A Christmas gift sent abroad from my sister that I'll never forget

Imagine a girl of 16 emigrating alone to the U.S. That's what happened to John O'Mahony's sister Joan, in 1949. Here he recalls her sad departure, and the thrill of getting a Christmas parcel laden with goodies off her
A Christmas gift sent abroad from my sister that I'll never forget

Joan O'Mahony at her confirmation.

PICTURE the scene: It’s 6pm in Fermoy town on a summer Sunday in 1950 and a large family is huddled round the public telephone box outside the Royal Hotel.

My parents, my siblings and I were excitedly waiting to hear the voice of my 17-year-old sister Joan, who had emigrated to the U.S a year earlier.

She had arranged to ring the phone box number at precisely 6pm Irish time from Boston. We never had a telephone in our house and didn’t even know what one looked like!

So, we got ourselves ready, my father, mother, myself, and my brothers, George and Lawrence, and walked from our home in St Bernard’s Place to Pearse Square to answer this important call.

The phone rang and my mother was the first to answer, hearing her only daughter’s voice for the first time since she had gone away. What excitement and joy! It was just wonderful.

We all took turns speaking to Joan, who was calling from her cousin’s house where she was living at the time. She was getting on well in Boston, staying with her aunt Mary Ellen’s daughter, Mary, and her husband, Danny. She was going to night school and had a good job.

It’s remarkable now to think a 16-year-old girl could leave her family behind and emigrate. But my sister Joan was a remarkable person.

I will never forget Christmas the year after that telephone call, in 1951, when a big trunk arrived at our house from Joan. It was like opening an Aladdin’s cave, full to the brim with beautiful jumpers in different colours with reindeer on the front and back, jigsaw puzzles, colouring books, guns and holsters, sweets and chocolates... it just showed how caring she was.

We felt so proud going to Mass that Christmas Day — myself and my brothers showing off our lovely festive jumpers, the likes of which were never seen in Fermoy before!

Joan O'Mahony on her wedding day.
Joan O'Mahony on her wedding day.

Also in the trunk was a fur coat for my mother, but she never wore it, and when asked why, always replied: “What would the people in the town think of me?” But it didn’t go to waste because when the weather was cold, it became a cosy blanket for the O’Mahony boys.

My sister was so kind and thoughtful to think of us in such a marvellous way. Later, as adults, we would always recall that very special Christmas.

******

There are 62 houses in St Bernard’s Place, Fermoy, and I was born in No 49. Between the 1930s and 1960s, about 80 people emigrated from these houses — Sweeneys, O’Mahonys, Kennedys, Sullivans and many others. In fact, I recall whole families leaving. One day they were there, the next they were gone.

Most went to England, some to New York, Boston, New Zealand, and Australia. They were a great loss to the town. I often wonder what became of them?

Years later, when I lived in England, having emigrated myself, I met some of these people, who did very well for themselves. 

Some left the station in Fermoy with no place to stay in England, arriving at Paddington Station in London complete strangers with nowhere to go. They were very brave, and I admire them for their courage.

As a young lad, we lived only a few minutes from the railway station and would know when the train had arrived from Cork on its way to Rosslare.

We would hurry over, the old steam train would pull in, great clouds of steam would rise up to the roof, there was a screeching of brakes, doors opening, and people from Fermoy and the surrounding areas got in. In those days, you had to lean out of the window of the carriage to undo the thick leather strap to open the door.

In my youthful innocence, I didn’t fully realise the sadness and heartbreak taking place around me. Mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers saying goodbye to loved ones, tears in their eyes. Hugging and kissing, leaving them for the first time to seek employment in England.

I imagine, as the train gathered speed as it left the town, and crossed by the viaduct over the Blackwater, Fermoy people would rush to the window to catch their last view of home. A glimpse of the Cross of Corrin or the spire of St Patrick’s Church, where many would have attended Mass and celebrated their first communion and confirmation. Some would already be looking forward to their next visit home, for others it would be their last glimpse of it, never to return.

Emigration came to our house in 1949, when my only sister Joan emigrated to the U.S.

It came about in 1947, when my Uncle Jack, my father’s brother, came home from America on holiday to visit us — he had left in 1904.

My sister had left school at 12. At that time there was no free education and she went into domestic service. Uncle Jack asked my parents’ permission to take her to the U.S when she was 16, where there were better opportunities for work and education.

My parents agreed. I often wonder, were they in full agreement to let her go? It must have been a heartbreaking decision — their only daughter.

When the day arrived for Joan to leave, my father went with her to get the bus in Fermoy to Cork, then the bus on to Cobh, where they stayed overnight in  a B&B. The night my sister left, we stayed with my Aunt Moll, my mother’s sister, in St Mary’s Terrace on the southern part of Fermoy — my mother was too upset to be at home and was comforted by Moll.

It was a sad day for my parents, but especially for my mother. I was only 11 at the time and didn’t fully realise the sadness and heartbreak.

Joan got the tender to Roches Point, about five miles outside Cobh Harbour, to board her Cunard liner to New York. My father must have been full of grief and sadness as they parted ways.

Joan O'Mahony's daughter Florence at her mother's grave in South Boston Cemetery.
Joan O'Mahony's daughter Florence at her mother's grave in South Boston Cemetery.

Of course, when she arrived she had to go to Ellis Island for a physical examination with hundreds of others before she could set foot on U.S soil.

I have often, in the years since, wondered how this 16-year-old girl must have felt, coming from a small town like Fermoy to the big city of New York. It must have been a real culture shock.

In 1994, I visited Ellis Island and imagined my sister Joan getting off the liner and going to the big hall, where she was seated before her name was called and all her particulars were taken.

Her Uncle Jack met her, and she stayed with him in New York for a while. She then moved to live with her cousin in Boston, from where she made that phone call.

Joan was a great daughter and sister, and would write to us with the news and send her brothers parcels of comics which were never seen before in Fermoy.

I was very popular with my school friends because I would give them the comics to read.

In 1954, aged 21, she married Jack Flanagan. They had five children — four sons and, just like with my parents, one daughter.

Tragically, Joan died aged just 35. It must have been a dreadfully sad time for my parents and a terrible shock.

About 11 years later, Joan’s only daughter, Florence, visited her grandmother in St Bernard’s Place for the first time. She was the dead stamp of Joan when she had left for America and, to my mother, it was as if her only daughter was returning home: an occasion of great joy for all the family.

In 1994, I got to visit Boston and met my nephews and brother-in-law Jack for the first time, a wonderful and joyous occasion. I also visited Joan’s grave, it was a very emotional visit and I paid my respects to her and said some prayers.

She is buried with our aunt, Mary Ellen, and her husband, Jack, in a very well kept cemetery. I had a look around and was amazed at the number of people buried there with Irish names. Of course, Boston was a great destination for the Irish.

******

In the 1940s and early 1950s, every Christmas week, I would go to Fermoy town and have a look at all the shops beautifully decorated with wonderful displays of toys, books and Christmas stockings. I could only look, with no chance of having them.

Then, with my father, I got lovely berry holly which we would put around the pictures and dresser. We made paper chains from colour paper to hang from the ceilings with colour balloons.

On Christmas Day, my mother would go to 7.30am mass with my sister Joan. My father would take me and my brothers to 10am mass. We would have the ‘full Irish’’ afterwards.

We got no Christmas presents. There was no Santa Claus in our house — it was the same for a lot of families at the time. Very little work was around for the men in those years, and it was a very hard times for parents.

For Christmas dinner, we had bacon, no turkey or ham, no Christmas cake or Christmas pudding. After dinner we would go to the local Ball Alley and play a good number of games — and be grateful for that. Nobody had TV until the 1960s, we still had the oil lamps to light the house.

Adapted from an article written by John O’Mahony for a Cork County Council anthology entitled Memories Of A Real Cork Christmas.

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