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They had not heard of the mail-order bride scenario, but they had other memories to share, which gave us insight into what brought Annie to Clontarf. Donald mentioned a niece of Annie’s who visited Clontarf in the 1920s. Her name was Irene O’Brien and she came from Montana. Irene was a fun-loving girl, who adored her Auntie Annie.
We took the information we had learned from the cousins and began to search public records. As my mom and I looked at the records from St. Malachy Catholic Church in Clontarf, we happened upon some familiar names. A woman named Mary Hill, a daughter of Margaret Kelly and William Hill, baptized at Kill, County Kildare, married Thomas O’Brien in 1894. We had found Annie’s sister – Irene’ O’Brien’s mother – and discovered that Annie, too, was baptized at Kill. Further research proved that the O’Brien family lived in Clontarf until 1912 when they moved to Montana. I admit I was relieved to learn that Annie more than likely came to Clontarf because her sister was there, and not to be married, sight unseen, to a lonely farmer in rural Minnesota.
Immigration records shed further light on Annie’s life. We learned that she arrived in America in 1899, “passage paid by her brother-in-law Thomas O’Brien, destination: Clontarf, Minnesota.” In the 1900 Census, Annie was working as a servant for the McDermotts, a prominent Clontarf family. Dominic McDermott ran the Clontarf general store. Perhaps this exposure to a family of means fostered Annie’s appreciation for nice things? I imagine that during the next ten years, when Annie moved from Clontarf to work as housekeeper for a Father Molloy in Willmar and Shieldsville, Minnesota, she saved some of her money, perhaps sent some home to Ireland, and spent a little on herself.
Annie Hill and Neil Regan married on February 21, 1911, twelve years after her arrival in Clontarf. My grandpa John was born in 1913, and by all accounts, Annie doted on her only child. The family lived several miles west of Clontarf until 1921, when they sold the farm and moved to a comfortable home in town. There was a country school a mile from the farm and yet my grandpa did not start school until he was eight, after the family moved to Clontarf. From what Gerald knew of Annie, he surmised that she would have been lonesome in the country and kept John from school as company.
Neil and Annie had one of the first automobiles in Clontarf, and my grandpa started driving at an early age. Donald said it was the most comical thing to see – Annie seated in the backseat of the 1926 Model T, wearing a large fancy hat, shouting directions, warnings, and critiques at my grandpa, who served as Annie’s personal chauffeur until he left home in the mid-1930s. By then the Depression had taken its toll on Annie and Neil – their house was headed to forclosure and Neil was losing his eyesight. Annie was tired. She died in 1937.
I always thought it strange that my grandma knew so little about Annie, but it turns out she did her best with the sparse information my grandpa shared and what she had heard over the years from people in Clontarf. I am not sure those people actually knew Annie. The older, Irish-born settlers lived in sod houses when they first came to the area, and may not have had much time for Annie’s fine hats and fancy dishes.
I am happy to say the story that Annie was a mail-order bride is unlikely, but everything else my grandpa told my grandma was spot-on: Annie certainly liked nice things, and she was a backseat driver. As Donald and Gerald described Annie’s personality, I experienced an odd feeling that I already knew Annie. It was at once unsettling and comforting. My mom’s resemblance to Annie goes beyond a physical one. She shares Annie’s high standards, good sense of humor, shyness if you don’t know her, independent nature, smarts, and competitive instinct.
Then, of course, there are all of those nice things.
– Aine McCormack, St. Paul, Minnesota