From the backlog

Here’s a little something that was going to be part of a larger blog entry. The reason for writing it has largely evaporated, but what I managed to finish stands pretty well on its own. Here you go: a little piece of AccordionGuy family history.

Have you ever taken a big, life-changing gamble?

A woman named Catherine Kelly did. She lived somewhere in Ireland in the mid-1800s, the time during which the Great Famine took place. Across Europe, blight was turning crops in the fields into a black mush. The same blight also affected people’s food stores, and those who ate that food came down with cholera and typhus. With their crops destroyed, Irish peasants had no way of paying their British and Protestant landlords and were evicted from their homes. Homeless, they crowded into workhouses, which only made the disease travel more quickly. In a five-year period, it is estimated that a million Irish died from either famine or disease.

The Famine was one of the driving forces behind the wave of immigrants to North America in the 1800s. Catherine’s older sister, a woman whose name I forget, had booked passage on a ship bound for New York City, home of Ellis Island, the port of entry for immigrants from Europe. Catherine accompanied her sister to the port city of Liverpool. When the sisters arrived there, the elder, struck with before-the-fact homesickness and the enormity of her decision — it was likely that she would never see her family or her homeland again — backed out. Her ticket became available.

I don’t know if there’s any written record — a letter or a diary — that explains the details of what happened. The story, as it was told me to me, was that Catherine took a big life-changing gamble. Now that her older sister was not going to America but had a paid-for ticket, she went in her place.

She was expecting to return home after seeing Big Sis off, so she couldn’t have had much time to decide to go in her place. I can only imagine her weighing the pros and cons of taking the ticket. Staying in Ireland meant risking a slow and painful death either by starvation or one of those horrible 19th century diseases. Going to America meant going alone – and forever — to a strange land where she knew no one.

Things for Catherine, I’m told, ended happily. She landed safely in the United States at Ellis Island, and from there she somehow ended up in Ohio where she met and married a man by the name of O’Hara. They had a large family together, and although life was sometimes hard, it was good.

You might wonder why I would know a story about a woman born almost two hundred years ago and half a world away. The answer is simple: she’s my great-great grandmother.

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