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  • The Story, the Poem, and the Search

    Michael Coady

    Published Date : December 1990
     For at least two centuries my forebears have lived in the small Tipperary town of Carrick-on-Suir, in the southeast of Ireland at the upper tidal reaches of the river Suir.  The family story, like so many in Ireland, includes transplanted emigrant roots in America, and the human chronicle I set down here encompasses interwoven human destinies on both sides of the Atlantic.

    In my childhood my father would sometimes tell me a dramatic anecdote out of his own boyhood. He remembered the arrival one morning of an unexpected letter from America.  This letter came to my grandfather from his long-lost father James Coady - my own great-grandfather.  Though my father was only a child at the time, he never forgot the drama of the letter’s arrival, and the bitter response of his father, my grandfather Michael, who read the pages, tore them into pieces, and threw them into the fire.  All his life Michael Coady believed that his father, the writer of the letter, had abandoned him as a young child, and he never forgave the man.

    My grandfather Michael was dead before I was born, and all I knew of this bitter story was my father’s childhood recollection of the letter’s arrival.  Why, then, did that buried story of my lost great-grandfather, James Coady, and the deep hurt of my grandfather Michael, return to haunt my imagination a full century after the story began?  Why did it obsess me until I made of it a poem which became central to my last book?

    There is nothing as unquiet as an unforgiven thing.  In the writing of the poem, and in what followed from it, I have had the mysterious feeling that I was in some way a medium through whom the unresolved pain of the past might somehow be redeemed and healed.  And the poem, in turn, was to lead me towards a fascinating search for the recorded facts of the story, on both sides of the Atlantic.

    And so I began with a tentative oral tradition.  My great-grandfather James, so my father thought, had left Ireland after his wife had died in childbirth.  He had left his young son Michael in the care of his own father, an old boatman on the river.  The child was never to see his father again, and would hear nothing from him until the fateful letter arrived some thirty years later.  The letter may have come from Philadelphia, and it told of remarriage there, and a second family. Another stray tradition suggested that James Coady’s second wife was named Brunnock, originally from Ballinderry, just upriver from Carrick-on-Suir.

    All those who might be able to tell me anything further - including my own father - were dead.  As the poem formed itself over the course of about a year, I also began my search in local records.  I found that my great-grandfather James was born in 1848 and married Mary Eager (daughter of a shoemaker) in 1874.  They both marked the register as illiterates.

    James Coady was a boatman, and the family shared the squalor of the Victorian poor in one of Carrick’s most historic river lanes - Oven Lane, off Main Street.  It was there that their first child, Michael, was born in 1876.  He was soon followed by Patrick, who seems to have died in infancy.  A year later a third child, Thomas, was bom.  Then, in 1881, James Coady’s wife Mary, again pregnant, contracted anthrax, suffered a miscarriage and died, aged 35, in the workhouse hospital.  A few months later the youngest child Thomas also died, leaving only the first-born, Michael, who, “out of the slow unravelling,” would become my grandfather.

    The 1880s were a time of economic depression, and the poverty and squalor of life in the lanes must have been relentless.  For those in dire need there was the cold comfort of whatever Victorian charity might offer, and beyond that, the ultimate spectre of the workhouse. James Coady was

    “a man of no importance
    trapped in a narrow place,
    enmeshed in desperate circumstance
    as at the whim of some
    malignant puppeteer.

    Later in my search I was able to learn that James -- however he managed his passage-money -- left Oven Lane for America in 1885.  His only surviving son Michael was eight years old, and left in the care of his grandfather, who was also named James, and lived in Hayes’s Lane, now closed and part of the rear of Bourke’s Drapery.  After that came the great silence from America, with the boy Michael growing up in Carrick as a virtual orphan of the lanes.

    In 1887 Michaels guardian, his grandfather, was taken into the Wadding Charity in Castle Street.  In the following year the Trustees held a special meeting at which they decided to allow the boy to sleep with the old man there - a highly irregular arrangement for such a Victorian institution, and one which tells much of the twelve-year old boy’s cruel predicament.

    Yet somehow the boy managed to attend the Christian Brothers school, where he continued until he became an apprentice in Bourke’s Drapery at the age of 13.  Bourke’s records show that Michael completed his apprenticeship in 1895, and was allowed a salary of £10 per annum.  However, he left suddenly in the following year: family tradition maintains that he was dismissed because he slipped out one night to play the fiddle at a dance in Crehana, and found his employer waiting for him in his room when he climbed back in through the window in the small hours of the morning.

    Yet this orphan child of Oven Lane who became my grandfather had somehow managed to educate himself.  He eventually became a skilled solicitor’s clerk and a prominent figure in Carrick life, led orchestras, and conducted the Brass Band.  Following the introduction of proportional representation he became widely noted as a skilled supervisor at election counts.  In 1899 he had made a huge socio-economic leap from his origins by marrying the daughter of a prosperous boot-making and shop-keeping family of [205] Main Street.  It was not, alas, to be a particularly happy marriage, and he was to die of TB at 56

    All this time, as Michael Coady became a youth and then a man and then a father in his turn, there was the buried trauma of his childhood, the untold story of his lost father, James, in America, and the great silence, until the arrival of the letter.

    How could I ever discover that man’s buried story in America?  The only lead I had was my father’s recollection that the letter, which arrived when he was a boy sometime early in this century, had come from Philadelphia.  If this lead was wrong then my search was hopeless.

    By chance my friend Hugh Ryan had encountered a woman named Eileen McConnell, an Irish-American genealogist who lives in Maryland.  I wrote to her, sending her a copy of my “Oven Lane” poem, with whatever other few details I knew from family tradition.  Thus began, over the course of two years, a long and often baffling and frustrating search, and a voluminous trans-Atlantic correspondence between us.  But bit by bit the bones of the story emerged.

    I learned that my great-grandfather James was in New York in 1885.  He had been a boatman on the river in Carrick, and plied the same trade at Pier 1 for a short time during his first year in the U.S.A., while living in a New York boarding house.  The following year he married Mary Brunnock in Philadelphia (the license was dated 16 June 1886).  The Brunnocks were from Ballinderry, just outside Carrick.  Mary had been born in 1854.  Her older sister Hannah had also emigrated to the U.S. in the post-Famine period and was married to a man named Maurice Wall.

    James Coady worked on the waterfront, as a casual stevedore.  Such men lived at the lowest rung of the Irish-emigrant ladder.  Casual stevedores like my great-grandfather would “shape up” at the docks every morning, hoping to scramble for a day’s work, and in brutal competition with others. James and Mary Coady lived in rented rooms: first-generation immigrants in the cities almost never acquired a home of their own in their lifetimes.

    The Coadys’ first child, James, was born at 833 Grover Street, Philadelphia, in 1888.  A second son, Joseph, was born at the same address in 1890.  A third child, Ellen, followed in 1892, by which time the family had moved to 108 Queen Street.  The infant Ellen died at the age of six months, but worse was to follow. On 25 July 1893 Mary (Brunnock) Coady was delivered of a stillborn female. She herself died on the following day, aged 39.

    James Coady’s Oven Lane tragedy had cruelly re-enacted itself in the New World.  By this time, in Carric his “abandoned” son Michael was a youth, and working in Bourke’s Drapery, but knew nothing of his lost father’s whereabouts.  In Philadelphia, James Coady had lost his second wife, and was left with two young sons and the daily struggle for survival.  It appears that the children may have been taken in by their aunt, Hannah (Brunnock) Wall, and her husband Maurice. Thereafter James boarded with Edward and Elizabeth Ramsey, who had been born in Ireland and Scotland respectively.  James Coady, aged 62, was still boarding with Elizabeth Ramsey (by then a widow) at 321 Kimball Street, Philadelphia --in the census of 1910.  The census records show that he had been out of work for 20 weeks in the previous year.  The Irish had by then moved out of the area, and he was surrounded by a new wave of Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrants who mainly worked in the sweatshops of the garment industry.

    The remainder of the record is unrelentingly grim.  In 1911 James Coady’s son, James Jr., died at 22. My great-grandfather’s only remaining American-born child, Joseph, died in 1915, aged 25.  Both died of pulmonary disease.  Six months later, on 19 September 1915, James Coady himself died, aged 67, at St. Agne Hospital in Philadelphia.  The listed causes of death were a broken hip, pneumonia and alcoholism.

    The funeral was held from the boarding house of Elizabeth Ramsey, and my great-grandfather James was buried at New Cathedral Cemetery, in a grave which belonged to a man named Joseph Rice. In the same cemetery the mortal remains of his wife Mary (Brunnock) Coady and their children rest in the family plot of their cousins the Walls.

    When was the single fateful letter written to my grandfather Michael in Carrick?  My guess is that it was during the six months in 1915 between the death of James Coady’s last American-born son, Joseph and his own death.  The letter must have been a last despairing cry from an utterly defeated man, but it remained unanswered.  James Coady must have been part of the lost and desperate underbelly of Irish America at the turn of the century - a world brilliantly recreated in the novels of William Kennedy, most -particularly Ironweed.


    The Letter

    for James Coady, lost father of my grandfather

    1.
    If there can he some
    Redemption in the word
    then let this telling reach
    across the silence
    of a hundred years in Oven Lane.
    About your feet upon the earthen floor
    let me find the child who will
    out of the slow unravelling
    become my grandfather
    and in the curtained room
    your young wife Mary Eager
    still beside an infant
    bound with her in rituals
    of laying-out and prayer.

    This dark hour’s nativity
    will shape and scar your destiny

    [206]

    and in the unformed future
    cast its shadow over hearts
    that will engender me;
    in time it will call up
    this impulse
    and these words.

    Let me try to know you
    in the anguish of that hour

    a man of no importance
    trapped in a narrow place,
    enmeshed in desperate circumstance
    as at the whim of some
    malignant puppeteer.

    The image holds the lane,
    its stench, the fetid hovels
    crowding down toward
    the quayside of the Suir
    where kinship and compassion
    resurrect in time upon the page
    the murmured solidarity
    and flickering of candles
    about the human face
    of piteous travail.

    2.
    A hundred years and I will come
    to try the lane for echoes

    the coughing and the crying
    of children in the dark,
    the nameless incarnations
    of love and grief and hunger
    where the river flows
    coldly past.

    These broken walls were witness
    to your leaving, whether
    in morning sun or rain,
    your firstborn child still sleeping
    when you left him,
    the dark-shawled blessings
    from the doorways of a lane
    you’d never see again.

    3.
    What I know has come to me
    out of dead mouths:
    through the barefoot child
    left with your father,
    the old boatman, and from
    the mouth of my own father,
    that child’s son.

    A life I’ll never know
    is buried with you
    in a place
    I’ll never find:

    a generation turned before
    the morning of the letter
    sent to find your son
    become a man
    with children of his own.

    Out of the maze of circumstance,
    the ravelled tangle of effect and cause,
    something impelled you,
    brought you finally
    to bend above
    the unmarked page ---

    an old man
    in some room in Philadelphia
    reaching for words to bridge
    the ocean of his silence,
    pleading forgiveness of the child
    of Oven Lane.

    4.
    Silence was the bitter
    answer you were given
    every empty day
    until you died:

    by a breakfast table
    my child father
    watched your son unseal
    his darkest pain

    saw the pages torn and cast
    in mortal grief and anger
    out of an abandoned child’s
    unspeakable heart-hunger
    into the brute finality
    of flame.

    5.
    Now all of these
    have gone into the dark
    and I would try again
    to reconcile the hearts
    of which my heart’s compounded
    with words upon a page.

    I send this telling out
    To meet the ghosts
    Of its begetting,
    To release it from stone mouths
    of Oven Lane.

    from Oven Lane (Loughcrew, Oldcastle, co. Meath, Irelan Gallery Press). Copyright © 1987 by Michael Coady.

    Michael Coady, an award-winning Irish writer, teacher and musician, has written short stories, poetry, and articles and reviews for the Irish Press, Irish Times, and other publications.  He lives in Carrick-on-Suir, where he was bom.  His poetry collections are Two for a Woman, Three for a Man (1980) and Oven Lane (1987), both published by Gallery Press, Loughcrew, Oldcastle, co. Meath, Ireland.  In 1989 he was profiled on the Irish TV documentary program “I Live Here.” Interested readers may contact him at 29 Clairin, Carrick-on-Suir, Tipperary, Ireland.

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