The Next Page: Portrait of a marriage / The stone foreman and the dining room girl
On St. Patrick's Day, humorist David McFadden tells the story of his Irish grandparents and how they came to make Pittsburgh their home
March 17, 2013 4:00 AM
David and Mary McFadden
Mary Brennan McFadden with her children. The oldest child is Marg, followed by Dan, Lib and Helen.
By David McFadden
David "Pop" McFadden
I've just had my grandfather's portrait painted. Can't logically tell you why. Just had a yearning to do it. An heirloom thing. It's oil on canvas. Measures 48 by 36 inches. By Kelly Blevins of Point Breeze.
Pop was from County Donegal. One of 11. Nine girls and two boys. We're completely Irish. A century ago, my relatives didn't talk to other ethnics, much less marry them. Today, second-generation Irish ratchet back the "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral." I myself was once asked to sing "Danny Boy" in public and refused.
Pop immigrated to Philadelphia and became a master stone carver. He was one of the Catholic men of the Philadelphia Diocese who went to Johnstown after the flood to make coffins and dig graves. In 1900, he was asked by Thomas Reilly, general contractor for St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland, to move here as stone foreman on the construction. Not all stone workers on the cathedral were happy to have an Irish supervisor. One afternoon, a hod of bricks was dropped from a high scaffold and landed right next to Pop. File a grievance?
St. Paul originally was consecrated as a cathedral Downtown in the 19th century, but Bishop Richard Phelan selected a new site at Fifth Avenue and Craig Street in Oakland. Construction began in 1903. Egan and Prindeville of Chicago were architects for the Gothic structure. It was built by hundreds of laborers (including Pop), and construction lasted three years and cost $1.1 million. The cathedral was dedicated Oct. 24, 1906.
Pop stayed at Mrs. Clark's boarding house, a block away. He was an early union organizer. This got him blackballed in Pittsburgh, so he did a series of courthouses in nearby counties.
Pop was gentle. He once said, after my father had killed a bird, "Danny, don't you realize that life was just as sweet to that bird as it is to you?" This did absolutely no good, but I like the language. Can you hear it in a brogue?
Comic strips by David McFadden (Click image for larger version)
Mary Brennan McFadden
One morning in County Monaghan, Mary's mother self-delivered her fifth child, a boy. Husband Luke then insisted she go milk the cow. She died in the barn. Luke promptly remarried. This didn't go well. Maggie, the elder daughter, was distant and silent. Mary, the second, was utterly hateful. A real piece of work. Luke, ever the pragmatist, had an idea. He would send the two girls to their childless aunt and uncle, who ran a bar on the South Side of Pittsburgh. They could become bar maids. OK then.
Maggie went first. Then Mary, at 13, made the voyage alone. Her doll was stolen in steerage. But she managed to hang on to her bowl and spoon. The kids on the ship were told that if they lost these, there would be no more food for the duration.
Life at the bar was cordial enough. One day, Mary was sent to the cold cellar to get a watermelon. No idea what this was. In the cold cellar was a large green oval on a vine with three very small melons. Mary came back and said. "We mustn't disturb the watermelon. It's had young."
Another time, after Maggie got a job as a maid in a mansion on Fifth Avenue, Mary was walking home after a Sunday afternoon visit. At Fifth Avenue and Neville Street, she saw a brightly lit store with elegant people eating what appeared to be mashed potatoes from footed glass dishes. She stared for a while. The owner came out and asked if she would like a sample.
It was ice cream. She loved it. Spent her carfare on a dish. And walked home to the South Side.
At 16, Mary got a job as the dining room girl at Sunnyledge, the grand house at Fifth and Wilkins avenues in Shadyside. Dr. and Mrs. McClelland lived there with their two daughters and a staff of six. Her adventures included a strange visit from Mary Thaw, whose son, Harry, killed Stanford White on the roof of Madison Square Garden as hundreds looked on. Mary marched for suffrage with the McClelland sisters. And always, always voted.
Comic strips by David McFadden (Click image for larger version)
The later years
Pop and Mary met during a Sunday evening social at the old St. Agnes Church in Soho. It was sort of like ChristianMingle (but more like Irish-Catholic Mingle). Pop already was engaged to someone in Philly and had to do a "Dear John" letter. But he was head over heels. What can you do?
They married in 1902 at St. Agnes. My family has the melodian from this church. Pop brought it home around 1905 when the parish replaced it with an organ.
They had four kids--Marg, Dan (my father), Lib and Helen. Pop died at 53 from stone dust in the lung. It was ugly. A week later, to make ends meet, Mary took a job cleaning offices in East Liberty. Also moved two other families into the McFadden house on Lemington Avenue. Rented rooms right through the Depression and World War II. Never missed a mortgage or utility payment. Always had groceries in the house.
At the hour of Pop's death, the back door slammed at his sister's place in Philadelphia. She checked it, but no one was there. At which point the front door slammed. Again, no one. "Ahhh" she said, "Dave's gone." And she got ready for the train to Pittsburgh.
One evening, years after Pop's death, there was a knock at Aunt Maggie's door on Dunkirk Street in East Liberty. She answered it, and Pop stood there in dark clothes, silent, his face ashen. "Come in, Dave," she said. He stayed silent but stared sadly at a far corner of the room, shaking his head back and forth, then disappeared. A week later, Maggie's son, Hank, would be laid out in that corner, having died in a fiery auto crash near the Ancient Order of Hibernians lodge on Lincoln Avenue.
When electricity came, Mary began urging Pop to have the house wired. He wasn't so sure. Thought it might be a fad, a passing fancy. So he had the rooms done, but left the gaslights in the halls, just to be sure.
The family talked of hearing him on the steps at night, long after he died. I think he was checking on those gaslights. Charming, but a bit of a hazard all the same.
Pop is buried at Calvary Cemetery. Not too long ago, the Diocese of Pittsburgh leased it for fracking. Ah, ta ta tah taaaaaah, I don't think Pop would want this. If they poison the water table under the cemetery, I imagine Pop would organize the Catholic dead. Expect a thousand ghosts marching on Harrisburg, led by an Irish gentleman with a handlebar moustache and a green tie.
The old house is now boarded and abandoned. When my cousin Canice told a lady on Lemington that we used to live next door, she said, "Well, come back and cut your damn hedges." Why is our house abandoned? Gun violence. But that's another story.