Ballyconnell, Ballinamore, Boyle, and Crossmolina dreaming of places like Summit Hill, Mauch Chunk and Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton, Tamaqua, Pottsville and Plymouth.

Those names were whispered into the late twentieth century. As a child, in the 1970s, I heard some of them. Put to bed in my grandparents’ house outside Ardara, there were white-matted studio photographs of three handsome young men in big black wooden frames at the foot of the bed. The only other pictures on the walls of that house were the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the colour snap on the moon-phase calendar which Tommy Tom gave out every Christmas to advertise the Greenhouse Bar and Shop. The framed photographs had been shipped home from Pennsylvania and California in the early 1900s. The handsome men were elder brothers of my grandfather, Néillí Sweeney (1900-’86). He, the youngest of the family, never saw one of those brothers, and another he had no recollection of having seen. The brother whom he did not remember seeing was James, who died, aged twenty seven, after an operation on a sarcoma of the neck in the Mercy Hospital, Wilkes-Barre, in 1909. It was the same hospital, run by Irish nuns, where Con Carbon had died two years earlier. After stints in Scotland in his teens and early twenties, James had left for the hard coal fields in 1903, stopping with an uncle in Plymouth and going down the mines.

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