Celtic Junction Arts Review

A Learning Experience

James Curran

Curran Family in St. Paul

Robert Emmet Curran and Family, 1938 just after move to Upper West Side, St. Paul. Young Jim Curran is lower right.

In 1938, the Curran family moved to the upper West Side of St Paul, about five blocks from St Matthew’s church, a parish that at that time had a great many German-descent families, but few Irish. I was seven years old. However, across the street from the parish school was a gas station sign. It said: Speed Curran’s Cities Service. What a happy coincidence, I thought, and I asked my Dad if we were related. We weren’t.

Jim Curran in West St. Paul, 14 yrs.

A few years later, out of idle curiosity, I checked the white pages of the St. Paul phone directory and found there were only about seven Currans listed: except for my maiden aunts, Mary and Catherine, none were related to us either. I didn’t think to check the Minneapolis directory because at that age, for me, the city across the river didn’t really exist.

So, I thought, our family’s name was not a very common one, and there were not many of us. We had no Curran relatives except my father’s two sisters. All I really knew was that we were Irish, and that my paternal grandparents came from Galway. I felt a little cheated, for it seemed to me every other kid I knew had a flock of relatives, and even though my maternal grandmother was also Irish, I knew even less about that side of the family.

Patrick Joseph Curran

My paternal grandfather, Patrick Joseph Curran, had migrated to St Paul in 1883. He died in 1932 when I was one year old, so I never met him. My grandmother, Ann Kenney, also migrated, separately, to St Paul in 1883, and she died in 1910. They had known each other in Ireland before they met again in St Paul and got married. They had nine children, six of whom died from one disease or another before the age of 25.

Curran house on East Arch Street.

My father’s family grew up on East Arch street, behind the Capitol in St Paul, in a house Patrick Joseph bought in 1897. That area was an Irish enclave during the early 1900s, populated with many Irish families, some of whom had moved up from the Connemara Patch in lower town St Paul. When I asked, Dad described the Connemara Patch as an area that had been filled with poor, destitute Irish and had a reputation for rough housing, drinking and fighting. Not a very classy place, he intimated. Years later, as I began to dig a little more into my background, I realized that we also came from that very same Connemara region in Galway, specifically, from Kilkieran (my grandfather) and Derryrush (my grandmother), and that the Connemara Patch was just a temporary way station on the road to better things for those families.

Catherine Curran at Arch St., 1910s.
Mary Curran at Arch Street, 1910s

My two maiden Aunts, Mary, born in 1896, and Catherine, born in 1904, would entertain me with stories about what it was like when they were young, saying that their family often spoke Irish as well as English around the house. They told me Irish ghost stories, one specifically that happened to them when they walked down Jackson Street one evening. They saw two figures dressed in olden clothes walking towards them. And believe it or not, they said, instead of bumping into them, the other couple actually walked right through them! These two wonderful, down to earth, kindly, apparently with their-wits about-them ladies, swore up and down it had happened.

They told me how they and the other neighbor kids would gather on their front porch in the evenings and sing for hours, just singing while rocking back and forth in the rocking chairs. Which, they related, would occasionally start rocking rapidly at odd hours late at night when no one was on the porch. Another spooky story I didn’t believe, but they swore they had seen it.

Robert Emmet Curran at 134 E Arch St., early 1910s.

My father was named after Robert Emmet, the famous Irish patriot, and he spoke many times of my grandfather’s ability to recite in entirety Robert Emmet’s famous ‘Speech from the Dock,’ and that he always finished by pointing out that Emmet’s true love was Sarah Curran. He described my grandfather as a voracious reader who, besides being up to date on the state of affairs in Ireland, had also a soft spot for the IRA. Later I discovered that Dad had been giving money to the IRA for well over 30 years; that shocked me at the time.

Aunts Catherine and Mary with young Currans,1942.

My aunts bragged that my grandfather was famous for his dancing ability, both in Ireland and over here, and was called upon to dance at Irish gatherings and parties. He danced so fast, they said, that his “feet were a blur”. I took all their wonderful stories with a grain of salt.

Such were the conversations and stories about the Irish and Ireland that I grew up hearing. Ireland, in the 1930s and 1940s had a wonderful, romantic reputation based in part on its portrayal in popular song and in the movies, and in my case, based on the sentimental, idealized stories and recollections about the old country I heard from my folks.

I had little information about the Curran family’s origins and background. The stories my aunts told me, few as they were, filled me with a desire to know more.

Currans in Ireland

Jim Curran, 1998

Over the years I was able to piece a few more things together. My job often took me to England, and it was a hop, skip and a jump from there to Ireland. I toured the island many times, and visited Kilkieran (Cill Chiarain) more than once, a quiet, unremarkable, little fishing village on Kilkieran Bay off the Atlantic Ocean, whose main industries are fish and seaweed processing. It is smack dab in the Gaeltacht, and I heard locals conversing in Irish whenever I stopped by or visited the local pub.  

Kilkieran wharf with the village in the background

I once chatted with a storekeeper outside of Kilkieran, whose wife’s maiden name was Curran, and she informed me that Currans were numerous as flies in the area, and that there were many Currans on the islands in Kilkieran Bay where she came from. She doubted we were related. I talked to the pastor of the church in Kilkieran, a nice young man on his way to an Irish football match, and he later sent me the records of my grandfather’s baptism, parents and witnesses. 

I walked through the graveyard behind the church. The nearest, newest rows were filled with recent, well-tended gravestones and markers, but further back in the last few rows, each grave was marked by just a solitary rock, a bleak, harsh reminder of the many destitute and forgotten persons who had died and been hastily buried without ceremony during the famine years.

Sign on bridge to Derryrush
Stream in Derryrush where grandmother Ann Kenny would talk to the faeries.
Small town of Derryrush

While searching for my grandmother’s place of birth, I located a sign on a bridge for Derryrush (Doire Iorrais), a few miles down the road from Kilkieran, but could not find the village.  Later, my younger sister did find it; it is a very small village, and she also located the records of my grandmother’s baptism at the parish church in Carna. Dad’s family had never known their mother’s birthdate, for she was unsure when she was born and unsure about exactly how old she was. We found out that she was a year older than my grandfather.

Currans at Irish College of MN

James Joyce, 1915

About three years ago, at the urging of my sister and a friend I signed up at the Irish Cultural Center to take classes on Irish history and James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses.’ The opportunity to learn more about Joyce intrigued me, for another friend who taught English literature at a local high school was a devoted Joycean who had traveled more than once to Ireland to participate in Bloomsday, celebrated every June 16 in honor of James Joyce. I thought this was slightly daft, but he kept telling me how important Joyce was so here was a chance to find out what all the noise and cheering was about.

The course did not disappoint me, but I became acutely aware of how difficult it was for me to unravel the meaning and intent of the novel, and I became totally confused by the ideas and meaning of such terms, for example, as symbolism, realism, naturalism, and modernism. But more importantly for me, the instructor began to outline the nature of the polity, the culture, and the economy in Ireland at the time the novel was written. My eyes were being opened slightly about the Ireland that I thought I knew about, and I decided after looking at the curriculum, that I had to find out as much as possible about what was really going on during the decades of the 1850s-1880s, the years when my grandparents had grown up before emigrating to the U.S.

John Millington Synge, Aran Islands
John Millington Synge, Aran Islands

One of the courses discussed the plays of J.M. Synge, the famous Irish playwright. His plays were set in the Aran Islands and the west of Ireland during the 1870s-1890s, and reflected the Irish customs, beliefs and language of the time. As I read them, I was struck by the beautiful way the people conversed in English, their second language. They routinely employed syntactical and grammatical constructs that were obviously borrowed from the way they spoke Irish. I like to believe this unique and fascinating manner of speaking was probably very close to that which my grandparents employed growing up and that they later spoke around the house on Arch street. And Synge described the unshakeable belief held by those peasants of the actual presence and importance of spirits in their life, and that reminded me of the stories my Aunts (though born in America!) told me when they described their unusual, to say the least, experiences with ghosts.

George Moore, 1888

Another course reviewed the work of George Moore, a neglected but important Irish author who wrote about the state of the Irish countryside during those years in the west of Ireland. Although I knew the bare facts, Moore’s descriptions of the impact of repeated failure of the potato crop, the evictions of the peasants who were unable to pay the high rents their landlords demanded, the interference in every facet of the villager’s lives by the parish priests and the wealthy aristocracy that owned their land, and the unbelievable squalor and wretchedness of the workhouses, appalled me. I had had no true idea of how immeasurably devastated their lives were, the levels of humiliation and hopelessness they experienced, and the pervasive loss of dignity that had resulted. Only when I read some of Moore’s work about those days did I really begin to understand.

I came to realize more fully the circumstances of my grand-parents emigration: they had nowhere else to turn if they wished to survive and live a full life. In 1878 the famine returned in full force again; crops failed for three years in a row. In 1883 Ann Kenney left a village that had suffered the loss of 85 people over the 10-year period 1841-1851, down from an original population of 132, due to starvation and emigration. Although Derryrush had  recovered a little of its population by 1883, prospects were assuredly just as bleak then as they had been previously.

James J. Hill circa 1875

In a course on the Irish in Minnesota, another light went on. Patrick Joseph Curran had full employment from almost the moment he arrived in St Paul. He began as a laborer for the Great Northern Railroad and ended up as a wheelwright at the Como shops. Heavy, tough work, but in a few years, he had saved enough to purchase the family home. This was directly due to the policies of James J Hill, who, under the influence of his wife who had emigrated from Ireland, hired primarily Irish emigrants to work on his railroads, a fact I had not known. It also answered for me why St Paul is regarded as an Irish city. It all goes back to James J. Hill.

Our author Jim Curran in 1935 well before he learned any isms.

During this course, I met two women classmates also named Curran, who gave me loads of information about the history and prevalence of immigrants to Minnesota named Curran, including detailed research specific to our family they had diligently gathered over the past few years. I concluded the Curran name was not as uncommon as I had thought when I was a kid. They have started a Facebook page, Connemara to Minnesota in the 1880S: The Families and Their Stories, concerning emigrants from Connemara, including those who had passage on the Tuke ships, that will become a resource for those of us who are searching for relatives having similar DNA.

There are many more insights and facts that I have gathered from the courses I have taken at the Center. For example, I came to understand the historical origins of the IRA and the consequential part it played in the uprising and thereafter. And, mirabile dictu, besides gaining information about my family of origin, I have acquired a fairly workable understanding of the literary terms that had early baffled me, i.e., naturalism, realism, modernism and symbolism.  

My cup runneth over. 

Editor’s note: Images were provided by the Curran family. Images of public figures are in the public domain.

To read more about the Minnesota Irish, see Family Tree Mystery, Journey to Uncertainty , and Irish Settlers of Minnesota.