Posts Tagged ‘Ireland’

GC Myers- Icon: Mary TOne 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 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, including a “forty dollar silk spencer,” which is a sort of short garment like the one shown here at the right.  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. But maybe that’s little payback 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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newgrange-spiral-stoneI was looking for something to use here on the blog as a symbol for Ireland or St. Patrick’s Day.  I didn’t want to go the typical shamrock and leprechaun route. We’ve all seen enough of those.  Instead, I began to focus on their triple spiral symbol, the triskele.  It first showed up on the stones at Newgrange in County Meath,  a large burial mound or temple which dates back over 5000 years, making it older than the pyramids of Egypt.

The elaborately carved stones featured three spirals which meld effortlessly into one another, as though it is a continuum without beginning or end.  Though its origins and meaning are still vague at best, this triple spiral has come down through the ages as being symbolic of the trinity of later Christian believers and even found its way into the form of the ubiquitous shamrock.  I think the mystery and symbology of the triple spiral is fascinating in the way it still resonates in some primal part of us.  It is an elemental symbol, a part of who we are as a people.  And by that, I don’t mean simply the Irish but all people.  Everyone can identify with this symbol of  the unity of time and constant rebirth.

Maybe this unifying aspect is why there is such great appeal of  this day for so many, Irish and non-Irish alike.  I know that while I drink a Guinness or two today, probably dressed in a Kelly green shirt  as I listen to Danny Boy or some other maudlin ballad for the umpteenth time, I will stop for a moment and think of this trinity of spirals and feel a unity with the past.  And the future and the present.

Maybe the song will be Carrickfergus.  Here’s a version from Loudon Wainwright III that I very much like.


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ali in  irelandSaw this in the paper yesterday, about Muhammad Ali making a trip to visit the home of one of his great-grandfathers in Ireland.  It turns out that Ali’s ancestor emigrated from Ennis in County Clare to the States around 1860 and settled in Kentucky, where he married a freed slave, Ali’s great-grandmother.

muhammad_ali_versus_sonny_listonI only mention this because Ali has been one of my idols since I was a very small child.  I grew up watching his fights, seeing his wonderful combination of speed, grace and power that made him seem different than the other fighters who entered the ring against him.  There  was something very beautiful in the way he glided around the ring, feet barely touching the ring as he circled.  It belied the brutish, ugly aspect of the sport, gave him an almost ethereal quality, especially in the early part of his career.

Then there was his personality that absolutely glowed from the TV screens in those years.  His float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, rat-at-tat poetry and his over the top mugging before and after his bouts were candy to the kid I was at that time.    There was a level of intelligence at play with Ali that seemed so unusual for a boxer.  I remember reading Wilfrid Sheed’s early biography of Ali (a beautifully photographed book I bought when I was a kid and still get shivers when I open it today) where he wrote that Ali had been tested and found to have a very low IQ in standardized tests of the time.  Knowing Ali, the author deduced that the tests were deeply flawed and couldn’t measure the natural brilliance and innate  intelligence that Ali possessed.

There is so much to say about Ali, who may possibly be the most recognizable man on the planet, his photos hanging in mud huts in Africa and thousands filling the streets in Ireland to see the aging king.  The controversies over the name change from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali upon his conversion to Islam and his subsequent refusal to enter the armed services made him a polarizing figure but never quieted his voice.  And that trueness to his beliefs, agree with or not, made him even larger than life.

Even his last fight, his tragic struggle with Parkinson’s, has grown his myth as this man who was truly a beautiful creature in his youth has somehow gracefully made his fight public, raising awareness for the disease.

And now, he adds the luck of the Irish to the myth.  Good for you, Ali O;Grady.

ali with crowd in ennis

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