The O’Neills of Ireland – Fact and Fiction

The following is an Irish Story submitted by Mary O'Neill Leidner as part of a Reader Story competition. 

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The O’Neills of Ireland – Fact and Fiction

Welcome to my attempt to dispel the fiction from the facts about my ancestors. But first a little recent history. I was born 77 years ago at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland to Thomas James O’Neill and Helena Margaret Wess O’Neill, October 4, 1937.  I have a brother Thomas James O’Neill Jr. and a sister Barbara Anne O’Neill Rosenthal.  We grew up in the Baltimore area of Maryland amidst a loving, laughing , loud, Irish family, who met each week to be together and share their stories of what was going on in each family and to help our grandmother on her farm in Howard County, Md.

The stories they would tell, everything from stories of the Banshee, to stories about how our family came to the United States. For years I was under the impression that my grandfather William O’Neill met my grandma on the boat from Copenhagen to the states. The story according to Uncle Mike (my dad’s youngest brother Lawrence), my grandma was “Lace Curtain” Irish being a relative of Lord French of County Mayo, Ireland.

The French family was enroute to the USA via Copenhagen and my grandfather William was “shanty Irish” working for his passage and met Katherine while on board the ship. They fell in love and were married upon arrival in the USA. They were able to acquire a farm in Howard County Maryland and lived there until my grandma was unable to maintain the farm. The story was that she didn’t want to favor any one child so she gave the farm back to the county that gave it to her.

In the United States of America , the  country was still recovering from the Great Depression. My dad was a Baltimore City Policeman and had many Irish friends in the Police department. His Twin brother Llewellyn O’Neill was also a member of that same police force. Being identical Twins, they were always playing tricks on each other. For instance, my dad wore a police officer’s uniform and my Uncle was in plain clothes. My dad would go to get his paycheck and be told that he had already received it. My Uncle would collect two checks.  All in good fun.  They would arrange to meet for a pint after work and my dad would enter the bar and say: “Oh , Excuse me I can’t drink in uniform” he would immediately leave and right behind him , my uncle would enter and ask  for a beer. They never did figure out how they could change clothes so quickly.

Dad was one of six children born to William James O’Neill and Katherine E. French. His brother William was the oldest and operated a threshing machine business in rural Howard county, while brother Robert was a truck driver for several oil companies. His nickname was “Corny” and recently I was told by my cousin that he received that name because he drove a truck for a bootlegger during prohibition. Uncle Lawrence “Mike” was a Master Plasterer and worked for a local Department store in downtown Baltimore, doing window displays and repairs.  My father had only one sister, Mary who was very protective of her brothers.

My cousins and I were always curious as to where our Irish Grandparents were born and each time we would ask, we would be told the story about Shanty and lace Curtain Irish.  Compounding the history was the fact that the Courthouse in Ellicott City, Md., The County seat where in the records were kept had burned down in the early 1900’s destroying all the birth records, so the only records we had were contained in family bibles. It wasn’t until we got serious about finding our true heritage that we came up with some of the answers. I am still pursuing the facts and I suspect one of these days the mystery will be solved.

In the meantime, I suddenly realized through the year I have been a part of “My Irish Heritage” that all of us have so much in common, that it is most important to remember the living heritage that our ancestors gave each of us.

By membership in the Green Room , I have met many wonderful people from all over the world who all share several things in common with me and thus belong to our Diaspora family. Have you often wondered why you are able to tell a story better than most people and stretch the facts to make the story much better? That’s part of our heritage which we love to share. Or how you accept most people at face value and don’t get involved in their agendas.

Here in the Baltimore, Maryland area of the country , we have many Irish people who love to say they are Irish an  make a point of keeping customs and stories alive.

My friend Jack McNulty whose family is from Killarney tells the story of how his mom and dad came to this country and both got jobs right away. Jack’s father  told me that I hadn’t lived yet until I see the Lakes of Killarney and fortunately he was right. We were so blessed to see them on two occasions . What a wonderful peaceful , happy place. Both Jack’s parents have past but their children  are proud of their heritage and frequently go back to Ireland to visit relatives who still live there.  Jack’s mom taught me how to make soda bread (the sweet kind), and I still give it for gifts on St. Patrick’s day.

Then there was Miss Ganley, RN the nurse who was my mentor at Bon Secours Hospital where I trained to be a Nurse many years ago. We had an Irish Priest Father Hayes, who was a resident in the hospital and who had written a history of the Bon Secours Order of nuns. He was quite old when I met him as a first year student nurse. In the 1950’s female nurses at Bon Secours were not usually assigned to bathe and care for Irish Priests, but the male nurse was out sick and so Father Hayes had us all line up to see who would be given the honor of caring for him this day. My name being Mary Theresa Anne O’Neill immediately caught his eye. He asked me “Have you ever cared for a man before?” I lied “Of course father I care for my Grandfather all the time”.

He chose me to be his nurse for the day. I was so proud to have the job and through the course of bathing he asked  ‘‘Ah Dear have you ever shaved a man before?’’ And again I lied “Of course father I shave my grandfather every morning”. He told me to get his shaving utensils out of the drawer. To my horror the utensils were a sharpening strap and straight razor. Now I had seen old cowboy movies where the barber sharpened his razor and then shaved the face, so I copied what I had seen in the movies .  All was going quite well until I took the first swipe with the straight razor down his cheek.  I turned to wash the soap from the razor, saw a trickle of blood down his cheek and I heard a God awful scream from the priest shouting“ tis the Banshee” get her away from me.  Needless to say I never shaved Fr. Hayes again, although he remained my friend and told me that my marriage would be a success because I was marrying someone of German descent and he would see to it that we always had a roof over our head and food on the table, because the Germans were quite tight with their money and the Irish would squander it all.

Although the Bon Secours order of nuns is French, many of the nurses and nuns were Irish.  I’m not quite certain as to how that happened, perhaps they have a convent in Ireland. Many of the housekeeping staff at Bon Secours were Irish. My friend Mrs. McNulty worked in housekeeping there.

I think a tribute to the Irish is that all of us sons and daughters of the Diaspora have in common a love of life, an undaunting spirit that we can be happy no matter the circumstances and an inherent desire to make the world a better place even if all we have to give is a heartfelt smile.

Mary O’Neill Leidner,



Be sure to see the other great entries in our Readers Story Competition!

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