Saturday, 17 March 2007

In Search of the Shamrock

On St. Patrick's Day, I thought I would go on a hunt for my elusive Irish ancestors.

For years, I've been at a standstill with the research into my Celtic background. I have been able to identify the emigrant families, but have had no luck discovering where in Ireland they had their roots...and did not have any additional success this time around, either.

The exception to that is my grandmother, who emigrated to the United States from Ballyshannon, Donegal. My grandmother was born in 1879, the third child of twelve born to Patrick and Mary Jane (Maguire) Gilfedder. Following traditional Irish naming patterns, she was named Mary Jane, after her mother. But to us, she was known as "Grammie."

Grammie's arrival in the United States was a mystery to us all. Although we knew where she came from, she would not talk about her voyage across the Atlantic. We did not know the date of the trip, the name of the ship she took, with whom she traveled, where she landed nor where she lived when she landed. It was not until the Ellis Island website opened up that the mist began to clear.

Mary Jane Gilfedder was 20 days past her 20th birthday when she left Ireland to begin a new life in the United States. She made her way to Londonderry, where on 29 September 1899, she boarded the ship, "State of Nebraska," destined for New York City.

The State of Nebraska was built in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1880. It was 385 feet in length and 43 feet wide. It carried 1,001 passengers (175 in First Class and 826 in Third Class) and traveled across the Atlantic Ocean at the speed of 13.5 knots. It remained in service for only three years after bringing my grandmother to America to begin her new life.

Twelve days after leaving Londonderry, the State of Nebraska arrived in New York City, unloading its human cargo on the docks of Ellis Island. What the young Mary thought when she first set foot on American soil will never be known. We also do not know who was there to greet her, if anyone, after passing through the immigration process and making the ferry trip to the city docks.

The ship manifest provides not only information about the passengers, but details about their destination. Grammie's entry indicates that her destination was Boston, Massachusetts, that she already had in hand a ticket to The Hub, paid by K. Gilfedder, and that she had $5 in her pocket. "K. Gilfedder" was most likely her sister, Kate, who had already made this same trip and was living in Newtonville, Massachusetts.

The 1900 US Census confirms that Mary completed her journey from New York City to Boston and had found employment in the home of Frederick Cutter of Newton, Massachusetts. By the time of the 1910 US Census, Mary has been married and now appears as the wife of Arthur W. Haviland, living in Belmont. Also listed in the census is her sister, Kate (aka "Catherine," after whom I was most likely named) and 4 daughters!

Grammie would see more changes in her life within a few years. She will give birth to the long-awaited son, her husband, Arthur, will die from a work-related injury at age 32 and she will build a new home in Belmont where she sets up a neighborhood dry goods store.

I have to marvel at the accomplishments and determination of the young woman who made the long voyage from her comfortable home on Bachelor's Walk in Ballyshannon, Donegal, to the uncertainty of a life raising and supporting 5 children alone. Not only did she manage to support her energetic brood, but she instilled in them the values of family, religion and patriotism. She embraced her new homeland with her whole being, even managing to lose the "brogue" which distinguished many Irish immigrants trying to get a foothold in the New World.

So, on this St. Patrick's Day, I celebrate the life of Mary Jane Gilfedder, an inspiration to her children and grandchildren, the ninth (and last) which I was privileged to have become.

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