Sometimes a chain of seemingly unrelated and accidental events culminate in the most remarkable of coincidences. Some call it serendipity. In recent months, an exhibit I co-curated with my colleague, Dr. Marion R. Casey, led me on a wonderful journey of re-discovery. Alec Byrne, a farmer at the base of Wicklow's Sugar Loaf mountain, has for years treasured a small bunch of papers and photographs dating from the 1930s, and passed down to him by his late mother, Essie.
The documents pertained to Alec's uncle, John "Wicklow" Donnelly: a sobriquet used to distinguish him from another John Donnelly also active in contemporary Irish New York. Alec never met his mother's much-adored brother. This was not because, like so many others, John had left Ireland for the United States in the 1920s. Many immigrants from Ireland, probably the majority, never returned to their native land in these years. Alec would never meet his uncle because John would die tragically young, in January 1937, years before Alec was born.
Fast-forward seven decades. In late 2010, a past president of New York's Wicklow Association, Eddie Kenny, sent notification of an upcoming event to Michael Lawlor, a retired community leader in Bray, Co. Wicklow. Eddie knew that Michael knew Alec Byrne: nephew of the late John "Wicklow" Donnelly. From Eddie to Michael to Alec traveled an email pertaining to a lecture to be held at Glucksman Ireland House, New York University to mark the opening of an exhibit The Fifth Province: County Societies in Irish America. On receipt on this information Alec decided to take a chance and to make contact with the person who was to give the lecture. When the email from Wicklow appeared in my inbox it would mark the first of a series of coincidences, or signs, that would cause me to think that the late Mr. Donnelly was trying to tell me something!
Alec had no idea whatsoever that the person he was emailing in New York hailed from his home county. The Garden of Ireland is not heavily represented among the immigrant Irish of New York and when I responded to him and mentioned that I was from Arklow, Co. Wicklow he was already very intrigued. When I met him, he said: "I would have driven to Donegal or Kerry to meet you. Of all the counties, I cannot believe you are from Wicklow!"
On Sunday, Jan. 16, last I sat with Alec in the lobby of Wicklow's Grand Hotel and leafed through the materials his mother had protected with love and care; some of the few tangible effects, or reminders, of her brother and of his time in New York. The collection contains John's last letter home, sent just weeks before his tragic death; clippings of his reports of the Wicklowmen's activities in New York he had penned for the Wicklow People under the title "The Wicklow Rambler"; photographs of Wicklowmen's and United Irish Counties Association events; and coverage of his passing. Umpteen clippings, presumably some from the Irish Echo, detailing his premature death, his funeral and the gap left in the community, in his wake.
Many of the pieces mentioned his sweetheart, Peggy Joyce. It is clear that John was an exceedingly popular figure, who was extremely well respected for his work for his county association and for the Trojan work he undertook in the early years of the UICA's annual feis. His passing was shocking news for the New York Irish community and Alec's box of trinkets is evidence of this. I was really moved by what Alec showed me and by the way this quiet and gentle man, who has never been to the United States, has stepped into the breach as custodian of his mother's memory and of this sliver of the Donnelly family- history.
As I perused the material a memorial card fell out: John "Wicklow" Donnelly's. I read it and was shocked by what it revealed. It was John's anniversary. Totally unconsciously, and at very late notice, Alec and I had met 74 years, to the day, since John had died of injuries sustained from a workplace fall in Queens. When I also noted that John was 33 when he died, the same age as me, the coincidences confounded me. Was John sending me a sign from the after-life? Well he might. Despite his popularity and his recognition in certain circles in Irish New York John "Wicklow" Donnelly lies in an unmarked grave in New York's Calvary cemetery. This oversight will hopefully be remedied in the near future.
The Fifth Province has uncovered some fascinating hidden, or forgotten, stories of Irish New York but for me personally this is the one that had touched me the most. Seeing John "Wicklow" Donnelly's grave with a headstone will complete the circle.
The author is affiliated with Glucksman Ireland House,New York University.