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My Dad, Tim McGee, as a young man.

An Immigrant Success Story

By Kathy McGee Burns
President, The Irish Memorial Inc.

When I look at the Irish Memorial, I see my family, leaving Ireland in the 1850s and travelling to the port of Philadelphia to start new lives.

The Callaghans and Clancys came from Cork and Limerick. They settled in North Philadelphia where they became part of the larger Irish community that built St. Malachy’s Parish and School. Timothy Callaghan married  Bridget Clancy there.  Timothy worked for the Widener family as a  “gentleman.” In those days, that’s what they called a coachman. Bridget was, like many other Irish women, a servant in the house.  It was the real Downton Abbey of an earlier era.

Their daughter, Mary Josephine, my grandmother, was baptized and  married at St. Malachy’s. Her husband, Hughie McGee, a bartender, came to the US, along with his two brothers and one sister, also as Great Hunger refugees, settling first in the coal region of Pennsylvania where the men worked in the mines.

Their son, Timothy McGee, my father, grew up in the Swampoodle  neighborhood of Philadelphia, where he became a proud graduate of  Our Lady of Mercy School and Roman Catholic High School. How proud was he to be a Roman grad? He made us sing the Roman song all the time. I’m 78, and I still remember all the words.

He could have gone to college. He had several scholarships. But he went  to work instead because he needed to support his mother and several  maiden aunts. Later, he and his brother, Hughie, went into business  together, selling floral bouquets to stores from Philadelphia to New Jersey.  Eventually, he became a successful wholesale florist, allowing us to move into the suburbs, buy a new car very year, and go to private school. Every one of us has more than a college degree.

And to think that in less than 100 years, this typical Irish family went  from the brink of starvation to American success story. It’s far from a  singular story.

The Great Hunger killed 1 million people and forced another 1 million to leave their home for an uncertain future. But it never killed the indomitable Irish spirit and will to succeed and never forced the Irish to leave behind their love of family and culture. We are survivors–and more. We are the victory that lives at the center of every defeat. We are a beacon to other refugees and immigrants, sending the  message that no matter where you come from and how little you can bring with, you can and you will  succeed.

I’m proud to be Irish, a descendant of the suffering and the brave. I’ve shared my story.

I hope you’ll share your immigrant story with us here too.