How I discovered my Irish family in an unexpected move to Texas and reconnected with my Irish heritage in Mullingar, Co. Westmeath.
As a little girl growing up in Missouri, I often heard the name Peter O'Reilly, the name of my great-great-grandfather.
I had heard his name spoken by my grandpa, Pat O'Reilly, always with a smile on his face and a nod to the man in heaven above. Yet, I only knew he was born in Ireland.
In 2011, my husband's job transferred us, now including three boys, from Missouri to near Fort Worth, Texas. After a few months of living there, I mentioned to my mother on the phone that I was going to nearby Denton.
Casually, my mother said, "I think Peter O’Reilly lived in Denton..."
After our call, I researched this information and in the following years was able to put together much of his story.
Peter was born in Mullingar, Ireland, in County Westmeath on April 5, 1850. His father, Bernard, was a tenant of properties in Mullingar and was married to Margaret Kiernan. They lived on what is now Dominick Street and raised four children.
Bernard wanted Peter to become a priest, which was not the life Peter saw for himself. At the age of 19, Peter left on a ship to America as a stowaway with only photos of his siblings in his pocket. Peter landed in Boston but upon seeing the NINA signs (No Irish Need Apply), he found a job on the railroad to get out of the city.
The work first brought him to East Texas where he married a woman named Mary Tennessee Hill, whom he called "Babe" because she was the youngest in her family and slight in stature. Together they had four children.
By 1874 the railroad work took the family to Denton. Not long after arriving, Babe passed away of unknown causes. Peter then married Elizabeth Burch, who was a widow with three children of her own. They went on to have four more children, one of whom is my great-grandfather, Emmett.
Peter became known as one of Denton’s early pioneers. He was a wheat farmer, a lawyer, an alderman, and was deeply involved in Denton's politics for much of his adult life.
Peter liked to have a drink in the town square and earned the nicknames "Uncle Pete" and the "Irish Poet of Denton." On his 82nd birthday, Peter was quoted in the local newspaper: "I was born in Ireland when I was young, and that is why I have the blarney on my tongue."
In May 1938, Peter was living with his oldest daughter and took a tumble in the middle of the night. Peter broke his hip and passed away on May 18, outliving two wives and five of his children.
Little did I know that when I moved to Texas, I was really coming home. Yet life really became full circle when my husband, our three boys and my mother visited Peter's childhood home in Mullingar in 2016.
The home today is part bacon store, part offices under repair. My middle son, Colin, curious about the big knocker on the black door, knocked on the door jokingly saying, "Is Peter there?" To our surprise, the door opened and there was an older gentleman, whose name was also Peter, who seemed a little annoyed at the disturbance.
I quickly apologized and explained why we were there. This Peter softened and said, "Well, you came all this way, you might as well have a look at the place.”
Upon entering the home, we slowly walked up a narrow staircase which took us to the parlor with a modest, beautiful fireplace. An old piano was still there that this Peter explained they were unable to get down the narrow stairs, so there it stayed. Delicate, graying, old lace curtains hung on the windows.
As this Peter took us up another set of narrow stairs to the children's rooms, I felt an enormous sense of peace inside my soul. I had found out more about Peter O'Reilly than I ever imagined.
As we descended the stairs to leave, I thought of Peter, and how he left a quaint Irish town for an unknown world with only photos of his siblings in his pocket. We walked down the streets of Mullingar in a soft Irish rain, and I wondered how many times he walked these very streets.
I imagine that the backbreaking work on the railroad, avoiding Indians and living in makeshift railroad camps was not exactly what he expected of America. Yet, he thrived, literally starting from nothing and became a successful farmer, lawyer, an alderman, and lovingly raised a large family in Texas. He ultimately changed the course of the lives of generations to follow him, and though I was melancholy about him leaving such a beautiful country, I was proud of his bravery.
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