|By Liz Major
“The sun will dance on Easter morning,”
I had often heard my father say,
“But one must get up very early
To see this glad sight on Easter Day.”
And then we children gathered ‘round him
To hear about a plan he had
For making us an ‘Easter House’
Like he made in Ireland when a lad.
Easter morning we awakened early
But the winter snow laid all around
And though we looked from every window
Not a dancing ray we found.
And when we rushed to tell my father
That what he told us was not so,
He calmly said, “The sun was dancing
When I got up an hour ago.”
And once again wide-eyed we listened
To the yarns my father spun
About the Irish Easter houses
And the dancing of the sun.
This is a case for Liz Major
If only my father's Aunt Liz — Elizabeth Major — were still with us. What a great time she'd have online, with her own blog, her own website, her own Facebook page . . . sharing her poems and her tales of our family history.
Liz Major, well known around Skaneateles, New York, always reminded me of one of those two eccentrics in "Arsenic and Old Lace." And during some of the years I knew her — not well enough, I'm afraid — she lived with her sister, Sadie (aka Sate), who was even better suited for a leading role in the famous play.
Liz was the self-designated family historian, as Irish as it is possible to be. Because of that, I tended to regard a lot of her tales as so much blarney, though I have come to realize her version of family history was as much fact as fiction, even with her embellisment.
Which is why I regret not having paid more attention. She'd have been a terrific resource when this website was launched about 12 years ago, thanks to my son, Jeffrey Major, who presented it to me as a gift.
Originally I thought it would concentrate on the Major and Smolinski families, with some stories about my childhood and some rants from my adult years.
The website's early family trees — for my Major and Smolinski relatives — were saplings. I had no information on my maternal grandmother — didn't even know her maiden name, in fact — and gave short shrift to my paternal grandmother, Rose McLaughin Major, except to make a statement that resulted from a false assumption on my part: that she had a sister who had become a nun known as Sister Mary Antonia.
Sister Mary Antonia settled back in Skaneateles after spending several years at a convent Belgium. Invading German troops in World War 1 chased her to England, then back to the United States, where she wrong a book about her experiences, "From Convent to Conflict." At the time she expressed the belief she would some day return to Belgium, but that never happened.
Occasionally Sister Mary Antonia visited my mother in Solvay. Some children have a phobia about clowns, I had a fear of nuns, and behaved very badly when Sister Mary Antonia showed up. I was just five years old when my grandmother died in 1943, and probably saw Sister Mary Antonia one more time before she died in 1946. And for many years after that I believed my grandmother and Sister Mary Antonia were sisters.
Hey, don't forget the McLaughlins!
Anyway, soon after my website was launched, I received an email from a distant relative I had never met, Lisa McHugh Rigge, of Camillus, New York, who told me Sister Mary Antonia (nee Mary McLaughlin), didn't have a sister named Rose.
Thus I realized how little I new about this side of my family — so I began to research the McLaughlins of Skaneateles, unaware my Grandmother Rose was just the tip of an enormous iceberg. (As it turned out, Rose and Sister Mary Antonia were first cousins.)
With help from Lisa and from two others who early on discovered this website — James Dougherty, a Skaneateles resident and very distant relaltive, and Charlie Major, a Skaneateles legend and not-so-distant relative — I was able to start a McLaughlin tree.
Of enormous help has been the website www.fultonhistory.com which makes available old newspaper pages from New York. There's a ton of information available online, though I hasten to add that I have not enlisted any genealogy websites, and the only genealogist-approved information on my several family trees has come from relatives who have shared it with me.
Most of my information has come from newspapers, which, of course, are fallible, though obituaries tend to be more reliable because they are submitted by the family of the deceased, usually through a funeral home. Of course, families occasionally make mistakes, sometime forgetting the names of survivors who should be listed. (Obituaries for my grandmother Rose and two of her sisters had three different spellings for the last name of the fourth sister.)
Once I started down the road that led to other families in the Major-McLaughlin tree, well, I couldn't stop. The O'Neills, for example, were very important to Liz Major, and not just because her mother was Mary Ann O'Neill, who married William Major.
Liz's parents left the village of Bellaghy in the town of Magherafelt in County Derry (aks County Londonderry), Ireland, in the late 1860s and settled in Skaneateles Falls, New York. William had two brothers, Charles and John Major, who also emigrated to America. They were the sons of John and Mary Major (photo above left).
Why Skaneateles Falls? I'm not sure, though there is some resemblance between the Finger Lakes region and part of Ireland. That familiarity may have attracted early Irish settlers.
I've also read that my great-grandfather William emigrated at the urging of his brother Charles, the first to leave. And I also was told that the Skaneateles area was chosen because one of Mary Ann O'Neill's brothers had settled there and recommended it. Charles and William Major settled in Skaneateles Falls, their brother John moved west to Buffalo. (Two of John Major's descendants, Kevin William Major and Rita Major Crawford, furnished family tree information.)
Our dirty little secret
The Major family doesn't figure much in Irish history. Some folks don't even consider Major an Irish name, and it didn't do our reputation much good among diehard Irish that the best known Major — first name John — was a prime minister of England.
O'Neills were another matter. Liz Major loved being connected to one of Ireland's most famous clans. She constantly talked about the legendary Shane O'Neill and the equally famous Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, arch enemy of England's Queen Elizabeth I. She also believed in the O'Neill legend of the red hand.
Liz Major held court at annual reunions, most of them held in Solvay on the picnic grounds that overlooked the old high school and an unsightly dump that was turned into a terrific high school football stadium. As I recall, those reunions had more to do with O'Neills and McLaughlins than with Majors, but that may be because Liz talked more about them, except for always mentioning the Majors' French connection.
According to Liz, our Major family originated in France and showed up in England and Ireland about the 11th century. She said the original spelling as Majeur. I began to doubt her story when I noticed she tended to blend the Majors with the O'Neills long before they were actually connected by marriage in the 19th century. It seemed to me she was saying Shane O'Neill, chased out of Ireland way back when, had fathered a bunch of children, one of whom married a Majeur who emigrated to Ireland. (It seemed odd that Liz, a devout Catholic, took such delight in talking about an ancestor's illegitimate children.)
Liz's tale of Shane O'Neill's adventures in France was fantasy, but history does indicate the Major family —with various spellings of the name — showed up in England in 1066. Those spellings included Malgier, Mauger, Mager, Major and Mayger. Just when a Major settled in County Derry, Ireland, I have no idea, but Liz always gave me the impression she believed the family went directly from France to Ireland. I don't think she liked to consider that most of the Majors who left the continent had settled and remained in England.
|Owen McLaughlin at Linsfort cemetery. Photo by Naomi Raia, who said "Yes" when Owen proposed on the day of their vist and has since become Naomi McLaughlin.
It began with Dr. John — or maybe not
As for the McLaughlins, Liz talked mostly about one Dr. John McLaughlin, saying he was our most famous ancestor. Like her tales about our French connection, this story is questionable.
Dr. McLaughlin, sometimes called "The Father of Oregon," was born in Canada, and his grandfather arrived there approximately 100 years before any of our Skaneateles McLaughlin ancestors left Ireland.
Also, the preferred spelling of the Oregon pioneer's last name is McLoughlin, which may be of little significance because I've found different spellings for several people from the same family. (Most common example in our family tree is Daughterty/Doherty where even siblings can't agree on the spelling of their last name.)
However, it turns out, Dr. John McLoughlin's grandfather grew up on the Inishowen peninsula in County Donegal, Ireland. That's where a certain William McLaughlin was born in 1793. Eight of William's children left Ireland for America, though one returned, leaving his son, William, to live with a brother, James McLaughlin, nicknamed "40 Acres" for the size of the land he purchased in the Skaneateles area in 1848.
While it's a longshot, Liz Major may have been correct about Dr. John McLoughlin (or McLaughlin), whose grandfather may have been a sibling of William McLaughlin's grandfather
Chances are I'll never know for sure. As soon as your research goes into the 1800s you discover families tended to draw from short lists of names for their children. In our case it's a challenge to tell one William McLaughlin from another. (There once was an election in Skaneateles where the name John McLaughlin created confusion, or so some voters claimed.)
Meanwhile, other descendants of Donegal's William McLaughlin, whose children went to America, are actively gathering information on the family history. Some have visited Ireland and provided photos.
Maureen McLaughlin Lester, a great-great-granddaughter of James "40 Acres" McLaughlin, took the photo at the top of the "40 Acres" page.
Owen McLaughlin, a great-great-great-grandson of "40 Acres", provided photos on this page. He proposed to his wife in the ruins of an ancient church by the cemetery in Linsfort, Ireland, where William McLaughlin is buried. Owen hopes to learn more about our family history.
On the Major side, Charlie Major has visited Ireland and the church where John Major and Mary Ann O'Neill were married.
Smolinskis remain a bit of a mystery
By comparison, information on the Smolinski side of my family is scarce. As far as I know, three brothers from a town called Kolno moved to America in the early 1900s.
I believe my grandfather, Boleslaw Smolinski, and his wife, Helen Kalinowski, were first. The lived for awhile in New Jersey, had their first child, Wanda, then returned to Poland, where their second child, Boleslaw Jr. (William), was born.
My grandparents returned to the United States, this time settling in Solvay, New York, where they were briefly joined by their parents. Two of Boleslaw's brothers also moved to Solvay. One of them, Ignacy (James), remained; the youngest of the three brothers, Joseph, joined the United States Army and later was assigned to West Point. He married, raised a family, and remained at West Point, living in nearby Highland Falls, New York.
Why Solvay? Well, in the early 1900s Solvay was one of the country's most industrialized villages. Leading the way was the Solvay Process Company. If you were looking for work, chances are you could find a job in Solvay. Also, there probably were others from the Kolno area who had gone to Solvay earlier and had recommended it to friends and relatives who wanted to move to America.
My great-grandparents apparently split up in Solvay. He returned to Poland — actually it was Russia-Poland at the time, Poland nearing the end of a long period during which it was divided in three, the other two parts controlled by Prussia and Austria — and my great-grandmother remarried and remained in Solvay.
My grandfather, Boleslaw, left the family, settling in another part of New York. He asked my grandmother to join him, but she chose to carry on without him, raising four children, including my mother, but herself. We did not have Smolinski reunions and my mother did not often talk about her family. By the time I was born, in 1938, my grandfather was a forbidden subject.
However, it was my own disinterest that kept me from asking questions about my grandmother's family. Her maiden name was Kalinowski (or Kalinowska). She had relatives in and around Scranton, Pennsylvania, and I discovered photos of a trip my parents, my grandmother and my uncle, Edward Smolinski, made to Pennsylvania, probably in the early 1930s. Unfortunately, the first time I saw these photos was after I had prints made of negatives I found in a box after my mother had died, so I have no idea who most of the people are.
It was a bit of a jolt to discover that the names Smolinski and Kalinowski are rather common in Poland, making it difficult to track down relatives. The Scranton area became home for dozens of people who may be relatives.
Complicating matters is the last name on the Polish birth cerficate for my Uncle Bill, who is listed as Boleslaw Smolnek.
In any event, the Smolinski-Kalinowski family tree has not grown much, while on the Irish side of my family, thanks particularly to the McLaughlins, you'll find a small forest.
Thanks to Will Hier of Otisco, New York, I've included a small O'Neill family tree which lists my great-grandmother, Mary Ann O'Neill Major, and her siblings.
There is another O'Neill connection, this one on the McLaughlin side. James McLaughlin Jr., son of the fabulous "40 Acres," married Mary Jane O'Neill, who was born in Canada in 1850. Her family moved to Central New York about 20 years later. I do not know if her family was related in any way to my great-grandmother's. (Regarding James McLaughlin Jr., he was the driving force in the family's teasle business.)
Many families fled Ireland in the late 1840s because of the potato famine. That's what prompted James "40 Acres" McLaughlin to move to America. All three of his Irish-born children died before he could send for his wife.
It may be that similar hardships prompted the family of Mary Jane O'Neill to leave Ireland. The story of Mary Jane O'Neill McLaughlin, what little I know of it, seems to be one of the family's saddest. She and James McLaughlin lost two of their four children in infancy. Her drinking became a problem, she and her husband separated, and a series of court battles followed. She outlived her husband by 26 years, dying in 1940, though I don't know where. She had relatives in Cortland, New York, but whether she ever lived with them is unknown.
The Majors and McLaughlins also have a strong connection with O'Haras, thanks to three marriages. That prompted me to create some O'Hara family trees, even though at least one of them is not related to us.
One character who was related by marriage was Patrick Carrigan, who liked to be called the Irish Lord of Skaneateles. I couldn't resist starting a family tree, with him as the trunk.
There also are small family trees for families who married children of Bolelaw and Helen Smolinski. Thus we spotlight the Maltby family, thanks to information provided by Jim Maltby, and the Kaldowski family, assembled from newspaper stories I found on www.fultonhistory.com after the death of my cousin, Alma Kaldowski Furcinito.
A question arose when the family submitted Alma's obituary to the funeral home. Someone wondered if her maiden name shouldn't have been spelled Kaldowsky. So I looked for stories about the family of Peter Kaldowski, who had married Alma's mother, Wanda Smolinski. And the more stories I found, the more confused I became ... because sometimes the name ended in i, sometimes the name ended in y. We had always gone with the former.
Most interesting, however, was that three of Peter Kaldowski's sisters married brothers whose last name is an even more complicated multiple choice test. Newspaper stories at the time of the weddings listed the husbands' last name as Kozo, though years later they became known as either Kazel or Koziol.
And there among notes left to me by my mother was this tidbit — my great-grandmother's last name when she married by great-grandfather Smolinski was ... Koziol. This wasn't her maiden name, apparently, but rather the name of the first of her three husbands. She's the one who remained in Solvay after her second husband returned to Poland. Husband number three was Peter Lubak.
This has gone on long enough. If anyone can clarify, correct or add information to any of the families mentioned above, please get in touch.