Luke William Walsh (1859–1909)

A Blacksmith from Kiltimagh, County Mayo

Kate Nelson Morgan, USA

 Luke William Walsh
Luke William Walsh

I grew up hearing story after story about my maternal great-grandfather, Luke Walsh, who was born and raised in Kiltimagh, County Mayo. Since he died before my mother was born, all these stories came from my grandmother, Luke’s daughter. My grandmother’s adoration of her father had its roots in a stunning tragedy. To understand Luke, my grandmother, and his larger-than-life place in my family’s history, you have to know how this poignant relationship between father and daughter began.

It started on the day my grandmother, Anna, was born in January 1890 in Utica, New York, a small city where her parents had settled after emigrating from Ireland in the 1870s. Anna was my great-grandmother’s fifth child and the midwife expected Anna’s birth to be a relatively easy one. As was typical in those days, the midwife boiled water and shooed Luke off to have a drink while the women did the hard work of birthing a baby. The midwife also sent my grandmother’s three older brothers outside to play while she and the expectant mother struggled with the delivery.

As is typical of January in upstate New York, the day was bitterly cold, but the yard was fenced in and the little boys – all under six years of age – were bundled up, so they should have been fine for an hour or two playing in the snow. But it didn’t take long for tragedy to unfold. Neighbor boys thought it would be fun to pour water into the boots of the little Walsh brothers. The Walsh boys were too young to understand what could happen and we don’t know what happened to the older boys once things began to get out of hand. As the water began to freeze, the boys cried repeatedly to get into the house, but the midwife was busy with the birth and there were no other adults to help them. By the time my grandmother was born, her brothers had been outside for several hours, their little feet immersed in ice water. All three boys contracted pneumonia and within a few weeks all were dead. David was six, William was five, and Anthony was three years old.

As a result of the horrifying events that began on her birthday, Anna and her mother were never close the way most girls and their mothers are. I imagine that my great-grandmother could barely stand to look at the child she bore at the expense of her three sons. While she would go on to have four additional children after my grandmother, there would be no more boys. As so often happens when children are shunned by one parent, they gravitate to the other. Because of the strained relationship she had with her mother, Anna focused almost exclusively on her father. He was a heroic character to Anna and whenever she told stories about her family, her father always had the starring role. Anyone who ever heard my grandmother describe her father became similarly enchanted with the man. Little did I know that my great interest in Luke would become the gateway to my lifelong passion for genealogy and learning not only about him, but also about all of my other ancestors.

Luke Walsh was born in 1859 in Kiltimagh, a little more than an hour’s drive north of Galway. He came toward the end of a line of twelve children born to David Walsh and Mary Ruane. Luke learned blacksmithing at the knee of his father, who owned a forge on Aiden Street in the middle of town. The family’s roots were deep in Mayo and one of David Walsh’s ancestors, though Catholic, was one of two Walsh brothers who were allowed to sign a long-term lease on significant acreage in the town with the English landlord George Browne. That lease stipulated that those Walsh brothers had to build houses on the land according to certain specifications.

When Luke and his brothers began thinking about leaving Ireland in the 1860s, they decided they would join their father’s brothers, most of whom they had never met. Their Walsh uncles had emigrated to Utica during the famine years, before most of the boys were born. One uncle was a blacksmith, one owned a hotel, and another worked on the railroad. In total, my Luke and four of his older brothers (David, Matthew, Mark, and Patrick) and their sister (Maria) would emigrate to upstate New York between 1865 and 1890.

 Luke William Walsh
Luke William Walsh

Luke arrived in the U.S. in 1876 and opened a blacksmith business in Utica, where he became well-known for being able to shoe the giant horses used by the many breweries in the area. It took a strong man to handle those massive animals, but also someone very calm and gentle because the horses were so skittish. Luke was so strong that he won any number of contests that tested strength and agility. For example, there was a well-publicized competition in Utica in 1897 between competing blacksmiths for who could shoe the most horses in an hour. Luke easily won that contest and others like it.

From all accounts, Luke had a feisty personality – full of fun and laughter and not averse to the occasional practical joke. My grandmother loved to tell the story about how he went to a religious meeting one night. When a woman stood up and proclaimed that “last night, I slept in the arms of the Lord,” Luke was purported to have yelled, “And whose arms are you sleeping in tonight?” We all thought that was a fabrication until I found an old newspaper clipping about Luke being detained by the police for “disturbing a religious meeting.”

There is also the story of how he so adored his Irish pipe tobacco that he regularly imported it. He kept a bowl of it on his desk in his blacksmith shop, so he could easily refill his pipe while he worked. Apparently he had one customer who would visit and never hesitate to go to the bowl and fill up his own pipe. Luke decided to cure him of that habit! One day when he knew the customer would be coming by, he mixed a wee bit of his Irish tobacco with some horse manure and left the concoction on the desk. The customer arrived, filled his pipe as usual, lit it, and never touched Luke’s tobacco again.

Luke married Honora Convey (whose mother was a Mellett) from Swinford, County Mayo, in Albany, New York, on Christmas Eve 1881, and they went on to have nine children, including their oldest child, Mary, their three sons who died as young boys, my grandmother, and four more daughters: Sarah, Margaret, Catherine, and Alice. It appears from everything we have been told that Luke was a devoted father who loved his girls and also loved showing them off. One of my grandmother’s sisters described how every time someone would come to visit the family, Luke would drag out his accordion and make the girls do an Irish step dance. (“I hated that!” she used to exclaim when she was about 90 years old.) He was also ambitious and wanted the best for his family. In the early 1900s, he travelled to Washington State with his wife’s cousin, Christopher Moore, to see if there might be a better life for his family out West. He helped build the railroad from Seattle to Tacoma and bought a large plot of land where he planned to build a home for his wife and daughters.

In late 1907, he arrived back in Utica ready to move his family west, only to find his wife ill with breast cancer. Honora died in June 1908, and that’s when Luke decided to give up the Western dream. His daughters were grieving their mother’s death and he decided to stay in familiar surroundings instead of moving the girls across the country and away from their family and friends. That was a fortuitous decision because Luke would die unexpectedly a short time later in March 1909, while visiting his brother Patrick in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Friends and family in Utica were shocked to hear of his sudden death from an obstruction of the bowel. One of his friends said, “He was so strong, I thought only an axe could kill him.”

But that was not the end of tragedy for the Walsh girls. Months later, one of the younger sisters, Sarah, would die of a ruptured appendix in October 1909. That left five girls. Mary, 27, was a young wife with two tiny children. My grandmother Anna, 19, worked in a department store. The three younger girls were all still in school: Margaret, 16, Katherine, 14, and Alice, 12. After Luke’s death, all the Walsh sisters lived with Mary and her family. Mary was a devout soul and became convinced that the young girls all should become nuns. As soon as each turned 18, they entered the convent, except for my grandmother. She continued to work and fell in love with a handsome railroad engineer, James Prendergast, whose family – from Cappawhite, County Tipperary, and Youghal, County Cork – had settled in Utica during the famine years. They married in 1911 and had eight children, including my mother.

My grandmother, Anna Walsh Prendergast, talked about her father, Luke, until the day she died. She loved him desperately and made all of us love him, too. In 1983, almost 30 years after my grandmother died, my mother and I travelled to Ireland. All of my mother’s ancestors were from Ireland, but there was only one that we were focused on finding. This was ten years before anyone in the family was seriously into genealogy, so we had very little to go on. We knew that our Walsh clan came from Kiltimagh and my grandmother’s sister, who was a nun and in her late 80s, gave us the names of four or five of Luke’s siblings. That was all the information we had.

We landed in Ireland and began strategizing how we might go about finding traces of Luke and whether we could possibly find any of our clan left in Mayo. In Limerick, we met a lovely Irish couple over tea in our hotel and we told them what we were trying to do. By that point, we felt as if we were tilting at windmills and that finding any trace of Luke was most likely impossible. The male half of the couple strongly encouraged us to try. “Yes, it has been 100 years, but rural Ireland is not like New York. I’ll bet you there are people there who will remember the family and where they lived. You must go and look!” So, we did.

We arrived in Kiltimagh on a clear, crisp October day and wondered where to begin. I said, “Why don’t we stop in a pub and ask if anyone has ever heard of him?” We spotted a pub, parked the car, and walked in. I said to the men gathered at the bar, “My great-grandfather was Luke Walsh and he left here 100 years ago. Does anyone know anything about him?” An old man, standing at the bar with a pint in his hand, turned around as if he had been asked this a hundred times before and said, “He was a blacksmith, wasn’t he?” I almost fell over with shock and delight.

The old gentleman – sadly, in my excitement I never asked his name – directed us to a place called the Raftery Room – another pub down the road. “They will know about him there, ” he said. Mom and I went there and met the owner, a man named Jerry Walsh, who was as gracious as he could be. He said to me “I’m not related to you but I think I know who is. You (pointing to me) look just like his youngest son.” He wanted to confirm his hunch so he brought us over to meet a 95-year-old school teacher who knew everyone in town and their history – she was also a Walsh – and she said, “Oh, yes. We know who you belong to.” Within five minutes, they brought us down the street to a lovely Georgian-style home. In it lived Andrew Walsh, who was a nephew to my great-grandfather. He was the son of my great-grandfather’s youngest brother. The house where Andrew lived and the land behind it have been in the Walsh family since 1792. My mother and I were welcomed home by Andrew Walsh and his wife Mae and they could not have been kinder to us. My mother and I were both very moved and emotional and we both felt a profound feeling of “home.” We always said that making that trip to Ireland was the best thing we ever did together and we talked about it for the rest of her life.

Also, it turns out that Jerry Walsh was indeed our cousin. His ancestor was a brother to our ancestor – they were the two brothers who bought the land from the English landlord and all of us spring from those two siblings. Jerry’s son, Paddy Walsh, is still in Kiltimagh and we are in regular contact with him. Jerry and Paddy descend from one Walsh brother and we descend from the other.

It is gratifying that there are still Walshes in Kiltimagh who belong to us. I can’t imagine how difficult it was for all the Walsh boys and their sister to leave Ireland and know they would probably never return. It must have been wrenching to leave their parents and siblings and cousins, etc., and the only home they had ever known. But those young emigrants engendered a love of Ireland in all of their offspring. The last of my Irish ancestors to emigrate was Luke in 1876. His two daughters who married gave him 15 grandchildren, although he died before 13 of them were born. I am one of Luke’s 31 great-grandchildren. Since my mother and I visited in 1983, a number of relations have been back to Kiltimagh. I suspect Luke would be amazed that so many of his descendants love him still and have made the pilgrimage back to his home town to see where it all began.

With the advent of online genealogy resources and DNA, the Walsh descendants have begun to find one another. In the spring of 2016, Walsh cousins, myself included, held a reunion in Utica where 18 descendants of those young emigrants – Luke and his siblings – gathered to share photographs and stories. That trip to Ireland in 1983 inspired 30 years of genealogical research into my maternal and paternal lines. Although I’ve found many wonderful characters on both sides of my family, the ancestor who remains dearest to my heart is the one whom I first loved and traced: Luke Walsh from Kiltimagh.

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