Mary Murray McCann
June 20th, 1932 - March 4th, 2022
Mary Murray McCann was born June 20, 1932, in Drumslide, Ballycroy, West Port, County Mayo, Ireland. My mother, who was known for her gift of words, quips and quotes would state: Irish by birth, American by choice and Catholic by grace. That is a good framework in which to remember her life.
Irish by birth. She was the eldest of 7 children born to Ellen Finn Murray and John Thomas Murray, raised in a house with no house number or street address, it was simply known as the Murray house in Drumslide. Past the fields behind the house, you could see the Atlantic Ocean. Her village was within the parish of Ballycroy, in the main commerce city of Westport, the hub for the west coast of Ireland.
Irish by birth is the bedrock in my opinion of my mother's success in life. Ballycroy is beautiful, some have stated it is the first place God created and the last place he blessed during the creation of the world. Her parents, John and Ellen, built a loving home and she cherished her 6 siblings who followed her: Jack, Tom, Kathleen, Felix, Margaret and Bridget (Dolly). She would often share stories and tales about their growing up years.
Why would my mother leave such a place? Because despite its beauty, when my mother was born, Ireland offered little opportunity for a bright, energetic, young woman. I believe God's will for my mother was to bring the beauty and grace of Ballycroy to America, ensuring that her intelligence and ability would be fully realized. My mother would often tell us how she enjoyed her first 19 years in Ireland but that it was a hard life. School and learning was limited and work was always waiting for everyone before and after school. She led her brothers and sisters, and from all accounts, she was a great example to her family. Her brothers and sisters respected and looked up to her, as she always did the right thing even if it was hard or inconvenient. A couple of her favorite quips were - there is no right way to do the wrong thing and two wrongs will never make a right.
When my mother and her parents considered her leaving Ireland, it was a difficult decision. But my grandparents had a great deal of trust and faith in my mother, and in God to guide her in her travels. I have been struck by this my whole life, imagining myself at 19 - leaving home and not knowing if you would return, potentially never seeing your parents again and also not knowing when you would see your brothers and sisters. It is a lot for any young person, but again my mother handled it with grace and dignity. All of her worldly possessions in a suitcase clutched to her hand, with everything she knew and loved behind her, and everything she did not know in front of her…she took that leap of faith forward.
She set out on what has been called the Irish Trail of Tears, from Mayo to Cork, to board her steam ship for America. When I have asked her siblings, they shared mixed memories. Her brothers were very sad as Felix remembered, "I cried as I didn't know if I would see Mary again" and they thought the world of her. My Aunt Kathleen was confident that her sister would do great things and at the right time, she would join her in the USA. (And thank God she did, as Aunt Kathleen is the fabric of our family. There is barely a family memory that does not include Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Bob.) Aunt Dolly, who was around 4, told me she was laughing and playing, too young to realize what was happening that day.
So, there was a tearful goodbye to her siblings and home, then her parents took her to the train station in Castlebar, and then alone, she boarded a ship in Cork. She would often tell us with a laugh and a wave of her hand that it was not the QE2, but more of a cargo ship with scant accommodations. We knew the trip was difficult physically and emotionally, but she didn't dwell on those aspects, instead saying she didn't get sea sick and ate all the meals.
I often think whatever hardship I may encounter pales in comparison to what my mother endured and the path and shining light she created for all of us to follow.
American by Choice. When my mother landed in the USA in June of '52, she stayed with aunts and uncles she didn't know who had already arrived in the US. She settled in and loved America, taking the good with the bad. She got severely sunburned her first year as she had not experienced the heat of summer before. That was a good lesson, she would tell us. She worked at various places including the Cleveland Clinic doing clerical work. My mother loved her Irish heritage but would often remind us that not all the Irish are good just because they are Irish. She respected all nationalities and cultures, as that is the Irish way. Aware of the days of "No Irish Need Apply" signs, she instilled in us the importance of acceptance, hard work and gratitude and the warning, but for the grace of God go thee.
She met my father by chance. My Dad had arrived in 1949, having followed his older brothers to the US. On one of his few trips back home to Roscommon in 1952, he offered to do a favor for a friend (as was his way), and deliver a gift in Mayo. While there he was told of a beautiful girl from Mayo who had just moved to Cleveland and that he should meet her when he returned. Fortunately, the Irish community in Cleveland was very tight, and in 1956 my parents were introduced by another Mayo family, the Campbell's, at a dance.
She kept in touch with her family through letters and when possible, a phone call, which her family would receive at the town grocery store Cleary's, since they didn't have a phone. Her brothers stayed in Ireland, with Jack working the family farm and Tom and Felix working in both England and Ireland. Even though she didn't see her brothers as often as she would have liked, she prayed for and thought of them daily. My mom's sisters on the other hand did follow in her footsteps to the US, with Aunt Kathleen arriving in 1957. This began a lifetime of support and shared experiences, starting with the joy of Mom's engagement.
My parents married in 1959 at St. Margaret Mary and my mother started the next chapter of God's will - being a wife, sister, homemaker, neighbor, friend, and mother. My parent's first house by the grace of God was on Maywood next to the Hyland family - all 14 of them! Mr. and Mrs. Hyland provided great help to my parents with what my parents did not know, as the Hyland's had already done almost everything multiple times with great success. They are another great example of Irish achievement and creativity. By 1963, Mary Ellen, Kathy and I had arrived and my parents needed a house with a bit more room, sad as they were to leave the Hyland's. They moved to 4005 Bluestone Road in Cleveland Heights.
It was at about that time that Aunt Margaret arrived to join her sisters. For a time both Aunt Kathleen and Aunt Margaret lived with us on our third floor, walking to work at Hillside Dairy on Noble Road. My mother loved being with her sisters again and us kids loved our fun and adoring aunts. There was also the great joy of an occasional visit from one of her parents, and the joy of the weddings that followed, starting with Aunt Kathleen's to our wonderful Uncle Bob Roberts in 1966.
Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Bob ultimately purchased their home on Plainfield Road, about a 5-minute walk from Bluestone Road. As hard as it was to be away from the rest of their family, the Murray sisters had each other as they built their lives and their families. In their first year here together, they created the Murray Christmas Eve celebration that lasts to this day. Shortly after Aunt Kathleen got married, Aunt Margaret moved to New York where she met our other wonderful uncle, Jimmy McKenna from Monaghan. This brought another family wedding in a new city, by then with Aunt Dolly now in the US, and all four Murray sisters together for the event. That was to be a common theme throughout for Mom, visits to each other, and occasionally back to Ireland when one could.
Mom's life was now quite full, with 4 kids under the age of 5. My Dad worked hard as a pipe coverer. They loved the house on Bluestone Road and it was a great chapter for the entire family. The house was great, but the neighborhood and parish were even better. We made friends for life, in my case quite literally! When noting the impact on my life, my mother would often say "we were poor, but richly blessed" because if they had more money, they would have bought a house on Oakmont. To me, the Monroe's were a great example of the American dream, and a family that shared my parents' values of hard work, faith and family. Long before we would be forever entwined, my mom sang their praises. Although we seldom had babysitters, my mom was thrilled to have such good ones a few doors away.
Mom excelled as a wife and mother. She had a great knack for simplifying things and getting a lot done on a small budget and with no help. She loved to say referring to her and my father, "We did better when we knew better." Us kids did alright which is a great credit to my parents. We never wanted for anything, always had enough and always had each other, which was always enough. I can't imagine how difficult some simple tasks were for my parents, like signing up for school. In Ireland there was 1 school and usually 1 or 2 teachers. My mother was constantly learning and asking the right questions of others to make the best decision for us. She valued learning, often reminding us that we had "two ears and one mouth" so we should listen twice as much as we spoke.
My parents worked hard to provide us with a good education, with elementary school at St. Margaret Mary, then Regina and Latin for high school. That laid the foundation for all four kids to receive a college degree. That was an accomplishment my parents treasured, as they were not afforded that luxury in their small villages. My mother often said she graduated from the school of hard knocks. However, her lack of a formal education could not limit her intelligence, her lifelong intellectual curiosity and her love of reading. She inspired her children and grandchildren and was the driving force behind all we pursued.
As us kids grew, so did my mother's circle of friends and admirers. Her engaging personality, genuine interest in others and natural wit made many seek the pleasure of her company. Our friends took time to chat, enjoying her Irish brogue, her smile and her wisdom. It was great for me that my friends enjoyed speaking to my parents. As we all chose spouses, my parents welcomed them into our family. Those years brought much fun for my parents, and the contentment of a job well done seeing us start our own lives.
With all of us newly married and three grandchildren under three, my father's cancer diagnosis in the fall of 1991 was a shock. He handled it with courage and grace, not wanting to trouble anyone. He died in February 1992 just shy of his 68th birthday. My mother was only 59. Instead of blaming God or the world, she showed us grace, courage and fortitude. She would remind us often of all Dad provided for us and how lucky we were to have him as long as we did. She credited Dad with laying the ground work for us to build our own lives and fortunes. Fortunes is referred to in the broader sense, as my parents felt their fortune was in their family, not in the possessions they owned. My Mom spent her next 30 years, very much remaining Mrs. Anthony McCann, and excelling in her new role as grandmother.
Catholic by Grace. While the human elements of the Catholic Church may be flawed, my mother believed in the love and grace of God and lived her Catholic faith all of her days. She often said, "we left Ireland with nothing but the clothes on our back and our Catholic faith. We lost the clothes but kept the faith." From the day of my Dad's passing, she encouraged us kids and grandchildren by telling us that he was looking down at us with his "spiritual eyes". She prayed daily for all of her family scattered from Cleveland to Ireland. In addition to my dad, she bore the loss of her parents, her brothers, and her brothers-in-law, knowing in faith that she would see them again.
She taught all of us to have faith, be kind and do unto others as they would do unto you. She showed us that through examples of helping our neighbors and friends with no questions asked. Among my favorites of her guidance, "do not take the joy out of doing something by looking for a reward for doing it". Or, "if I have to ask you to do it, then the thanks is gone."
Her prolific writing of notes in the last 30 years provides a roadmap for life and a lasting legacy to her. She sent a card for EVERY family birthday, anniversary, and accomplishment (new job, school award, athletic accomplishment, new driver, new baby, etc.). She never missed a chance to send a note to her siblings, children, grandchildren and nieces and nephews. Our in-laws became family to her, as did our friends, and they too joined the list of those receiving Mary McCann notes (scribbles). Every card would have a handwritten, heart-crafted message, including a quote or quip. She would almost always insert clippings from the newspaper, the church bulletin, Family Circus, and Irish blessings. She lived by the line from TS Elliot "A kind word is worth more than great intentions".
I truly believe that all of us have God's will and our own free will…the trick is to combine them together. I know my mom did and found great happiness in doing so…it is not easy to sacrifice and then enjoy the sacrifice.
During the final days, weeks and months of my mother's life she endured a lot of pain and suffering. I would wonder why but I think it was her way of showing us how to gain strength through suffering. I did not want my mother to leave us but at the same time I did not want her to suffer. I do know she is reunited with all the saints in heaven, and with my Dad, her parents, brothers and lots of family. I am sure God told my mother that she is a great example of faith through her life and actions.
There is not enough time or paper to write down all the things that my mother did for her family and others. I am honored to send this remembrance of her and how her one life impacted so many. I am grateful to you, the close circle of family and friends I've been blessed to have, for allowing me to share it. My hope is that all of us who loved Mom will be encouraged to do more, be more, help more.
I am picturing her having a robust conversation with St. Ignatius on the contemplation of the love of God. My mom showed great courage throughout her life. I think she would be very pleased if we used that courage to be and do even more than we think we can, knowing she will be there to help carry the burden.
By John McCann
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