Agnes O’Keefe Cronin
Story of Her Life*
By Mary Fusoni
Cork is the southernmost country in Ireland and its major city, also Cork, is second only to Dublin in size. “Beyond the lamps” of this harbor city is the small town of Glenmaire, and it is there that Nell was born. Her mother was named Mary O’Keefe. Nell was preceded in the family by Johnny, Pat, Mary (Minnie), Annie, Nora, and two sets of twins, Jim and Dennis and Mike and Will. She was the tenth living child. These simple facts are the only ones we are sure of for that November day, the 25th, in 1874. Lost in time are the family’s circumstances and even the assurance that Mary’s husband was named Dennis.
It is a certainty, however, that in that year the Irish people were as poor as they had been for centuries. In the nearly thirty years since the ruinous famine, little had been done to aid the people. Most farmers were tenants, with no hope of owning their land. Irish affairs were conducted for the benefit of the British, and “home rule” was a fighting phrase. Fenianism flourished underground. A steady stream of Irish, seeing no hope for a better life in their homeland, boarded ships for London, New York, Boston. No government initiatives stemmed this tide. And population decreased dramatically from 1848 to 1875.
About a year after Nell was born, Mary O’Keefe became pregnant again. Her new baby and fifth daughter was called Lizzie. Her husband, however, had been unwell for some time, suffering from kidney trouble. Six months after the birth of his eleventh child, he was dead.
We can only imagine the grief, shock, and apprehension felt by the family. What we know is that Mary supported herself and her children by running a general store in the town. Nell, only two years old, went to live with an aunt in the next town, where she remained for about eight years.
With the emergence of Parnell as a leader of the Irish cause, people perhaps dared to hope a bit for better living conditions. 1879, though, brought bad harvests and increased hardship. Maybe that was the year the oldest O’Keefe children left their impoverished land for America. Settling first in Revere, then in Chelsea, they worked and saved money, and sent for their brothers and sisters as soon as they had fare for passage.
When she was ten Nell returned to live with her mother. She was next in line to join the others in America, but Mary O’Keefe wanted her two youngest and herself to go together. So when Nell was eleven, she and Lizzie crossed the Atlantic with their mother. Only Nora remained, buried with her father in the soil of County Cork.
For Nell, America was a home with her family and a life as a working girl. In Ireland she’d been in the sixth form. Now she attended no more school, but got a job at Martins Mill in Chelsea. There she sat at a loom and wove elastic from 7:30 in the morning to 6:00 at night, Monday through Saturday. She did this from the age of eleven until her marriage sixteen years later.
Of her life in those years, 1885 to 1902, we know little. No doubt she wished she had more time away from the loom. No doubt her work was hard and unsatisfying. At home, life’s critical events – births, marriages, deaths – came to the O’Keefes in abundance. Pat, Din, Mike, and Will married and had children. Annie, at age 28, and Johnny, at an unknown age and time, both died. Min was a “living out girl” till the age of forty, when she accepted her longtime suitor, Ed Egan. The family took boarders to supplement tightly stretched incomes.
The six O’Keefe boys all played on a Chelsea Gaelic football team (soccer, that is) whose manager was a man named Pat Cronin. Pat’s family had left their farm in Queenstown, Cork, at about the time the older O’Keefes were coming to America. He was the oldest of nine. His sister Annie worked with Nell at Martins Mills. At the time he met his future wife, he was probably an employee of Revere Rubber.
Nell was ten years younger than he. Perhaps they knew each other for a long time before the idea of marriage entered their minds. Her mother used to say, “What do you want to go with that old man for?”
By the turn of the century Nell was a tall young woman with curly black hair. She weighed under a hundred pounds. Pat was tall and handsome, with a thick moustache. He had a good job as a motorman for the Boston Elevated and he was president of the Hibernians.
The only tale of their courtship we know is that, at the Hibernian Ball, Nell and Pat led the Grand March.
The five O’Keefes who had married all settled nearby, in Chelsea or Revere. Din and his wife Maggie lived next door and their daughter Anna remembers Aunt Nell as she was then. “I loved Aunt Nell,” she said, “and I hated Uncle Pat because he took her out.” The night of the Grand March, she recalls, Nell was dressed and ready to leave. Anna was crying, not wanting her to go. So Nell, in her ball gown, lay down on the bed with her niece and stayed there till Anna fell asleep.
Marriage meant leaving Chelsea because Pat was assigned to the Reservoir carbarn in Brighton and needed to be near his work. The move was most likely hard on Nell but the time had clearly come. She was 27 years old, Pat nearly 38. On February 2, 1902, they were married. After the wedding celebration they rode in a hired hack through a bitter cold night to their new home, the second floor of 30 Shannon St.
Pat’s job was a good one for an Irishman. It was steady, clean, and paid enough to support a family. But the Elevated expected a great deal for its wages: he worked 365 days a year. When first married he worked nights, often not getting home till 2 A.M. His wife’s loneliness can only be imagined.
By the summer she knew she was bearing her first child. In December, with Nell nearly eight months pregnant, Pat received word that Dennis, the brother next to him in the family, was dying in Jacksonville, Florida, where he’d gone seeking a cure for his TB. Pat made the trip just before Christmas, but Dennis died an hour or so before he arrived.
Tragedy and joy commingled more than once in Nell’s and Pat’s lives. Dennis’ death was followed the next month by the death of Pat’s father, Jeremiah Cronin. And on the last day of January Nell gave birth to their first child, Anne.
Nearly a year passed with her baby girl before Nell found herself pregnant again. Her second child was a boy, Jere, born on August 5th, 1905. The children were born at home and right after the births a woman came in – Mrs. Cuniffe came for Anne and Jere – to stay for two weeks and care for the house while Nell stayed in bed.
Not long after Jere’s birth Pat contracted scarlet fever. His mother took Anne to Chelsea, while Nell took care of her husband and baby. Pat was very ill, at death’s door, but he pulled through. Right after the illness his hair turned white.
In one of these years, Lizzie married. Her husband, Bill Barry, was a former member of the Gaelic football team and an employee of Revere Rubber. They were a happy-go-lucky pair who loved to have the family visit.
Mary O’Keefe sold the family home and moved from son to son for the next several years. Anne remembers her grandmother as an attractive woman – with an accompanying vanity. “I don’t have any daughter as pretty as myself,” she used to say.
Pat by now was working the morning shift for the Elevated. He would leave the house about 4 A.M. to walk the mile or so to the carbarn, and would be home by early afternoon. He still worked seven days a week.
In the winter every time it snowed at night the family heard the heavy step of a man from the Elevated coming to knock on their door: “Motorman Cronin, report for snowplow duty.” Pat would get out of bed and walk to the carbarn. The next day he worked his full shift.
Sometimes in the summer Nell brought the children to the reservoir with a picnic lunch. Pat would meet them for his lunch hour, then ride his family to Park Street and out again on the open streetcars.
Outings with their father were limited to lunch hours, but with their mother the children went all over on the streetcars. Anne said, “She was “a great one for packing you up and going,” while the neighbors never went anywhere. Nell brought her kids to the beach at City Point, to picnics, and of course to Chelsea for visits with her family and Pat’s.
The families did a great deal of visiting back and forth. Nell was frequently a hostess as well as a guest. Her brother Pat, who now lived in Roxbury, often came by on a Sunday afternoon with half a dozen of the neighbors’ children, and all stayed to supper. Many times Nell cooked for ten or twelve guests on Sundays. “And think nothing of it,” said Anne.
She was a wonderful cook, her children say, who never used a recipe. Besides the standard meat and potatoes she made delicious biscuits, lemon meringue pie, sponge cake, and a legendary Irish bread.
In 1908 she had a horrifying experience. A great fire was visible from the monastery in Brighton. Nell went up the hill with the two children, and there she saw Chelsea burning down. She had, of course, no way to communicate with her relatives, or to tell if their homes were in the flames. After hours of worry and fear, she learned that all the O’Keefes and Cronins were on the safe side of St. Rose’s Church, which was blown up to stop the progress of the fire.
As Nell stood watching with her two children, she was expecting a third. A daughter, Mary, was born on the 6th of January, 1909.
Four and a half years elapsed before her final pregnancy. In 1913 she was 39, her husband was 49, and their children 10, 8, and 4. As with each pregnancy before, this one was accompanied by crisis. In that year the Elevated workers went out on strike. The strike was for higher wages; Pat earned $15 a week. This time must have been anguishing for him. His spirit was with the strikers, but he could not, with another child on the way, be without an income.
The strike was settled for higher pay. Eileen was born on October 6th.
Pat’s role in the family was minimal, as must be so for a man working seven days a week. He was “a quiet man, never had much to say, never said a cross word to me, never tried to be the boss,” said Anne. But Nell, raising a family essentially alone, exploited his remoteness from the children. “My mother would say to us, ‘You can’t do that, your father doesn’t want you to do it.’ That would be enough. We wouldn’t do it. But it was only because she didn’t want us to do it. She probably never even consulted him. She knew that we’d mind if she said that he didn’t want us to do it. She really had us afraid of him. She used to make us think that he was some real ogre, who wouldn’t let us do this or that. But he really wasn’t. We found out later, as we grew up, that he wasn’t that type at all.”
Eileen said of her father, “When we were kids we would never ask him for anything. And I think he would have given us anything we ever asked him for. Every time we went away on vacation, he’d kiss you and say goodbye and slip you a five-dollar bill. But we never… we’d ask Ma for everything. We were kind of scared of him. And it’s so ridiculous. When I think of what we missed by being afraid of him….”
By all accounts he was a gentle man who loved and trusted his children; a hardworking man who lived for his family. Once a year on August 15th he took a day off without pay and went with his wife and children by boat to Nantasket. This day and Christmas day, which he also took without pay, were the extent of his pleasure for the year.
Revere Rubber by this time had moved to Providence, so Lizzie settled there with her husband and son. Mary O’Keefe was staying with them. Around 1914, she died.
Pat’s mother, Ann Cronin, lived in Chelsea still with her unmarried children, Annie, Julia, and Bart, and her widowed daughter Min, and Min’s three children. Her health was declining and she was losing her eyesight. Nell visited her often.
Amidst all the visiting, cooking, and childcare, Nell found time to keep a neat house. She was up with her husband at four in the morning, and did a lot of housework before the kids were awake. She was efficient and fussy, and did most of the work herself, expecting little from the children.
Anne’s chore was to dust every Saturday, which she hated. She and Mary swept down the front and back stairs once a week. Jere’s job was to bring wood and coal up from the cellar. Eileen “never did anything,” she says.
Generally, however, Nell did all the housework. She was adept with her hands, could repair anything. Mary remembers her hanging a room full of wallpaper before the children were up in the morning. She was meticulous; Eileen says she cleaned the inside of the clock with a feather. She sewed a lot, mending and making clothes for the family. And in her spare time she knitted and crocheted, leaving enough doilies to cover every table her children owned. Anne called her “a real homebody.”
She was also a lover of poetry and music. Lacking formal education, she educated herself, reading prodigiously. She memorized and loved to recite narrative poems like “The Wreck of the Hesperus” and Longfellow’s works. Her repertoire was extensive. Sometimes she wrote poetry for herself. She entertained her children and grandchildren with songs and recitations. She had a good voice and loved to sing the old songs.
Anne recalls how much Nell wanted a piano, and how she thought she’d be able to sit right down and play it. When she finally got one and found out this wasn’t so, she channeled her disappointment into lessons for the children. All four took lessons, but none stayed with it. Anne learned enough to play some of the Irish songs, like “Danny Boy,” well enough for her mother to sing. Nell herself never took lessons. It would have been “unheard of,” Mary said, for a woman with children to take lessons in those days. She did have a small zither that she strummed to accompany her singing.
In 1916 Anne was 13 years old and finished the grammar school course at St. Columbkille’s. Father Tracey forbade any of the graduates to go to Brighton High School, and he organized a two-year business course, which Anne attended. At 15 she had a job, working for American Express. Within a few months, however, she got an offer from civil service for a job with the newly created Highway Department (later the Registry of Motor Vehicles). This extra income, $12.50 per week, enabled the family to begin saving to buy a house.
Pat’s mother died in 1917 or ’18. Around this time there was “always a relative dying,” Mary recalls. To the five year old Eileen these solemn occasions were exciting journeys in streetcars and hacks with her mother.
Nell had always been a good neighbor and a good nurse. In 1918 when the flu epidemic struck, the two young people who lived underneath the Cronins on Shannon Street got sick. “Their mother was frightened to death of sickness,” said Anne. “She wouldn’t let them go to the hospital. The doctor would come to the house and she’d run up to my mother. My mother would go downstairs and take care of them, do whatever the doctor wanted her to. Mrs. Connally just couldn’t do anything for them, she was that type. But my mother was very good at nursing. She’d go down and take care of them and think nothing of it.” “She was all over the neighborhood taking care of people,” Mary said. “You’re everywhere!” Father Mahoney once declared to Nell, finding her in the home of a crippled girl in their new neighborhood in Fairbanks Street.
“All her life she did charitable work,” Mary said. “If she wasn’t running around to sick neighbors, she was cooking for them or sewing for them or something.” “All the relatives, or any of them, when they had any troubles, they’d bend her ear,” Eileen added.
Throughout all this Nell had a sense of humor. She enjoyed a good laugh, even on herself. When Pat got a new motorman’s uniform she used to cut the back out of the old coat and sew it into the new one for extra warmth. “Once,” said Mary, “she was laughing to kill herself. She’d cut the back out of the new one.”
She never wanted to go back to Ireland. Often she described to her children the beauty of her native country, but she had a memory of her fear of British soldiers. In 1919 and 1920 Cork was a main center of resistance to military repression. The British burned the city hall and main shopping center in retaliation for acts of the IRA. Violence ruled the area. Hearing of this turmoil, the Cronins surely were glad to be away from it.
In Brighton, Nell went to sodality every week as she’d done for years. Anne worked at the Registry while Jere, Mary, and Eileen attended school.
In 1922 Pat had saved enough money for a down payment on a house. In June the family moved into the first floor of 10 Fairbanks Street, a mile or two from their home of the last twenty years. He was 58, she 47. They stayed on the first floor a year or two, then moved upstairs.
The Elevated workers were by now organized. When they went on strike again, Pat went out. They won a six day week. He had worked seven days a week for more than twenty years.
About this time Nell began to put a lot of energy into efforts to keep Jere in high school. He had first attended the High School of Commerce, but Father Mahoney, who knew Jere well because he was an altar boy, persuaded him to transfer to Boston Latin. Starting a new school three months behind the others was hard for him. Besides, Jere was a natural showman, always carrying on in class. The headmaster asked Nell to please take him out of the Latin School. So he went to Brighton High, where he skipped a lot of classes. Nell and Pat hoped Jere would go on to college, and with this as a priority they saved their money to send him to B.C. High. However, Anne recalls that “Father McGovern and Father Hurley – I remember their names very well – were forever sending for my mother. He was a hellion in school. He just didn’t want to be bothered. He had a grand time for himself clowning for the rest of class.” But, after five years in high school, he finally graduated about 1922.
He didn’t want to go to college, so Nell asked the family’s insurance man to get Jere a job with the John Hancock. He got the job, and loved it.
Meanwhile Mary had been double-promoted and was too young, at twelve, to go to Father Tracey’s school. Girls’ High was overcrowded, so she had to go to Brighton High. Father Tracey’s fears were unrealized. She graduated with body and soul intact in 1925. She went to Lesley College for one year, then studied for a year at Bryant and Stratton. In 1928 she got a job at the Brockway Motor Company.
Eileen entered Father Tracey’s business program, now expanded to four years, in 1926. With her last child in high school, Nell began to feel more free to indulge her sociable nature. She loved to play beano and would go with her friends to the local games. With a few women, including her sister Min, she had a Sunday afternoon group. They gathered at a different house each month for cards and supper. She belonged to a bridge club, too – women from Brighton who played at each other’s houses at night. And she joined the Brighton Women’s Club. The Club organized many activities, including whist parties and trips. At Christmas the members solicited donations from stores to put together baskets for the poor.
Pat always put the kettle on for his wife to have a cup of tea when she got home.
About this time Anne began to go with a young man from Roxbury, Joe Fusoni. The Cronins would visit the Fusonis one night after Christmas each year. Soon, Nell and Joe’s mother Mame became friends. Mame joined the Brighton Women’s Club. The Fusonis moved to Milton in 1929, but Mame was as familiar as her new friend with the MTA and the distance didn’t worry her. Over the next fifteen or twenty years the two women were companions on a number of Women’s Club trips. They went to Auriesville, New York, took the overnight boat to New York City, and had tea with Eleanor Roosevelt on the White House lawn.
In keeping with the spirit of the twenties, Nell got her long hair bobbed. But she didn’t like it and let it grow out again.
Jere as well as Anne was seriously going with someone. In June of 1929 he married Grace McNamara from Allston. Grace settled with him in Pennsylvania where the John Hancock had sent him a year before. Six months later, in January 1930, Anne married Joe and went to live in Milton.
Eileen had attended St. Columbkille’s business course for three years. However, not enough girls remained in the program to justify its continuation, so Father Tracey offered to pay half tuition for the girls remaining to attend Mount Saint Joseph Academy. Eileen attended one year and graduated in 1930. She then studied at Burdett for two years, and got a job with her sister at the Brockway.
1930 was quite a year – a marriage, a graduation, and, in July, the birth of Nell and Pat’s first grandchild, Jere Cronin. During her pregnancy Grace became very ill, and Nell journeyed to Pennsylvania to care for her.
Grace and Jere bought a house in Lancaster a year or so later. Nell went to visit them, bringing her husband with her. Most likely Pat hadn’t been outside of eastern Massachusetts since his 1902 trip to Florida, and he was not to be outside of it again.
Four more grandchildren arrived in the next six years, and Nell became “Nana.” Jackie Cronin was born in September of 1932 and Ann Fusoni in October of the same year. In December 1933, Joseph Fusoni, Jr. took up residence on Fairbanks Street (where Anne and Joe lived for about a year), and in February 1936, Eleanor Fusoni was born.
The country, of course, was in the grip of the Depression. Small businesses, like Fusoni’s Express, had an extremely hard time. Like her mother thirty years before, Anne spent many nights alone with the children while her husband worked. The Cronins, though, were not that much affected by this national disaster. Pat continued to work for the MTA (he turned seventy in 1934). He was getting two weeks vacation now, and making enough money for the family to afford to rent a summer place for a month or two every year. They stayed on different years in Nantasket, Brant Rock, North Falmouth, and Humarock.
Eileen and Mary had steady work at the Brockway. In fact, Mary bought an automobile, a roadster with a rumble seat, in 1932.
Jere had a good job at the John Hancock. But in 1935 when Congress passed the Social Security Act, he got in on the ground floor of the administration. (It is said that many people thought he was a graduate of B.C., so he let them think so.) His first assignment was in Troy, New York. In early 1937, at the time of Nell and Pat’s thirty-fifth anniversary, Grace and her two boys came down with scarlet fever. Nell got on a train, and nursed them till they were well.
Activity at 10 Fairbanks Street continued unabated through these years. There was “always someone staying with us,” or a few relatives to dinner. Pat’s brother Jere, a widower, came to dinner every Sunday without fail. When Jere’s son Jack had a fight with Bart, Pat’s unmarried brother, Jack moved out of the home they shared and in with his aunt and uncle in Brighton. There he stayed for ten years, until 1938.
About 1940 Pat retired. He’d been with the MTA for forty-five years, and he was 76.
In June 1941 Eileen married Rodolphe Laronde, known as Duffy, from Cambridge, who was a shipper for the South End Hardware. They moved into the first floor of 10 Fairbanks.
In March 1942, Eileen gave birth to the sixth grandchild, named Ellen after her Nana, and June 1943 brought a son, Jimmy, to Eileen and Duffy.
Through all these years Nell made weekly trips to visit her daughter and grandchildren in Milton. More often than not she brought a loaf of Irish bread with her.
February of 1945 found both Anne Fusoni and Grace Cronin pregnant. On the 16th, Anne gave birth to a daughter, Mary.
Once again the terrible coincidence of birth and death was about to occur. Jere and Grace and their sons were living in New York City, where Jere was head of the Manhattan branch of the Social Security Administration. Their child was due in early March. On the 4th, a Sunday, at 1:00 in the afternoon, Grace called with the news that Jere had spinal meningitis and was in a coma.
Nell and Mary went to New York right away. Their waiting must have been agonizing, but it wasn’t long. Wednesday morning at twenty minutes past five, Jere died.
He was waked in New York on Thursday and Friday. On the second night at eight o’clock his daughter, named Grace, was born.
If words are feeble in the re-creation of life, they’re useless to express the tragedy of Jere’s death for his wife and sons and unborn daughter, for his mother and father and sisters, for all who knew him and for those of us who never knew him.
Life went on. In November grandchild number ten was born, David Laronde.
Nell, now 71, was still going out a lot – a luncheon or bridge at least once a week; still taking the streetcar to Milton; still active with the Brighton Women; still doing all her own work.
Her sayings as well as her Irish bread were by now legendary in the family. She quoted “Poor Richard” a lot. And she said, at appropriate times:
Everyone to his own taste, said the woman when she kissed the cow.
The least said is the easiest method.
Her eyes are near her bladder.
A kiss without a moustache is like an egg without salt.
…if anyone should drive up in a hack and ask you.
She had many other sayings that no doubt rise to the surface of her daughters’ minds at odd moments.
August 1951 saw the birth of her last grandchild, Eileen and Duffy’s Richard. The six Larondes still shared 10 Fairbanks Street with the three Cronins upstairs.
February 2, 1952, was the day that Pat and Nell had been married fifty years. The day began with a Mass at St. Columbkille’s. All day friends dropped in. At night, all the relatives came, and just about all the friends. The walls of 10 Fairbanks Street shook with celebration. Nell presided in a new dress, full of pep. Her husband, nearly 88 years old, rejoiced in the day up to his limit – 11 PM. At midnight the Brighton Women arrived from their annual banquet. Most had never met Pat, so one by one they greeted Joe Fusoni’s father, with kisses and hugs, as “Mister Cronin.”
It’s a wonder Pat Cronin didn’t throw us all out, because the party continued very late. When it was over Nell discovered that the whole day and night she hadn’t had a minute to put on her jewelry.
In November she turned 79. The next January her sister Min died, leaving only Nell and Liz of the eleven O’Keefes. The next month, Nell and Pat’s 51st anniversary, she was still energetic and spirited. In April Mary discovered that her mother was passing blood. “Oh, that’s nothin’,” Nell said. “That happens once in a while.” Mary brought her to the doctor. She had cancer of the bladder, with no hope for cure.
For a month or so after her hospitalization she was as lively as ever. Then she started to fail, though she remained on her feet till the last few days. On June 30, 1953, she died.
For the next four and a half years, until his death, Mary cared for her father, assisted by Eileen when her four children gave her time. Pat often asked for his wife, unable to accept the absence of his life’s companion. Surely their sprits are together now.
*© 1976, Mary Fusoni