My name is Ray McKenna and I represent the sixth generation of my Irish family in America. While growing up in Rhode Island, I was regaled with stories from my uncles of past adventures. There was my Uncle Pete, who as a city police lieutenant in the 1920’s and ‘30’s, told me of fighting the mob on Federal Hill and of men with feet cemented into dinghies and then dumped in Narragansett Bay.
Uncle Frank Carson had me imagining hopping trains and riding the rails across Canada with him and his brothers. I longed to join the hobos and Indians who were their fellow travelers back at the turn of the twentieth century. And with a name like Carson, I became convinced that I was related to the scout and Indian fighter, Kit Carson, and so read every biography of his I could get my hands on. No, he was not my relative, but I did have an aunt, Kitty Carson.
And then there was my mother’s brother, Uncle Bob Smalley, who spent his adult life working and sailing on merchant ships. Uncle Bob would arrive at our house every year or so with gifts and stories of far away places like Morocco and South Asia. Uncles Frank and Bob ignited a drive to travel in me.
But no one talked about the where the family lived before arriving in America. My childhood was still a time when ethnic groups mostly lived apart. In the hometown of my youth, there was the Italian part of town and it seemed like half the kids in elementary school went to the Catholic School (made up of Italian and Irish) and half went to the public school. I was in the public school.
I always had this sense of being Irish, whatever that was. My mother said we were “mutts,” something that I later learned was common among Irish-Americans, who wanted to hide their non-WASP heritage. Not being Irish and Catholic made for an easier time getting a job.
An so, while I imagined the adventures of family members in North America, I yearned to know about the brave people who had made the sacrifice to come to America and give us a better life.
As I learned over the years, it is not an easy task when the people you seek were refugees from hate and famine. They arrived in ill health, without funds, illiterate and speaking English as a second language. To discover their story it became necessary to learn everything I could about the society from which they fled and the community that became their home in Rhode Island. I embrace it as a duty to their memory.