New and Old Friends at the Rhode Island Irish Famine Memorial

Two New Old-Friends at the Rhode Island Famine Memorial
The Irish Famine Memorial is the perfect meeting place for two new friends. Scott Molloy and Ray Sr. met for the first time this weekend at the small park on the Providence River. Scott is a professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Rhode Island. He played an instrumental role in the creation of the Famine Memorial, including writing an elegant piece that is caste in bronze and speaks to the difficulties, challenges and successes of the Famine Generation and their descendants. Dad has been a fan of Scott’s for a very long time.
On an earlier visit, Dad reads Scott’s eloquent words.
Both men are descendants of famine immigrants, as well as natives of Mount Pleasant, the neighborhood in Providence that is just to the west of Federal Hill. When Dad’s father, Bill, fourth generation Federal Hill boy, decided it was time to move on from the Hill, it was to a house within two miles of the Ancestral Home that he took the family.
Like most struggling Irish-American families in those days, the family moved fairly often. But the house in Mount Pleasant where Dad spent the most time, and from which he left to join the Army Air Corps in 1942, was at 11 Geneva Street. Directly behind his house was the Molloy’s house.
The third floor of the house in for foreground was the home of the McKennas in the early 1940’s. The house in the rear was the home of the Molloys. The woman with whom Dad was talking is a current resident. In answer to my question regarding her heritage, she replied, “Caribbean islander and Famine Irish.” Small world. We could be cousins.
I met Scott last year, after corresponding with him for a couple of years before that. Dad knew of Scott from his labor and history essays in the Providence Journal.
Three years ago, I showed Dad Scott’s book, Irish Titan, Irish Toilers, the story of Irish Famine Immigrant, Joseph Banigan.  Arriving in Providence as a starving, poor, eight-year-old, Banigan went on to become one of the wealthiest and most important industrialists of his generation. The book is also, very much, the story of the Irish immigrants who made up Banigan’s work force.
Dad took one look at the book and said, “I knew Scott’s father, his uncles and his grandfather.” At the time I had not yet begun my correspondence with Scott. But I knew I wanted to meet him and for Dad to meet him as well.
Scott is a fascinating man. A university professor, which is of interest by itself, but Scott is also a former bus driver for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, and former president of the driver’s union. He is quite the renaissance man.
In time, I reached out to Scott, who became an important mentor to me. His guidance with  my essay, “When Federal Hill Was Irish,” was invaluable. Scott reviewed my essay, giving me great feedback. As importantly, he gave me guidance in how to approach the Journal’s editors. I believe that Scott is also the one who suggested to me that I have the article published in Ireland, as well.
Scott and Dad discussing mutual friends from the old neighborhood of Mount Pleasant.
And so here we were this weekend, meeting at the spiritual epicenter of the Irish-American experience in Rhode Island. Immediately, Dad and Scott, who is twenty-four years younger than Dad, began talking about mutual friends and old neighborhood. For example, I have always known that Dad ran cross country in high school. It is because of him that I became a runner myself. But I didn’t know what had inspired Dad to run.  It turns out that a family of boys, the Shermans, were friends with the McKennas and the Molloys. Frank Sherman, a few years older than Dad, set up a training center for track in his small back yard. There he taught neighborhood kids learned to pole vault, to do the broad jump and to run.
As an adult, Frank Sherman went on to coach, first at Hope High School, and later at Rhode Island College, where he trained such people as Lois Testa Lynch, who competed at the 1956 Olympics and, according to the RIC Athletic Hall of Fame, was “one of the pioneers in women’s athletics in Rhode Island.” Frank was also elected to the state house, where Dad said he was “the most honest guy in the legislature.”
Although separated by a generation, both Scott and Dad knew all the Sherman boys. In the small world of Rhode Island, Scott, while in college, dated one of my favorite cousins, Martha Lenihan, herself a mover and shaker in Providence. Martha and Scott remain good friends to this day.
On an earlier occasion this year, three generations of McKennas gathered on the site of the home to the three previous generations of McKennas and Duggans.
Well, after talking for half an hour, we retreated to, where else, my ancestral neighborhood of Federal Hill, where we dined at Venda Ravioli, on the same square where three generations of my family called home, beginning with the families of James Duggan and Peter McKenna in the early 1850’s.
As I reflect back on my day with Dad and Scott, I am reminded of Scott’s elegant words inscribed on the Famine Memorial’s Narrative Wall. Paraphrasing Patrick J. McCarthy, the first and only famine refuge to become mayor of Providence, Scott writes that “As you read these words in this Hallowed place, you help fulfill McCarthy’s last wish: to keep the story of our ancestors fresh and alive in spirit though the bodies have turned to dust.”
Scott goes on to write, “The greater the glory to Irish-Americans in Rhode Island today, who, in the name of their forebears, stand against intolerance, discrimination, and hunger suffered by the latest immigrants to our shores.”
It was these last values and sentiments that Dad instilled in me. At the time that our ancestors came, they were the poorest, most illiterate wretches our country had ever seen.  In our present affluence, and the world has never known a more affluent society, we must remember our duty to the needy.
Dad, the most tolerant and opened-minded man I know, has set a standard that I try to achieve everyday.
It was truly a splendid event. Thank you, Dad and Scott!Ray
August 2012

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