My mother died on October 8, 1988, at the age of 87. She was simply worn out by the vicissitudes of life. In many ways, especially considering her last years of illness, she welcomed death. (1)
“Oft in the stilly night, ere slumber’s chain has bound me. Fond memory brings the light of other days around me,” wrote the great Irish poet, Thomas Moore (1779-1852), in “The Light of Other Days.”
Born Nora Thornton, October 3, 1901, in the village of Tavanaghmore in the County of Mayo, my Irish mother was one of six children – two boys and four girls. One of her brothers, Patrick, died in his youth with the flu. The other, Mickey, a lovable rebel from the days of the Irish Civil War, died a few decades ago in Ireland at the age of 88.
Mother sister, Mary, married and moved to the next village over from Tavanaughmore – Stonepark. The other two girls, Katherine and Anne, left for Scotland, preparing the way for my mother to follow. Mom was destined to be the last of her clan to leave. And go they all did – one by one.
The remains of her ancestral home, rocky and weather-battered, still sit on top of a hill, near the Pontoon bridge, overlooking pristine Lough Conn. It’s a truly lovely place with a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside and of the often snow-capped Mount Nephin.
The town of Foxford, once world-famous for its wool-making, is only a couple of miles down the road from her home.
And, the Irish bard continues, “the smiles, the tears of childhood years, the words of love then spoken.”
But the stunning beauty of the wild landscape wasn’t enough to sustain life for her. Her father’s decision, unfair as it was, was made for dire economic reasons. The farm couldn’t sustain a living for all of them, and only her brother Mickey’s help was needed to make the farm viable.
It must have been a painful time for my mother, as it was for her sisters. Through no fault of her own, except the accident of birth in a country for centuries dominated by an alien power, she was required to turn her back on everything she had come to cherish. Even to her last days, she could hardly speak of it without filling-up with emotion.
“Sad memory brings the light of other days around me,” says the poet.
There she was a farmer’s daughter, with a basic education received in a one-room schoolhouse being torn away from the bond with family, friends, and native land. Her parents took her on that fateful day by donkey and wagon to the local railroad station.
She was then put on a train for Dublin, and from there on to a ferry to Scotland to meet her sisters. From that sad day of departure and farewell in 1915, she was never again to see her loving and broken-hearted parents.
In the late 1920s, she made her way to America, working, as many of the “greenhorns” did in that era, as a live-in domestic in a fashionable neighborhood of Baltimore – Roland Park
Later on, she would meet my father, Richard Patrick Hughes, a longshoreman. He hailed from Locust Point. They would marry and raise a family of seven children. My father’s parents were also from the village of Tavanaghmore.
Despite a mostly comfortable and good life in America, and two joyful visits to Ireland in her later years, my mother never quite got over the abrupt loss of the world of her youth. That became clearer to me as the years flew by. The forced leaving had cut a deep wound – a spiritual sort of death.
“The eyes that shone now dimmed and gone. The cheerful heart now broken,” concluded Moore.
So that when the Grim Reaper finally did call on her, my old Irish mother was waiting and ready for him. The final exile held no fear at all for Nora Thornton, a tired, bone-weary, but gallant daughter of Erin.
All of my grandparents were born in Ireland. My two maternal grandparents were Sean Thornton and Mary Thornton (nee Burke). They lived and died in Tavanaghmore, County Mayo. In their line, you will find links to McHale, Burke, Gillen, Hopkins, Flynn and Brogan clans.
My two paternal grandparents emigrated to America. My paternal grandfather, Martin Hughes, was born in 1868, in that same village, near the Pontoon Bridge and Loch Conn. His father, my great-grandfather, Thomas Hughes, one of the reliable locals in Tavanaghmore told me on a recent trip to Ireland, was murdered by somebody in his own village.
The killer was jealous of the fact that he had cornered the pig market. The dead body of Thomas Hughes was found near Healy’s Pub, along the Castlebar Road, County Mayo. The killer was never prosecuted, since the British, who then ran Ireland with an iron fist, could have cared less about the death of an Irish peasant. The murderer, however, was forced for his own safety, to leave the village.
For a short time after my grandfather Martin Hughes came to America, he traveled to Scranton, PA, to work, in the late 1890s, in the coal mines – a dangerous and potentially unhealthy job. There were no unions or safety laws back then. When he got fed up with that job, he supposedly tossed the “company turkey” out the window. When he got back to Baltimore, he took a job on the waterfront as an ore/coal trimmer and joined the ILA union, which was then just starting up. He died from pulmonary disease in Baltimore on Jan. 7, 1931.
As the fates would have it, my mother’s oldest son, Richard Patrick Hughes, Jr., would later end up as the National President of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA). It is a union of 65,000 waterfront workers. Sadly, she had died before he achieved his great success.
My mother and father started out living on Haubert Street, at 1237. This was the same two-story house in Locust Point, where I was raised. Later, they moved to 1238 Hull Street, just across the street from Local 829 of the ILA. My paternal grandparents also lived in Locust Point. They are buried in New Cathedral Cemetery, located off Old Frederick Road, in west Baltimore.
The saying was that “All the good Irish were buried in that cemetery.” Well, this also includes my father and my dear Irish mother.
Bill Hughes is an attorney, author, actor and photographer. His latest book is “Byline Baltimore.” It can be found at: https://www.amazon.com/William-Hughes/e/B00N7MGPXO/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1