Irish families traditionally revere their mothers, and the Smith clan was no different. My Kindle book The O’Donnells of Philadelphia, however, was set in Port Richmond to preserve the essence of my father’s boyhood before it fades from memory. An Irish section situated in northeast Philadelphia, consisting of industrial plants within neighborhoods crowded with row homes, bordered the Delaware River. Everyday life was tough, challenging, and always exciting.
Above left, the 'greatest generation' of the Smiths, a typical Irish American Family: Standing from left to right are Matt (career Marine and veteran of World War II and the Korean War), John (a Navy veteran of World War I and VP of a government workers' union), Vince (a Navy veteran of World War II and a postal worker), Ed ( a veteran of both the Marines and Navy), and Jim (my father and air raid warden during World War II). Sitting are Franciscan Sister Rosenella, a school teacher in Pennsylvania coal mining towns, and Joe, a Philadelphia fireman.
Baptized James Francis after my father, I was a teenager before learning that Francis wasn’t his middle name. While standing in line for Confirmation practice, Cockeyed Collins kidney punched him. Of course, Dad retaliated, and decked Collins with a right-cross. For punishment, their Nun made my father take Aloysius for his Confirmation name. Because he couldn’t spell Aloysius, he chose Francis instead.
The lads from Port Richmond swam buck-naked in the Delaware near where the knitting mills discarded their excess dye. When they came home, one with blue hair and the other a green face, my County Mayo-born grandmother thought her oldest sons were poisoned. She made them drink seven gallons of milk. Saint Anne’s nuns, however, were less lenient for they knew where their charges swim. Without doubt, their punishment was both harsh and humiliating.
One very humid Saturday morning, Dad, lounging on the corner of Cambria Street, noticed one of his brothers approaching. Armed with ripe tomatoes, Ed passed the open doors of the neighborhood’s small synagogue. He stopped, threw the tomatoes into the place of worship … then took off. Angry Jewish men stormed out and spotted Dad, the only youth in sight. My father took off, climbed a neighbor’s alley fence and made his way safely home, while the Jews and the neighbor screamed at each other.
A shriek saves Dad from a Tans' bayonet
With his formal education ending in 6th grade, Dad worked at Cramps’ Shipyard, during World War I. When the war ended, he joined his father, working the family farm in Ireland, during the time of The Troubles. Flaunting the English curfew, Dad partied nightly. A County Cavan barmaid saved his life by shrieking, “He’s a Yank,” stopping a bayonet-armed Black and Tan from running him through. Deciding that farm life wasn’t for him, my father soon returned to America.
Early in his marriage to Marie Meehan, we moved from Our Lady of Mercy Parish to the less crowded Incarnation, enabling Anne, my hard-of-hearing sister, to attend regular school. I was about five, when a drunken driver hit and nearly killed Dad at Second and the Boulevard. That night Mom and her terrified kids knelt and prayed the rosary. With his body broken and jaw wired for six months, Dad lost all desire for alcohol and tobacco. These near-death incidents likely instilled him with religious fervor, for we recited the family rosary nightly.
His practical experience in the trades—roofing, wallpapering, and plumbing—enabled him to provide for his brood throughout The Depression. He cut our hair, mended our shoes, and repaired our few household appliances.
During World War II, my air-raid warden father sponsored Incarnation’s annual clothing drive. The parishioners were extremely generous in donating warm coats, sweaters, and shoes. Our family, including uncles, aunts, and cousins, were drafted to sort, pack, and ship the contributions to wartorn Europe.
We couldn’t afford a car. Public transportation took Dad to and from work, and he worked full-time, until age 75. Then he spent the remaining five years of his life looking for work.
As a family, we’ve been thrice blessed for my dad loved my mom, she loved him, and their four children loved them both.
We dug the coal mines and canals
Courted your daughters
Built the railroads
And fought the wars
Patrick Carr died in Boston’s Massacre
Sullivan, Moylan, and Scot-Irish filled Washington’s ranks
Commodore John Barry commanded the Continental Navy
Luke Ryan surpassed the deeds of John Paul Jones
Irish by the thousands fell at Fredericksburg
O’Rorke and O’Kane saved the Union on Cemetery Ridge
Patrick Cleburne died during his final charge at Franklin, Tennessee
Phillip Sheridan dogged Lee ’till Appomattox
Irish-Americans formed the Unions
Constructed the cities
Laid the highways
And educated the masses
Too-many-to count died in Flanders and France
Then came Guadalcanal, Normandy, and Iwo Jima
Irish music and laughter lightens the mood
For we are proud Irish-Americans,
and this is our story. JFS