Annie Kelly was just 19 when all her dreams appeared to be coming true. Annie was one of 11 children living with her widowed mother at Newgrove, Mountbellew, Co Galway. Her boyfriend, William Murphy, and her brother Thomas had earlier emigrated to Boston. Annie and William were pledged to be married just as soon as Annie got the money to follow him there. Full of excitement the young woman later sailed from Liverpool on the Cunard liner the Lusitania arriving in New York on April 24 1915.
But her dream began to disintegrate even before she arrived in America. First of all she was worried that she didn't have the $50 required by the American immigration authorities; but she hoped this could be overlooked as it sometimes was. But of much greater concern was the result of her medical examination. It was customary for the ship's doctor to examine would-be immigrants on board ship to save time at Ellis Island. Unfortunately the surgeon, in this case Dr James McDermott, found a heart disorder, and Annie was told she would not be allowed disembark. She was detained at Ellis Island, the 'isle of tears,' and held until a passage home could be found for her. A place was found on the Lusitania’s return voyage.
Meanwhile her boyfriend William and her brother Thomas in Boston were frantic to help her. Thomas did what many an Irish immigrant in trouble did before him. He went straight to the notorious mayor of Boston's office, the legendary James Michael Curley.
Curley Gets Things Done
Curley was one of these amazing Irish characters who were literally larger than life. I have written about him many times before having heard first hand accounts from the late Ms Nora Walsh, Oughterard. Nora had worked for years in the Curley home, distinguished in the Boston Jamaicaway neighbourhood by its large shamrock shutters. Curley’s parents had emigrated from the Oughterard area in the 1870s, and settled in Roxbury, and Irish immigrant neighborhood in Boston.
The stories about him are legion, and still told with relish today. He was probably an out and out scoundrel, but he was the people's champion. He rose rapidly through the Democratic party’s corrupt machine to be mayor, congressman, and finally governor of Massachusetts. He was a great talker, sentimentalist, shameless grafter, and witty orator. He was a master of political farce. He spent two periods in prison. The first time was when he impersonated an illiterate emigrant from his district, and sat the required postman’s literacy test for him. The man got the job, but unfortunately, Curley was ratted upon and arrested for fraud. When he emerged fro his short sentence, he was greeted by a large crown of cheering fans. His slogan ‘Curley Gets Things Done’ gave him the reputation for the man willing to stick his neck out to help those in need.*
He kept that reputation for the rest of his life. Every morning people queued outside this home looking for help to get a job, or for a few dollars to tide them over the week.
Once in power Curley built schools and hospitals, roads and parks. He insisted every cleaner in civic buildings and hospitals, washed floors standing upright, with long-handled brushes. He swore he would never allow a woman to scrub floors on her knees, as his mother had done for years following the death of his father when he was 10 years old.
Ship had sailed
If anyone could help Annie Kelly to find true love and happiness in America, James Michael Curley was the man. And no one will be surprised to hear that he got the exemptions necessary to bring Annie ashore.
But all this took time, and poor Annie was waiting anxiously on board the Lusitania, at its famous berth on Pier 54, with the Manhattan skyline behind her. In a plot better than any Hollywood movie, when Thomas arrived with the necessary papers the ship had just sailed.
Far worse, as we know, was to come. Having safely crossed the Atlantic (World War I was just nine months old ), the Lusitania steamed at 18 knots around the south coast of Ireland, about to enter the Irish Sea on her way up to Liverpool. At 1.20pm on May 7 1915, the great liner was torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale, and it sank in only 18 minutes. Of the 1,198 civilians on board only 761 survived. Annie's body was never recovered.**
Next Week: Another passenger with a Galway connection to lose his life on the Lusitania, was Lady Gregory's nephew Hugh Lane. George Bernard Shaw was a guest at her home at Coole Park, Gort, when the news came. Lane's death led to an almighty row between London and Dublin, unresolved to this day.
*His second prison term was on more serious corruption charges, but he was pardoned by President Truman. Again he returned to Boston to be greeted by crowds, and a band playing ‘Hail to the Chief’.
Curley’s career extended from the progressive era of Teddy Roosevelt to the ascendancy of J F Kennedy. The Kennedys, who represented the ‘New Generation’, were always anxious to avoid being associated with the Tammany Hall type of politics which had given Curley a dark reputation in Boston’s non-Irish circles. Curley died on November 12 1958, aged 83. His funeral was attended by hundreds of thousands. The Kennedys fled the city; but some time later Jack Kennedy regretted having not attended.
** In the enjoyable company of Annie's nephew James Kelly, I visited his family home at Newgrove, near Mountbellew. The Kellys of Newgrove were probably typical of their time. Annie had five sisters and five brothers. Four brothers and two of her sisters went to America; but two, Tom and Delia, came back after a few years and settled at home. Tom (James' father ), who returned from America immediately he heard about Annie's death, later married Helen Hannon from Ballygar, and lived in the family home. Tom Kelly was always known as Patch Kelly to differentiate him from his cousins living next door, who were the Paddy Kellys. It was a rambling thatch cottage (now no more ), and the family all played musical instruments. It was a lively and happy place. A match was made in the house for Margaret, James' oldest sister, with Larry Lynch. The dowry was £150. It was a great occasion, and the wedding was also held in the house. Another sister Katie married John Crehan of Cloonlyon, Ballygar. Katie was music mad too, and was the grandmother of Galway's famous musicians Frankie and Séan Gavin.
James recalled a happy childhood of music, dances, and card playing. He went to school in the village, swam and caught trout and eels in the nearby river Shiver. He played football in the nearby pitch. He doesn't believe his childhood differed much from that of Annie's... a generation before his.