1926 Sister Michael Edward O'Byrne (1893–1976) earned an MA with a thesis entitled, An experimental test of the reciprocity law in photography over a wide range of continuous and intermittent exposures. Her supervising professor was John M. Kuehne. Sister O'Byrne later earned a PhD at The Catholic University of America in 1932. Her dissertation title was: Combination Frequencies and Infra-red Absorption Spectra of Certain Alkaloids.” The work was published in J. Opt. Soc. Am. 23, 92-94, (1933). She was head of the science department at Incarnate Word College in San Antonio, TX. She was responsible for raising $500,000 for a new science building. The three-story structure was dedicated on December 14, 1950, by Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York. Her remarkable journey is told below.
Sister Michael Edward O’Byrne’s home
Mary O'Byrne was born, May 10, 1893, in Ballycreen, Aughrim, County Wicklow, Ireland, to Michael O’Byrne and Mary Ann Merrigan. On September 10, 1909, Mary arrived in Galveston, Texas aboard the ship, Irak. The ship had departed Liverpool, England on August 20, 1909. She is listed as Mary O'Byrne in the manifest. Her last permanent residence is listed as Ballyerne (sp), Ireland, and her father is listed as Michael O'Byrne. The only passengers are 33 novices, ranging in ages from 15 to 30 and two Sisters, ages 39 and 36, who are Irish, but now live in San Antonio. The Irish-built steamer, was later renamed Mandasor, then Begia, and finally SS Huntstrick. She was sunk south of the Strait of Gibraltar in 1917 by the German submarine, U-39. On September 11, one day after arriving in Galveston, she entered Incarnate Word Academy, San Antonio. The academy had primarily Irish and German novices.
A family history and the details of her personal life are beautifully described in an article by her nephew, Eugene O’Byrne of Dublin, Ireland. He has generously provided all the pictures on this page. Frances Cronin assisted me in researching immigration records. The details of her years in the United States were generously provided by Eva M Sankey, Director, Archives and Records Management of University of Incarnate Word, San Antonio, TX.
Items on this page:
1. Sister Michael Edward O’Byrne Scientific Contributions
2. Summary of US Career
3. O’Byrne Family History by Eugene O’Byrne
4. O’Byrne Family Picture Album
In 1911, Mary was professed in religion as Sr. Michael Edward–first names of her father and grandfather respectively. She is shown at right on that occasion.
1909 September 10: Mary O’Byrne arrived in Galveston aboard the ship, Irak. The ship had department Liverpool, England on August, 20, 1909.
1909 September 11: Mary entered Incarnate Word Academy, San Antoinio, TX. The academy had primarily Irish and German Novices.
1910 August 15: Investiture
1911 August 15: First Profession. She took the first names of her father and grandfather
respectively, Sister Michael Edward O’Byrne. Picture at right.
1911–1912: Sacred Heart Cathedral School/ Immaculate Conception School, San Angelo, TX
1912–1914: All Saints Academy, Ft. Worth, TX
1914–1915: Mt. Carmel Academy, Ft. Worth, TX
1915–1916: St. Michael's School, Cuero, TX
1916–1918: Holy Angels Academy (Treasurer), Boerne, TX
1916 August 15: Final Profession
1918: Holy Rosary School, Hartshorne, OK
1919: College and Academy of the Incarnate Word
1923 May 5: Granted U. S. Citizenship (San Antonio newspaper, Mel Oakes)
1926: Masters in Physics from the University of Texas at Austin
1928–1932: Catholic University of America, PhD in Physics.
In 1932, following her completion of her dissertation at the Catholic University, Sister Michael returned to Ireland to visit her family and attend the wedding of her younger sister, Bride.
1932–1955: Incarnate Word College (IWC) Chemistry and Physics Instructor
1935: Elected as Fellow of the Texas Academy of Science
1940: Attended summer session at St. Louis University
1944–1950: Conducted cancer research in collaboration with Institutum Divi Thomae of Cincinnati, Ohio
1953: Trip to Ireland. She returns to NY from Cobh, Ireland on the HMHS Britannic, September 5, after a trip of 8 days. She has 10 pieces of luggage.
1955–1958: St. Ann's School
1958–1960: Marillac College, St. Louis, MO, Science Department
1960–1965: Incarnate Word Convent/Motherhouse/Brackenridge Villa
1965–1976: St. Joseph's Convent
1976 June 14: Passed away at St. Joseph's Convent, San Antonio, TX, buried in Incarnate Word College Cemetery, Row DD, No 4.
Comments from Sister Michael’s Students:
Commander Constance J. Jones
A testimonial to Sister O’Byrne came from Constance J. Jones, Commander USN (Ret.), who had a teaching career in mathematics and chemistry. She also worked as a pharmaceutical chemist, and did pioneering work in the development of radar systems at the Boston Navy Yard Radar Laboratories during WWII. Commander Jones was born January 24, 1922 in Jefferson City, Missouri to Thomas Griffith Jones and Miriam Jauchler Jones, she loved to tell the story that, at that time, her father was at the prison as an auditor. She also proudly declared that she had the advantage of having a father from San Antonio, and a mother from New Orleans. The family moved back to San Antonio, where she graduated from Jefferson High School. She was a member of "The Lassos," the school's western-style drill team. She traveled with her sister Lassos to New York in 1939 to perform at the World's Fair. She distinguished herself early on at what was then Incarnate Word College for her excellence in studying mathematics and chemistry, encouraged by the woman she called her "great friend and mentor," Sister Michael Edward O'Byrne. In a letter to Dick McCracken at the University of the Incarnate Word, she wrote: "In my day the science facilities were not, as we might say today, 'on the cutting edge of technology,' but the dedication and inspiration of Sister Michael Edward and her peers certainly were. And it was infectious." After graduating with her BS in 1943, Connie entered a special training program for Navy radar researchers, studying for five months at Harvard and four months at MIT, and received her commission as a Lieutenant, Junior Grade. She worked through the end of the war developing radar systems that were applied along the east coast to detect enemy submarines. She also helped develop radar guided missile systems for the possible invasion of Japan. Constance later earned a master’s and taught mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin.
Rosemary Cooper McCone
Rosemary Cooper, from Nez Perce, Idaho, attended Incarnate Word College in San Antonio. She was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws in 1958. Her husband, John A. McCone, was chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (1958–61), and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) (1961–-1965).
At right is a picture of John McCone, Pope Pius XII and Rosemary Cooper McCone on the Pope’s 80th birthday, 1956. Rosemary sent the picture to Sister Michael Edwards with the inscription: “For my wonderful and loving teacher Sister Michael Edwards— On the occasion of our Holy Father’s 80th birthday
Rosemary and John McCone”
At high tide on 20th August 1909, the ship Irak slipped its mooring ropes to Liverpool Docks and sailed down the Mersey River towards the Irish Sea on the first leg of its voyage to the port of Galveston, Texas, U.S.A. Four hours after leaving Liverpool, the Irak turned sharply to port and headed directly south on a course bisecting the Irish Sea.
Eight hours into the voyage, a girl of sixteen years of age, one of the group of thirty-three young women novices who were traveling as passengers on board, might have been observed standing on the starboard deck and gazing intently at that part of the Irish coast known as County Wicklow.
A north-south-running range of gently rounded mountains forms the backbone of County Wicklow, but in the central part is a mountain that is conical shaped - in distinct contrast to its neighbouring hills. Croaghanmoira1 as it is officially known is one of the most easily identifiable mountains in Ireland.
Thomas Drummond, a British army officer and civil engineer, was given the task of accurately mapping the island of Ireland in 1824. He temporarily installed his new invention, the Drummond light, on the peak of Croaghanmoira. This light, visible for over a hundred kilometres, was instrumental in establishing Croaghanmoira as one of the most important cardinal points in the trigonometrical survey of the British Isles.
The sixteen-year-old standing on the deck was very familiar with the landscape of Croaghanmoira as she had been born and had spent all her young life living at its base. Although she may not have been aware of Thomas Drummond’s work, she herself was to become a shining light and inspirational teacher in the field of science. She would be one of the pioneering women to break into the male dominated field of chemistry and physics and not only earn a doctorate but also the recognition of her work and the esteem of her peers.
But for now, standing there on the deck of the Irak, she was a very young, sixteen-year-old girl suffering from the first sharp pangs of homesickness. Mary O’Byrne had said goodbye to her parents and family just a few days before. She had resolved to turn her back on the world and dedicate her life to God by living the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. And as the ship headed out into the open Atlantic, leaving the coast of Ireland behind, she was following the centuries old tradition of Irish monks and missionaries and making the ultimate sacrifice of the “White Martyrdom” – leaving her home country for the love of God, probably never to return.
Mary O’Byrne, known later in life as Sr. Michael Edward, was the eldest sister of my father, was enrolled as a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word on the day after she arrived in Galveston and later joined the faculty of the Incarnate Word College in San Antonio, Texas.
One hundred and two years later, in January 2011, Melvin Oakes, Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Texas, having consulted with my distant cousin Roni Heise2 of California, provided me with details of milestones and achievements in the life of Mary after she had arrived in Galveston on the 10th September 1909. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to assist him to walk in Mary’s footsteps and to reconstruct the story of her life for the benefit of posterity.
1 Height 644 m Latitude 52.91845N Longitude 6.3665W – the 168th highest mountain in Ireland is also called “The Motty” by local inhabitants.
2 Roni Heise with whom I had collaborated with in compiling our family history is my third cousin once removed.
Mary O’Byrne was born on the 10th May 1893, in her parents’ home in the townland3 of Ballycreen Upper, Aughrim, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. Her parents were Michael O’Byrne and his wife Mary Ann (neé Merrigan). She was christened in her local church of St. Columba's, Greenane on the day4 following her birth in accordance with the custom of that time which was to baptise children as early as possible. Her godparents were her cousin, Edward Byrne of Ballycreen Lower5, and her aunt Sara Merrigan. The celebrant was the parish curate Rev. Phillip Power C.C.
Mary was a descendant of the Clan O’Byrne whose ancestry can be traced back to pre-Christian times in Ireland. The Clan were noted for their fierce resistance, extending from the twelfth to the mid-seventeenth centuries, to the encroachments of the English government in their colonization of Ireland in general and especially into O’Byrne territory. In 1649/50 Cromwell smashed the power of the Irish nation and the O’Byrnes’ ability to resist was greatly diminished. The leaders were declared traitors6 and had to flee abroad under sentence of death. A large number of the lower ranks of the defeated army were captured and sold as slaves to plantation owners on British occupied Caribbean islands.
The townland in which Mary was born is situated on the uplands of the eastern edge of the Wicklow Mountain range and is in the heartland of what was formerly O’Byrnes territory. Mary was a direct descendant from the O’Byrne farmers who had resumed farming in Ballycreen in the years following Cromwell’s Plantation. Written records for the period from about 1650 to 1760 are very scarce in Ireland, and it is not yet possible to ascertain who were Mary’s ancestors during that time.
The earliest verified ancestor of Mary who lived in Ballycreen was her great-grandfather Hugh O’Byrne (1765–1830). A rental record dated 1803 shows that he occupied an older house7 on the site of the house where Mary was born. He held the lease of a relatively large holding under the terms of a 1796 rental agreement with his landlord. This lease stipulated that the term was for “three lives” i.e. for the duration of Hugh’s life and those of his two legal successors. The second life was Mary’s grandfather Edward O’Byrne (1804–1892) who succeeded on his father’s death. The third life was Mary’s father Michael.
3 A townland in Ireland is the smallest geographical land division.
4 As recorded in the Aughrim Parish Baptismal Register (Entry No. 418)
5 Contiguous townland to Ballycreen Upper.
6 An ironic charge by a regime that had revolted against their sovereign and had him executed in 1649.
7 The walls of this single storied house are still standing and in good condition. It is used by the present owners as an outbuilding
Hugh’s son, Edward O’Byrne (1804–1892) and Mary O’Byrne8 neé Byrne (1800 –1897) were Mary’s paternal grandparents. They were certainly independent-minded and most certainly married for love. Edward’s parents had chosen a girl named Fogarty for him to marry but he wasn’t happy and had his eye on Mary Byrne. In about 1825 they eloped to the nearby town of Rathdrum but the priest there wouldn’t marry them.
The following extract from an audio recording of Edward O’Byrne9 (1894 – 1980), a younger of brother of Sr. Michael relates the event as it unfolded “…… they went onto Rathdrum to be married, but the priest wouldn’t marry them. They had to go to Dublin. And they went to Dublin and were married in Marlborough Street, Marlborough Church in Dublin. And the priest married them there do you see that the bishop probably had to be called into it and they came back home and then to Ballycreen and started on there again”.
In the same recording Edward describes the dramatic homecoming of the newly married couple. This pair had committed a serious transgression in a time when filial duty was expected and they had to face the anger and disapproval of Edward’s parents over a longer period of time. In fact, the local priest had to intervene. According to Edward (Uncle Ned): “then a curate priest I can’t name got to know it and he came into the scene—whatever he done or didn’t do, I don’t know, but at least that priest whoever he is maybe he stopped the whole thing, stopped the row that was on and my grandmother and my grandfather and all lived along together. After that my grandfather took in the working of the place of his home, done it as well as he could. It wasn’t a big place then—a certain number of acres with the result he worked along and started”.
Sr. Michael may have inherited this trait of her grandparents—the ability to cut the Gordian knot by going straight to the top as they did, to the bishop, to claim a solution to their quandary. When they came home they not only were happily married to each other but also had the bishop’s blessing, against which nobody could argue.
Sr. Michael may have been somewhat embarrassed by her grandparents elopement – her sisters certainly were. My father and Uncle Ned occasionally impishly teased them about the elopement of their grandparents—but the sisters, who had a mild Victorian outlook and revered parental authority, always quickly changed the subject.
8 She was born and raised in the townland of Ballylusk, Glendalough, Co. Wicklow.
9 Edward, or Uncle Ned, as he was known in my family, inherited his father’s farm in 1933. In 1948 he sold it and moved to Cooladine, Enniscorthy in Co. Wexford. Uncle Ned was in his declining years when this recording was made by his daughter Sr. Mary O’Byrne, presently 2011, archivist for the Dominican Congregation of Nuns in Ireland.
Mary’s mother, Mary Ann Merrigan, was born in Killeagh, Aughrim, Co. Wicklow on the 24th August 186710 and baptised in a private ceremony three days later in St. Brigid’s Church, Macreddin. Her parents were Patrick and Mary (neé Carey) Merrigan. The fact that she was baptised in a private ceremony indicates that she was very weak at birth and had given rise to such concerns for her survival that a family member had baptised her at home. A private baptismal ceremony is a conditional baptism and is only performed by a priest in circumstances when there is doubt as to whether the person is, or is not baptised. The ceremony was conducted in Latin and began with the words "Si non es baptizatus" (If you are not already baptised ------). The priest who celebrated Mary Ann’s conditional baptism was Rev. Richard Galvin, P. P Rathdrum and her sponsors were James Mara and Mary Freney, both of whom were probably close relatives.
Mary Ann was born the eldest daughter in a family of five daughters and seven sons. She was reared on her parent’s farm in Killeagh, and only six kilometres distant from that of her future husband. It was on this farm that Mary Ann grew to adulthood and she related to my brother Sylvester during the 1940s of how, during her growing days, she used to sell farm produce such as eggs, milk and butter to the miners’ families living in the nearby Avoca area and that she brought home “pennies by the bucketful”.
She does not appear to have suffered any side effects from her difficult very early days in life. She developed into the beautiful young woman depicted at right—with the high cheekbones characteristic of many of her direct descendants. Many of her grandchildren who knew her later in life remember her as being of average height. She is not wearing a wedding ring and it is assumed that this photo was taken about 1890. Dressed in all her finery, including the fur stole11 as depicted she must have had many suitors.
Subsequent to matchmakers’12 negotiations Mary Ann married Michael on the 17th February 1892 in their local church of St. Brigid’s, Macreddin. The witnesses were Sarah Carey and Bernard Kelly, both respectively first cousins of the bride and groom. The celebrant was Rev. John D. Mulloy D. D. P. P. A strong hint of Mary Ann’s sense of self-confidence and the respect in which she was held is evident from the way in which the official marriage register was completed. Column 6 of this form required a description of the profession or status of both bride and groom. Women, at that time, normally filled in this with such descriptions as “housekeeper”, “farmer’s daughter”, or “maid”. Mary Ann’s status is written emphatically and both eloquently and succinctly as “lady”. There could hardly be a greater contrast in the circumstances of this wedding to that of her husband’s parents.
Their honeymoon, in part at least, was spent in Dublin as evidenced by the fact that the wedding photos (one seen at left) bear the photographer’s logo of “Glover Dublin”. The honeymoon period was sadly and abruptly cut short as fifteen days after their wedding Michael’s father died in Ballycreen, aged 88, on the 4th March 1892.
Mary Ann obviously settled quickly into her new life in Ballycreen and her marriage was very successful. She made a good impression on her mother-in-law and with her other in-laws in Ballycreen. In 1894, Hugh O’Byrne, Mary Ann’s brother-in-law, wrote in a letter to his brother William Anthony13, who was then living in Australia that “Mother is in her usual good health very happy with her daughter-in-law”.
Although Mary Ann’s entrance to Ballycreen was not quite as dramatic as her mother-in-law’s over sixty years previously she manifestly marked out her domain very early. Family lore relates that without reference to her husband, Mary Ann went to Dublin and bought two wrought iron gates and stone pillars to establish a new entrance to her new home. When she got word that these had been delivered to Aughrim railway station she informed her husband of the situation and requested him to dispatch the necessary horses and carts to collect them. History does not record Michael’s reaction but he complied and the stone pillars and iron gates were erected and could still be seen in situ up to the 1970s. Someone has suggested that Caesar’s words “Veni, vidi, vici” appropriately sums up her early activities.
10 Recorded in the Rathdrum Parish Baptismal Register (No. 2228 of 1867)
11 This is obviously a professionally-taken photo. Subjects often posed with props such as the fur stole
12 Matchmakers were people who acted as go betweens during marriage negotiations. It is said that Mary, wife of Michael’s eldest brother Hugh, was the person who so acted in this case.
13William Anthony (1842–1905) spent a brief time in the U.S.A about the time of the Civil War. He returned to Ireland but he had the wanderlust and he emigrated permanently to Australia about 1866. There he married twice, his first wife having died in childbirth; he named his first two sons by his second wife after Fiach McHugh, the famous O’Byrne chief of the late 16th century.
Mary’s father Michael O’Byrne was born in the same house as she and he was baptised14 in St. Brigid’s Church, Macreddin on the 29th September 1847. This was the worst year of the Great Famine in Ireland that lasted from 1846 to 1851. He was the youngest child in a family of six girls and five boys. His eldest sibling, Hugh (1827 –1912), was almost of full age when Michael was born. The family survived the devastation of the famine through a combination of factors, not least of which were the size of their farms which were large enough to sustain crops other than potatoes, and the support and mutual assistance between them and their close relatives in the neighbouring two O’Byrne farms.
A comparison of the population of their townland enumerated in 1841 and 1851 shows a fall from sixty persons to fifty-three. Ballycreen Lower, the sister townland of Ballycreen Upper and contiguous with it, recorded a fall from sixty-three persons in 1841 to twenty two persons in 1851. The reduction in Ballycreen Lower was more typical of the effects of the famine. However, Michael’s family in Ballycreen Upper were not totally immune from the ravages of the famine and three of his cousins from Moneymeen15 emigrated to the U.S.A. and settled in the state of Wisconsin in 1851 where some of their descendants still reside.
Michael attended the national school situated in the churchyard of St. Brigid’s Church, Macreddin. A school inspector reported in 1856 that the only teacher there was “deficient in method; careless as regards neatness and cleanliness of the schoolroom”. He graded the teacher in the “1st Division of 3rd Class”. He stated that there was an inadequate supply of schoolbooks; that the roof was slated and the floor was boarded although there was neither clock nor blackboard. Most significantly the report stated, “School struck off the roll, for insufficient average attendance, 5th October 1855; restored 27th June 1856”. The effects of the famine are self-evident from this report as the population in the area slowly declined, leaving for example, only thirty-three persons in Ballycreen Upper in 1891.
Michael’s education did not materially suffer from the quality of the schooling described above. He wrote with beautiful copperplate lettering and seems to have been self-taught and well read. His favourite reading material appears to have been non-fiction accounts of Gaelic history, and in particular the history of the O’Byrnes. In later life, he wrote competent and lucid letters to bureaucrats seeking information or redress both on his own behalf and by request from his neighbours. Even in the late 1920s, when he was over eighty years of age, he wrote to correct Irish government officials16 for misadministration in their land dispositions of his neighbours. Unfortunately, no personal letters of Michael's have been discovered.
Upon completion of his schooling, Michael took his place on his father’s farm. The post-famine generation saw no future at home, and attracted by letters and money for passage from their relatives abroad, they emigrated in their droves. This left a lack of girls of marriageable age and is probably the main reason why Michael married so late in life. Another strong reason was the psychological shock resulting from the famine, which made people cautious about getting married and having children. Farmers’ sons often waited until they were absolutely sure that they would inherit the farm before they married.
An indenture “bearing date the sixteenth day of April one thousand eighteen hundred and eighty five and made between Edward Byrne of Ballycreene in the county of Wicklow farmer of the one part and Michael Byrne of same place, son of the said Edward Byrne” transferred the aged Edward’s leasehold interest to his son. Subsequent to the enactment of land reforming legislation, Michael acquired the property in freehold in the early years of the twentieth century and thus became the first O’Byrne to own land in Ballycreen since Garret O’Byrne17 who was the recorded owner of the whole townland of Ballycreen in 1641.
Nicknamed “Long Mick” because of his stature, Michael had an imposing physical presence and obviously had an aura of gravitas judging by how highly he was regarded by his neighbours. His former landlord Kemmis discovered in 1905 that Michael was not a man to be trifled with. The landlord attempted to prosecute and sue Michael for illegal hunting, but Michael and his legal team neatly turned the tables in court and the suit was never re-entered. In 1907, Michael helped to mobilise public opinion to force Kemmis to re-instate some of his neighbours whom Kemmis had peremptorily evicted that year.
When Michael died in 1933, his obituary stated that he had taken “a prominent part in local politics in the Land League18 days and was a wise and far-seeing supporter of Irish National aspirations to the end of his days.” His political view on political reform was that of constitutional nationalism, that is, he favoured achieving the independence of Ireland by constitutional methods rather than physical force.
14 As recorded in Rathdrum Catholic Parish Baptismal Register.
15 The townland contiguous to the northeast of Ballycreen Upper
16 Ireland became an independent state in 1922.
17Garret was a grandson of Fiach McHugh O’Byrne (Circa 1530 – 1597) the most famous chief of the Clan O’Byrne
18 A political movement dedicated to promoting land reform in Ireland during the 1880s.
BORN & HOME
Mary was the first child to be born in her parent’s house in Ballycreen Park for over forty-five years. Her father’s mother Mary and her Uncle Edward O’Byrne (1837–1915) were living in house as well. Edward never married and lived all his life there. He was said to be very gentle and was a great storyteller. Our own Uncle Edward (1894 –1980) has told us that it was he who passed on the family’s history. He was always given his full title and always referred to as “The Uncle Edward.”
Mary’s grandmother died on the 10th March 1897 at the grand old age of ninety-seven years. Mary had two siblings alive at the time of her grandmother’s death. Edward was born in 1894 and Saranne in 1895. Another sibling, Elizabeth, was sadly only nineteen days old when she died on the 6th December 1896. Bride was born in 1898, Patrick Joseph in 1899, Una in 1900, Michael in 1903, Rita in 1905 and Andrew in 1906.
Born and raised inanda loving and safe family environment, Mary developed strong ties with her parents and siblings. Her father is reputed to have had a very gentle disposition with his children, a trait which complimented the more direct approach of her mother. Prayer was a very important part of Mary’s family and some of her parents’ prayers have been transmitted down to grandchildren by word of mouth. The well-known bedtime prayer for children was taught to us thus:
Here I lay me down to sleep
To God I give my soul to keep
So that if any danger comes near me
Awaken me O God to pray to thee
There are four corners on my bed
Four holy angels on them spread
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
Bless the bed which I lie on.
Sr. Mary O’Byrne19 of the Dominican Congregation of Nuns, a niece of Mary, lived in Ballycreen Park as a child in the nineteen forties. She tells of feeling very happy and secure sitting in a niche alongside the chimney breast in a room in the upper floor. It was there that she played and read storybooks and let her imagination take hold. It is safe to assume that Sr. Michael shared such happy childhood memories.
Lulled to sleep by the babbling waters of the clear mountain stream that flowed past the gable of her home and woken in the morning by the call of the birds, wild and domestic, the farm animals stirring about—Mary grew through her first stage of childhood. One of the most natural melodic sounds with which Mary would always have remembered was the haunting call of the cuckoo. This bird heralded the arrival of summer in Ireland, and their song can be heard throughout the month of May. Another bird with a very long and plaintiff call was the curlew which inhabited the wetter parts of Ballycreen. Higher, as one ascended the mountain behind Mary’s home, one could be startled by the grouse, which hid in the heather until the last moment, and suddenly took off with a raucous cry that sounds very like human laughter.
The landscape in Ballycreen and surrounding areas is dominated by Croaghanmoira Mountain, known locally as The Motty. Mary’s home was at the base of this mountain and afforded a scenic view down the valley to the borders of County Wexford. The public road which runs through the higher part of Mary’s farm is known as the Brown Hill Road where fabulous views of the Wicklow coastline can be seen. On clear days, the mountains of Wales, one hundred and twenty kilometres distant, can be seen across the Irish Sea with the naked eye. It is best seen in late August or early September when the golden sunshine prevails and the Motty and its sister, Ballinacor Mountain, provide a beautiful purple backdrop to Ballycreen’s green fields.
The Motty is probably best described in the following poem by Hugh McCarthy20. Written by him a few years before Mary was born, it extols not only the scenery but also the culture and religious fervour of Mary’s time when she lived in Ballycreen..
“UP ON THE MOTTY”
Up on the Motty the grey mists are falling
Hiding its summit so silent and cold
Down in the valley the moor fowl are calling
High on Macreddin the gorse it is gold
Gold is the gorse and dark purple the heather
Rain wet their blossoms all fragrant and sweet
Hidden thro’ and untroubled by weather
Lies old Ballycreen at the dark mountain’s feet
Haunted by pheasant and curlew and plover
Fringed with blae-berries and slender green sedge
Well do I mind in the dear days long over
Cutting and “footing” the turf on your ledge
Many a “Station” in summer I made there
Wading thro’ the heather that circled your brow
Many a prayer I often have prayed there
Prayers – thanks to God that are fructified now
Up on the Motty the curlew is crying
On famed Ballinacor the gorse it is gold
Far from it all forever I’m sighing
For a glimpse of the old land and dear friends of old.
Mary, at three and a half years of age, may have had some concept of the sadness caused by the death of her baby sister, Elizabeth, who died in 1896 from the effects of the flu virus. She was in far-off San Antonio in 1918 when her two younger brothers Michael, fifteen, died on the 8th December 1918, and the youngest in the family, Andrew, eleven, died the following day – both infected by the terrible influenza virus of that year. She must have keenly felt their loss, especially as she had only known them both as children. (Mary’s parents and sibling shown at left, summer of 1920.)
There must have been something in the air about Ballycreen or in the water or the genetic makeup of the O’Byrnes that permitted six of the seven children who grew to adulthood to live to be octogenarians. The exception was Patrick, better known as PJ, who died aged seventy-five.
19 Edward inherited Ballycreen upon the death of his father Michael in 1933. His two first children, Mary and Michael lived there until 1948 when Edward sold the farm and moved to County Wexford.
20The author was a local man who had moved away from County Wicklow to live all his adult life in Dublin.
Mary was just over five years old when she first attended school on the 23rd May 189821. Her school was situated in the townland of Ballycreen Lower and was about two kilometres distant from Mary’s home. There was only one teacher and approximately twenty-five pupils normally attended. Her younger brother Edward joined her in September of 1898, and her sister Saranne in January 1899. The rest of her brothers and sisters all followed in due course. School in Ballycreen Lower is shown in current photo at right.
A local newspaper22 reported the first motorcar accident in the area which occurred on the 17th February 1898 on the public road near Mary’s school. It caused a great sensation and much talk locally and probably was Mary’s first introduction to the technology of the coming new century. Mary’s parents decided that, as she grew older, she should attend school in the nearest village, situated in Aughrim, and five kilometres farther down the road past her first school in Ballycreen. As she was of an age to have the ability to drive a horse, she and her siblings who followed suit, travelled there by pony and trap.
The Aughrim school, which is shown at left, was described in a 1910 guide, “There is an excellent National School, ably conducted by Mr. C. McSweeney, who holds the highest possible certificate as a teacher. It was built in 1895, and has an average attendance of 58.” Irish is also taught to every child attending the school23”.
Mr. McSweeney’s reputation was well-deserved. My father revered him and often told of how he learned not only the normal school curriculum, but also diverse subjects ranging from science to gardening to Gaelic mythology. Mary’s siblings never had an interest in science in later life but no doubt it was Mr. McSweeney who encouraged Mary in her early interest. He was a multi-talented, energetic individual, a leader in community activities who wrote many articles on local history24 and acted as a peace commissioner25 in post-independent Ireland.
Children in Ireland then, as now, normally complete their primary education at the age of thirteen and thus Mary had completed the normal primary education by 1906. She had very likely decided at this young age to follow in the footsteps of many of her cousins who had become teachers after having joined various religious congregations.
It is not known for certain what establishment, if any, Mary next attended to acquire the standard of education to join her chosen congregation. Three probable routes were open to Mary, the first being to stay at home and become self-taught. This is probably the least likely as she lived on a busy farm where all hands were needed to do the work, and it would have been seen as idle to be reading when people all around were industriously working.
The next least likely option was for Mary to attend a boarding school run by a religious congregation. It was an expensive exercise and possibly she felt that it would be too much a burden on her parent’s budget. Perhaps she wished to emulate the example of her cousin and namesake, Mary O’Byrne (1866–1914) eldest daughter of Hugh O’Byrne who lived in Mary’s neighbouring farm. This Mary had travelled to Australia about 1885 and had worked there for a number years. She paid back her parents her travelling expenses and had then became a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, a congregation of teaching nuns.
It is most likely that Mary remained on in Aughrim School, under the tutelage of Mr. McSweeney. There was provision at that time in Ireland for very bright children to continue their studies into a seventh and eight grade in a primary school, a step which involved the study of subjects at secondary level. They then went on to become unpaid “monitors” in their own school and from there, circumstances being favourable, they entered teacher-training colleges.
21 Eddie Byrne of Cronawinna has a list of the start dates of all the pupils who attended Ballycreen Lower school for the period between it’s opening in 1894 and it’s closure in the late 1960s.
22 The Wicklow People.
23 Part 2 Porter’s Directory & Guide, Wicklow 1910
24 Under the pen name “Caol Fhad”.
25 Public notary.
Mary’s decision to enter the convent was motivated by the fact that religion was central to the lives of most Irish people and the vast majority of them, including all the O’Byrnes of Ballycreen, were staunch Catholics. Her parents raised her in an atmosphere of daily prayers, weekly attendance at Mass, and constant reminders from them of the presence of God. Prayer was not forgotten even on a pleasant stroll on the Motty – as Hugh McCarthy mentions in his poem:
Wading thro’ the heather that circled your brow
Many a prayer I often have prayed there
The self-confidence and prosperity of larger Catholic leaseholders following emancipation and the restoration of their civil rights increased as the 19th century progressed. They always supported their church through voluntary contributions and by legacies and as the Catholic Church became more organised many of their sons and daughters became members of the Catholic clergy and the expanding congregations of nuns.
It was not only the example of her parents that directed Mary towards her religious vocation, but also the model of no less than five of her first cousins.
Winifride O'Brien (1864–1942), in Religion, Sr. Kevin, of the Congregation of the Good Samaritan of the Order of St Benedict. Shown at left.
Catherine O'Brien (1866–1948), in Religion, Sr. Joseph, of the Congregation of the Good Samaritan of the Order of St. Benedict. Shown at right.
Both Sr. Kevin and Sr. Joseph were daughters of Maria O’Brien neé O’Byrne (1833–1909) who married Daniel O’Brien of Crecrin, Tullow, Co. Carlow in 1857. Maria was the eldest sister of Michael, Mary’s father. Both Sisters never returned to Ireland and served their lifelong mission in Australia as teachers.
Mary O’Byrne (1866–1914), in Religion, Sr. Urban, of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart. Sr. Urban as alluded to above, served her mission in Australia. She was the eldest daughter of Hugh O’Byrne, Mary’s uncle, who lived on the farm adjoining Mary’s home in Ballycreen. Picture at left.
Margaret O’Byrne (1867–1931), in Religion, Sr. Mathilde of the Congregation of Sisters of Good Help. She was the second eldest daughter of Hugh O'Byrne. She served her mission in France and later in London. Picture at right.
Brigid O’Byrne (1877–1948) (At left), in Religion, Mother Celestine of the Congregation of Sisters of the Holy Faith. She was the fifth eldest daughter of Hugh above and served her mission England.
Two of Mary’s first cousins, once removed, Margaret (born 1843) and Jane (1845–1934), from her grandmother’s family in Ballylusk and known respectively in religion as Mother Kevin who served in Ireland and Sr. Celine who served her lifelong mission in Paris, France were other individuals of Mary’s extended family
Another consideration also is that fact, that in Ireland in those days, only women who were married or widowed or nuns had any status. Many professions were not an option for women as they were barred from university entrance. A nun, however, could acquire third level qualifications and this was the chosen option for women such as Mary who combined their careers with a very devout and fervent religious life.
The enrollment of adolescents both male and female into religious orders was normal at that period and, indeed, the practice continued on in secondary schools into the 1960s when a small number of boys and girls were recruited and given a free civil and religious education to whatever level they were capable and willing.
At sixteen years of age, all the facets of Mary’s childhood and adolescent experiences now came to the surface—her harmonious experiences of close and extended family ties, her religious upbringing, the examples and encouragement of her cousins and peers, and her desire to become a teacher—all steered Mary in one direction—that of taking the veil at the earliest opportunity. (Mary, at 16, shown with unknown relative. The small object in her hand is presumed to contained a lock of her hair to be given to her family.)
Throughout this period also it was normal for nuns in Ireland to regularly visit prosperous farmer’s houses on fund-raising activities. Due to their elevated status as nuns, they were always welcomed and invited into the best room in the house for tea. The second purpose of the nuns’ visit, in addition to fund-raising, was to ascertain if any girls living there were contemplating entry into a community of nuns.
It is thought that nuns accepted Mary as a postulant candidate following a visit to her house in Ballycreen. The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word had no convents in Ireland at the time when Mary decided, in early 1909, to join their congregation. They used the good graces of another order of nuns to identify potential members and then contacted Mary’s parents. The congregation must have seen Mary as ideal material - given her background and keen intellect.
It is not clear why Mary chose to enroll with The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word who at that time were a congregation of nuns based in the U.S.A. and with its motherhouse situated in San Antonio, Texas. Perhaps she was attracted to the prospects of serving on a mission in a part of the world that was new to her family and also the prospect of obtaining a university education—an option not available to her in Ireland.
Mary was the first and only member of her immediate family to leave Ireland permanently. Her nearest relative living in the U.S.A. at the time of her departure was her first cousin Edward O’Byrne24 (1879–1944) (Show at left), who had arrived in Ellis Island, New York on the 1st August 1900.
It was not the custom in Wicklow to have an “American Wake” but no doubt many relations, friends and neighbours of Mary came to say their last goodbyes to Mary on the night before she set out for what was perceived as far distant North America.
Mary’s parents, albeit somewhat inured by their contacts with relations in even more distant Australia, must have suffered greatly upon Mary’s departure. Although they had concluded their responsibilities as parents to Mary and passed onto her all the life skills required for her to live life independently, they both must have worried about her immaturity and whether they would meet again. Now as her mother helped her pack her trousseau and had final words of advice, it must have seemed to them as if time had simultaneously flown and stood still. All Mary’s brothers and sisters would have accompanied Mary as her father drove her to the railway station in Aughrim. There would have been great sadness as they saw her go, little realising that they would not see her again for twenty-three years. It was to be the last sight of Mary for her young brothers Michael and Andrew who tragically died in 1918, one day after another, when Mary was in her tenth year in Texas.
Picture at right located at Aughrim School, County Wicklow, 1900s. Sr. Michael’s siblings:
L to R: Bride (Brigid) b. 1898, Paddy (at back) b. 1899, Michael b. 1903, and Una b. 1900.
(Note: Joan says that it is definitely Michael—identified by Aunt Rita)
Undoubtedly Mary’s sadness was somewhat tinctured by hope and optimism and excitement at the prospects of her new phase in life. Accompanied by her chaperon, she and other girls from Ireland travelled together to Liverpool. The whole group, now thirty-three strong, sailed across the Atlantic on the ship named Irak and arrived in Galveston, Texas, U.S.A. on the 10th September 1909.
26 Edward was eldest son of Laurence O’Byrne (1840—1924) an elder brother of Mary’s father. Edward was living in 1908 in Baltic, Michigan when Mary arrived in Texas. His grandson, Mike O’Byrne wrote to the writer in July 2004 “About Edward. He moved his family from Michigan to Butte, Montana in about 1914 and went to work in the copper mines there. At that time, Butte was the copper mining center of the world and was known as the "richest hill on earth." Edward rose in the labor ranks and became a labor leader in Butte. In 1936, he was elected to the Montana State Legislature as a Democrat with the Roosevelt landslide. After serving one term in the legislature, he was appointed as the director of the Department of Labor for the State of Montana. (Not bad for an Irish immigrant.) At the start of the war, my father moved to Seattle, Washington to work for the US Navy and his parents followed soon after. Edward passed away on September 9, 1944, from silicosis which he got from working in the mines".
Mary did not return to Ireland until 1932—an absence of almost twenty-three years. During this long period, Mary was following a trend of Irish missionaries, male and female, who since the sixth century Irish missionary monk St. Columba27, had left the comfort of their homes and homeland and had set forth abroad to preach the Gospel in a spirit of martyrdom and atonement to God and in the expectation that they would never see home or family again. It will be seen later what this would cost Mary in terms of loneliness and isolation from her family.
Up on the Motty the curlew is crying
On famed Ballinacor the gorse it is gold
Far from it all forever I’m sighing
For a glimpse of the old land and dear friends of old
Mary entered the novitiate as a postulant of the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, on the day after she arrived in Galveston and from then graduated through the Congregation’s religious rites of passage to her perpetual profession on the 15th August 191628. It was at this ceremony that she took the Christian names of her father and grandfather and thus became known in religion as Sr. Michael Edward. In deference to her commitment to her faith as the driving force of her life, I will refer to Mary as Sr. Michael for the remainder of this tribute.
During these years Sr. Michael not only developed her religious life but also fulfilled her ambition to become a teacher. She commenced her teaching career in the Immaculate Conception School, San Angelo, Texas, in 1911, and earned her bachelor’s degree from the Incarnate Word College in 1923.
Her educators obviously recognised her potential and so encouraged her to further studies. Sr. Michael didn’t disappoint them, and she went on to earn her MA from the University of Texas in 1926 and her PhD from the Catholic University of America, Washington D.C., in 1932. She was obviously keen to advance science and her efforts were recognised by her peers by conferring on her such awards as Fellow in the Texas Academy of Science and Fellow in the Chemical Society of England.
Sr. Michael’s scientific accomplishments were little understood and barely appreciated by her family back in Ireland. This is understandable as Sr. Michael would not have sang her own praises in her letters home and her cutting edge science was barely familiar to the scientific community of the times, let alone the average person on the street. However her parents and siblings and wider family were proud of her status as a nun and her highly respected standing as a professor.
FIRST VISIT HOME 1932
When Sr. Michael had completed her doctorate in Washington D.C., she was given leave of absence by her congregation to return to Ireland to visit her family. The second reason why Sr. Michael travelled to Ireland that year was to partake in the 31st International Eucharistic Congress29 which was held in Dublin, from 22nd June to 26th June 1932. Ireland was chosen to host the ceremonies as 1932, as it was the 1500th anniversary of the arrival of St. Patrick in Ireland.
Sr. Michael was probably accompanied by some of her Sisters from the Incarnate Word on the ship bearing her back to Ireland. They would have been traveling for the same reasons as she and all would have been eager to get their first sight of the homeland. Upon arrival, the group scattered in all directions to go to their own homes, and Sr. Michael would have taken the train to Aughrim. All her family, still living in the home in Ballycreen, went there to meet her30, and the long delayed reunion of the surviving family members must have been filled with tears and smiles.
As Sr. Michael ascended the road from Aughrim to Ballycreen, she got her first glimpse of The Motty from near Macreddin Chapel. Higher up the road, at the place where her first school stood, she had a full view of the mountain and her home nestling at its base. The first sight of one’s home landscape is the most blissful vista for any returning emigrant, and Sr. Michael must have been in rapture as she was once again able to look upon the cherished landscape of her youth.
27 My thanks to my brother Kevin for this perceptive insight into Mary’s mind-set during this period.
28 My thanks to Melvin Oakes for generously posting this accurate information.
29 In the Catholic Church a Eucharistic Congress is a gathering of clergy, religious, and lay persons to publicly affirm the Real Prescence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
30 There was an excellent telegram service but no telephones in Ballycreen in those days.
Sr. Michael must have been shocked to find her father looking so aged with his white beard and to find her mother somewhat careworn especially after the death of her two fine sons. All of Sr. Michael’s brothers and sisters were no longer the children and toddlers that she remembered from 1909 but had now grown to adulthood. The Uncle Edward, that gentle person, elder brother of her father, whom Sr. Michael had known since birth had died in 1915, and her neighbouring Uncle Hugh and his wife Mary, her father’s eldest brother, had passed away in 1912. All her aunts, her father’s sisters, had passed away and, as the days went by, she was told of distant relatives and friends who had passed away or had forever left the country to go abroad.
Sr. Michael’s arrival home coincided with a very happy event in her family—the marriage of her sister Bride to Joe Healy on the 1st June 1932. The wedding ceremony took place in the morning31 in St. Columba’s, Greenane32. Catholic Church rites of the time required the bride and bridegroom and any guests intending to take Communion at the nuptial Mass to have fasted since midnight. On completion of the ceremony the whole party retired to the bride’s home where the “wedding breakfast” was served. The furniture was pushed up against the walls and replaced by narrow seats. Dancing and singing followed, only to be interrupted by offers of food or tea or something stronger. Jigs, reels and hornpipes were played and Irish step dancing was the most popular. No doubt, Uncle Ned, Bride’s brother, who loved to play the fiddle, was busy all day.
Sr. Michael took a number of photos of the wedding and provided us with a fine record of the event. She also took photos of her parents and family--mainly in the garden of the family home in Ballycreen. Recent and future generations of Sr. Michael’s relatives will always be grateful for her photographic records.
As mentioned above, the second purpose of Sr. Michael’s visit to Ireland was to participate in the Eucharistic Congress held in Dublin between the 22nd and 26th June. The Congress brought together people from a wide area around the world, and large open-air Masses were said in addition to adoration of the Blessed Eucharist and other devotional ceremonies. Twelve ocean liners were moored in Dublin Port to act as floating hotels. The final public High Mass of the Congress was held in the wide open spaces of the Phoenix Park in Dublin at 1 p.m. on Sunday, the final day of the Congress. Mass was celebrated by Michael Joseph Curley, Archbishop of Baltimore, and it is estimated that up to 30% of practicing Catholics in Ireland, approximately one million people, were in attendance. There were thousands of clergy and religious who had come from all quarters of the globe assisting throughout the ceremonies.
Sr. Michael, in conjunction with her Sisters from the Incarnate Word, most likely had a formal part in the ceremonies even if it was only to be one of the thousands of priests and nuns who walked in the Congress’ final procession from the Phoenix Park to the centre of Dublin.
It is not known exactly when Sr. Michael finished her visit, but the sadness of leaving must have been emotionally difficult for her to bear. Unlike her departure in 1909, at least she knew what lay ahead as she returned to resume her life in Texas. The visit itself would have assumed an additional poignancy for her when, just over a year later, she learned of her father’s death on the 28th October 1933.
SECOND VISIT HOME 1937
Sr. Michael revisited Ireland in the summer of 1937. It is thought that, apart from a visit to her family, her other main purpose was to conduct a series of studies and lectures in an associate college of Oxford University, England.
It is known that Sr. Michael first visited her home in Ballycreen and then travelled to Oxford. She brought her youngest sister Rita (1905–1992) to stay with her for the duration of her stay in Oxford. Rita never passed on any account other than to say that Sr. Michael gave lectures in Oxford. Rita went on to say that Sr. Michael had invited her to move to the U.S.A. but Rita, who was a hometown girl and a lady of gentle character, had no desire to go.
Sr. Michael obviously brought her camera along on this trip as well and took some more photographs of family interest. A small number of these are in colour and it is thought that Sr.Michael had them coloured in Texas and then sent them back home. (On the left is Sr. Michael and her brother P. J. On the right, she is with her mother and sister Saranne, 1937.)
Her mother Mary Ann, her eldest brother Ned and her two sisters Saranne and Rita were the only ones living at home. Her sister Bride was living in County Carlow with her husband Joe Healy and her brother Patrick Joseph33, P. J. who had married Eileen Burke (1909–1975), in November 1936, lived on their farm in Ballinatone, just about 4 km from Ballycreen. Una, who is thought to have been living and working in Athlone at this time, did meet with Sr. Michael and appears in some of her photos.
Many of Sr. Michael’s relatives came to visit her in Ballycreen, and she, in turn, paid some return visits. She never forgot her obligation as a nun, and similarly to the way in which she herself had joined her congregation, she attempted to attract her cousin Margaret Fenelon (1923 – 2009) to consider becoming a member of the Incarnate Word Congregation.
Margaret, who was born and reared in Shangarry, County Carlow related to me in 2003 of how she arrived home from school one day in 1937 to find that Sr. Michael had arrived unexpectedly on a visit. Apparently, Sr. Michael had walked quite a distance from the nearest railway station and her clothes were all dusty by the time she got to Shangarry. After a little while into her visit, Sr. Michael invited Margaret and her elder sister Kathleen to take a walk with her through the fields. It was during this walk, Margaret told me, that she and her sister were invited to strongly consider joining Sr. Michael’s Congregation. When Sr. Michael had departed the two girls told their mother of the conversation, but she dismissed the approach out of hand. Four years later, Margaret and Kathleen became members of the Holy Faith Congregation and spent all their lives teaching in a convent school in Dublin. Sr. Catherine, as Margaret was known in religion, told me of the harsh and inhuman rules which used to apply in nunneries before the great reforms that resulted from Vatican Council II in the 1960s.
No letters written by Sr. Michael to her family in Ireland have been discovered. Her sisters most likely destroyed them after her death—their intention being to preserve Sr. Michael’s privacy. However, they did preserve one document written by her, and it is obvious that it was too dear to them for it to be destroyed; and they wanted future generations to understand the human cost that Sr. Michael had to endure when leaving her family and homeland.
The postcard34 written by Sr. Michael to her sister Saranne on the eve her departure from the coast of Ireland shows her frame of mind. She was almost senseless with sorrow and graphically wrote:
My pillow absorbed many a tear last night. My first night away from my devoted sister. You looked so badly when we parted that your face is before
me all day. I really feel very lonely. It cost more than anyone realized. I hope mother is all right. Being near the dear old coast of Ireland today is a comfort. Tonight when we leave Galway I will send you a loving Goodbye on the air back to Ballycreen. Love and plenty of it Sister.
31 This was normal practice in Ireland at that time.
32 St. Brigid’s Church, Macreddin, Bride’s nearest church. had been closed for public worship about 1890 and St. Columba’s, Greenane became the family’s nearest regular place of worship.
33 He was always called Paddy in family circles and was known as P.J to his friends.
34 Date stamped the 30th August 1937
1937 - 1947
The general consensus and the strong recollections of my siblings are that Sr. Michael came home in 1947. A photograph taken in the summer of 1947 depicts Sr. Michael in the garden of her brother’s home, Paddy, in Ballinatone. All of his children then born up to that time are in picture. It does not include Kevin who was born later in that year – a further indication that summer of 1947 was when Sr. Michael returned.
Many changes had occurred in Sr.Michael’s home in Ballycreen. Her brother Ned had inherited the farm subsequent to the death of their father Michael in 1933. During the 1930s, Sr. Michael’s mother and two sisters, Saranne and Rita, had used part of the home as a guesthouse to cater for the hill walkers who roamed the scenic area around Ballycreen. One of these walkers named Kathleen Breslin, a civil servant from Co. Cork, had returned to Ballycreen for a number of years, and both she and Ned fell in love and were married in 1939. Ned and Kathleen continued farming in Ballycreen, but Mary Ann and her two daughters moved to Springfield House in Arklow where they opened a full time guesthouse. By 1947, they had established a thriving business, and it was with them that Sr. Michael stayed for most of her visit.
From this time onwards, reliance has to be placed on the memories of Sr. Michael’s nieces and nephews to chart her time with them. Although these are mainly childhood recollections, they serve to elucidate Sr. Michael’s nature.
Joan35 still recalls Sr. Michael’s generosity: “She kept very close ties with her family and I always looked forward to her visits home, because she always brought lovely presents for us. I think her nieces fared out better than the boys in this regard. Our presents were dolls, chains and medals and, in our opinion at that time, the most gorgeous dresses!!, we were wearing American pinafores and they were very pretty. The jewelry was very attractive, reflecting the closeness of Mexico to San Antonio, silver and enamel featured a lot. She brought huge boxes of “candies” for each house and does anybody remember the marvelously rich fruitcake, which arrived at Christmas time? Last year I came across the place where the cakes are still manufactured in Texas, I sent off for one and it arrived, sure did revive memories. Anybody wants cake decorated with pecan and fruit I still have the address—Collin St. Bakery, 401W 7th Ave, Corsicana, Texas 75110.”
Joan vividly recalls when Sr. Michael came to visit our family in Ballinatone. All the children were dressed up in their best clothes and were under strict orders not to get them dirty. They were told to be on their best behaviour as Sr. Michael was a most important visitor. It must have been in late June as Joan remembers she and her younger brother Paddy went to the orchard and started eating the green fruit from the gooseberry trees. Later, they were brought into the parlour and introduced to Sr. Michael. She greeted them in a most friendly way and then offered them chocolate sweets with the words “Would you like some candies?” in a strong American accent. Joan and Paddy nearly fell over themselves in their eagerness to get their candies36.
They overdid it, however, and the combination of green gooseberries followed by a large number of unaccustomed candies upset their stomachs, and their lovely new clothes were destroyed, much to our mother’s shame. Joan was so traumatized by the whole experience that it took her a whole thirty years before she ventured to again eat another gooseberry. Sr. Michael’s reaction was not recorded.
Picture at right shows Mary O’Byrne, Sr. Michael and Joan O’Byrne. Picture identified by Joan, “The location is definitely Springfield House Arklow. There was a huge monkey puzzler tree in the garden. We were wearing pinafores given to us by Sr. Michael.”
Michael is definite that Sr. Michael visited Ireland in 1947 and that she stayed for an extended period. He is positive also that she returned to the U.S.A. by aeroplane from Shannon Airport rather than traveling by flying boat from Foynes as previously thought. Our eldest brothers, Michael and Syl, accompanied Dad and Saranne and others to the airport and it was all a big adventure for him. Michael distinctly remembers that when the steps were taken away from the aeroplane he saw Sr. Michael standing in the doorway waving a last goodbye.
In 1953, Sr. Michael came home to Ireland for her fourth family visit. Apparently, she had been injured in a recent laboratory explosion and her face and hands had been burned as a result. The picture at right, of her standing beside her nurse, Sr. Benedicta, was most likely taken after her first stage of recovery37 in Texas. Sick leave was probably granted to aid her recuperation and she returned to Ireland for her third visit.
As was normal practice for her by then, she stayed for most of her time with her mother and sisters in Arklow. By this time, they had purchased a much larger guesthouse called Lamberton Hall, pictured at left, and their business had really taken off.
Our brother Sean, then aged about nine recalls how he accompanied her in the car with Dad (P.J.) who was driving Sr. Michael on her first trip from Arklow to Ballinatone. Sean recalls clearly how Sr. Michael almost went into ecstasy on her first view of The Motty. It must have been a strong reaction on her part for Sean to remember it after all these years and is certainly understandable when one sees the sadness in her 1937 postcard.
Our brother, Kevin, then aged six, recalls being a passenger with Sr. Michael and Dad driving and going up to Ballycreen to see their old home. By 1953, Ballycreen was in the possession of new owners38who met Sr. Michael and Dad at the front door. Kevin remembers that they didn’t stay long in the house as he was left waiting in the car. It was probably a very painful moment for Sr. Michael to return to her old home. Her father was dead, and her mother and brothers and sisters had left, and strangers now occupied the ancestral home.
Our eldest brother, Mick, who has strong memories of Sr. Michael, tells a story of this visit. He was on holidays from his secondary school and had been given a mathematical problem that required a solution before his return. He knew that Sr. Michael was a teacher, and he enlisted her assistance. In about one minute she had helped him to find the answer, and Mick was impressed enough to recall this event nearly sixty years later.
Sr. Michael was always the teacher. Joan tells of how sometimes, when traveling in the car with her brothers, Sr. Michael would pose mathematical questions or ask them to spell words. The first who correctly answered received a small reward.
Sr. Michael, in her nun’s habit and air of authority, seemed somewhat remote and distant to her nieces and nephews. She didn’t always interact well with children as our brother Paddy found to his cost during his first encounter with her on this visit. She was sitting in armchair and when Paddy was nudged forward to shake her hand she reached over and gave him a big smacker of a kiss on his cheek—much to Paddy’s embarrassment and the amusement of his siblings. Such overt signs of affection were not common in Ireland in the nineteen fifties.
Joan, who made her Confirmation about the time of the visit of Sr. Michael, recalls that she brought Joan home a beautiful dress for the event with which Joan was thrilled. Sr. Michael also taught Joan a prayer for the occasion that she still remembers today – “O Holy Spirit, Sweet Guest of my soul, remain with me and grant that I will always remain with You”. Joan says she made a pact with God to always remember Sr. Michael and has taught this prayer to her own children and grandchildren.
Joan still remembers the sadness of Sr. Michael’s departure from Lamberton. All the aunts there, Sr. Michael, Saranne, Una and Rita and their mother Mary Ann were all nosily weeping, and this, in turn, really upset Joan. Sr. Michael probably underwent even more suffering than her sisters as she said goodbye to her elderly and ailing mother with both intuitively feeling that they would not see each other again in this world.
Sr. Michael set sail from Ireland on the 29th August 1953 and arrived in the U.S.A. eight days later on the 5th September 1953. The ship’s manifest records that she brought along ten pieces of luggage 39 and when I mentioned this fact recently to an elderly person who knew Sr. Michael, her first reaction was to spontaneously say “Books – all books“ - a possible explanation why Sr. Michael’s carried so many bags.
35 Our eldest sister, Joan, who married Matt Cassidy in 1967.
36 Ireland, in common with the rest of Europe was still enduring strict sugar rationing following the Second World War.
37 This photo was returned with some others of her personal effects to her sisters in Arklow after Sr. Michael had passed away.
38 Uncle Ned had sold the house and farm some years previously.
39 My thanks to Melvin Oakes for supplying these accurate details.
For many years, Sr. Michael sent home a yearbook of each of her graduating classes to her sisters in Arklow. Each yearbook was bound in white leather and contained not only the photos but also the hopes and aspirations of each of her graduating students. She was obviously very proud of all of them and their achievements.
Mary Ann, Sr. Michael’s beloved mother, died in Lamberton Hall on the 29th January 1955, just seventeen months after Sr. Michael’s return to San Antonio. Although profoundly religious and deeply aware of sacrifices that must be made in life, she would have suffered greatly from the loneliness resulting from the loss of her mother.
The consolation of her Sisters in religion and their concerns possibly prompted Sr. Michael to seek a period of respite by taking a teaching post in 1955 in the small school40 attached to the Catholic Parish of St. Ann’s, Kosciusko41, Texas. Kosciusko was and is a small rural town which in 1900 had a population of 22, but by 1990 it had risen to 390, including many of Polish descent42. In some respects, it may have reminded Sr. Michael of her early days “monitoring” in Aughrim and given her the rest and recuperation she needed.
In 1958, Sr. Michael returned to professorial responsibilities and took up a post in Marillac College, St. Louis, MO. In 1960 she departed for IWC San Antonio and, in 1965, she retired from active teaching after a career spanning fifty-four years.
During all this time, Sr. Michael was an inspiration to all her students and her influence was a testimony to goodness and truth. She was one of those rare human beings who practiced what she preached and lived up to the truism articulated by Albert Einstein that “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
In retirement at St. Joseph’s Convent for the elderly Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, Sr. Michael did not settle to sedentary life. Just as in the 1940s when her dynamic energy was instrumental in raising the half million dollars required to erect the new Science Hall at the IWC, so now gave much of her time to the fundraising activities of her Congregation.
She had time and energy enough to make one last visit to Ireland in 1969. As always she stayed with her younger sisters in Arklow. Saranne, Una and Rita who had never married, had sold their guesthouse business earlier in that year and had just moved into a new bungalow on the outskirts of Arklow. Friends and relatives came to visit and Sr. Michael renewed her contact with people in Ireland.
Sr. Michael was present at the time when her niece and namesake, Mary O’Byrne, daughter of Uncle Ned, became a member of the Congregation of the Dominican Sisters in Ireland in July 1969. It is the last known photograph depicting Sr. Michael in Ireland. Sister Michael and Mary are shown at right.
Sr. Michael’s three sisters in Arklow had all retired like her and she probably found it difficult to adjust to their lifestyle. Like many long departed emigrants, she obviously realised that the cultural gap between her everyday life in Texas and that in Ireland was hard to bridge, and so she left Ireland for the last time in 1969.
Her home was in the U.S.A and it was to the familiar things there that she returned. The support of her Sisters in religion, the company of friends and the consolation of her deeply held religious convictions remained the mainstays of her latter days, and it was in this environment she died on the 14th June 1976.
It’s thirty-five years since Sister Michael Edward died far away from her home in Ballycreen, Co. Wicklow. But her memory is still very much alive among her nieces and nephews. On one memorable occasion about three years ago, many of us gathered at her old home in Ballycreen at the invitation of the new owner. He had just renovated it and had the kindness and sensitivity to give the O’Byrne family an opportunity to revisit the home of their parents and uncles and aunts. It really is a place of great peace and extraordinary beauty. My father did not exaggerate when he described the babbling brook which runs past the front garden and the impressive majesty of The Motty which dominates the horizon at the back of the house, and on the slopes of which he and his brothers and sisters played as children. We remembered them all on that day: Sr. Michael, Ned, Saranne, Elizabeth, PJ, Bride, Una, Michael, Rita and Andrew, and of course our grandparents, Michael and Mary Ann.
We found it sad that they died away from their old home, especially Sr. Michael who died in far distant Texas. But we would like to think that her spirit made one last visit to Ballycreen as she went to her reward in Heaven. Perhaps once again she heard the babbling brook flowing past her home, or circling The Motty, she heard the call of the cuckoo or the joyous song of the mountain lark or the plaintiff cry of the curlew.
40 This school was run by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word and closed in 1969
http://www.sklossfarmservice.com/kosciusko.html - accessed 21st February 2011.
41 Spelt Kosciusco in Sr. Michael’s death notice issued by the Incarnate Word dated 19th June 1976.
42 http://www.alamo.edu/pac/faculty/rhines/StudentProjects/2001/Kosciuszko/WebPageKosciuszko.htm - accessed 21st February 2011.
*Eugene O’Byrne is the son of P. J. “Paddy “ and Eileen Burke O’Byrne. Paddy was the brother of Sister Michael Edward O’Byrne. Eugene is retired from the Telecom Section of the Irish Police where he was a radio engineer for thirty years (1972–2002). He and his wife of 37 years, Doris, live in Dublin where she manages a children’s non-profit community playgroup. They have three children: a nearby daughter, Aine married to Ger Whelan; a son Kevin living in Hawaii; and youngest daughter Niamh of Sydney, Australia. They have three grandchildren, Conrad and Aisling Whelan, and Mehana O’Byrne.. Modern communications enable them to stay in touch with their far-flung offspring, a luxury, sadly unavailable to Sister Michael.
Sister Michael Edwards O'Byrne Photo and Document Album