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 importancetrapped in a narrow place,enmeshed in desperate circumstanceas at the whim of somemalignant 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  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.
for James Coady, lost father of my grandfather
1.If there can he someRedemption in the wordthen let this telling reachacross the silenceof a hundred years in Oven Lane.About your feet upon the earthen floorlet me find the child who willout of the slow unravellingbecome my grandfatherand in the curtained roomyour young wife Mary Eagerstill beside an infantbound with her in ritualsof laying-out and prayer.
This dark hour’s nativitywill shape and scar your destiny
and in the unformed futurecast its shadow over heartsthat will engender me;in time it will call upthis impulseand these words.
Let me try to know youin the anguish of that hour
a man of no importancetrapped in a narrow place,enmeshed in desperate circumstanceas at the whim of somemalignant puppeteer.
The image holds the lane,its stench, the fetid hovelscrowding down towardthe quayside of the Suirwhere kinship and compassionresurrect in time upon the pagethe murmured solidarityand flickering of candlesabout the human faceof piteous travail.
2.A hundred years and I will cometo try the lane for echoes
the coughing and the cryingof children in the dark,the nameless incarnationsof love and grief and hungerwhere the river flowscoldly past.
These broken walls were witnessto your leaving, whetherin morning sun or rain,your firstborn child still sleepingwhen you left him,the dark-shawled blessingsfrom the doorways of a laneyou’d never see again.
3.What I know has come to meout of dead mouths:through the barefoot childleft with your father,the old boatman, and fromthe mouth of my own father,that child’s son.
A life I’ll never knowis buried with youin a placeI’ll never find:a generation turned beforethe morning of the lettersent to find your sonbecome a manwith children of his own.
Out of the maze of circumstance,the ravelled tangle of effect and cause,something impelled you,brought you finallyto bend abovethe unmarked page ---
an old manin some room in Philadelphiareaching for words to bridgethe ocean of his silence,pleading forgiveness of the childof Oven Lane.
4.Silence was the bitteranswer you were givenevery empty dayuntil you died:
by a breakfast tablemy child fatherwatched your son unsealhis darkest pain
saw the pages torn and castin mortal grief and angerout of an abandoned child’sunspeakable heart-hungerinto the brute finality of flame.
5.Now all of thesehave gone into the darkand I would try againto reconcile the heartsof which my heart’s compoundedwith words upon a page.
I send this telling outTo meet the ghostsOf its begetting,To release it from stone mouthsof 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.