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The Irish Migration

Kenneth Lyons and Matilda Rapeljie Smith
Kenneth Lyons and Matilda Rapeljie Smith

theserpentWhen my grandparents Kenneth Lyons and Matilda Rapelje Smith married in Brooklyn, New York on 5th December 1922, not only was it described as a high society wedding but it was also a union of two families with very different backgrounds. If America has an aristocracy, Matilda would have been part of it, with proven lineage back to some of the first settlers in 1623, hence her middle name, Rapelje. This part of our family history has been more widely researched and, amusingly, some 250 years earlier than Matilda’s marriage, our Rapelje ancestors were farming land at Walleboght Cove, today’s Wallabout Bay, Brooklyn. Matilda was from a wealthy family and had a conservative Presbyterian upbringing. The family had city property as well as country residences and plantations in the south. Matilda was well educated and even travelled out to the ‘old west’ as a teenage tourist, rare for the period and even in the America of today.

Kenneth Lyons was a successful salesman and, in stark contrast, was the grandson of an impoverished farmer from Waterford in Ireland who had been a part of the great wave of Irish migration to America in the 19th Century. This part of our family history is not as well researched and is the story of our Irish Catholic families, the Lyons, O’Mearas, Malones, O’Malleys, O’Connells, O’Neills and undoubtedly any other Irish name you can think about; I am proud to say we have all those names in this family history. A prolific breed and I doubt very much that we could ever get to the bottom of quite how many Irish American cousins we may have. One thing is for sure, besides some tales of extreme hardship and tragedy there are some of greatness in their brave adventures and endeavours.

The migration statistics of the Irish to America are simply staggering; altogether, almost 3.5 million men, women and children entered the U.S. between 1820 and 1880. Religious prejudice, political subordination and finally, in 1845, the beginning of a five year failure of the potato crops, which resulted in starvation and phenomenal levels of mortality; these were all factors that lead to mass migration. Can we bear to dwell on the fact that at the beginnings of prolonged famine in 1840 more than a million Irish men, women and children died, many just laid down in the streets and byways and died. The 1841 Census of Ireland recorded the population at 8.2 million. When we look through many a page of the United States census records, as I have, it is astounding to find our families listed in dense communities of many thousands of Irish immigrants. They arrived impoverished and could little afford to venture into the hinterland to pursue their farming heritage or use other life skills. Most found themselves trapped in the New York shanty towns and slums. Across the East River from Brooklyn was the infamous Hells Kitchen quarter where the Irish ‘gangs of New York’ battled and vied for superiority in corrupt neighbourhoods where the only work was in the docks, railway yards and the awful conditions of industrial manufacturing factories; had they had stepped from one hell to another? It was a grim place for fifty years and to rise above the norm and succeed would have been a real challenge.

And so, what could an ancestor of ours, the 10 year old Ellen Malone tell us of life in 1850’s New York? Born in June 1839 in New York City, the census of 1850 listed her as living in the Troy Ward 8 of Brooklyn at the Hospital and Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum with 20 other Irish girls aged between 4 – 14 years. At the time of writing I don’t know who her parents were. Was she an orphan because her parents had died during one of the many cholera epidemics of the time or had her father died in a work related accident, had her mother died in childbirth? Such were the hazards of their struggle for survival as immigrants in America. With not even a grandmother, aunt or sister to protect her, it would be the church, The Catholic Church, which would come to her rescue. Irish female orphans could hope at the very least for a life in domestic service or maybe dream of something better. It was the latter for Ellen; nine years later in 1859, aged 19, Ellen Malone would marry Maurice O’Meara. He was born in January 1838 and had immigrated to America from Ireland in 1846. Maurice started his working life in America buying rags and waste paper and by 1855 he was selling his material to paper manufacturers.  Later he founded the O’Meara Paper Company of 44 South Pearl Street in New York, which became a multi-million dollar business. But more than this, he would become a very highly respected resident of Brooklyn and great benefactor to Brooklyn’s Catholic Orphanages. Little orphan Ellen would have ten children – seven girls and three boys, every one of which would survive to adulthood, in America’s land of plenty for the industrious.

Much of our family’s Irish-American history is recorded in the invaluable notes and charts of Uncle Bill, otherwise William Thomas Lyons Jnr., and the younger brother of my grandfather Kenneth Lyons. Those priceless notes tend to be very confusing if only because there are so many names and families listed by an elderly gentleman who had bad handwriting and didn’t think his descendants would want dates and places, maybe he didn’t have them, but such is the pleasure of family history research.

The family of Maurice O’Meara and his wife Ellen is subject of a great big ‘Uncle Bill’ chart, which details all their ten children with spouses, children, occupations, origins, residence, and even some physical attributes, but no dates.  Add to this, numerous arrows, numbers, very squiggly writing and the fact that it is a Photostat and the reader will appreciate how difficult dissemination has been. Their children were as follows: Julia A O’Meara, Ella O’Meara, Margaret (Maggie) O’Meara, May O’Meara, Ida O’Meara, Maurice O’Meara Jnr., Lillie O’Meara, William O’Meara, Estelle O’Meara, and David O’Meara¹.

On 6 March 1909, Maurice and Ellen celebrated their golden wedding anniversary at a nuptial mass at The Church of St. Francis Xavier on 15th Street New York. The event received the blessing of Pope Pius X, sent by cable through Bishop McDonnell, from the papal secretary, Cardinal Merry Del Val and 300 relatives and friends attended their reception at the family home of The O’Meara family, 38 Eighth Avenue, New York. It was less than a year later that The Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced the death of Maurice O’Meara, in his 76th year, O’MEARA – In loving memory of my beloved husband and our dear father Maurice O’Meara, died January 14, 1910?. An obituary notice appeared in The New York Times the following day. It said that he had been in the paper trade for sixty years and had incorporated The O’Meara Paper Company in 1900. He had been a trustee of The Brooklyn Catholic Orphanage, St Francis Xavier’s Church Brooklyn, a member of The Montauk Club and a Vice President of the New York Paper Trade Association.

I have yet to discover when Ellen died; it was certainly after 1922 when she was in her eighties.

And so to the Lyons Family; according to Uncle Bill, they came from Waterford in southeast Ireland. Bill’s grandfather was a farmer called Thomas Lyons; he was the eldest son, named after his father Thomas, and the first of his family to venture to America. He was followed, later, by his younger brothers William Lyons and James Lyons. William never married, whilst James did but never had children. They both died young and Bill records that James had been only 20 years old and had trouble with his eyes.

Thomas Lyons married Susan Theresa O’Malley, the daughter of Owen O’Malley of County Mayo, on the west coast of Ireland. In another chapter you can read about the great seafaring clan, The O’Malleys of the Owals. Bill’s notes recall how Susan was brought to America by her elder sister Jane O’Malley¹, who married an O’Connor, together with their sister Elizabeth O’Malley, who married a Mr Samuel Tickell¹. Sister Jane later returned to England. Thomas and Susan would have six children, Alice, Elizabeth, William Thomas Lyons (Bill’s father), Henry, Susan who died aged 15 years, and Theresa who died aged only 2 months. Thomas Lyons was apparently a successful salesman who worked for Whitlock & Anderson but he too died young at the age of 43 years and was buried in Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York?.

Following the Lyons patriline, William Thomas Lyons was born in May 1867¹. He was also to become a successful sales manager, like his father, and worked for James Butler Stores³, managing as many as 400 stores; he later became a Vice President of the Company. By the 1890s he was mixing with other prominent Brooklyn businessmen including Maurice O’Meara, by now a paper manufacturer.

Headlines of The New York Times on Thursday October 20, 1892 detailed ‘Brooklyn’s Celebration’, a parade of 20,000 Roman Catholic school children to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America. The parade was reviewed by Bishop McDonnell and Mayor Leonard Boody at a grandstand outside the new Roman Catholic Cathedral. Amongst the ‘gentlemen’ leading the procession were Maurice O’Meara and William T Lyons. And, the next year, on 27 January 1893 The New York Times published a report of the wedding on the previous day, Thursday 26 January, of Miss Frances Moore and Doctor J Richard Kevin at St John’s Chapel, Brooklyn. The ceremony was conducted by Bishop McDonnell of Brooklyn and a 1000 people attended. Miss Ida O’Meara was one of the four bridesmaids and also attending the wedding was William T Lyons, and Mr & Mrs Maurice O’Meara. Finally, on 31 January 1894 a ball was held by The Emerald Association at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in aid of the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylums of Brooklyn. The New York Times reported that it was ‘a scene of unusual brilliancy and attractiveness’ and that all the prominent families of Brooklyn were represented. Amongst the many gentlemen listed were John R Kevin MD and William T Lyons.

William Thomas Lyons married Maurice & Ellen O’Meara’s daughter Ida O’Meara in 1895. To complete the circle commenced in the opening paragraph, their first son Kenneth Lyons was born in September 1895. A girl named Helen Lyons was born to the couple but died in infancy. William Thomas Lyons Jnr. was born in 1901. Sadly their father, William Thomas Lyons would die prematurely in the following year, aged only 35 years.

Kenneth Lyons and Matilda had three children, Barbara Linington Lyons, Kenneth Lyons Jnr. and Frank Lyons. William Thomas Lyons married Elizabeth O’Neill; she had two sisters Trudy O’Neill and Ann O’Neill and a brother William (Bill) O’Neill.

It seems that longevity within the male members of the Lyons could not be expected, although Uncle Bill and Uncle Frank Lyons, his nephew, proved to be exceptions to the rule. Even Kenneth Lyons, who died in January 1947, was only 52 years old, a matter of three months before the birth of his first grandchild, David, to his daughter Barbara.

So what can we learn from this chapter? There are certainly more shepherds than princes, as always! Firstly, everyone, in the western world, has Irish blood; it’s very good stuff. It was spread by necessity and there can be no better example than from Irish immigration to America in the 19th Century; even in Britain we wouldn’t be where we are today without the 19th Century Irish labourer and we have those in another story. But in this history, after 1900, we see ‘Irishness’ being thinned as it was integrated into American culture to such an extent that our ancestors are now becoming American, even though they’d no doubt like to be thought of as Irish-Americans, as only New York’s St Patrick’s Day can bear witness. The millions of Irish immigrants forged an existence in New York in the 19th Century, they married into established Presbyterian families, such as that of Matilda Rapelje Smith, into the family of a Frenchman, Dr Hommelieu, into my own Hardys, a quintessentially English working class family, and the Tickells, Bennetts, Egertons and Chamberlains who are all, of this period, English names, not Irish. And did they move on into the interior of American? No, these families clung to the Eastern Seaboard, without exception. But, generally, ‘birds of a feather flock together’ and they looked after each other within their communities. Our Irish families had a close connection with and faith in The Catholic Church, and Maurice O’Meara was a great benefactor of Catholic Orphans and he and his wife, little orphan Ellen Malone, had the blessing, no less, of Pope Pius X on the occasion of their golden wedding anniversary. My beloved Uncle Frank Lyons, a devout Catholic, is alas, the last of the Lyons patriline albeit that there are many distant cousins… Frank married Joann of German origin and they live in Nebraska… and that is modern America. We need not fear the loss of the Lyons name, nor any other in this chapter, because they live in us all.


¹The children of Maurice O’Meara and his wife Ellen Malone (source Uncle Bill’s information) + info from public records:
Julia A O’Meara was born in 1860 and married a Mr Egerton who was in the wholesale grocery business. They had two children, Grace and John, and lived in New York City.
Ella O’Meara was born in 1862 and married a Doctor Joseph O’Connell. They had two girls, Margarette and Josephine, and lived in New York. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported the marriage of O’Connell – O’Meara. On Tuesday morning, November 24, 1885, at St.Augustine’s Church, by the Rev. E. W. McCarty, Joseph F O’Connell, M.D., to Ella A. daughter of Maurice O’Meara, Esq. all of Brooklyn².
Maggie O’Meara or Margaret was born in 1864 and became a nun, spending at least 50 years as a sister at The Averbrook Convent in Philadelphia.
May O’Meara was born in 1867 and married John L Hommelieu, a French doctor. They had one child that died in infancy and, by 1920 (US Census), May was listed as a widow.
Ida O’Meara was born in 1870 and married William Thomas Lyons in 1895. They had three children, Kenneth Lyons born in September 1895, Helen Lyons who died in infancy, and William Thomas Lyons Jnr. (the source of all this information) who was born in 1901.
Maurice O’Meara Jnr. was born in 1871, married (spouse’s name not known) with two children Carol and Jack. He became the President of the O’Meara Paper Co. and had dark hair.
Lillie O’Meara or Lillian was born in December 1875, married Albert R Chamberlain (born 1874). They had two boys, Roswell born 1910 and David born 1913. Albert was in the insurance business. He and the two boys all graduated from Princeton University.
William O’Meara was born in December 1873 and married Agnes. They had two boys Donald and Maurice and lived in New York City. William had dark hair.
Estelle O’Meara was born in 1878 and married Mr Harry Bennett. They had one daughter Alice. They lived in Brooklyn and Mr. Bennett was in the insurance business.
David O’Meara was born in 1879 and was married to Theresa. They had five children of which two were twins and they lived in New Rochelle NY. David had light hair.

¹United States Census Records –
William T Lyons, US Census 1900, with Ida (spouse), Kenneth (son) Kate Duffy & Annie Murphy (servants) at 288 DeKalb Avenue, Brooklyn New York
David O’Meara, Source: US Census 1880 – Family Search – Film No.T9-0778 page 237 page character D entry number 2318 film No 1254778
Samuel Tickell, US Census 1900 – born England March 1833 & Elizabeth Tickell born Ireland Feb 1835 at 57 7th Avenue, Manhatten Borough New York. Also listed Susan Gatehouse born February 1860 in New York (daughter), Florence Gatehouse born May 1887 and John Gatehouse born November 1888 both in New York (grandchildren). Census lists Samuel as having immigrated in 1851 and Elizabeth in 1852. Married for 44 years (C.1856) with four children, all surviving.
Susan O’Malley, with sisters Jane & Elizabeth came to America in 1872: Source US Census 1900 when she is shown as a 61 yr old widow living with her daughter Elizabeth and her husband Charles Armstrong and children Vincent, Noel & Elizabeth at 41 Monroe Street, Brooklyn, New York.
Ellen O’Meara, US Census 1920, we find the following at Kings, New York – parent Ellen O’Meara 81yrs, M (May) L’Hommedieu 42yrs, Ida V Lyons 41yrs, Kenneth Lyons 24yrs, William Lyons 19yrs, and (presumably servants) Bridget T McDonough 23yrs & Alice McConnell 27yrs. Ref: film No. 1821159, Dig. Folder No. 4313507, image 00746, sheet 4)
William Thomas Lyons – Probate place: Kings County, New York, year: 1902, record type: Administration of the Goods, Chattels and Credits, Name of Court Surrogate’s Court, record category: Administration (without a valid will), digital folder No. 004217218, Number of images: 4, first image: 279, last image 282.

² &

³ James Butler (1855–1934) was an American businessman from New York and prominent owner of racehorses and racetracks. As a hotel steward in the early 1880s, Butler invested his $2,000 life savings with Patrick J. O’Connor (the son of his landlady) to open a grocery store on Second Avenue in New York. The business grew to a chain of stores so successful that Butler quit the hotel business and bought out O’Connor. Butler had a reputed net worth of $30 million by 1929 and his grocery store chain was the sixth largest in the U.S. by total sales, and he had more than 1100 stores by the time he died in 1934.

?(Note: In 1847, faced with cholera epidemics and a shortage of burial grounds land was allocated for the Calvary Cemetery and the first burial was in 1848; by 1852 there were 50 burials a day, half of them being the Irish poor under seven years of age. It is one of the oldest and largest cemeteries in the United States and by the 1990s there were nearly 3 million burials in Calvary Cemetery.)

?William Thomas Lyons was born in May 1867. What prompted his Mother to give him the Gold Pocket Watch – inscribed William Thomas Lyons – 14th November 1894 (aged 27 years)