This is the story of my paternal grandparents – a story like so many others in the past. It is a tale of the American dream, which came to a sad bad end.
My grandfather – who had sung with John McCormack as a young lad - left Athlone in 1930. He went to seek his fortune in New York, leaving behind a young wife and six little children. He intended to find work there and then send for his family.
However, sadly, he arrived in New York just after The Wall Street Crash and remained unemployed. Like many another Irish man, he was fond of the drink, fell on hard times and passed away six years later. He died from pneumonia, in Knickerbocker hospital, in Harlem and was buried nearby.
His young wife, my grandmother, was left destitute in Dublin with her six young children, one of whom was my father.
County Clare on the west coast of Ireland is where, this woman, my grandmother was born. I often visit this ruggedly beautiful part of the country. The Cliffs of Moher dominate the northern part of the county. From here one can see Galway Bay and The Aran Islands. Next stop - America!
My grandmother was born on the southern end of County Clare. She was born Mary Lillis in 1894. Her home was in Tarmon, on the Loop Head peninsula, where the river Shannon flows into the Atlantic Ocean. County Clare is on the north of this peninsula, with Counties Limerick and Kerry on the south.
Mary (known as May) had many brothers and sisters. Most of these emigrated to America when they reached adulthood. However, it was decided that May would travel to Athlone and serve her time to the drapery business. Athlone was very inland, right in the center of Ireland. May began her journey on a train with The West Clare Railway. This train was so slow and so unreliable that Percy French penned a song about it entitled ‘Are you right there, Michael, are you right?”
May’s father had paid Mr. Kilkelly an agreed fee in order for her to train as a draper’s assistant. Kilkellys was one of the biggest drapery shops in the Midlands at that time. It was on the Connaught side of Athlone town, west of the Shannon. This was the part of town were the Catholic establishments were. On the Leinster side of town, Protestants owned the shops and only Protestant young people were employed. May would have lived on the premises, in Kilkellys, with other young girls.
Up the street was a butcher shop where my grandfather Michael Coyle worked. May’s boss, Mr. Kilkelly, was the local choirmaster. It was he who first spotted the potential of this wonderful singer, John McCormack, who became an international singing star. Michael Coyle also sang in this choir.
May Lillis married Michael Coyle in 1917 and they had six children. They lived in Dublin for a while. We know this because May was involved with Cumann na nBan during The Civil War in Ireland. She received a medal for her work with them.
However, times were hard and, in 1930, Michael Coyle decided to go to America. May’s brothers were doing well there and he went out to them. He hoped to find work and then bring May and his six children to America. Instead, he died there shortly afterward and never returned.
Back in Ireland his wife and six children were left penniless. May took them all back to her home in County Clare. They lived in nearby Kilkee for some years, helped financially by the Lillis family. My father, Michael Coyle II, would have been fourteen at the time his father died in America.
A few years later Michael, as a young adult, went to Athlone. He went back to the butchering business his father had left. He married Angela Keating from Carrick on Suir and they had ten children, all reared in Athlone town. I am their second born.
One of my younger brothers, Michael Coyle III decided to go to New York in 2007 to see where our grandfather was buried. After much research, he found the unmarked grave in Saint Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx, New York. As it was a private plot we can only assume that some of the Lillis men, his brothers-in-law, paid for this and for his laying-out in a funeral home, owned by Walter Cook undertakers. I think the sad tale of our grandfather’s life was similar to that of many Irish who left, hoping for a better life.
However, this fate did not befall his choir mate, John McCormack. In 1930 John was so very famous and rich that he bought Runyon Canyon in Hollywood. John McCormack saw and liked the estate while there filming ‘Song of my Heart’. McCormack and his wife lived in the mansion until they returned to England in 1938.
By that time my grandfather was buried in an unmarked grave in The Bronx. How very sad.
* Originally published in December 2016.