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St. Patrick's Day

A story by Jean McGavin



In honor of St. Patrick’s Day I would like to recount what I little I know about Henry McGavin, my great-grandfather, and a son of Ireland.

Henry McGavin, age 14, his 2 brothers, aged 17 and 10, as well as several other siblings, left Fermanagh County, Ireland, about 1851 (there is some evidence their surname may have changed from McGovern along the way). Henry and his brothers, were likely very lean and hungry and eager to leave a country devastated by the famine known as the Great Hunger. It is also likely they were terrified about leaving their home and traveling across the sea without the watchful eye of a mother or father. Their mother had died, I assume from starvation, and they were sent to America to seek their fortunes and food. Having arrived in New York, the brothers Henry, John and James, walked to Seaforth, Ontario, in Canada. They are said to have arrived in Canada with no shoes. Henry and his older brother married Scottish sisters with the last name Graham who also had family in Fermanagh County. Henry and his wife, Catherine, built a lovely house and farm in Seaforth.

Henry and Catherine had a number of children, 7 or 8, (as did his 2 brothers building a large extended family in Seaforth) all of whom seem to have done well for themselves. One of Henry's sons, Thomas became a doctor with an office in Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit, MI. He introduced his brother Arthur, my grandfather, to a patient from Detroit named Angeline Mettetal.

Angeline was of French descent, whose grandfather Pierre, came to the US about 1805 from Etupes, France, served as a steward to Andrew Jackson and then after a few years, set off to settle with his brother what later became Detroit. There is a Mettetal Ave. named after Pierre. Pierre was famous for talking to himself and also saying that if he wanted to talk with someone interesting, he would talk with himself. Arthur became an accountant and later an insurance agent. He and Angeline married and moved to Reading, PA where they raised 3 boys. As adults, these 3 boys standing together looked like a trio of leprechauns - Frederick, Edmund and Thomas, my darling, dear and sadly departed father. None of these boys was taller than 5’5 (which was not bad considering that neither Arthur or Angeline (or Henry or Catherine for that matter) were much over 5'. boys all had impish smiles and were always ready to tease.

When I first moved to New York City in 1979 there were 3 McGavins in the phone book, and one famous actor, Darren McGavin, who was not listed. One McGavin was me, the second was my brother and the third was a stranger to me. Now there are many more McGavins there and everywhere. We have been a prolific group and all the McGavins I know are grand people and a great testament to the emerald island of their ancestry.

I try to imagine a boy of 12 or 14, leaving his family and his country, getting on a sailing ship (and those ships taking Irish refugees to America were known as coffin ships) for a long and difficult journey, heading for an unknown country with no money and little in the way of prospects. He was perhaps eager for adventure, eager for a place where he could feed himself and a family, afraid of dying of starvation in Ireland, fearful of never seeing a mother or father, fearful of what he would find and how he would manage. Was he brave or foolhardy or perhaps both and young enough that neither really mattered? The little I know of Henry makes me very proud of him and I feel honored to be his great-grandchild.

America is a land populated by ghosts of men and women like Henry. My great-grandfather’s story is iconic in our history. As we nod to this day of celebration for the Irish, we also nod to refugees everywhere who head for lives of hope. America is a land of brave, foolhardy folks who have striven with little but determination and a slim opportunity to change their lives.

Wishing a Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all as a reminder of the bravery of immigrants and to honor the universality of their struggles, their strengths and their contributions to life in America.

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  Seaforth, Ontario, Canada


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