Why did O’Flaherty plant boiled potatoes?

I was excited when I acquired a copy of the Ayer’s American Almanac. Not only was it published in Lowell, Massachusetts, the ancestral city of my Roane clan, it’s the 1859 edition, – the year my Irish immigrant couple, John P. and Mary (Hurney) Roane were married. I liked to imagined the little booklet sitting on a shelf in their home on the comer of Gorham of Summer streets.

The purpose of the magazine, “For the health of All Nations,” was trumpeted by an angel on the cover.  Its enterprising publisher,  “Dr. James C. Ayer, Practical and Analytical Chemist,” had equal interest in promoting his financial health. Lengthy  articles describe the powers of Ayer’s Compound Concentrated Extract of Sarsaparilla, Ayer’s Cathartic Pills, and Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral, to ease everyday complaints, and to cure virtually everything from deafness, partial blindness, fits, paralysis and tumors –  to gout and syphilis.

Cover of Ayer's American Almanac 1859

The booklet measures 4 5/8 by 7 inches.

Despite the relentless advertising, the almanac had practical utility. The annual calendar incorporated the Christian observances of Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Trinity and Advent. It listed anniversaries of national significance,  such as “Franklin born, 1706” and “Battle of Tippecanoe, 1811.” And it wouldn’t be an almanac without the weather. Predictions of wind, rain, snow and temperature would have interested city dwellers and rural folk, just as we check the daily forecast. The almanac also offered amusement. Each calendar page had extra space at the bottom. Some months filled it with run-over text. Other months featured aphorisms, witticisms, doggerel – and jokes.

In my mind’s eye, I’d  picture John in the parlor reading aloud to Mary (who was illiterate), or to a small group of Sunday visitors enjoying a break in the work week.  I’d imagine hearing their laughter and cups clinking (whether filled with tea or something stronger, I can’t say).

Then after I read the booklet through, I wondered if I was wrong about the laughter. What would any native of Ireland think and feel about the following?

            “How much did yees ask for thim buttons?” inquired an Irish customer.

            “Fifteen cents.” 

            “I’ll give ye thirty-siven.”

            “I didn’t say fifty ─ I said fifteen,” replied the honest dealer.

            “Bedad, an’ I’ll give you tin cints, thin.”

 

            “Why in the world do you plant boiled potatoes, Mr. O”Flaherty?”

            “Shure, yer honor, I’m goin’ to thry the ixpirimint of raising them already biled for my own aiting.”

 

            “Did yoar fall hurt you?” said Pat to his friend who fell with his hed from a high ladder.

             “No, Patrick, shure, it was hitting the ground that hurthed me.”

 

            The Irishman’s plan for casting cannon was, ─First take a hole, and then pour the iron around it. 

Today, this seems benign humor,  some gentle ribbing, – and no harm done. Certainly no reason to be upset, right? Now consider these other bits of fun from 1859:

            “Say, Pomp, you nigger, where you get dat new hat?”

            “Why at de shop, ob course.”

            “What is de price of such an article as dat?”

            “I don’t know, nigger, I don’t know; de shopkeeper wasn’t dar!”

 

            Sambo says, “Why am my belubed Dinah like de cloth dey make in Lowell? Cos she’s an unbleached she─ting.”

In both the Irish and the Black ‘jokes,’ ethnic speech patterns signal the low intelligence and low character of the subjects. Instantly recognized stereotypes provide the readers of the dominant culture with a good laugh. If the source of the humor is the same, – why is it only the last  two retain shock value?

In part, the ethnic slurs pop; but the rest of it is recognition that African Americans still do not enjoy the full-fledged membership privileges that Irish Americans have in modern society.

After the Civil War, things began to turn around for the Irish in America. They fought for the Union with distinction, and earned the gratitude of the nation. Gradually,  “real” Americans (white natives) became more accepting, and government jobs, – fire, police, public works, and other essential services were opened up to the Irish.

In 1888, John and Mary’s son joined the US Post Office and carried letters for 40 years. This modest post, paid John F. Roane enough to purchase a house and to raise a large, family. The Lowell newspapers over decades, reported the exploits of Roane grandsons – in  sports, the arts, the military, politics, and respectable Lowell society.

Yet  barely 20 years before his son got that post office job, John P. Roane died – and Lowell newspapers didn’t carry a word of his passing. Though a Lowell resident for 18 years,  an American citizen,  property owner and businessman,  the Irish native’s life went unremarked.

So we come back to Ayer’s American Almanac.  What do  its “jokes’ reveal about that period  – and about our own times?

I still wonder whether John Roane was angered by the characterization of the Irish in America or if being raised under English oppressors had inured him to insult.

I wonder, too, whether he felt sympathy for that other marginalized people – or whether he  laughed.

Notes:

1. The Old Farmers Almanac is still around and on the web – http://www.farmersalmanac.com

2.  There is a little bit about J. C. Ayer at Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Cook_Ayer

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When Quitting Solved a Mystery

My father taught us that Irish Americans should be proud and sing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” every St. Patrick‘s Day. Because  the genealogy bug me didn’t bite until long after his death, I hardly knew more than that about my Roane roots. For help, I wrote the only elder Roane I knew, “Uncle Paul,” who was, unbeknownst to me, my dad’s cousin. Paul Roane, Senior graciously provided all the names and dates he knew. He even created hand-ruled trees. So I learned the founder of my paternal line in Lowell, Massachusetts was John P. Roane, who  died on November 28, 1869 when he was 38 years old.

Armed with sketchy facts in living memory, I dove in and harried city clerks and librarians in places far and wide. I fleshed out the Lowell families. I contacted and reconnected with “lost” cousins.  However, I was confused by my inability to document that precise date of John P. Roane’s death.

I pictured my ancestors as typical specimens of the 19th-century poor and struggling who were drawn to the world-famous mill city. In 2003 I made a pilgrimage to the consecrated ground of St. Patrick’s Cemetery that held so many weary Irish bones. I prepared myself for the possibility there was no Roane marker to see, knowing stones were (and are) expensive, but after making inquiries, an administrator marked a map, handed it across the counter, and waved me cheerily out the door.

Two minutes later, I stood flabbergasted. An embarrassingly immodest granite monument rose up from the Roane family plot (photo below). Okay, I’ll push  aesthetics aside; the discovery must be assessed within its historical context. During the Victorian era, ostentatious displays told beholders you were successful. Though my Roanes always lived in working-class dwellings (some still stand), – in death, they communicate a powerful desire to be remembered as people of substance and importance. But I digress.

Photo of the Roane monument at St. Patrick's Cemetery in Lowell, MA

Roane Monument at St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Lowell, MA

Beneath a crown with a cross thrust through it, carved into the polished stone, you can read:

JOHN P. ROANE

DIED NOV. 28, 1869

AGED 38 YRS.

ERECTED BY

MARY O’NEIL

DIED MARCH 24, 1919

AGED 83 YRS.

Here was the reason John P. Roane was not forgotten, but he wasn’t buried here. This plot was purchased in 1894, 25 years after his death. Frustration flooded over me. I’d searched in Lowell, other towns and cities, in state repositories and online databases with no result.  I still had no death record, no funeral notice, no obituary. I burned to know exactly where he came from, what happened to him, and why. But that day I couldn’t think of a place I hadn’t already looked. John P. Roane’s end and origins were lost to history and it was time for me to move on.

I shifted my research focus to John’s widow, Mary Hurney. She moved on with her life by marrying a Civil War veteran named Patrick O’Neil in 1873. The remarkable Mary out-lived him, too. (In fact, Mary out-lived all but one of nine children and every one of her 13 siblings).

Head shot of Mary (Hurney) Roane O'Neil (1836-1919) from a group photograph taken in Lowell's Marion Studio around 1913.

Mary (Hurney) Roane O’Neil.

Patrick O’Neil suffered a myriad of debilities arising from his military service. Doctors declared him unable to work and he collected disability payments in his last years. After he died in 1896, Mary applied for her widow’s benefit.

The federal government used fill-in forms for these applications, so when I ripped into the NARA* file, I was surprised to find pages of handwritten testimony. Like any claimant, Mary had to prove that a US soldier was dead and that she had been his wife. Mary produced death records for Patrick O’Neil, his two former wives, and a marriage certificate. Legal difficulties arose because Mary had no death record for first husband, John Roane.  She needed sworn witnesses to the facts surrounding John Roane’s death. Then WHAM! it felt like a lightning strike** when I recognized the surnames, JONES and HILLARY. I read…

I was a cousin of the John Roane who was the first husband of the above named Mary O’Neil and went to Ireland with him…

Bits of information I’d collected over years, but could never tie in, began falling into place…. Witnesses at baptisms were often relatives…  There was no death record, because John did not die here.

…That before leaving Lowell he was in ill health and the physicians recommended a sea voyage and… that he did not meet with the health that he thought he would derive from the change and constantly grew worse…

Tuberculosis (TB), also known as consumption, or phthisis, was the scourge of the Roane family and remains a potent killer. Before Robert Koch discovered its cause in 1882, treatments included the ‘work cure’ (eating basic food and performing manual labor in the outdoors). And if you had money enough, you might take the ‘travel cure’ to experience a restorative change in climate.

I can’t know that John Roane had TB, but he was treated for an ailment like it. Though a grocery store owner since 1859, at the birth of daughter Sarah in 1868, John gave his occupation as mason ( hard labor). Then the cousins’ testimony that  they accompanied him to Ireland in the of spring 1869 fits the pattern of TB ‘cures’ of the time.

These facts we know because we were intimate with him and with him constantly until he breathed his last…and was buried in Colmanstown, Galway Co. Ireland.

Lastly, a cousin told me Aunt Mollie said the Roanes came from Athenry…  When I searched online for  Colemanstown, it turned out to be a tiny settlement. The nearest town to it is Athenry.

And so a genealogy mystery was solved in a way that reminds me of a stargazing trick. If you stare straight at some celestial objects, you cannot see them at all.  However, when you avert your vision, that is, look slightly side-wise, – they magically pop into view.

——-

*This cemetery was referred to as the “Cath yard” by Yankee record keepers.

**National Archives and Records Administration

***Lightning did strike Patrick O’Neil, – but that’s a story for another day.