Conversation with Mary Walsh

Citation Information:  A Conversation with Mary Walsh. The interview with Mary Walsh took place at her residence on June 29, 2000.

A Conversation with Mary Walsh. The interview with Mary Walsh took place at her residence on June 29, 2000.

In this interview Mary Walsh, age 96, talks about her life in Ireland and the United States. She includes stories of her emigration in 1925, her work as a maid, and her marriage. She talks about her family’s experience of violence in both countries and her connections to her Irish heritage

“When I came here was I was lonesome. But I knew if I wanted to go back my father would say, ‘you wanted to go…’. But the leaving home was worst thing. And the water. That was the worst of it. I was glad to land here. When we left Ireland, there was no such thing as a plane. So you had to go to Queenstown [Cobh], as they called it then, and wait a night and go the next morning. And you had to go in the tender because the boat couldn’t come in. I guess there wasn’t enough depth in the water. And I saw that big boat out there. It looked so tremendous to me. I wished I would change my mind. I was very lonesome.

And I remember a man on a train before we got to Queenstown, who was sitting opposite me. He looked like a businessman to me, because he was carrying a valise and he was probably going to work. Well he looked at me and I guess he thought ‘she’s leaving home’. And he said, ‘now you have to; you’re on your own. You have to be on the straight and narrow and watch what you ‘re doing’. And he really gave me a talking to. I dropped something on the floor, and he picked it up and said, ‘you’ll have to watch out for yourself now. You’re leaving home I can see… you have to try and forget that’. And he talked so nice to me because I was crying.”

Mary arrived in the United States from County Waterford, Ireland in 1925. Ellis Island was open at the time, but she didn’t disembark there. “Mostly everybody on the boat went there except me. I was lucky, I think. Nobody wanted to go there.”

Mary’s sister, Alice, and her friend met Mary’s boat; she went home with them to Brooklyn where she stayed, for a short period until she obtained work with a Mrs. Judge who was very good to her. Her sister came to America five months earlier. Mary’s relatively easy arrival contrasted to that of her sister. “I had it easy, but she didn’t.”

Her sister was to be picked up at the boat by cousins of their father whom she didn’t know. The cousins said they wanted one from Mary’s family to come here. “I think they wanted my brother, but he couldn’t come”.

The cousins didn’t meet the boat and on her own, Alice took a train to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania where she knew they lived. She spoke to a policeman at the Harrisburg station who asked two ladies getting off the train if she could share a cab with them. They took her to her cousins but nobody was home. They then brought her to their house for the night and returned to the house the next day; there was still nobody home. [They’d gone away for the Easter weekend.] Alice finally met after Easter.

Mary’s sister went to work for the women who’d helped her, and stayed with them until a friend from New York wrote and told her to come and get a job there. She moved to New York, got a job and stayed with her aunt where Mary also then lived. When Mary arrived, her sister helped her get a job in an office.

Working for the Whitneys:

Later the same year, Mary went to an employment agency to see if she could upgrade her position. “I went in to put my name in for a job. I think I was lucky in one way because…[the hour was late and the other job seekers had] gone home; and, they were about to close the office. But a job had just come in. The Whitneys in Manhassett, Long Island, New York needed a girl. Mary had heard that the Whitneys were supposed to be the third wealthiest family in America.

“The person at the agency said to me, ‘if you get that job, take it because they’re a very good family’. So I went for an interview and they said okay. The Whitneys had a house in the city on Fifth Ave. On the weekends they’d come out to Long Island and stay in the city for the rest of the week…At first, I went [into the city] with them, but then when I got higher in cooking I had to stay [in Manhassett].” Mr. Whitney died at the age of 52 of a heart attack around the first Christmas she was there. His son took over and gave each of the help $300 for Christmas. Mary described the help as “The League of Nations”…Irish, Scotch, Norwegian, English, Italian, German, etc. The Whitneys treated everybody the same…nice.”

“But you hardly ever saw the Whitneys. The only place I saw Mrs. Whitney was sitting in bed or at the polo match. We were able to go see the polo as well. We used to go by car.” The help also was allowed to use the Whitney facilities (recreation room, piano, pool room, etc.) with staffs from other local estates.

Mary walked to Mass at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic in Manhassett. The immigrants gave St. Mary’s a lot of help. “We gave them more support from Whitneys, [than the Church gave us]. It’s the truth. We would on occasion give them milk and everything. We used to sell loads of tickets because we were so many people working at Whitneys. And the priest used to come down to Whitneys too. The Whitneys were Episcopalian. They didn’t know what we were doing at all. They couldn’t care less. There was plenty. We gave the Church the stuff. And especially me, as I was working in the kitchen and we could make the cakes and everything for them. I didn’t know there was a depression. Things stayed pretty okay with the Whitneys.”

They had seven chauffeurs, a staff for the ponies (see photo below), and a farm with cows. Mary related how she once milked one of the cows, “just to show I could do it.”

Four of the Irish immigrant staff with the owner’s polo ponies at the Whitney’s summer residence in Manhassett, Long Island, NY (circa 1929). Mary is on the right. The other woman is Catherine Foley, of Ballyduff. The two pony grooms, Mike Roach (left) and Tom (?) O’Brien (right) were both from County Cork.

Mary worked for the Whitneys until she married in 1934. Her husband, Maurice Walsh, also a native of County Waterford, emigrated in 1925. They knew each other in Ireland and emigrated separately to the United States. “I knew [in Ireland] I was going to come out here to marry him sometime.”

Husband’s Work Experiences:

“At first he was working in Long Island like me…his brother was a contractor and he worked for him for a few years…building houses for people. He had a lot of buildings in Long Island. He had a big business and then the depression came then and business wasn’t too good. So my husband left then and came into New York to get a job. He got a job in the IRT [Interborough Rapid Transit Subway Line].” He started as an agent, i.e., making change in the station change booth. Maurice wanted to become a motorman, but he never could because “He got held up and …almost died. It was about 2 o’clock in the morning and, he was in the booth with the money and, this [black] guy that held him up wanted some money and…my husband said, ‘here well take it’, but as he was going to take the money, a [special subway] car came along that [routinely] picked up the money… they worked very fast because they had to get in and out. So they ran; this guy is after them. He shot my husband [the only casualty]…in the hip [and he] walked a little lame all his life after that.”

“He could have [had] a law suit [against the subway] but couldn’t be bothered with things like that so he just stayed on with the IRT.”

Recollections of life in Ireland and in the United States:

Mary didn’t experience any prejudice against Catholics or Irish in America. ” I really didn’t have any trouble with that. Maybe before us they did, but I couldn’t say I’d ever found any. I really couldn’t. Before that, they did.

“In the U.S. the biggest surprise was having to go to work [for someone else]. ..and not being used to it. We lived on a farm in Ireland. Not being used to that kind of work or anything. And of course it’s a different life. The country is so large. We’re used to a small country. It’s so large and everything is so big. And everybody is in hurry…and then strangers that never said hello to each other. We’re used to talking, saying good morning to everybody. “

Mary recalled Al Smith running for president. “In those times, I didn’t have a vote but the French girl that was working with me…she had a vote and when he wasn’t elected, she was crying. With him I didn’t.”

“He was our governor at the time in New York. He was very popular in those days. And he’d come from poor people. I admired him making a go of it in this country when Irish weren’t very popular.”

She experienced violence in both countries. In 1923 during the Irish Civil War, the Free State troops invaded and searched her family’s house for guns and fugitives. (Her family belonged to the other faction, the Irish Republican Army) “They ran into our house and…went into every room. My mother said there’s nobody here. But my little sister was there. So they said, ‘What are all the eggs cooked for?’ She said, ’ I have family.’ Of course they didn’t believe her. If…[one was] caught armed, …[the penalty] would have been a lot worse. But if they didn’t have the guns, …they got away easier but [still] went to jail. So she ran in and took the gun that she had…and stuck it in the [butter] churning bottle. At least they didn’t find that. Many times we used to laugh about that. But they caught the guys anyway… the shooting was terrible.”

In 1970, her husband was mugged in Coop City, Bronx, NY. when he got off the elevator after going to the bank. “We were going out there for a weekend. Thanksgiving. And he went to the bank. And they watched him…saw him coming out. Two black people. He didn’t pay any attention to them. He was a big man…he was getting off the elevator and they hit him. And he was laying on the floor for quite a while…I didn’t know…When he came back, he was covered with blood.”

Mary and her husband spent their social and leisure time with other Irish Americans. They vacationed at Rockaway Beach, Long Island, NY and the Catskill Mountains in New York State. “We used to go to Rockaway for the water. I used to love to swim…anywhere…anyplace. I remember the Irish houses at night time… and the dancing…and the McNulty’s. McNultys (the mother and the son and daughter) did all the entertaining.” When asked to recall her memory of black families in Rockaway, Mary said, “We had our beach and they had theirs. They never came to where we were swimming. Never.”

“My cousin had a place [in the Catskills]. We used to go to the different places. There was a story about two Jewish people sitting on the seat in the subway. They were talking, and this Irish girl was hanging on to the strap. One was saying, ‘where are you going on vacation? I used to go to the Catskills. You can’t go there now, it’s nothing but Irish.’ To which the Irish girl replied, ‘You can’t go there now… why don’t you go to hell, you won’t see many of them there. “

Mary visited Ireland several times, in 1936, 1954, 1980 and 1994. She remains active in Irish American activities.