Archive for March 17th, 2021

Ah, St. Patrick’s Day. I grew up not knowing our genealogy. My mother, who would have been 89 today, was from the O’Dell family so we assumed we had Irish blood. But years later I discovered that the O’Dell name in our line had transformed over the years from the Woddell name. We were English, not Irish.

But while doing this research on my father’s side, which we always thought of as German, I found that his grandmother, my great-grandmother (who drowned in a canal in Allentown, PA just days after my dad was born but that’s another story) was fully Irish. I found out quite a bit more about her family’s past here in America though little of the actual Irish roots. However, my DNA has me at about 1/3 Irish

A few years ago I painted a small series of paintings of ancestors that I called Icons. One was of my great-great grandmother, Mary Tobin. I am including a post, sort of tragic in an Irish way, from a few years ago about her along with a song, The Donegal Set, from those venerable Irish musicians, The Chieftains.

Have an enjoyable St. Patrick’s Day. Or just a nice Wednesday, if that appeals more to you.

From 2016:

One of the things I am trying to emphasize with this current Icon series is the fact that we are all flawed in some way, that we all have deficiencies and stumbles along the way. Yet, uncovering these faults in my research, I find myself holding affection for many of these ancestors that dot my family tree. Perhaps it is the simple fact that without them I would not be here or perhaps I see some of my own flaws in them.

I’m still working on that bit of psychology.

The 12″ by 12″ canvas shown here is titled Icon: Mary T. She is my great-great grandmother. Born Mary Anne Ryan of Irish immigrant parents in the Utica area she married Michael Tobin, an Irishman ( I believe he was from County Kerry but the research is still up in the air on this) who came to the States around 1850, right in the midst of the Great Irish Immigration.

Michael worked on the railroads being built throughout central New York in the late 1800’s. Following the progress of the railroads, the couple and their growing family worked their way down through the state towards Binghamton, NY where they eventually settled. Mary Anne eventually ended up as a housekeeper in a prominent home in the area. Michael died around 1890 although records are sketchy on this and Mary died at my great-grandmother’s home on Church Street in Elmira in 1914.

All told, they had seven daughters and three sons. Most worked in the then booming tobacco industry of that time and place. Most of her daughters worked as tobacco strippers and some worked as cigar rollers, as did her sons.

That’s the simple telling of the story. Looking into the back stories provide a little more depth which can sometimes change all perceptions.

None of her sons ever married and all were had desperate problems with alcohol. One son was listed in a newspaper report from some years later as having been arrested for public drunkenness around 40 times over the years, seven times in one year. He was also arrested for running a still more than once during the prohibition years. Two of her sons died in institutions where they had been placed for their alcoholism.

A Silk Spencer

A Silk Spencer

I came across a story in the local Binghamton newspapers about Mary and two of her daughters, who were also working as domestics with here in the prominent Binghamton home owned by a local attorney and nephew of the founder of Binghamton. In 1874, the story reports that a number  of items came up missing from her employer, including a “forty dollar silk spencer,” which is a sort of short garment like the one shown here at the right. Her neighbors informed the owner of the spencer that Mary had a number of the stolen items in her possession and a search warrant was sworn out.

Detectives came to the Tobin home and made a thorough search but turned up nothing. They then tore up the carpets which revealed a trap door that led to a small basement. There they found many of the stolen items but no spencer. But they did find a silk collar that had been attached to it.  

Mary and her two daughters were arrested.

Mary did finally claim to be the sole thief and her daughters were released. I have yet to find how this particular story ends and how Mary was punished but based on the futures of some of her children I can’t see it being a happy ending. 

Doing this painting, I was tempted to make my Mary a bit harsher, a lit more worn. But as I said, there’s some sort of strange ancestral affection at play even though I know she was obviously a flawed human. She’s smaller and more delicate looking in the painting than I imagine she was in reality. In the only photo we have of her daughter, my great grandmother, was sturdy looking lady. But maybe making her a bit less harsh is a little gift to my great-great grandmother for the information her story reveals about the future of my family.

This is a simple painting because, as I pointed out, this is a simple story at its surface. It’s the story of many, many families.

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