Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What’s In A Name – A Remembrance for St. Patrick’s Day

Mel and Annie
Both of my Irish American grandmothers, one a Redmond, the other an O’Neil, were themselves the grandchildren of Irish immigrants.  I never knew my maternal grandmother; she died three days after Christmas in 1926, long before I was born.

My paternal grandmother (pictured above with my grandfather around 1911) was my first family “informant”, regaling me with stories about her family, her Gaelic-speaking grandmother who escaped the Irish famine and her own exciting life as a major league baseball player’s wife.

My two cousins and I called her “Nanny”, but everyone else in her neighborhood called her “Annie.”  When she signed her name, she wrote it with a flourish as “Anna D. Wolfgang.”  Once, when I was about 9 or 10, I asked her what the “D” stood for.  

At first, she didn’t want to tell me.  I kept on asking and finally, she gave in.

 “Dolores”, she said, with some bitterness in her voice.  “It’s Latin. It means 'sorrowful' or ‘full of sadness.’”  The sound in her voice was unmistakable; even I could tell she didn’t like the name.

And thereby hangs today’s St. Patrick’s Day’s Eve tale that begins more than a century ago.

Annie was born at home in Albany NY on 6 September 1889, the daughter of Joseph Redmond, a carpenter, and his wife Mary Horan.  Annie was one of 14 children, only 5 of whom stayed healthy enough to live past infancy or childhood.

In typical Irish Catholic fashion, most of her siblings had been named after a close relative – her sisters Ellen and Margaret were named after each of the grandmothers; her brothers James and Martin were named after each of the grandfathers.  Their parents’ names were echoed in a little Joseph Redmond and a little Mary Redmond.  Of those six siblings, only three –Ellen, Martin and Mary -  lived to be older than 19. 

Actually, there were two little Josephs.  The name “Joseph” seemed to be a singularly unlucky choice for the Redmond children since both of the boys who were given that name died in infancy, one after the other.

Before the bell tower spire was added
The Redmond family church – a great gray stone cathedral-like structure in downtown Albany – was designed by famed Irish immigrant architect Patrick Keely (formerly of Thurles, Tipperary, but then a Brooklyn resident) and sat directly across the street from the opulent mansions of Albany's Yankee lumber merchants. 

Annie’s parents were married there in 1872, and each of the Redmond children was baptized there.  In time, each of them would be buried from there as well. Her father’s funeral took place in the fall of 1901, a few weeks after Annie’s twelfth birthday.  Annie was married to Mel Wolfgang there and attended that church every Sunday and every holy day for the rest of her life, walking the mile and a half each way from her house.  

 She always sat in the same pew near the front of the south side aisle – the one with her mother’s name - "Mrs. Redmond" -  written in ink on a small card in a brass holder at the end of the pew. The faded card was a relic of the “pew rent” days.

About 40 years ago, I decided to verify the information I had been collecting on her family with the official church records.  Naturally, I started with my grandmother Annie.

Her baptismal record did indeed say “Anna Dolores Redmond”; however, the word “Dolores” was written above another, somewhat earlier name that had been crossed out. 

Charles Stewart Parnell
Originally, when she was baptized a few days after her birth, she had been given the grand name of “Anna Parnell Redmond”.  Obviously, she had been named for the great (and then wildly popular) advocate for Irish Home Rule, the Hon. Charles Stewart Parnell.  

 In 1889, Parnell was at the height of his political power in Ireland and England. Called the “uncrowned king of Ireland”, he was the power behind the Irish Land League, a political organization whose slogans were “Fair Rent * Fixed Tenure * Free Sale of Land.”   His political compatriot, who had recently toured the United States and was the talk of the Irish American communities everywhere, was the great orator and parliamentarian John Redmond.  Even though John Redmond was no close relation to the Albany Redmonds, the two names  - Parnell and Redmond joined together -  seemed to be a natural for Joe Redmond’s newborn little daughter Annie. 

Anna Parnell Redmond” was a name that fairly dripped with the bittersweet honey of Irish American pride and longing.

Annie’s glorious name, however, was not destined to be with her for long.  A few months later, in December 1889, word leaked out from Ireland that Parnell – the great hero and patriot – was in disgrace and was likely politically ruined.  A Galway gentleman named Captain William O’Shea had just filed for divorce from his wife Katherine (widely known in Anglo-Irish social circles as “Kitty”) on the grounds of adultery.  In the court proceedings he named Charles Stewart Parnell as the co-respondent.   

The whispered secret then became public – Parnell had been living in grave sin with the very much married-to-somebody-else Mrs. O’Shea.  To make things even worse, he was also the father of two of her daughters. 

In Irish American Catholic circles, this was unforgivable.  His American Catholic supporters had always overlooked the fact that Parnell was a Protestant landed aristocrat since he actively campaigned for home rule for Ireland.  When he toured the United States to raise funds, Irish Americans opened both their hearts and wallets.  Plus, Parnell was in favor of land reform.  Most Irish Americans alive in 1889 grew up hearing first hand from their parents and grandparents about the Great Starvation - An Gorta Mór -  and the year called “Black 47” when the blight now known to scientists as “Phytophthora infestans”  turned the potatoes black and sent the fleets of "coffin ships" heading westward.

And all the while, as people were starving, carts laden with the produce from the often-absentee Irish landlords’ great estates headed for Irish ports to be exported to England and beyond. Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party he founded wanted land reform. Land reform would go a long way toward guaranteeing that Irish farmers would have enough land to support themselves.

But Parnell was now an adulterer…and with two illegitimate children?  That was just too much.

It was apparently too much for Joe and Mary Redmond and the priests of St. Joseph’s.  Little Annie’s middle name – “Parnell” – was crossed out in her church baptismal record and, in a different hand and different ink, the name “Dolores” was written above it.

Charles Stewart Parnell had cast the great shadow of sorrow across Irish American communities everywhere.  Annie Redmond’s middle name – “Dolores -  full of sorrow” – was her own constant reminder of Parnell’s fall from grace.

No wonder she preferred the simple letter “D” instead.

Annie died suddenly of a heart attack on 8 December 1956 after walking home from Mass at St. Joseph's Church, it being a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics called the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  

As they still say in the Gaeltaecht districts of Ireland today, "Ar dheisgo raibh a anam." In English, we simply say, “May her soul rest in peace.

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