At rest, this picture belongs to a wedding album from 1966. Plain, awkward even, it was composed by the photographer whose job it was to snap the parents of the groom. It doesn’t speak of small Galway farms disappearing over shoulders, the ride over the sea, their names. They are Edward Donohoe and Winnie, who was first Una Ryan, then Winnie Donohoe and, for an afternoon, Jane Doe.
Eddie was born in Tuam, one of eight children. His mother, Catherine Collins of Cork, changed the family name from Donohue because a cousin with a store spelled it DoNoHoE on the sign and she felt the o’s were more distinguished. Of the four boys, Eddie was expected to be the priest.
Instead, he sailed from Cobh on the Carmania to join his brother Pat in Baltimore. As a lefty forced into ambidexterity by the Brothers, he became a man of great value on a construction crew. Later, he went on his own to Brooklyn, New York.
By the farm in Ballinasloe, there was a wood and the River Suck. The Ryans traded with the nearby asylum, milk for fresh bread. There were seven daughters and the son, John. When she was nineteen, Una joined her sister in Brooklyn and Madge helped find her work, also as a domestic.
St. Gregory the Great off Eastern Parkway held parish dances. Everybody was Irish. Eddie and Winnie met. Later, at another dance, her friends got angry at how much Eddie’d had to drink. He stormed out and when she went after him, he told her that he was a drinking man and wouldn’t change.
“It’s them or me,” he said.
“I don’t want them,” she answered. “I want you.”
He never changed.
Eddie became a sandhog and was part of a crew that continued construction of the Lincoln Tunnel after its official opening. The driver of the car who hit him was only seventeen. Eddie refused to sue the boy, though only the eagerness of a young surgeon saved his leg from amputation. Though the leg was left concave and discolored from the knee down, he could walk.
Eddie and Winnie had a daughter and four sons. In labor with her second child, Winnie took the trolley to Methodist Hospital, ignoring her husband’s directive that if her time came while he was at work she should take a cab. Eddie once kicked a friend of his daughter’s out with the words, “No Protestants in my house on Sunday!” He had a bit of Irish. “Tá mé, Tá mé,” he’s remembered saying (I am, I am). She liked to watch wrestling on television.
In 1947, with the youngest only months old, Winnie contracted tuberculosis. Eddie wanted a private hospital for her and swore he would even give up the children to pay for it. But in the end, he bought a brownstone on Rogers Avenue with a third-floor apartment. Madge and her husband, Johnny Miley from Roscommon, left Queens and moved in.
The public sanitarium, the iron lung, the nervous breakdown. Eight years gone and Winnie came home. The youngest, outside playing, was called inside to come meet his mother.
In October 1970, Winnie had a stroke on her way to morning Mass. When they first came to ask, the hospital told the family that they had two unidentified women in their late fifties. After searching through the afternoon, they went back.
“Are you sure?” they asked.
“Yes,” the hospital said. Their one Jane Doe was in her seventies.
When he was told, Eddie wouldn’t believe it. He wouldn’t believe it.
Winnie was buried in St. Charles Cemetery on Long Island and Eddie put his name beside hers. Because it was cheaper, he declared, to add both to the stone at once. The October of his death came seventeen years later.
Three of their sons had entered the Navy and one, the Army. The U.S. Government informed them that they were spelling their last name incorrectly. Their mother had written “Donohue” on each birth certificate, afraid of the illegal ‘o.’ Their daughter found it easier to go with the ‘u.’ Their sons went by Donohue in the service and went back to Donohoe after. All but one.
Korea. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Vietnam. Then, for all four, the FDNY. Chief. Captain. Lieutenant. Of the three surviving brothers, two had retired before September 2001 and the youngest, still on the job, was not working that morning, though he got to the site by 3:00 p.m. He would retire in August 2002, at the end of the season of funerals.
Eddie and Winnie have fourteen grandchildren and twenty-seven great-grandchildren. I am the second of three Kathleens: Kathleen Marie Donohoe, Kathleen Mary Donohoe and Kathleen Ann Donohue. I’m asked all the time where in Ireland I was born and how long I’ve been in America. Instead of “Brooklyn, forever,” sometimes I’ll just say “Galway and oh, awhile now.”
When I look at this picture, so ordinary before you know, I think about how for each piece of a family story that you’ve heard, there is another and another still that will remain strong in a dry throat, a poem in a closed book. And I think as well of this Irish proverb:
“A tune is more lasting than the song of birds,
And a word is more lasting than the wealth of the world.”
– Kathleen Donohoe, Brooklyn, NY