It appears that this topic and blog that I thought might have become a closed parentheses has opened back up for me. I have been invited to speak about my Irish work and writing for a special program hosted by the Mattatuck Museum, of Waterbury, CT. The event, History and Hops, will be held at Blackstone Irish Pub in Milldale/Southington, CT, from 2 to 3 pm on April 15! I’ve been working hard on a PPT presentation that I hope will be of interest to a range of people. I’ll speak about my own journey over more than 20 years of studying Irish history and learning to do genealogical research, ultimately bridging the origins of the earliest Irish settler group in Waterbury and nearby areas to the actual places from which they came in Ireland, and meeting so many wonderful people along the way. While I’ve shared reams of photos here from my five extended pilgrimages to Ireland, I have intentionally kept information on this blog general. In this talk I will bring my personal story home, having “found my self” through this work in a way I never imagined. (I’ll also have copies of Waterbury Irish: From the Emerald Isle to the Brass City for sale.)
Hoping that some subscribers to Maher Matters who live within traveling distance may join us on April 15! Please register through Mattatuck’s website or from this link:
For almost seven months I have tried to write fully about the passing of the extremely special person, Dr. Jane Lyons. Perhaps my difficulty has been in part due to the fact that posting such on this blog would effectively close the parenthesis of our approximately 20-year-long energetic journey together. One morning at the beginning of February I woke from a fairy-tale like dream in which my soul-friend was cheerfully introducing me to her magical world in a beautiful place full of heart, creativity, love, and even, costume. Jane and I were sharing yet another adventure together, but unlike any we had in the past, and she wanted me to know she was deeply happy and fulfilled. That I know Jane died in her sleep on August 6, 2022, and has more recently assured me that she is at peace, I continue to try to write.
Owner of the formerly enormous website, FromIreland.net, Jane Lyons introduced herself at a conference eight years ago in this way: “…I am not an archeologist, I’m not an historian, I am a scientist and engineer who drifted into genealogy and gravestones back in 1996. In 1996 I began transcribing gravestones in County Laois and between 1996 and 1998 I transcribed, we’ll say, maybe two-thirds of every gravestone that was pre-1901…At the time I was a lecturer at UCD. By 2001 I opened up a website, and the website gets 1,000 visitors a day, minimum. I own a very large genealogy mail list, one of the largest in the world, and in the last few years I’ve discovered FaceBook, and I’m very noisy on that.” (Listen to her here.) In addition to the wealth of other forms of useful documentation about early places and snippets of Irish history from various historic documents, Jane had webpages of transcriptions for 122 graveyards at that point, and had taken about 200,000 photographs. Her website led me to her when I began my own research in 2001. Why was it that anything I keyword searched online kept dropping me into her site? After writing her a fan email, I joined her listserv and the rest is our own history.
I am grateful to have been able to be an online observer of the beautiful Humanist Celebration of Life that Jane’s beloved children and friends created for her in Dublin on August 13. All details were heartfelt, embracing aspects of Jane’s life and passions. The altar made of her woven casket was surrounded with love and thoughtfulness, as her camera, her well-worn and constant boots, her dog’s leash, her garden flowers and other touches were reverently added to it in stages by the younger members of her family. Traditional flute, contemporary Leonard Cohen music and a tribute to her incredible work in saving and sharing Irish history that cannot be found in books honored her well. Through my tears I felt her smiling and approving, her love flowing over all present. Somehow this vicarious witnessing helped ease my sense of loss, though I could only own a fraction of that being felt by those who grew up with, through and around her.
Back in the days before the Internet as we now know it, before social media and all that has become, Jane and I were fairly constant companions in cyberspace through her online group, Y-IRL. There, she befriended and opened up her world to me while others in this virtual international community also began to help me “learn to learn” about Irish ancestral history, times and places. She and other members patiently shared insights that taught me by example how to conduct genealogical research. (Eventually I also took online courses, imagining I might even one day hang a shingle and change my profession, having fallen completely “down the rabbit hole”!)
We communicated “across the pond”, around the world, through the ether, while Jane generously orchestrated the gathering between strangers in a way and on a scale that I believe had never happened before and could not happen again. Pre-FaceBook or any of its offshoots, Jane’s listserv invented itself as its regular participants engaged in deep and thoughtful ways, sharing knowledge and opinions in an atmosphere of kindness and civility, in ways that made one feel that all could potentially become friends. In fact, those living in proximity to each other did arrange to gather occasionally at mutually agreed-upon places, dates and times, to enjoy conversing and eating together. I participated in some of these and arranged my own different kind in Connecticut, to gather together those with whom I was in regular contact regarding our common place-based research, so that we all could meet each other. (Thanks to the Naugatuck Historical Society for allowing large gatherings to happen twice, with great results!)
Jane Lyons drove endless miles throughout Ireland as she scoured long-ignored cemeteries, photographed and transcribed tombstones and shared the results publicly long before anyone had thought to do what would become an official effort, en masse, by the late 2000s. Jane had become a full and almost daily presence in my life into the mid 2000s. She so inspired me that by 2006 I had also begun a website of my Irish-focused efforts, posting transcriptions for important cemeteries in New Haven County where the earliest Irish-American settlers were buried. I hoped to create a bridge back to her research while seeking the correct locations for my own people. For a time, Jane and I acted as sympathetic parallels of each other.
Then, one day, Jane had a terrible accident that required she be kept in a coma for three weeks, a portion of her skull being kept alive within her body while the swelling in her head diminished. Her world-wide community was silenced in shock and fear, her heightened importance to everyone becoming realized starkly, acutely. When the day arrived that she posted online again—and all of us could finally let out our breaths—I announced to my husband, “We need to go to Ireland!” This, my/our second trip, was specifically in order to meet Jane. Upon return I began this blog. With each of my three subsequent pilgrimages to Ireland, seeing and spending extended time with Jane was an important part of the experience. That Jane also came to see me in America for the book release of my From the Old Sod to the Naugatuck Valley, became an expanded occasion for her to also visit some of the individuals and groups who were participants on her listserv. It was a thrilling full-circle time for everyone. Having picked her up at the airport at the beginning of her trip, she stayed with us where we were staying, we spent time with her in New England, then passed her on to make the circuit of gatherings in other places, then met up with her again at a gathering in Washington D.C. and brought her back to spend another week with my husband and me in Baltimore before we reluctantly brought her to the airport as she headed back to Ireland.
Though I can count the number of times we have physically been in the same place over the same extended times, each of those real-life connections were outsized in their importance and fullness, nurturing the mutual feeling that we had known each other since childhood and gone through decades of life together. Jane became one of the people in my life to whom I am permanently tethered by memory through places and chapters of time, and for whom the relationship required more engagement than emails. Perhaps our spirits were meant to meet and play roles in each other’s lives from the beginning. It may take a lifetime to get to find all such individuals, but Hallelujah for those of us fortunate to have found many of them!
COVID’s arrival in 2019/2020 meant that my blog stopped being about research and scholarship about Ireland, which suddenly seemed inappropriate and irrelevant given the severity of Humanity’s frightening health crisis. Yet I never fully shut it down. As memories of Jane reel through my thoughts like still photographs in progression, I will close by offering a few images here, and sending love out to those who still feel her connection. Thank you, Jane, for giving so fully of yourself and for all the wonderful moments we shared. You will always live on in my heart!
Before I transition to my blog, Trusting the Process: Getting There From Here, I would like to note that others besides me had negative reactions to the new Michael Moore / Jeff Gibbs film, Planet of the Humans (previous post). George Monbiot, in his opinion piece in The Guardian on May 7 said that Moore had “[played] into the hands of those he once opposed.” Rather than attempt to rehash his skillful rebuttal, I encourage all to read his article. I had not seen the earlier criticism by Graham Readfearn, which provides many clear examples of ways in which the film is full of errors and omissions. I wish I had not even mentioned the documentary in my previous post and am actually unlinking it, though not fully removing it. Instead, in addition to so many other worthy books that are out there on the subject, I highly recommend Hope Jahren’s The Story of More, a well-told scientific tale that sequences the steps that led to now.
Please go to the blog I will be writing within during the duration of the pandemic. The first re-emerging post is more in the spirit of what I might have written here before Michael Moore upset my apple cart.
I have so valued the subscribers to MaherMatters, the comments over the years, the connections with several individuals, especially those who are now friends, and the entire world that the topic opened for me. As times worsened over the past several years it was harder and harder for me to focus on a topic that— though never with such an intention—could be seen as inappropriate to continue while White Supremacy, racism and nationalistic leanings reared their ugly heads and events occurred around the world with increasing fervor and violence. Perhaps this means that after a long demise the time has come to end this blog. We’ll see. Nevertheless, I thank you all for your interest in what I have had to say and share here since 2011 and wish you all the best going forward. Stay safe and well. I hope to see familiar names within the new platform!
There is an unseen life that dreams us; it knows our true direction and destiny. We can trust ourselves more than we realize, and we need have no fear of change. – John O’Donohue
When I began my websites and blogs in the late 1990s/ early 2000s I sought the domain Everything Matters, thinking that I would want to write in many veins. I felt that all topics may connect through an individual writer’s point of view and outreach, especially if collaboration was involved. I had lofty goals for what I settled on as an art-focused site (ArtMattersOnline). My goals for that could not be accomplished as intended, however, alongside my full time job. (The feat was achieved, though, by artist Cara Ober through BeMore Art, now an established and well-respected presence in Baltimore.) MaherMatters became a supplement to what I was finding in my non-art-related research, but would not be included in the two Irish-related scholarly books I was writing. It was also a means to engage with others about my accidental obsession with learning the art of genealogy.
Our current days in Time Out will likely flow as they will for many months, and I find I am already forgetting things for myself and that I would recommend to a range of different friends. I felt it made sense in the short term to repurpose this blog to address the everything that matters now, including links that would be possible to revisit. I think it might be better to see if my fledgling Trusting the Process: Getting There From Herecan catch another breath and take hold instead. After this post I will begin to write there, and welcome anyone interested to subscribe.
Earth Day would have been the opening reception for the fourth art exhibition in which I was participating that was altered by the COVID-19 Pandemic. Two are currently installed (1), though opening receptions and public viewings have not occurred. Two were never installed, but may still occur in some future time (2). Ironically, two are about issues that point to why we are all confined to home right now. Throughout the first of a three-day online celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, I was, luckily, able to stream Earth Day 2020 Live. All afternoon my spirits were lifted and many feelings were positively anchored—while I was productively at my sewing machine (57 masks for specific people made so far). I took notes about certain links and resources that I had planned to include here.
On Earth Day I felt my private world come into balance and emotionally began to settle in for the long haul while this virus runs its course. I was excited to learn about the new documentary that Michael Moore produced, introduced on the Stephen Colbert show the previous night. However, after viewing Jeff Gibbs’ sleuthing into the disturbing commingling of positive environmental concerns with oil-based conglomerates, in Planet of the Humans, my spirits were dashed again. When promoting this film, Moore said he was hopeful for the future of the planet. After viewing it I was not reassured. I was reminded instead, as I am by the news every day, that we live in a world run by such concentrated and out of control financial power that it can co-opt, in this case, even the likes of Bill McKibben and Al Gore. (Hence the delay in posting what would otherwise have been a more upbeat post filled with inspiring links.) (May 10, 2020: note that much of what was disturbing has been refuted.)
The manner in which I lived as a student and the interests I began to explore decades ago form the foundation of my current days. It seems as if I am rediscovering a self that was almost fully smothered while training against the grain for many different kinds of work over the last several decades. I appreciate all that necessity taught me, however, the points in time when my efforts harmonized with my own nature are those that I cherish. They remain with me now, along with associated people. I feel myself winding back and tending original roots, albeit from a plateau of gratitude that includes a greatly expanded perspective and body of experience.
During this pandemic, in contrast with “life before”, I am not split in too many disparate simultaneous endeavors and requirements. I no longer feel that all my engagements are attempting to manically share the dance space on the head of some proverbial pin. With my young adult passions having matured and been well-practiced, this pandemic is simplifying them to only that which matters. In a world gone horribly awry, it is time to focus upon that, and there is time enough and space for it.
The dreams I have for Earth and her inhabitants, against all odds, I have for what is left of my own life. When we gingerly return to the planet we thought we knew, may everything that matters rise fully, eclipsing all that stifles and undermines that which is good. May we continue to learn and grow and be positively connected, recommitted to reaching the noblest possibilities of human, examined, lives worth the gift of their being.
Thank you to my friend who shared Ireland’s Shine A Light project, with Sinead O’Connor’s beautiful rendition of Snow Patrol’s Run. May there be hope throughout this devastating time and a mindful renewal on the part of the world governments—particularly in the United States. May all the inhabitants of Earth fully appreciate Her when we return, and behave accordingly. Unending gratitude to everyone on the front lines. You are saints.
By now we have settled into what my yoga teacher termed “a new neutral”, creating personalized rhythms to our days. I have shared particular things on other digital platforms, and feel drawn to continuing that here. As I haven’t taken up any kind of journaling throughout this time, perhaps this is a means for me to recall and mark some details in place for myself, hoping that others might also find them helpful.
The Guardian and Politico are my primary trusted daily news sources, combined with Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters From An American, which continues to be a steadfast anchor in parsing the ever-evolving events. (Thank you, Nicole, for turning me on to her!) I limit my reading these days to the morning and have stopped listening to NPR until dinner prep time, finding that I need otherwise to fill the days with all that can support my “new neutral” apart from fretting about what’s going on in the “outside world”.
There are certainly beautiful moments and soulful connections, and I am happy to find that my skills in sewing have been dusted off for a new purpose. I’m using up a large stash of fabric saved over many years, trying to make as many face masks in a day as possible to send out to my long list of loved ones and close friends. One has also already gone to our greatly valued postal worker who has been on the front line with very limited protection day in and day out. It was sobering to see her behind suspended clear plastic shower curtains last week, as she explained her happiness in finally having received plastic gloves that she had ordered online (HERSELF, for protection doing her government job).
Here are links I have found most helpful in relation to our current great need for making face masks. They, obviously, are not medical grade, but can at least keep us from breathing on others, remind us not to touch our faces, and for general protection when we must go out to essential places. Otherwise—stay home and enjoy cooking, cleaning, being creative, being supportive and building your own resilience!
Billette’s Baubles is the design I use, but no longer w/elastic. I don’t have flannel, but I do make the center piece, with another layer of fabric. There is a front, back and center piece.
I do the ties based on the video by Jenny Doan, Missouri Star Quilt Company, however, I sew them to the sides, not to the long ends. I also turn and close off the ends of the ties. It is necessary to cut long 2.5” strips and sew them together to get enough for two forty-inch ties for each mask. I’m finding bed sheet material to be useful for this.
Here are tips from Billette’s Baubles re washing your mask:
In this extreme time, which seems to have been coming for a while, I feel drawn to posting outside the loose theme of this blog. I’d like to share some links and recommendations that I hope those who read this may find uplifting or interesting.
March 17* was the day our university sent students home. With that, life shifted into a new type of awareness for me and the individuals and groups with whom I am in regular contact. Over the last weeks the news has become increasingly dire and changes have taken hold that feel like beginnings of a “new normal”. The changes are difficult to bear for many thousands of people, particularly those without homes and those working in gig or by-the-hour economies. The meme that hit to the heart of what I had been feeling was: “The Earth has sent us to our rooms to think about what we’ve done.”
It was striking to me how relatively quickly improvements in the planet’s climate became apparent when people stopped living irresponsibly. As individuals and groups rise to the occasion in every crisis, heroes in every walk of life have been shining forth and making a difference now. I feel directly indebted to those who work in the medical and grocery fields and to the vitality of honest, factual news sources. I am grateful for all who ensure that basic needs can be maintained as possible.
Those of us who became aware in the era of the first Earth Day will recall learning about the Native American concept of acting with the benefit of the next seven generations in mind. Indigenous groups around the world— including the ancient Irish—lived in harmony with the seasons, revered and were intimately connected to their lands. Now so much of those lands have been long lost and polluted. We know that the Industrial Revolution, combined with big business in developed and developing countries and individuals’ lack of care for the environment, began the slippery slide that shifted us into a new human-caused geologic epoch, The Anthropocene. Within our lifetime an unprecedented amount of animal and plant life has gone extinct, and human health has been adversely affected by manufactured and addictive substances.
The intricacy of opposites and the razor’s edge we walk between them becomes more clear in times of crisis. The otherworldly experience caused by this world-shared virus has made glaringly obvious the interconnectedness of every aspect of life. Spiritual traditions have taught this concept over millenia. Perhaps we will learn it again. Our individual efforts will determine the possibility of balance and sustainability going forward. While each of us weathers this time in our own ways, I am heartened by the creativity and openness that enforced social distancing has inspired across the globe, bringing all that truly matters into high relief. I am grateful that my family and friends are currently safe and grateful for so much, in general.
Good health practices for ourselves and our community may guide us to positive change and the possibility for course correction. This is likely our final warning as we careen into the early years of the Sixth Extinction, about which Elizabeth Kolbertalerted us in 2015. May those of us who survive this pandemic emerge from it with a heightened simplicity and attitude of appreciation. May we behave accordingly forever forward, living more respectfully as guests on our beloved four billion year old planet.
Rebecca Solnit interview with Krista Tippet, On Being. This was one of the first links shared with me during this time. I welcomed hearing it at that moment. Rebecca Solnit is one of my heroes and I read as much as I can of her work.
Sacred Land Film Project, Hopi Messenger, elder Thomas Banyacya (1909-1999) . When I was at Four Corners many years ago I was not aware of its sacredness as a site. I wish that I had, though I’m glad for this deep memory, like Monument Valley—one of my favorite places in North America (seen in the beginning of Part 1, above).
The Overstory, Richard Powers. This novel accompanied me through the first weeks of the pandemic and couldn’t have been more fitting. Initially, each chapter seemed like a series of perfectly crafted short stories, all sharing the common theme of trees. Almost halfway through one character arrived and all the threads began to connect into a masterful tribute to the importance of trees in our world. This may be my favorite book, ever.
Amplifier Foundation.I became aware of this organization through the amazing posters that were available for the January 2017 Womens’ March on Washington. Through the sharing of artists’ works regarding numerous important issues they are an important support for teachers and activists. Currently, all proceeds from their clothing line “will go towards [their] sending free art and uplifting remote learning resources to K-12 families facilitating at-home learning through the remainder of the 2020 school year.”
For Those Who Follow This Blog for the Ireland-Oriented Content:
A History of Ireland, Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry. This was a serendipitous find in a great used bookstore in Westerly, Rhode Island, at the early stage of the pandemic. I’m only a quarter of the way through, but am finding so much helpful information about this complex history. My ongoing quest to understand the ancient history of the country of my ancestors to which I feel so connected continues.
* Update 3.30.20: I had noted “coronavirus” in my engagement calendar on March 10, before we went out of town for a few days. Initially I had this date in my post. The following Tuesday, March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, was the correct day that the university closed and students were sent home. I learned of the closing when my friend and I showed up for our regular Zen Meditation in a longstanding group. We adults suddenly were made aware that we might be in danger of contracting the virus from students who had just returned from Spring Break (given the confusing and incomplete information going around). With time shifting dramatically it is strange to think this is now only Day #13 in what looks to be a long and difficult time ahead.
“It’s not what you become in life but what you overcome.” (Matty Maher)
The past year has been one of immense transition on levels beyond what any of us might have imagined. We continue to reel from the daily news in this ecological and political whirlwind. Many souls have left the planet before the fan regulating the health of humankind has been splattered beyond repair.
As my husband and I prepare to head north for the celebration of life for the passing of yet another dear longtime friend, I am grateful that my brother alerted me to the passing of one of the most legendary Mahers — Matty Maher (Matthew Dennis), owner of the 166 year old McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York City. New to Maher’s legend myself, articles immediately available from a quick search intrigued me, and Matty was easy to spot in photos via his undeniable Maher eyes! Learning about him has been a welcome distraction, and I cheer him from afar while his friends and family celebrate the great man at his funeral events today.
The story of Matty Maher brought back memories of the seventies and my first venture into New York City as a tentative adult with art peers on a field trip from college. In recommending places to visit, our teachers told us that by the end of the afternoon they could be found at a very cool Irish pub – McSorley’s – and we were welcome to stop by. Whether or not they knew that women were not yet (or only barely recently) welcome, at that point in time the mere thought was beyond possible for me. Shy as I was to even speak to my seemingly all powerful and quite intimidating male teachers in class, the odds of my showing up there were nil, bars not yet being part of my universe. The trip was wonderful, nonetheless, and through the years New York, and the world itself, became ever smaller and less terrifying to wander through as I have claimed various parts as homes along the way. The next time I’m in NYC I’ll be sure to have a pint in honor of this very important Maher at New York’s oldest bar (established in 1854). Maybe I’ll even get to meet and toast a Sláinte to one of his five daughters.
Several articles (linked here) round out the story of a man who was deeply loved over many decades and whose life was directed as if by the angels to immigrate from his Threecastles, Kilkenny, homeland and build a charmed life in America. (Of particular note is an essay from Kilkenny that includes a great photo of Matty Maher and a timeline history of McSorley’s.) Maher’s work from 1964 onward ultimately transformed a simple beer bar into a destination. His former employees shared loving memories of him, recalling his generosity of spirit. Michael Brannigan explained, “People’d always ask him, ‘You own the bar?’ ”…“He’d say, ‘No, you own the bar.’ The customers own it.”
My brother described McSorley’s as “a museum really…Every inch of the place is covered in pictures…and there’s only beer and only two choices—black or tan—and crackers and cheese and onions…that’s it…and shoes alleged of Joe Kennedy.” New York Times and New Yorker Magazine articles described a sawdusted floor and particulars among the treasure trove of memorabilia, including a collection of “holy relics” in the form of turkey wishbones left behind on an ancient chandelier by soldiers in World War I to safeguard their return before heading off to battle. According to Maher, the bones came to represent those who were lost in the war and thus treated reverentially. More were added in honor of individuals in relatively recent conflicts. For artists and writers in the fifties and sixties John McSorley’s “The Old House at Home” must have been akin to the Cedar Street Tavern, which was originally in Greenwich Village. John Sloan depicted a scene inside McSorley’s in a painting that had been exhibited in the Armory Show of 1913.
As the energy of this Matthew Maher, son of one other Patrick Maher, joins all that is good in the universe and those who knew him are filled with the joy of having shared his life, may the energy of our own friend, Noah Totten, find and join his like-energy, and may our world be strengthened by this powerful addition of spirit. “May it be its own force field / And dwell uniquely / Between the heart and the light.” (John O’Donohue)
[Update: 16 January 2020 — See @IrishTimesNews on Instagram for a great photograph by Lauren Crothers that captured the honor canopy of raised hurling sticks as pallbearers carried the great man’s coffin. The funeral of Matty Maher took place at Holy Trinity Church, Whitestone, New York.]
Dan Barry, The New York Times, “Dust Is Gone Above the Bar, But A Legend Still Dangles,” April 6, 2011
Chang, Sophia, Gothamist, “Longtime McSorley’s Owner Has Died, Bar Will Stay In the Family, ” January 13, 2020
Sean Keen, Kilkenny People, “Matty Maher Passed Away This Morning With His Family By His Side, Wonderful Kilkenny man who owned McSorleys in New York has passed away, Kilkenny and Irish People in New York Lose A Great Friend,” January 11, 2020
Joseph Mitchell, The New Yorker, ‘The Old House at Home,” April 14, 1940
In the first week of August, my sweet friend, Ruth Conlon McGarty, crossed the veil at age ninety. Her home was that in which my brother and I spent our early years, part of my own memories, as was the Conlon family. My mother re-introduced me to Ruth before her own death when Ruth had invited us to lunch during one of my visits home. Ruth became close to me after her husband Lenny’s death, increasingly so as she began to turn the corner toward her last chapter. Ruth enthusiastically embraced her Irish lineage and shared many stories with me as I researched my two books. She invited and expected me to stay with her on several research trips, and later simply to visit as often as possible. We shared many lovely times chatting, catching up with news, eating together, talking about her life and mine, our memories, the Irish of Waterbury, and she cheered my ongoing efforts. She contributed four of her historic photographs to my second book, later donating several photographs to the archive collection of the Mattatuck Museum. I was privileged to be asked to give the eulogy at her funeral, some of which I excerpt and recompose here.
Ruth Conlan McGarty was like a version of Mary Tyler Moore in my mind. She was good, wholesome, smart, strong, elegant, classy, gracious, funny, cheerful. She was a professional, the executive-secretary to the vice-president of Connecticut Light & Power for forty years. A “people-person” with a fully open heart and open mind, Ruth embodied a brightness that made her seem much younger than she was.
Her beloved Lenny devotedly cared for his mother, as did Ruth her own parents. After Mrs. McGarty’s passing, she and Lenny were free to marry, and Ruth explained that he made sure they could do so in the way they wished. Frustrated with the restrictions at her now local parish, they spoke with the pastor of the Immaculate Conception who openly listened to their plan to simply show up in the side chapel with a couple of friends when they could get away from work. Although he would have allowed this, he suggested they reconsider. Having waited so long to marry, with Ruth’s parents still alive, mightn’t Ray and Pauline appreciate the thrill of watching their daughter walk down the aisle? Agreeing to a version of that, Ruth and Lenny picked a convenient as-soon-as-possible date and invited friends to show up. Despite the relatively short notice the Immaculate was packed. Ruth explained that the party following at the Elks Club went on practically all night, though they slipped away, leaving their many friends who were thrilled to the core to continue celebrating Ruth and Lenny’s having finally tied the knot.
Ruth and Lenny were mad about each other and did everything together for thirty-five years, including taking many vacations, especially throughout Ireland. They were a solid team, always looking out for each other, happiest in each other’s company. Ruth recalled Lenny’s having set a habit in retirement that they would wake by seven o’clock every morning and be sure to do something out every day. They began the day by walking to Bunker Hill Pharmacy to buy the daily newspaper, then came home to read it and talk about whatever was going on over breakfast. Later they would engage with the outside world amid family or friends or in their favorite places. They loved to dine out, and fully enjoyed their well-earned quality time and experiences after less affluent years as children and young adults.
Having gone from a being a child in her parent’s home, to living with her parents in Bunker Hill, then becoming Lenny McGarty’s wife, Ruth had never experienced living alone until 2008. The loss of Lenny created an incredibly deep loneliness that accompanied her own declining health. She placed on the wall of her hallway the photograph I took of them not long before Lenny died and he remained in that way an image at the soul of their home. Thankfully, her wonderful neighbors, friends at church, and members of her extended family stepped in as Lenny would have hoped, each playing significant roles in their own ways. Ruth appreciated every inclusion, every invitation to a gathering, every meal, every performance at the Palace or Seven Angels Theatre and every attendance at a child’s event. She loved her nieces and nephews and spoke often about missing her two brothers and sister. She was devoted to her great grand-nephew whom she came to completely rely upon.
Reminiscent of like times with my own mother, visits to Ruth became part of any opportunity that led me to Connecticut. I, or my husband and I, would take her places she and Lenny used to go, or that I remembered and hadn’t seen in a while, or that none of us had ever visited before. We’d drive through Litchfield to enjoy the country roads and stop in at a potter’s studio, or watch the ducks near a restaurant we’d heard about, wander through peonies in bloom at a farm in Torrington, or walk throughout the downtown Green and Bunker Hill Park, both having been so much a part of my own young life. Ruth enjoyed re-visiting the church where she was married and finding the names of her and Lenny’s families inscribed on a plaque at the entrance. Sitting in her den at night in our respective two reclining chairs watching television with white wine and snacks before going to bed at ten or eleven, I would imagine her and Lenny having done this very thing, as the “two old crows” who lived there, like their lawn ornament proudly announced outside the front door.
I’ll never forget our watching various stages on cable of the lead-in to the 2016 presidential election and how refreshing it felt to me that we were politically aligned. When I would call she’d always ask how soon I could come back, and it saddened both of us that my living so far away (and my full time job) didn’t allow me to visit as often as either of us would have liked. I would make hopeful promises for several months ahead, when school was out or in-between semesters as possible.
Although I remain deeply connected to friends from elementary and high school, Ruth was the last familial-type of tie to my hometown. Her parents and my grandparents had been great friends, and my parents grew up and attended school near her and her siblings. My father was friends with her brothers. I recall the Conlons as part of my family’s sphere of connections and annual holiday visits when I was just a child, before my grandparents moved away. As her guest in my former home decades later I could be easily in the present with her. As I learned about her early life and common events through her perspective, she provided me the gift of being able to re-frame my own memories and release them. Through Ruth I was given an intimate insight into what it is like to grow old alone in a house after most everyone one loves has gone, along with one’s abilities and independence. With Ruth I could be a younger friend somewhat like a non-existent daughter for a period of time. As she began to decline her great grand-nephew and I got to know each other and his attention started to become ever more necessary.
I still like to think of Ruth rushing around, wanting to do or get something for me like a perfect hostess, and as one of her friends noted, with an ever-present bounce in her step. Ruth’s pure enjoyment of being with people is captured in my mind like a series of snapshots in which she is smiling, waving, laughing and quietly at peace in beautiful settings – all the many aspects of a person fully alive, fully herself. She made so many people happy through her presence that we who have loved her can now be happy for her. She is at rest, at peace, her spirit joined with that of her husband’s, her ancestors’ and everyone whose life she has touched.
It is fitting that the enormous number of people who came to the funeral home, representatives of organizations to which she belonged, friends of a lifetime, family from far and near, and those who drove to the church and the cemetery seemed more akin to what might be expected in honor of a much younger person or a local celebrity. That so many individuals showed up made me happy for her amid my sorrow imagining her last months. I thought of her smiling over every aspect of the day in which the fullness of her life was revealed.
Ruth remains within all who continue to remember her and hold her in our hearts along with all others who have come into ourselves. May we feel Ruth’s energy guiding and helping us spiritually as we continue to move forward in our own journeys, and may we face our own deaths as gracefully and nobly as she did.
This has been another tumultuous year globally, and I am surely not alone in having said farewell to important people within my personal sphere. One such loss was my cousin, Alfred Edward Sullivan, whom some knew as “Sully”. Al was a strong, enthusiastic and loving spirit who lived an emotionally rich and fully engaged life. His quick, irreverent wit and sharp memory accompanied a deep knowledge about a wide array of topics. At ninety years old, Al was my last family elder. Having served as the Connecticut clan’s official genealogist, Al shared information with me about our Sullivan family line which linked my Maher side of things from Tipperary, Laois and Kilkenny into County Kerry. My husband and I made a point to visit some of his favorite places on our first trip to “the Ol’ Sod”, though even into my fifth visit I was reticent to try to meet all the people Al had urged me to “look up”. Al’s parents and one set of my great grandparents are among the members of the Sullivan family depicted on page sixteen of Waterbury Irish: From the Emerald Isle to the Brass City.
A lifelong Democrat, Al Sullivan was proud to have been named after the first Catholic presidential candidate, Alfred E. Smith, upon his birth on Election Day in 1928. Trained as a medic, Al served post-World War II in the United States Army, primarily in Japan and the Philippines. A proud “Fighting Irish” alumnus of the University of Notre Dame, his degree in Commerce led to a productive career, extensive travel and a fully-enjoyed retirement. His devoted wife, children, grand and great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews, extended family and friends around the world are better for having been graced with his presence in our lives. We will always remember that conversations in person and on the phone with “Cuzzin” Al invariably included laughter and often invoked a forgiving roll of the eye. May Al Sullivan’s spirit continually remind us to take ourselves lightly and never forget the importance of caring about those we love.