St. Patrick's Day

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day I would like to recount what I know about Henry McGavin, my great-grandfather.


Henry and his 2 brothers left Fermanagh County, Ireland about 1858, I believe. I believe their sur-name may have changed at immigration - it may have been McGovern. Henry and his brothers were between about 15 and 10 years old, probably very skinny and hungry and eager to leave a country devastated by the Great Hunger. Their mother had died and they were sent to America to seek their futures and food. The brothers lived somewhere around New York City for a while then walked to Seaforth, Ontario in Canada. They are said to have arrived in Canada with no shoes. Henry and his older brother married Scottish sisters with the last name Graham. Henry and his wife lived in a lovely small house on a subsistence farm in Seaforth. My father and his brothers visited the farm during summer breaks from school. The farm had no electricity and no running water. There was a pump for water. My father remembers that they had corn bread with every meal and my father would churn butter for the bread.

Henry and his wife had a number of children, not sure what number, all of whom seem to have done well for themselves. Thomas became a doctor in Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit, MI. He introduced his brother Arthur to a woman named Angeline Mettetal. Angeline was of French descent whose grandfather Pierre, came to the US about 1805 from Etupe, France, served as a steward to Andrew Jackson and then after a few years, set off to pioneer with his brother what later became Detroit. There is a Mettetal Ave named after Pierre. Pierre was famous for talking to himself and also saying that if he wanted to talk with someone interesting, he would talk with himself. My grandfather, Arthur, became an insurance agent and he and Angeline married and moved to Reading, PA where they raised 3 boys, who when standing together looked like a trio of leprechauns - Frederick, Edmund and Thomas who was my darling, dear and sadly departed father. None of them was taller than 5’5” (which was not bad considering that Henry and his wife weren't much over 5') and they all had impish smiles and were always ready to tease.

When I first moved to New York City in 1979 there were 3 McGavins in the phone book, and one famous actor, Darren McGavin, who was not listed. One McGavin was me, the second was my brother and the third was a stranger to me. Now there are many more McGavins there and everywhere. We have been a prolific group and all the McGavins I know are grand people and a great testament to the emerald island of their ancestry.

I try to imagine a boy of 15, leaving his family and his country, getting on a sailing ship for a long and difficult journey, heading for an unknown country with no money and little in the way of prospects. He was perhaps eager for adventure, eager for a place where he could feed himself and a family, afraid of dying of starvation in Ireland, fearful of never seeing a mother or father, fearful of what he would find and how he would manage. Was he brave or foolhardy or perhaps both and young enough that neither really mattered. The little I know of Henry makes me very proud of him and I feel honored to be his great-grandchild.

America is a land populated by ghosts of men and women like Henry. My great-grandfather is iconic in our history. As we nod to this day of celebration for the Irish, this is especially true in the history of the Irish in America. This is a land of brave, foolhardy folks who have struggled with nothing but determination and an opportunity. America (U.S.A. and Canada) was a place where a person could arrive and work hard to have a life of some comfort and pride in accomplishment. I don't know if that would be true for a Henry arriving in 2011. At this time in our history, opportunities are being strangled by a hungry, greed infected, super-rich, organized crime syndicate spear-headed by banks. This is our current history and I hope that it will not be our future.

Jean McGavin
Bethlehem, CT

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