This is a picture of my grandfather, John Thomas Hughes, born January 1891 in Dundalk, Co. Louth. He died in May of 1954, so I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but I have garnered information through stories from my father, my visits with relatives in Ireland, and from my own genealogical research.
My dad and I spent a very poignant day in October 2003 at Calvary Cemetery in Long Island City, paying respect to this man. We said our prayers and talked of his life, in hushed tones. John Thomas Hughes married Mary Halpin in October of 1919 at the Church of Jonesboro in Co. Armagh. Ironically, on their marriage certificate, my grandmother was listed as a ‘spinster’ at ‘full age’ because she was 26 years old at the time!
My grandfather was not discreet about his membership in the Old IRA. That alliance takes up most of his headstone, and left very little room for mention of my grandmother, who died in 1969. His brother-in-law Sean Halpin was shot and killed on October 9, 1922 by Free State Police in Ravensdale, Co. Armagh. Sean and my grandfather were both ‘diehard’ Republicans. I’ve heard several stories of the Black and Tans kicking in their doors in search of guns but could never find them. Neighbors in Dundalk would occasionally see him standing on window ledges, avoiding detection.
By the late 1920’s, my grandfather decided to hang up his IRA hat and come to America to raise a family. It’s difficult to blame him for making the journey considering the type of jobs he had in Ireland. The main one that comes to mind is that of a Bullockman. His job was to stay in the belly of a transport ship and prevent the cattle from tipping over as they journeyed between Ireland and England.
He arrived in New York in 1926 and found employment, initially as a trolley conductor. He was known to never have charged the clergy when they boarded his car, no matter how much they insisted. He soon sent for his wife and daughters, who arrived in late 1926. They took a ferry to Liverpool, and then their ship took two and a half weeks to arrive in New York harbor. They were ushered to their new home in Harlem and quickly joined St. Paul’s Parish at 118th Street. My uncle Frank, after many years in the NYPD and further education, went back to St. Paul’s and later became its Principal. My dad, John Peter, pictured here, was born in December 1931, went to St. Paul’s and on to Rice High School. He was eventually drafted into the Korean War and, upon returning, joined the New York City Police Department. He served honorably in both endeavors, spending 20 years with the NYPD. He did his immigrant father proud.
In my grandfather’s photograph, I see so much confidence and determination. I know that he had just barely started his life in the New World and that it was not without many obstacles. They moved often, money was tight, and jobs came and went. Providing for a wife and four children in their apartment in that tough Harlem neighborhood was challenging, to say the least. My dad remembers his mom protecting him and his three siblings on the bed as my grandfather chased after the rats in the apartment with a broom.
After piecing his life together for years, trying to get an impression of the man in the picture, I’ve been able to get a sense of him. The stories demonstrate his quick thinking and humor. As a child, my dad had gotten in trouble with a neighbor and she insisted that he be punished. My grandfather promised that my father would get his comeuppance. He closed the door to the apartment and told my father to scream every time my grandfather slapped his belt against a chair, making it sound like John P. Hughes got what their neighbor thought was coming to him!
I am very proud of my heritage, and I get a stronger sense of my grandfather when my dad exhibits the same acts of kindness as his father did. May God bless them both.
– John Hughes, Bellmore, NY
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