Do you hear the people sing, lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth, there is a flame that never dies:
Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.
“When Tomorrow Comes,” from Les Miserables
Maybe it was the fact that Hellgate High School scheduled Les Miserables so close to St. Patrick’s Day. Maybe it was all the descendants of Irish immigrants in my immediate proximity. But as I watched the re-enactment of this story of an oppressed people, I couldn’t help drawing parallels.
My mother’s orphaned grandmother, Mary Connelly, fled Ireland in the 1870s. My father’s mother and father, Anna Hanley and Con Sheehy, left counties Cork and Kerry respectively sometime after 1910. The penal laws restraining Catholics in Ireland from practicing their faith, educating their children, and owning property had long since been repealed. The potato famine that left the dead stacked like cordwood on the streets had ended. But the prejudice that created both and the misery that resulted were still very much in effect. And a land that promised equality and opportunity beckoned.
Mary Connelly suffered scarlet fever in the passage. She arrived in Boston scarred and virtually bald. She worked as a maid, married another emigrant from Inishbofin, lost her first two sons before either was 3, and moved to Gold Butte, Montana, in 1902 after her son Michael, by then grown, was struck dead by a bolt of lightning while rounding up cattle. Within five years, she would lose a fourth son, Austin, to misdiagnosed appendicitis.
But Mary had other children, one of whom would become my grandmother. We always thought her name was Mary, too, until the 1960s, when one of my aunts named her springer spaniel Bridget and my grandmother took offense. Turns out that somewhere between Saginaw, Michigan, and Gold Butte, she shed the telltale Irish moniker and became Mary. Sometime between 1884, when she was born, and 1976, when she died, she became the most well-read woman you ever met, a woman who encouraged all her children, even and perhaps especially her daughters, to go to college, a woman who equated “being a lady” with being educated enough to fend for yourself if you had to.
She knew something about that. Her brother Austin had once stood with her in the Sweetgrass Hills and talked to her about his dreams for her, dreams she could achieve by going back east to business school. When she protested that they couldn’t afford it, he replied, “It’s a poor family that can’t afford one lady.” Within two years, Austin died and Mary MacHale had to fend for herself. Thanks to Austin, she knew how.
Anna Hanley was a chain migrant: Her sisters arranged for her passage to Butte. She found work as a “bucket girl,” preparing miners’ lunch pails at Butte’s “Big Ship” boardinghouse. There she met the Kerry-born miner, Cornelius Sheehy. Fibbing to each other about their ages, they married and promptly had children at a tempo that suggested mutual concern about the shelf life on their fertility. In 10 years, they had seven children and lost at least two, one when a pregnant Anna jumped out a window to escape a robber who had broken in.
Their first child was my dad. They named him John, but he was born in 1918, just two years after the Easter rebellion in Ireland that, though tragically botched , thrilled Irish emigrants world-wide. The first to be executed in the Easter Rising was Francis Sheehy-Skeffington … no relation, but when the Butte Irish met young John Sheehy, nothing would do but to nickname him Skeffington Sheehy. It stuck. He answered to “Skeff” for the rest of his life.
Skeff had the luck of the Irish. The Spanish influenza that claimed so many lives in 1918 missed him. A car accident his senior year crippled his left hand, ruling out mining as a career, so he went to college as a last resort. There he met Rita, the daughter of Mary MacHale Schiltz. The rest is history.
Last week, four of the 11 children of that union sat in the GoodKnight Theater and watched Les Miserables, mainly because the granddaughter of Skeff and Rita co-directed it and their first great-grandson played Gavroche. But the story hit home. A mere 150 years separate our comfortable lives from the wretched ones that began our family’s American story. Only a few more years separate us from the stunted dreams of Fantine and Gavroche. And not even a continent away, at this very moment, thousands of immigrants are fleeing misery, pounding desperately on the doors of our southern border. They are today’s “wretched of the earth” burning with the “flame that never dies.”
There is no better way to celebrate the Irish-American story today than to rededicate ourselves to keeping those doors open for a new generation of immigrants fleeing miserable lives. Nothing that is being said about them, nothing that is feared about them, was not said or feared about our forebears — with about the same level of accuracy. Rather than erecting yet more barricades to freedom, we should be helping the darkness end for them — as it did for Mary and Con and Anna — in America, as Americans. That is the great American story on which the curtain should never fall.
Mary Sheehy Moe writes from Great Falls, less than a mile away from where her earliest Montana ancestor, Austin MacHale, died of a burst appendicitis. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org .