David M. Quinn

STEEL SHAMROCKS The Sons of Annie McKenna

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STEEL SHAMROCKS   The Sons of Annie McKenna

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Steel Shamrocks

The Sons of Annie McKenna

Chapter One

Winter, 1828

It's less than three miles from Anacramp to Derrygooly, but a rainy day can make it feel like ten. A heavy drizzle had been falling since before dawn, as it seemed to be doing all winter long. It made the journey even more bone-chilling. Even the wrens and the magpies hid themselves in the depths of thick hedges. Hugh McKenna shivered as he drove a rickety, two-wheeled cart. Beside him on the seat was his daughter-in-law, Annie. She sheltered in his lee, a scarf pulled tightly over her head. His youngest daughters Nancy, Ellen, and Bridget huddled in the bed of the cart. Behind and beside the cart his sons (James, Hugh, Edward, Patrick, Charles and Bernard), his elder daughters (Mary and Catherine), and their husbands straggled along in the wind and wet. At least the walk allowed their bodies to generate a bit of warmth, Hugh envied.

They progressed slowly along the muddy boreen, threading their way between hedge rows and stone-walled pastures. The ground was littered with the droppings of cattle that used this path as they were shifted from one pasture to another. The pace suited just fine the gaunt donkey between the wagon shafts.

Also in the bed of the cart was a simple, bare-wood coffin containing the body of Catherine McMahon McKenna, Hugh's wife of thirty-three years. In the constant cold and damp of the season, Catherine had contracted, and finally succumbed to, pneumonia. The rustic chapel in Derrygooly would today afford her a Catholic requiem and burial, a right denied to previous generations of Irish Catholics under the harsh Penal Laws. It was, therefore, a memorial all the more precious in the eyes of her devoted husband.

Annie pressed herself against her father-in-law as a blast of weather came upon them. She felt no inhibition in doing so. She had always held Hugh and Catherine in the same circle of affection as her own father and mother. Her family, the Mullans, were also a farming family of Anacramp. They had been friends of the McKennas for decades. Annie was a slight woman of average height, with brown hair. Her face was somewhat plain; she had a strong chin and a wide line of a mouth. Her kindly, caring demeanor endeared her to all who knew her. Now she pushed the dirty weather and the day's sad occasion out of mind. She passed the journey watching her husband James as he walked beside the cart. Hugh's eldest son was a handsome fellow with sandy hair and his father's blue-gray eyes. Well-spoken and blessed with a ready smile, he made friends readily. He was as popular in the village of Caledon as he was in the townland. He and Annie had married two years prior but, as yet, were childless.

At mid-morning, they approached Hop's Fort, a hilltop clearing surrounded by a hedge of hawthorn that originally hid the "Mass rock" where outlawed liturgies were kept from prying British eyes. Now it was the site of a proper chapel, partly thatched and partly slated. It was the only Catholic chapel in the area, accommodating a large congregation from the length and breadth of the Caledon estate. Already arrived separately were members of the McMahon family, the Mullans, the McKeevers, and other neighbors and friends. The dark sky and, now, pelting rain drove everyone into the chapel in hurried fashion. There, solemn and teary-eyed faces watched in silence as the six McKenna sons carried their mother's coffin into the shelter of the nave.

It was early afternoon when the rituals were completed. Please God, the rain had stopped before the prayers at grave-side. Normally, folks would linger afterwards to comfort the grieving— women exchanging a bit of gossip, men off enjoying their white, clay pipes. But today, the threatening sky and hostile wind sent mourners back to their homes without delay. Hugh gathered his large family about him for the journey home. The sight of them all, especially his six strapping sons, evoked some considerable pride and comfort in the fifty-eight-year-old. He would miss his Catherine desperately. Their marriage had been a long and happy one. Still, he had these young ones upon whom he would rely in his old age.


Hugh was a rough-hewn farmer with thick graying hair and pale blue-gray eyes. He was of medium height, but his frame was full and strong—signaling a life of strenuous labor. He was a thoughtful man who esteemed education, though he had little himself. He and Catherine had made a priority of having their children attend the little National school in nearby Ramaket. At three shillings per quarter per pupil, it was a sacrifice, but one they were happy to undertake. The family sustained themselves on potatoes, cabbages, and the sheep and swine they raised. They also grew oats as a cash crop, reserved for the grain market in the one-street village of Caledon. Though their lives were hard enough, it was not to be compared to the years of the Great Hunger that would come nearly twenty years later. Centuries of British landlordism had enured these Irish peasants to the rigors of the present. Life was as it had been and, therefore, as expected. Still for some, there lingered a hand-me-down memory of an earlier, freer time.

From medieval days, the green, fertile lands of this region were held by the venerable Irish clan of Uí Néill (O'Neill). In later years, the great Hugh O'Neill, the second Earl of Tir-Owen (Tyrone) fought the might of English armies through the Nine Years War (1591-1601). In that conflict, O'Neill allied himself with many other Ulster clans, including Clan McKenna. The McKennas had established themselves just across the Blackwater River in nearby County Monaghan as early as the 8th century. In the end, however, these forebears of Hugh McKenna were dispossessed of their holdings by the English invaders. The remnants of the O'Neill dominion were forfeit in 1646 when Phelim O'Neill's insurrection against English rule was put down in bloody finality.

Now, the Anglo-Irish Earl of Caledon was lord of a vast estate running along the southern border of County Tyrone and east into County Armagh. A demesne of 650 acres was surrounded by large landholdings in various townlands where tenancies were let to farmers and cottiers. The estate had been assembled through a series of purchases and leases, beginning in 1776, by James Alexander, a Derry merchant and former colonial official in India. Despite his status as newcomer to this area, and his lack of blue bloodlines, James was made a Baron in 1790, and a Viscount in 1797. Finally in 1800, he won the title of Earl in return for his political support of the Act of Union that abolished the Irish Parliament in Dublin. James died in 1802 and was succeeded by his son, James DuPre Alexander, the current Earl and landlord of the McKennas' modest leasehold in Anacramp. Notably generous, the Earl and his wife gave regular subsidies to the schools, the dispensary, and to the poor of the estate. As landlords went in 19th century Ireland, one could do much worse than the Alexanders of Caledon.

Daylight was nearly gone by the time the McKenna family returned from the funeral. Hugh returned the borrowed cart and donkey and retired to his home and hearth. Throughout the evening, his daughters and sons made repeated but subtle efforts to comfort their father. After the evening meal of gammon and cabbage, Ellen announced a special finale. "Here, Da! Nancy's made your favorite dessert— apple-barley flummery." Her father smiled and nodded his thanks.

Edward stoked a cheery fire in the hearth, while young Bridget brought pipe and tobacco to her father. But the old man was quiet all evening, lost in thoughts that owned no words. He sat up late, well after the others had retired. A vacant chair, long favored by his Catherine, repeatedly pulled his gaze. The turf fire was gray ash before he finally surrendered to nodding head and heavy eyelids.

The clachan where the McKennas resided consisted of a scattering of modest cottages—white-washed, mud-walled structures with thatched roofs. But glass windows and plank floors relieved any sense of abject poverty among the inhabitants. Hugh shared his dwelling with his unmarried children. James and Annie had a cottage of their own nearby. The married girls, Catherine and Mary, lived with their husbands in Caledon.

After their supper that evening, Annie complained, "James, I'm for bed...can't shed the chill of the day. You must be knackered yourself. Will you be comin' to bed now?"

James rose from the table and yawned. "Not just yet, dear. Will McKeever offered a visit and a wee measure of poteen. It's been a long and tirin' day, but I could use a good, strong drink. I shan't be too late."

He gave her a long hug and a kiss on the forehead. Then donning his still-wet coat and cap, he made his way through dark and muddy paths to the McKeever cottage. As he went, James rehearsed a prior conversation he and Will had shared. Weeks before, he had expressed to Will the worry and frustration he and Annie were feeling about their future and that of the extended family.

"As the first-married son, 'tis decided that I should be searchin' for a new leasehold. But my brothers will marry someday, and their new families will not be fed on the produce of Da's ten acres. But there's no vacant leasehold to be found in Anacramp."

Will had commiserated. "Perhaps another townland within the estate. Or another estate might have tenancies available."

"Aye, I must look into that. Da had to move away from his family in Errigal Truagh when he and Mother wed. A leasehold might suit my brothers, but what I'm wantin' is a business or trade. I respect the farmin' life, but I'm not lookin' to follow in Da's footsteps. The routines of a farmer are lonely, arduous, and borin'. Why shouldn't I be master of my own business? No more the tenant with the downcast eyes, the doffed cap, the yes, mi'lord, no, mi'lord. Ach! I want more than that!"

"Is it Caledon or Omagh where you might be findin' some business to do?"

"Omagh, perhaps. There's nothin' to be had for a papist farm boy in Caledon. The flour and the corn mills are owned and staffed by Protestants only. And I'll not be joinin' Annie's brothers as stone masons. That job makes the farm seem like heaven, it does."

Tonight, James would report his findings and continue this conversation interrupted by his mother's recent illness and death. Will greeted him at the door. "Ah, James, welcome." Shaking water drops from his cap, James entered the McKeever's common room, a modest space combining aspects of parlor, dining area and kitchen. It was dimly lit by candles and the glow from the hearth. Will's widowed mother was shooing her youngest children off to bed. James called out as they tumbled into their pallets in the sleeping loft. "A blessin' on this house and a peaceful night!"

Will was a farmer, some years younger than James. A lean fellow with a narrow face and red hair, he was friendly and had a good sense of humor. Drawing two chairs close to the turf fire, he poured their drinks and offered a toast in subdued voice. "Slainte! God rest your sweet mother's soul. 'Twas a grand service they gave her this day,...well attended, given dirty weather."

James gave a deep sigh and nodded. " Slainte!" He sipped his moonshine. The warmth it gave to his still-chilled body was most welcome. He stretched his legs closer to the fire, anxious for warmth beneath his damp clothing. After a few minutes of exchanged complaint over the persistent rains, James raised the postponed topic that was his greater worry. "You'll recall, Will, the leasehold question we discussed. Well, I've made my inquiries.... 'Tisn't good news. There's no lease to be had in the entire estate. I suppose one must wait upon a farmer dyin'! I'll be lookin' elsewhere, but findin' a landlord the like of Caledon may be a fool's errand."

Will pushed back an ember just fallen from the grate. "Too true, too true.... Have you a mind at all to go to America?"

James rocked back a bit in surprise. "I really haven't given it much thought. There's many who have gone... even from Aghaloo parish. You'll know Annie's older sister Mary. She's the one married to Edward McShane in Dungannon. Well now, Mary says McShanes have family in America for ten years now. To hear them tell, it be a fine country, a place where a Catholic lad might do well. But I'm not sure. I'm not one to slip family ties so easy, I'm thinkin'."

Will cast an eye to the loft, taking care as to who might be listening. "I have been weighin' it a bit," he admitted in a lowered voice. "Where does she say they are? America, 'tis a big place after all."

"Aye, she says they be livin' in a townland called Pittsburgh."

Will reached for the crock again and topped each glass. James winked his thanks.

"Are you serious about this, Will? After all, you have your father's leasehold. Would you really quit from home and kin? Who will mind your mother and the girls?"

"My uncle in Aughnacloy is willin'. But, arrah, I be talkin' only, friend. I might, and then I might not. Better than diggin' praities? Still, 'tis somethin' to think about of an evenin'."

Will did not act on the notion of emigrating to America. But the subject continued to be a bone for picking. And though James was somewhat intrigued by the career possibilities, he put the thought away when, several months later, he was surprised to find a leasehold after all. It wasn't a death that made his luck, but the emigration of another Anacramp family. While this eased his immediate dilemma, it left unresolved the challenge for his brothers. And it still left James in an occupation he could only endure, never embrace.


In 1829, landlords throughout Ireland were moving land from tillage to grazing. Many were pressed by debts incurred in living the aristocratic life, supporting country manor houses as well as town homes in Dublin or London. Others were convinced that the population of small tenants was outstripping the availability of arable land. All aspired to the greater profit to be had in selling to the export market their butter, beef, pork, and lamb. But this would mean displacing tenant families from existing leaseholds.

Small farmers, including Hugh McKenna, began to recognize that leases would be dwindling as they came up for renewal. Because his sons were hard pressed to find work or leaseholds for themselves, they were not well placed for taking wives. Even worse, Hugh might find himself displaced when his lease expired. So, the subject of emigration came up repeatedly for discussion within the family. The experience of the McShanes of Pittsburgh was cited frequently as young Hugh, Patrick and Bernard voiced their readiness to go. The McShanes might assist in their settlement, they argued. But Charles was adamantly opposed and James and Edward were unsure. James was especially concerned about the hardships of travel as Annie had become pregnant that summer. The young girls cared mostly that their family not be severed by the western ocean. They would greatly miss their older sisters who were fully settled.

The harvest that year was a good one. Hugh and his sons took in a fine crop of oats and sold them at good price at the Caledon market. Hugh reckoned these cash proceeds, and what might be had for his livestock, might pay for passage to America. He convened his children to see if a decision might be reached on this subject of emigration.

It was an atypically warm September. The long summer evenings of north latitudes were waning, but the glow of this evening's sunset was enough to light their meeting. Hugh spoke to his assembled young people as they sat together in the yard outside his cottage. He paused at first, staring at his rough, calloused hands. When the chatter of the others subsided, he began.

"My children, your father is no longer young. 'Tis not a time of life when one welcomes great changes. These fields of Anacramp have received the sweat of my brow for near forty years; my dear Catherine is buried nearby." He paused again, struggling to hold his emotions in check. He looked up into the dusky sky, took a deep breath, and allowed the wave to pass. "Leavin' this place will tear at deep-set roots I have put down here. And yet, there is no denyin' we have become too many for my poor acres. And my leasehold is not secure. I know very little of America. I have no assurance that life in the townland of Pittsburgh will be any better than what we have here. I only know that I cannot bear to lose what's left of my family. And that will surely happen if we do nothin'."

Nancy, a female image of her father in color and features, could not bear keeping silent. "Oh, Da! We'd never be leavin' you at all. If some must go, all should go!"

But Charles jumped in, his somber expression previewing his comment. He was a stocky fellow with dark hair and bushy eyebrows. A skeptic of emigration, his attitudes were unchanged, even in the face of economic pressure and the urging of his siblings. "I'm for stayin'. We don't know what's so grand about this place called Pittsburgh. And there are the dangers of the voyage."

James squeezed Annie's hand. "I'll not be takin' my wife, heavy with child, upon the sea for three or four weeks. I, too, want our family to stay together. But I cannot risk the life of our unborn child or its mother. Who can say what we will face on such a journey? "

Patrick, brown haired and brown-eyed, spoke next. He was the keenest proponent of emigration. "We accept what you say, Brother. None of us wish any harm. Still, you must agree that we cannot continue here in Anacramp. Lord Caledon may have his charity, but he will consolidate his lands for pasture!"

James spoke again without rancor. "I accept the truth of what you say. Still if goin' to America is your choice, we must remain here."

Undeterred, Patrick pressed further. "James, you've been wantin' an opportunity in business. The McShanes tell of many such in America, even for Catholics. This might be your best chance. Suppose we delay our departure until after Annie's baby arrives. Could you then consider joinin' in such a journey?"

James was now conflicted. Patrick may be right, he thought. In America, I might well become my own master. He looked at Annie. She knew well the ambitions of her husband and sensed that his winning ways were being wasted on the farm. It was part of what had attracted her so as they had begun courting. She shared his desire for a life beyond the fields and flocks. Now, she gave him a tentative nod, though her chin quivered with emotion. The thought of leaving home and her own family was daunting for her.

James shrugged. " 'Tis no sure thing! If we do agree, Annie and the child must be healthy and strong."

Charles glared at his brother and sulked. "If you leave, James, perhaps I'll be havin' your leasehold."

Now a burst of vigorous debate ensued with the proponents of family unity pressing Charles. But it was soon interrupted by Edward. "Well, 'tis all grand that we might remain a family together. But the sums for passage and provisions will consume every penny of the oats money. There will also be the land journey to Pittsburgh, and then a period of gettin' settled—findin' lodgin', work, and all such. A considerable sum must be set aside for that."

Edward's voice of caution stilled the debate; everyone sensed he had put his finger upon an issue that must be resolved. As the evening darkened, Hugh stood again. "We must give it a bit more thought, children. Let's be in now."

Over the next few months, the differences of opinion narrowed somewhat. Though Charles was most unhappy, he had to reluctantly concede that being the sole holdout was untenable. Given his father's wishes, and the risk that the leasehold might be forfeit if he stayed, his opposition dissipated. Still, his attitude remained dour. The financial challenge of emigration, however, was yet to be resolved.

It was Nancy, who despite her youth, posed a partial solution. Her eyes shone with optimism as she addressed her father and siblings at table. "We have our leasehold yet! Not all need leave immediately. Suppose our men go beforehand and find employment. We girls can remain here, or with our sisters, until a home be made in America. Another crop of oats would easily provide money for our passage and more."

Hugh shook his head and offered his daughter a patronizing wave of the hand. "Nancy, you are well-said, but for two cautions. 'Tisn't right that you girls make such a journey without my protection or that of your brothers. There are dangers, and those who would do you dirty. And further, who will bring in another oats crop? Surely, not yourselves!"

Nancy dropped her gaze. To these points, she had no ready reply.

One evening several days later, James and Annie lay in bed awaiting the onset of sleep. Annie's little one was active this night, kicking and moving about, reminding her that it would not be long in making its appearance. She placed James' hand against her belly so that he might feel the strength of the child in waiting.

He laughed as he felt movement within. "Must be a lad in there; he's so strong!"

"Might be a daughter, Mr. McKenna. Don't be placin' any wagers. We Mullan girls are strong enough."

When the movements subsided, Annie turned the conversation to the events of the day just ending. Her younger sister, Catherine Mullan, was now virtually betrothed to Will McKeever. Any excuse would do to come by for a visit, in hopes of seeing him.

"James, Catherine was here today. She says Will is after goin' off to America after all. I'm thinkin' all this talk of Pittsburgh among us has peaked his interest."

"Is he really? He hasn't mentioned it to me lately. I know he's sore worried the Earl will have grazin' in Anacramp. Every family that chooses emigration adds to the land available for pasture and further whets the Earl's appetite."

"I said nothin' of this to Catherine, mind you. But, could it be, if Will is truly decided, that he and Catherine might bring your sisters to America when their time be right."

" 'Tis an interestin' thought. They will marry next year. I must query Will when next I see him."

Early in 1830, Annie delivered a healthy boy, also named James—after his father. By then, an agreement had been struck between the McKennas and Will McKeever. Will agreed to come to Pittsburgh in the following year, bringing Nancy, Ellen, and Bridget with him. The McKenna men would put down a final crop of oats and potatoes before departing. The task of harvesting they would leave to Will and spalpeens. He would receive the major share of proceeds for his trouble and the balance would fund the sisters' passage.

The family being now in consensus, James wrote to the McShanes of Pittsburgh to advise them of an intended arrival later in the year. As spring came and went, the time of departure drew near. It was a wrenching and emotional day when the goodbyes were said to family and friends.

The McKenna daughters all gathered round their father and brothers in tearful embraces. Other farmers of Anacramp, many of whom had been Hugh's great friends for two or three decades, presented him with a fine, new burl pipe. And there were several suggestions that, perhaps, some others of the family being left behind might one day choose to make the great migration as well.

But the most difficult farewell for Hugh was that made in Derrygooly. There, he knelt and prayed and cried at the little white cross atop the grave of his beloved wife. Ach, Catherine, my love. Can you forgive my leavin' you, dearie, never to visit here again? You'll be knowin' that our farm in Anacramp cannot sustain us. Sure, somethin' must be done. I'm afraid to be goin' to America; but I'm afraid not to be goin'. I'll be carryin' you in my heart wherever the Lord may take us.


STEEL SHAMROCKS The Sons of Annie McKenna

This is serious historical writing: as such, it seeks to pair the drama of fiction with nonfiction facts and background, and both captures the experiences and feel of its times and provides the necessary supportive platform of history upon which to base these events.

That's one of the novel's strengths. Steel Shamrocks stands apart from other stories of the early experiences of Irish immigrants in America.

It's hard to imagine the lengths that the early Irish went through, both in the 'old country' and in the new America. Steel Shamrocks is firmly grounded in real events and a sense of its times, and its detailed approach will delight serious readers of historical fiction.

D. Donovan, eBook Reviewer – Midwest Book Review

STEEL SHAMROCKS   The Sons of Annie McKenna

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From humble immigrant beginnings in early 19th century Pittsburgh, Bernard (Barney) McKenna and Charles F. McKenna made civic service their chosen path to position and influence. One became a beloved mayor and political reformer. The other was a Civil War soldier and distinguished attorney and jurist. But it was their widowed mother Annie who enabled their rise in the face of tragedy and struggle.

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All rights reserved. Copyright: David M. Quinn, Author