Reflecting on our Irish heritage this St. Patrick’s Day.

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While I’m working today, I have the documentary “The Irish in America: Long Journey Home” playing in the background, as it relates a tale about the Irish Diaspora and how the Irish built America. Interesting stuff and quite a bit more poignant than kegs of beer infused with green dye in celebration of my patron Saint’s feast day.

For most Irish in America, St. Patrick’s Day is a day to reflect our heritage. A heritage that is shared with far more Americans than people still living in Ireland.

According to the last Census, there are 34.5 million Americans who list their heritage as either primarily or partially Irish. That’s seven times larger than the population of Ireland itself (4.68 million). Irish is the second-most common ancestry among Americans.

Looking at my Irish heritage it’s a common story and experience that many who came to this country from Ireland had.

On my father’s side, Nicholas Powers was the first Powers (of my branch) in America. In some quarters, “Powers” arose as a variant of the Gaelicized “de Paor”, and later Anglicized “Power.” In some cases it originated as a nickname for a poor man. And from the evidence I’ve been able to find, it fit, as Nicholas was not a man of means by any stretch of the imagination.

Nicholas arrived in America, and by 1870 lived in the Boston area as many Irish immigrants did, where he worked in the wool & paper mills of Boston. His wife, Hanora was like many female Irish immigrants, and arrived in America already married, following her husband. Hanora was a female housekeeper, or a “bridget” in the Boston area.

Hanora was unable to read or write, and remained so for the rest of her days. Of their 8 children, only five of them lived to see the new century in 1900. Hanora herself died of pneumonia on December 7th, 1903, sixteen years before her husband.

One of their sons, Richard, also lived a life of labor, as a cigar maker. He would have not been living badly or toiling quite as hard as his father did, as by the end of World War I, cigar makers in Boston would have been making between $27 – $30 a week, and able to support a family without his wife Nellie working.

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Joseph

But it wasn’t necessarily a charmed life. Richard and Nellie had three sons, Edward, Joseph and Charles. Edward, died about one day after birth of cellulitis. Of the two remaining children, the older of them, Joseph, also lived a short life. After completing school, in his early twenties, Joseph Powers died of rheumatic fever at the dinner table while eating a meal with the rest of the family, literally eating one moment, and dropping dead the next.

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Charles

Charles lived a longer, and better life than his siblings. He went to school, and married Helene O’Neill in 1932. Helene was also a grandchild of Irish Immigrants, except they came to the country and settled in Rhode Island, where they lived in the Newport area. Her grandfather was a laborer, and her father was a mason.

The same year they married, Charles was admitted to the State Bar Association. He worked as an attorney, and by all accounts, the family did quite well, and Charles eventually rose to be named as resident counsel and Secretary of the Automobile Club of New York (AAA affiliate) at a time in American history when the Automobile was king. He often acted as lobbyist for the group before legislative bodies on bills concerning traffic safety, highways, and automobile taxes, before his death in 1970.

Charles had five children, three sons and two daughters. Two of his three sons followed in his footsteps and became attorneys. One was a VP and corporate counsel for ITT (International Telephone and Telegraph) before his retirement. Another, Charles Powers, Jr. currently sits on the bench in New Jersey as a judge on the Vicinage 2 Superior Court, where he hears cases in the Civil Division.

His other son chose a different path. After a year in Law School, he decided that it wasn’t for him, and joined the Army. After completing his service there, he joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a Special Agent during the tenure of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

That son of Charles is my father, Dave. And aside from 5 other kids, he begat me.

From the efforts of those poor Irish immigrants who came to the shores of America seeking a better life for their children and the generations that come thereafter, I honor their memory and pioneering spirit this St. Patrick’s Day for their bravery in leaving their home country to find a better life, and weaving themselves into the tapestry that is the American story.

And you can blame them for the SDWC. 🙂

3 thoughts on “Reflecting on our Irish heritage this St. Patrick’s Day.

  1. El Rayo X

    As for the accuracy of those census numbers, a group of Irish men stopped at the bar after the parade. One says ” A round of whisky for us all.” One of the guys pipes up “Make mine vodka.” The leader of the group asks “Why is a good Irishman drinking vodka on St. Patrick’s Day?” The man responds “The truth be told, Grandpa came from Poland and when her got here he wanted an American name, so he took the last name O”Malley.”