The Search for Patrick Cronan continued
He supposedly came to NY when he was ten. His tombstone says he was born in 1853, a few years after the famine hit. He would have come to NY in 1863 if the dates are correct. The Irish were still coming in droves then. A million of them in those hard years when whole villages were wiped out, when bodies littered the ground and there was no one with strength enough to bury them. It was a horror.
It became real to me during my trip to Ireland and was still in the consciousness of the Irish, though prosperity had come and new houses were springing up all over the country. I mentioned Patrick Cronan a lot in Ireland. And when I told his story, their faces filled with sadness--an orphan, how sad. I got a lot of mileage out of that story during the trip and enjoyed telling it. I felt connected and felt they felt a connection to me.
I imagine him on the orphan train, alone, or with his twin, looking out the window, watching at the stops, the other children being taken by the families who met the train. Maybe he watched his twin be chosen, maybe they looked one long last look at each other, not believing they would never see each other again. Maybe he had a buddy and they played games to pass the time. Maybe he sat in silence, his stomach churning with anxiety. Maybe he was excited and full of hope.
My aunt said he was one of the last to be chosen because he was too small to do the heavy farm work the older boys could do and too old to be a baby boy to some lonely or bereft mother. So he was on the train until Indiana when he is taken by a family. Who? We do not know. For what purpose? Not one story of the adoptive family and no clue as to whether it was hard work and crumbs or love and affection. And how did he get his 80 acres in Southern Indiana, or his wife, Eliza Clark. He had three children and four grandchildren, and five great grandchildren to whom he is a legend and a mystery.
Once when I said to Aunt Helen, “Well, he must have been Catholic” She replied in a tone used to squelch any threat of scandal in the family, “He always went to the 1st Christian Church his whole life. “Well, I continue, But we don’t know what he was in Ireland.”
Before I left for the trip to Ireland, I called my cousin to see what information she had about Patrick Cronan. She had none, but was full of stories about his son, Uncle Walt who had to change his last name to avoid the law. This was intrigue for us as children and earlier for Aunt Helen who remembers the excitement when Walt would come to town in a shiny new car--the thrill of it. They had to pretend he was someone else when he arrived to attend his mother's funeral. And sometimes Helen and the kids got to ride in the fancy car. Her own family had an old car for work only, and they walked everywhere else. It was a world where one could do that.
Uncle Walt did things we as children didn’t talk about, didn’t even know about--moonshine and stolen cars we later learned. Helen’s brother Lee quit college to work for him. None of that scratching out a living on red clay and rocky soil for them. Trying to grow potatoes, ha! Then there was the danger, the excitement of back roads at night delivering shine.
These stories follow the history of the country as we moved from farm to city, from the dream of a piece of land of to call your own, to till, to work and build a house and barn and feed yourself and maybe have some money to buy a penny candy at the crossroads store--all that changed to the dream of easy money, fast cars and glitter. The descendants of Patrick Cronan change as the world changes around them and they adapt to it, loosing their roots, letting go of the thin and fragile threads that tethered them to a way of life no longer tenable.
Helen remembers the phone call, telling them of the arrest of Lee in Kansas and her father, after making arrangements to get him out of jail, putting his head in his hands in the dark, his sobs wrecking the silence of the night.
He had tried to bring up a son righteous and honest. My mother told of Lee bringing a stick home and his father asking where he got it and on hearing it was from a neighbors yard, whipped him with it and made him take it back.
Of course, the son had rebelled.
And who wouldn’t have, especially today? Which of us could sit and feel “like the loneliest person in the world” and not run from it?
But this story is not about those questions. it is about the reason for the trip to Ireland. It was to see the country I knew was truly in my blood. My ancestor had been born there, had lived there until he was 10 and then come to America. All that was fact. One tie still unbroken.