In 1929 Mom’s dad, John O’Sullivan, left this 2-story farmhouse (picture below) to emigrate to New York City. He wouldn’t return for 30 years. John left behind his parents, Cornelius & Johanna, and seven siblings: Julia, Ellen, Gerard, Timothy, Mary, Lilian, and Katherine.
The home is called Milleennahorna, and it’s located near Skibbereen in County Cork, Ireland. It now sits on about 130 acres of farmland that mostly produces grass. In 1929 it would have been a self-sustaining farm with cows, pigs, chickens, and other livestock.
John, called Jack by his family and friends, was 21 when he left Milleennahorna. It was a rough start when he landed in America; he nearly died of appendicitis on the steamship voyage across the sea and then, six months later, the stock market crashed setting off the Great Depression.
But John found his footing.
He would study for and pass exams to earn employment as a stationary engineer at St Joseph’s Hospital, apprenticing in exchange for room & board. He earned extra money by gardening the hospital grounds, infusing some of his prior life from the Irish farmstead into urban NYC. Upon completion of his apprenticeship he worked at General Diaper Company, a cleaning service where he helped operate and manage the heavy machinery.
In 1940 he married Mary Foley, who had emigrated from Glenbeigh, County Kerry in 1928. Within a few years Mom and her sister Joan were born.
John and Mary built an impressive new life in America; despite arriving in the late 1920s with virtually no wealth or property to their names, by 1943 they owned their own home in Woodside, Queens, and by 1947 they had purchased a dry cleaning business on Broadway in Elmhurst, Queens. They later purchased a new, larger and single family home closer to the business in Elmhurst. It was in this house, decades later, where we grandkids would visit him.
All told, John returned to Ireland only three times after emigrating in 1929; first in 1959 with his family and twice more in the 1970s on his own. The 1959 trip is when Mom first met most of her family; aunts, uncles, cousins…that trip would be formative in creating the transatlantic family bonds that would be strengthened over the years, continuing into today.
John’s immigrant journey was like so many others; it was full of hard work and determination. He survived a grueling journey across the Atlantic, re-skilled himself at least twice over, got married, owned his own home and successful small business with his wife, and started a family. He left many family members behind in his home country that he later revisited; I imagine it was extremely difficult – bittersweet, truly – to have a foot in two countries for so long, especially when neither communication nor travel were as easy or accessible as compared with today. He passed away, at home in Elmhurst, in 1988 at the age of 80.
This past Saturday, 89 years after John departed Milleennahorna, five of his great-grandchildren – Kate, Brooke, Ethan, Indira, and Arjun – returned. The great-grandkids were treated to a special horse and carriage ride by generous O’Sullivan family friends who drove out from Cork City for the day with their show horse just for the occasion. John’s nephew (and Mom’s 1st cousin), Sean O’Sullivan, arranged it, and then hosted the adults in the kitchen with tea, scones and conversation. It was a short but very meaningful visit back to our ancestral home. Milleennahorna is a home that connects us to many of the cousins we’ve met on this trip; our cousins’ grandparents were John’s siblings, and now – nearly 90 years later – many of us are having kids, stretching out a new layer of branches on the family tree with the great-grandkids.
I was only 12 when Grandpa died in 1988. My memories of him are limited but I remember the way he talked, laughed, and I can picture his face when he smiled. I’m struck by how I can see my memories in some of my relatives faces and hear my memories in some of their voices. The cadence or sound of speech or the way eyes crinkle when a person smiles. It’s a really happy surprise, quite frankly, to be reminded of Grandpa through this visit with his nephews and nieces on this trip, and even with some of the grand-kin. And it’s a reminder of the power of staying connected with family and understanding not just where your roots are….but who the other branches are on the family tree.