Patrick Joseph O’Donnell (1887–1973)

Marilyn Cropley, USA

It is an honor and privilege for me to tell you about this great Irishman Patrick Joseph O’Donnell, but known to me as just Grandpa . . . and grand he was.

Patrick was born to Luke and Sarah O’Donnell on October 10, 1887 in Derrylahan, County Mayo and was one of ten known children. He told me that he and his siblings were taught Gaelic by his mother Sarah. He could still speak it until the day he died. He had a wonderful teacher.

Patrick Joseph O’Donnell
This is a picture of Patrick Joseph O’Donnell
taken in his kitchen at 10 Huntington Street,
Brooklyn, New York, circa 1970.

Maybe it was the curiosity to see beyond his parents’ farm or some kind of wanderlust had filled his mind to explore the unknown. Or maybe, just maybe, there was nothing for him in Ireland to make him stay and eke out a living. He left the shores of his home at approximately 16 years of age and embarked on his own adventure. He was employed as a stable boy at the Goshawk/Station House in Cheshire, England. During that time, he also taught Sunday school and worked at a saloon. While there, he worked under the alias “James,” as Patrick was too Irish sounding — at least that is what he told me. Patrick would soon find out on his own if the streets in America that he had heard so much about were really paved in gold. After saving enough money, he purchased a ticket to New York and left England to begin his journey to the United States. He set sail on the passenger ship Coronia on May 3, 1910 and arrived at Ellis Island on May 12, 1910. According to his Ellis Island documents, he had $21.70 in his pocket and was fair skin and brown hair. He never returned to Ireland; never saw his parents again; never saw the sun rising on his beloved Ireland. That alone brings tears to my eyes as I write this. I couldn’t imagine being brave enough to come to a new country all alone and trying to make it.

Well, make it he did, and I am so proud of him.

Patrick and Mary's wedding
Patrick and Mary married October 6, 1912.
They were married in the Church of St. Agnes,
in Brooklyn located on Sackett Street.

He stood with some friends who had made the arduous journey years earlier and settled in Red Hook, Brooklyn. There he met and married the love of his life, my grandmother, Mary Corley, on October 6, 1912. A new chapter in his life was beginning. He now had someone to share the adventure with.

He and Mary had a total of 5 children – James, Luke, Patrick, John and Margaret. John and James, unfortunately, both died in infancy from complications of bronchial pneumonia. The deplorable living conditions and medical care at the time were horrendous. I’m sure this is something they did not envision happening in their newly adopted homeland. It wasn’t exactly the gold-paved streets they were expecting. It proved to be streets paved with hazards, obstacles, hardships, and at times sadness. He and Mary persevered. They tackled everything that was thrown in front of them together and continued the adventure.

On January 17, 1922 Patrick was beaming – he had fulfilled his dream and had become a citizen of the United States.

He was a trolley conductor from approximately 1915 through, at least, 1933. My father told me that Patrick had fallen off one of the trollies and was injured. In 1940 he worked as a laborer for the New York State Grain and Elevator in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

He and Mary stood tall as they saw their two remaining sons go off to war during WWII and gave thanks when they both arrived home safely. I am so immensely proud to be the daughter of one of those sons, his namesake, Patrick Michael.

He was a religious man. Not a holy-roller type, but nonetheless religious. His grandchildren attended Visitation School and Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Red Hook, Brooklyn and when they reached 4th grade were assigned a Mass day during the week. Patrick would meet one of his grandchildren at Church and then escort said grandchild to his apartment after Mass for breakfast where he showed off his culinary skills by making French toast. To this day, every time I eat French toast I am transported back in time, sitting at his little kitchen table while he prepared it for me. After breakfast, he escorted said grandchild back to school. He would send in flowers from his garden to certain nuns and would buy and send in lottery tickets, via one of us, into school with the instructions to give it to Sister Ann Brigid or Sister Mary, and no one else. When I think back, I start to wonder if he was the neighborhood bookie! I personally think he was trying to ensure that he went straight through when he met St. Peter!

His knowledge of being the son of a farmer was displayed everywhere in his backyard. It was like looking at a box of Crayola™ crayons. He grew roses, gladiolas and hydrangea bushes. The variety of flowers and colors splashed about everywhere you looked. It was absolutely breathtaking. He did not use any chemicals whatsoever on his garden. He was an organic farmer long before organic farming was in vogue. He respected the earth.

He never forgot where he came from. He celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with the requisite toast(s) to the homeland, danced the Irish jig and sang all the old songs. His rendition of Rising of the Moon took on a whole new meaning during and after the celebratory toast(s). Music was always playing in his apartment so my siblings and I grew up listening to the vocals of Carmel Quinn and her rendition of The Whistling Gypsy and If I Were a Blackbird, as well as O’Donnell Abu with the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. We were indoctrinated at such an early age to all types of Irish songs as he played them all on his small portable record player. We did not always get the correct words, but we sang our little Irish hearts out. And Grandpa . . . well he just beamed listening to us sing. Music brought the family together.

Although he was not exactly Michael Flatley, he taught his grandchildren to dance and not to worry if you weren’t properly schooled in the fine art of Irish step-dancing (because he wasn’t.) To him, it was more important that you danced. And danced we did. We danced to jigs, hornpipes, and reels and had a blast. Three quarters of the time we had no idea what dance we were doing, but we laughed and enjoyed ourselves. That was the whole point of the lesson.

He attended every St. Patrick’s Day play that his grandchildren were in and was the loudest one in the audience clapping for us after we performed. I swear you could see the buttons on his shirt pop, he was so proud. I performed with my two older brothers on stage at one particular St. Patrick’s Day play. We entertained the audience with our rendition of Danny Boy. I played my wooden recorder, along with my brother Brian on accordion, and my brother Stephen playing the violin. We were not exactly Carnegie Hall material, but to Grandpa, we were better. He didn’t care if we hit a wrong note as long as we kept going and never give up.

He taught me to count to ten in Gaelic, but I do not remember the words any longer. Poor me. What I do remember, however, is how patient he was when attempting to teach me. He never raised his voice or hand. He raised your spirits, your ego, and your goals. If he could come to a new country and learn what he did there would be no excuse for his children and grandchildren. What a great teacher he was. Sarah did a great job.

He was not a rich man. He was a survivor. His wealth came from having a great family, friends, and his knowledge of a way of life that was invaluable. His expressions were priceless, like “you look like the cat’s meow” (even if we looked like something the cat dragged in) when his granddaughters were all dressed up; or “what harm in it” when his grandchildren were doing something that their parents did not want them to do. He would actually keep chickie (slang for watch out) for us to let us know when the coast was clear. All spoken with that sweet Irish brogue of his. How sweet sounding it was.

His beloved Mary died in 1957. My memories of her were kept alive by pictures and the stories that Grandpa would share with all of us about her. He was the family historian, determined that his knowledge of Ireland and his family that stood behind would remain alive in all of our hearts and minds. I am happy to say that they are.

Patrick's grave
Holy Cross Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York, St. Cecelia,
Grave 151, Range 10.

He continued the adventure without her until his own death on April 4, 1973 in Brooklyn, NY. Gone were the French toast breakfasts, the dancing in his apartment, his voice, his love of a story and the music. He is resting peacefully in Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn, with his Mary and their two children who died as infants. He was home. He was happy.

He might not have been a famous architect, but the foundation upon which he built his family can withstand any storm or earthquake. The memories of this wonderful man are embedded in my brain for life. What I learned from this kind, humble man of integrity was that his love of family was endless. His courage to confront the uncertainty showed his true inner strength. His humor was contagious and his dedication to his family is something that he definitely handed down to his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. It is as if it was etched in our DNA. The family he and Mary started still celebrates traditions and family still remains the utmost importance to us all. When we can gather all together for an event, the laughter never stops; the stories continue; obstacles are faced together; and compassion is given. We still sing and we still dance. I know it will continue. He gave it his all so that we could have it all.

How I loved that man. So proud am I to be the granddaughter of Patrick Joseph O’Donnell.

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