Last Saturday, December 10th, 2016, my parents, Collin, and I visited the Irish Railroad Workers Museum on Lemmon Street in Baltimore for their Irish Christmas Celebration. Alongside the apple cider, scones, and Celtic Christmas ornament crafts, we received a tour of two tiny row houses, one of which represented an Irish family’s home during the 1860s. A family not unlike that of my Irish immigrant ancestors. And surprisingly, a family not unlike my own today. A family that could have been mine, not so long ago.
The Feeley family lived in a space the size of my living room and dining room (and my house isn’t very big.) James, the head of the household, worked long, hard days as a boilermaker at the B&O railroad, while Mrs. Feeley raised the children and took in extra money by doing other people’s laundry over their hearth, hanging everything to dry in the small yard where their outhouse was.
There was no running water. Food was purchased at the Hollins Street Market, a short walk away. A winding, narrow, trepidacious staircase leads to the second floor. As I carried 5-month-old Teagan up and down the stairs, I thought for sure we’d stumble and meet a certain death. I wondered how Mrs. Feeley managed to make the trip upstairs and down carrying one of her children and laundry and water.The Feeley baby slept in a cradle in the parents’ bedroom while the older children shared a bed across the hall.
A simple ball and cup toy kept the children entertained.
The family worshiped at St. Peter’s Church, where the children attended school. (You can see it from their house. )
Not all of the children lived to adulthood due to diseases, such as cholera and typhoid fever, the latter of which was the cause of a major epidemic in Baltimore at this time. But, the Feeley family prevailed, like my own, passing along their heritage and their faith to future generations.
In 2016, I complain that my house is too small for my four children, my husband, our two cats, and myself. But, when I compared it to the size of the little house on Lemmon Street, I am amazed at how blessed we are. My husband works hard as a farmer, while I spend a considerable amount of time at home with my children. We have a spacious kitchen and an extremely efficient washer and dryer (though I STILL can’t keep up with the laundry), as well as indoor plumbing. Our tap water is filtered. I have access to fresh food from all over the world at Wegman’s, but prefer to buy fruits and vegetables from my local farmer, Brad, in the growing season. Last year, I took a nasty spill down the wooden stairs to my second floor, but I survived. (I’m still apprehensive when I’m carrying something or someone.) Baby Teagan sleeps in a cradle beside my bed, while her brother shared a bed across the hall up until a few weeks ago when they got bunkbeds. The iPad is my boys’ favorite toy. We are active members of our parish, St. Joan of Arc, where my son goes to school and I teach art. (We can see it from our house.) I pray every day for my children to stay healthy and live long lives. I am eternally grateful for the medical care we have available to us, particularly vaccines to prevent the kinds of diseases that took the lives of many children.
After visiting the Irish Railroad Workers Museum, I look at my household and lifestyle through new eyes. What would my great-great grandmother say if she heard me complaining that the water in the shower was too hot because someone turned on the dishwasher? How would she feel if she saw me hydrating my flu-stricken sons with a magical potion called Pedialyte so that they could make a full recovery in just a few days? At the same time, how would she feel if she saw me walking my children to church on Sunday? My ungratefulness aside, I like to think that she would be proud. Our foundations on faith, family, and heritage have been passed down through the decades and preserved our Irish Catholic identity. Though modern conveniences, medicine, and workplace situations have changed, we should always remember where we came from and thank God for getting us here.
The Irish Railroad Workers Museum is located at 920 Lemmon St. in Baltimore and is open Friday and Saturday from 11 am – 2 pm and Sunday from 1-4 pm. I’d like to extend a special thanks to Luke and Cecelia for their hospitality and education.