Tales of My Home
Stories about the Lower Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts
#52Ancestors Challenge Week 5: My great grandparents Michael and Theresa McDonnell of Lawrence, Mass.
Above: My great grandparents Michael McDonnell and Theresa Doherty McDonnell and some of their children (with spouses), including my grandfather Joseph McDonnell standing next to and behind his mother. Michael owned a meat market and Theresa ran a boarding house across from the Arlington Mill. Michael was born in Lawrence in 1851 on Elm Street, his parents later ran a boardinghouse up Broadway just over the town line in Methuen. My grandfather was born in 1889 at a house on Broadway that straddled the Spicket River, where the little bridge is. Theresa was born in Manchester England where her parents had gone to work in the mills. Her father brought his family over from Manchester England to Lawrence by receiving $600 for fighting in the place of two different men in the Civil War in 1863. Unfortunately he never came back from that war, rather he lived out his days as an invalid in a military hospital in Bangor Maine. I think this picture was taken around 1920.
Below: The bridge where my grandfather's birthplace, 541 Broadway, used to be. Photos by me, 2016.
In previous blog post, I covered the Lawrence "race riot" of August 1984, which was essentially between a newcomer immigrant group, "the Hispanics", and established natives.
Who says history never repeats itself?
A century-and-a-quarter earlier, another riot occurred in Lawrence, between a newcomer immigrant group, "the Irish", and established natives. See news coverage above in the New York Times, July 11, 1854.
The Lawrence riot of that July 11 was part of a wave of violence aimed at recent Irish immigrants. It swept New England in the summer of 1854, at the height in these parts of the Know-Nothing movement.
Know-Nothing politicians stirred crowds with hysterical speeches, about how the Catholic religion was incompatible with American values.
"They only answer to religious law and do whatever the Pope and the priests tell them!"
"They oppress their women by putting them in convents!"
These were the kinds of statements made by the Know-Nothings. It reminds me of hysterical tirades aimed at the supposed incompatibility with American values of the religion of another group of recent arrivals. Just substitute "the commands of the Pope and the priests" with references to Sharia law to see what I mean. The existence of separate religious schools run by and for Catholics particularly incensed many natives, and led to continuous political and court battles through most of the nineteenth century. The "School Question" will be the topic of another blog entry.
Think about the context of this anti-Catholic animosity. I'm not defending it, but perhaps it was understandable. Your average New England Yankee had for two centuries been fed a diet of how horrible "Popery" had been, a belief borne out of Protestant experiences with the Counter-Reformation and the religious wars that plagued Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Virtually all New England churchgoers of the time would have shared a staunch belief in the supposed corruption of the Catholic Church, as was finally upended in the Reformation. This was one of the few beliefs that unified the various Protestant denominations that flourished in New England by the 1840s, Congregationalists, Unitarians, Baptists and Methodists being the main ones at this time. Furthermore, very few of these denominations had any liturgy or ritual to speak of in their worship. Also, there were vague collective memories of the French and Indian attacks, led by Jesuit warrior-priests like Father Sebastian Rale coming down from New France (i.e. Quebec) with bands of wild Abenaki Indians to slaughter English villagers.
In this context then, imagine how America's first wave of Catholics, the Irish, appeared. Their worship was in a strange language, Latin. This language would have scared Yankee listeners, as it signified the supposed corrupting influences of Rome on true Christianity based solely on original biblical texts, in addition to being completely foreign. Moreover, the Catholic mass (their worship ritual) usually lacked a sermon, full of textual exegesis, which was the mainstay of Congregationalist worship; nor did it have any of the evangelical personalizing of the relationship between the individual believer and Jesus Christ, which, since the Great Awakening in the 1740s, prevailed in the non-establishment Protestant denominations such as the Baptists and later the Methodists. Instead, Catholic worship featured a man in weird robes (the priest) facing an ornate altar, making strange gestures and repeating a bunch of Latin phrases in a prescribed order, while the congregation chanted phrases in Latin in a prescribed order, kneeling, sitting and standing in turn. Imagine how frightening a group of worshipers all kneeling and bowing in unison could be!
And then there was the intense scrutiny of convents and nuns, who were assumed to be under oppression and even sexual slavery, with their covered heads and existence behind closed doors. The Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Mass. was burned down by a mob in 1834 on suspicion that women were being held there against their will. And practices like praying the hours (in which devout Catholics visibly pray five times a day at prescribed hours using prescribed prayers based on a calendar), also set off suspicion and animosity, as did its simpler sister ritual, saying the rosary.
Below: the cover of the American Patriot, a Boston-based Know-Nothing newspaper, 1854
In addition to the anti-Irish riot in Lawrence, many other New England towns and cities had similar riots that summer: Bath, Maine (in which a Catholic church was burned down); Ellsworth, Maine (in which a priest was tarred and feathered); Chelsea, Mass. (in which a Catholic church was attacked); Dorchester, Mass. (in which a Catholic church was destroyed by dynamite); and Norwalk, Conn. (in which St. Mary's catholic church was set on fire and its steeple sawed off), among other places.
In Manchester, New Hampshire on July 4, 1854 a skirmish between some Irish youth and some "natives" over a bonfire that the former group wanted to light escalated into significant violence. The local newspaper account stated that a "large number of men, armed with clubs and other destructive implements, about day-break, commenced an assault upon all the Irish houses in that neighborhood. Some ten or fifteen were pretty thoroughly dismantled—the doors and windows of many of them being completely stove in. The rioters next proceeded to the Catholic Church—just re-built at great cost, and probably the handsomest in the State—and continued their fiendish work. …" (Manchester Union Democrat, July 5, 1854).
These anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic sentiments swept the Know-Nothing American Party into power in the Massachusetts state legislature in 1854. "While much of the American Party’s platform was socially progressive, its highest priority was reducing the influence of Irish Catholic immigrants, and the party became the home of wildly divergent social movements attempting to organize under one political umbrella....The Massachusetts Know Nothing legislature appointed a committee to investigate sexual immorality in Catholic convents, but it was quickly disbanded when a committee member was discovered using state funds to pay for a prostitute." (Historic Ipswich blog entry on the Know Nothings)
By 1858, however, the new party was a spent force, and was defeated in almost all local and state elections. It also did little to thwart the continued growth of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts and New England, as Irish immigrants continued to pour in while their church organized itself under Irish leadership. Later, Irish domination of the Church hierarchy led to resentment by other, later Catholic immigrant groups, such as Italians and French Canadians - that topic will be covered in a blog entry about "National Parishes".
Map showing concentration of Irish-born in 1880. Note Massachusetts.
My own theory is that the Catholic Church of the Irish variety flourished in New England despite considerable native animosity in from the 1830s through the Civil War, because of a long history in Ireland of persevering under conditions of adversity and oppression. Here is an overview:
Following the Norman conquest of Ireland in 1175 (so more than 100 years after the Norman conquest of England), the English crown, still in the hands of the Dukes of Normandy, asserted rule over Ireland, to varying degrees of success. Sometimes English rule was limited to The Pale, a small area around Dublin originally marked by walls, fences and ditches (from Latin palus, meaning a stake) and the localized Gaelic clan-based system dominated the periphery.
However, starting with Henry VIII’s re-conquest of Ireland and the flight of the Earls in 1607 – when many landowning Irish (or more accurately, Norman) nobles of Ulster fled to Europe thus opening up active colonization by England via a “Plantation” system – English rule became more complete and much more repressive. The Tudor kings also imposed the Reformation, and gradually disenfranchised any nobles who did not convert to Anglican Protestantism. As a result of the plantation system and disenfranchisement of Catholics of all social classes, by the time of the Great Famine in 1846, economic control of most of Ireland was in the hands of a so-called Protestant Ascendancy. In addition to controlling most trade and local civic positions, the Protestant Ascendancy exploited Ireland as absentee landlords using a tenant farming system to produce grain and lamb and beef for export.
A series of Penal Laws discriminated against all Christian faiths other than the established (Anglican) Church of Ireland. The principal victims of these laws were Roman Catholics and also, from the late 17th century on, adherents of Presbyterianism. From 1607, Catholics were barred from public office and from serving in the army. In 1615, the constituencies of the Irish Parliament were altered so that Protestants must form the majority.
From the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in the Reformation imposed on Ireland, finished by 1650, to 1792, there were no Catholic seminaries in Ireland. Instead, Catholic priests in Ireland were trained at so-called Irish Colleges mostly in France but also in Rome and in Spain. In 1792, in the upheaval of the French Revolution, the Irish Colleges in France were closed. The English authorities permitted the opening of Maynooth College outside of Dublin for the training of priests, and today it is considered the National Seminary of Ireland.
The Catholic Church was essentially the only institution outside the immediate family that tried to look out for the interest of the Irish peasants, thus possibly explaining the deep loyalty of the Irish to this institution.
Above: My great grandparents Michael McDonnell and Theresa (Doherty) McDonnell, circa 1920, Lawrence, Mass., surrounded by a number of their children and spouses. My grandfather is behind and to the left of his mother in the back.
You asked me about my family history. Or I presume you did, otherwise you would not have showed up here.
I grew up in a unique place. I grew up among ghosts. They were left by previous generations through their stories. When I was little, my father would drive around my hometown of Lawrence, Mass. and tell the story on every corner about something that happened there to him, or to his father or his mother. The same was true for my mother. They had each left Lawrence for the big wide world, my father to the Marine Corps, U. Chicago and beatnik travels and my mother to a schoolteacher job on Long Island and cruises on the Queen Mary to Europe, but each had come back.
They had returned to a town that barely existed in its prior form, yet which carried the narrative of all prior generations. The collective story of Lawrence as told through my ancestors is one of migrants from far or near being caught the industrial town and staying there for generations. This fate is not as grim as it seems; the industrial town was the source of all forms of economic activity. There were shops, there was commerce and there was some higher education in addition to the factories.
On my mother's side, the story begins with the Irish potato famine. Her forebears, Irish all of them (and Catholic) were usually illiterate and had almost to a person arrived in the late 1840s. Interestingly, from the earliest generations there was a streak of the entrepreneurial. Her great grandfather John McDonnell and his wife ran a boarding house on Broadway in Methuen just over the town line with Lawrence. It is recorded in the census.
This line of business was again pursued by her father's parents with a boardinghouse on Broadway across from the massive Arlington Mills complex, employer of 4,000 workers at its heyday around 1920. Said paternal grandfather also ran a butcher business, and after that he was an undertaker.
On my mother's mother's side, too, there was a streak of enterprise with some focus on hospitality. Although the immigrant progenitor, one Jerry Driscoll, was but a laborer, he sold his services to the Union Army for $300 in 1863 and then used the proceeds to buy some land, including the land under the house into which my mother was born.
Jerry's extensive lands in North Andover became the seed capital for his three sons: a builder, a dairy farmer and my mothers grandfather, a saloon keeper. My mother's parents, hoteliers and smalltime real estate developers of the New Hampshire seacoast, were therefore a match well-destined.
The story of my mother's father is worth mentioning, since he was not more than a boy when he entered the mills in Lawrence around 1903 after leaving the eighth grade. However it must've been an arrangement, because instead of working a loom, he worked as an apprentice carpenter and machinist -- a job normally reserved for Protestant citizens.
Family legend has it that he was mistaken for a Scotsman by confusion over his surname: McDonnell instead of McDonald, allowing him to get a better job. Or maybe this was just the cover arranged by a family friend. In any case, as a result of his training in the mills as a carpenter and machinist, by age 30 he had amassed enough fortune to purchase and build the first motel in New Hampshire, the Sunrise Motor Court in Hmapton Beach, a burgeoning local vacation destination for millworkers made possible by the advent of the motorcar.
Joseph's eleven brothers and sisters also led equally fruitful and successful lives. As the stereotypically lazy third generation of Americans, they nevertheless assimilated and got along very well in the larger economy, becoming such things as a potato chip dealer and manufacturer; a soda manufacturer and distributor; a college-educated school teacher; and car salesman. In short, they were the type of generally successful and solid citizens.
1850s grave of Irish infants in one family, from the old section of the Immaculate Conception Cemetery in Lawrence, Mass. Photo by the author.
Above: My grandparents Mary (Driscoll) McDonnell and Joseph McDonnell at my mother's college graduation, 1960
I'm interested in the history of my grandfather's relationship to his Jewish neighbors. Specifically I wonder how he ended up building his retirement home in 1949 in the then-predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Tower Hill in Lawrence Massachusetts, moving from his prior home in the Irish section of South Lawrence, along Kingston Street by St. Patrick's Church
If I consider this move, along with other indicators – for example, that every winter he and his wife would travel to Fort Lauderdale Florida for their annual vacation, or that he was a smalltime real estate developer, or that he may have had a tendency to obfuscate his Irish Catholic background (he told mill overseers his surname was McDonald, which was Scottish, and which allowed him a better job) – the pieces of a puzzle perhaps begin to emerge.
Consider Lawrence in the 1940s. When he began building his house in 1949 at the age of 65, the city was still regional center, although on a terminal decline. He had worked for four decades as proprietor of hotels and rooming houses and was entering retirement with his wife. Summers were spent running the properties at a New Hampshire resort for the workers, Hampton Beach, and winters were spent in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Tower Hill in Lawrence, the location of his new home, had in the postwar years become the preeminent Jewish neighborhood of greater Lawrence. This period, especially the early 1950s, was marked by the construction of two synagogues on the upper part of Lowell Street and a Jewish community center (JCC) within 100 yards of the site of his new house. (One of them, Temple Emanuel, moved to Andover in 1979 and its buildings became the Bruce School annex magnet school mentioned in my blog post on the 1984 Lawrence riot.)
The local public school, the Bruce school, which I attended for nine years starting in 1976, apparently allowed days off for Jewish holidays and was at one point in the early 1960s over half Jewish.
Question: did my grandfather choose the neighborhood because he perceived it as an appropriate home for a successful businessman, much like the other residents of this neighborhood; or did he have specific personal links to some of the Jewish residents? And, tangentially, why did he winter in Fort Lauderdale, which by the early 1950s had become a Jewish destination? (He had been going there for years, and in 1926 purchased a significant parcel of land which they later sold in the 1950s).
I'm not sure it's possible to gather any more information. From talking to my mother, I get the impression that his friends were mostly related to his wife, my grandmother Mary Driscoll, a sociable and gregarious woman who had a penchant for Cadillacs and fur coats.
Yet I can also imagine a separate sphere of business colleagues, untethered from being "couples friends" – men who developed apartment buildings and commercial real estate, or who had businesses focused on hospitality - who might have influenced his choice of where to retire.
The final puzzle piece is his choice of developing property in Hampton Beach, N.H. This town was restricted, and covenants running with the land routinely prohibited sales of property to Jews, unlike the practices in the neighboring seaside resort areas of Salisbury, Mass. For this reason alone, I have concluded that any decisions of my grandfather to retire to Tower Hill in Lawrence, or to winter in Fort Lauderdale, had nothing to do with whether they were Jewish areas.
Nevertheless, I will cotinue to investigate this topic.
The property that became 78 (far left house) and 80 Kingston Street in South Lawrence was bought by my great grandfather Jeremiah Driscoll in 1867 for $168, when the land was parceled but not yet graded for streets. Jeremiah previously lived in the Irish shantytown of which this site was a part. Eleven relatives either were born or died in these houses over the years. They were sold in 1948 by my grandmother Mary Driscoll McDonnell, who was born at 80 Kingston Street in 1900.
Below is an excerpt from the Lawrence city directory in 1864.