Friday, March 17, 2017

Our Irish ancestry - Happy St Patricks Day

My Great Grandmother, Winifred Cooney Cox (1868-1956)

In the year of 1891, 23 year old, Winnie left her Irish homeland and family to come to America. She met her future husband, an Englishman, aboard the ship that brought the couple across the Atlantic.  Winnie & John Cox settled in New Rochelle NY where they raised two daughters, Margaret (Flo) Cox Hennessy and Mary (Mae) Cox Schoenherr.

Kilkishen Church built in 1811
Winifred Cooney was born in Ballinabrone, County Clare, the oldest of nine children born to Mary Ryan and Thomas Cooney.  Winifred was baptized in O'Callaghan Mills in the Catholic church on April 11, 1868.  Her sponsors are listed as Daniel Cooney and Anne Ryan.

Headstone of Tommy Cooney,
nephew of Winifred Cooney
Winnie's parents, Thomas Cooney and  Mary (Ryan) Cooney were wed in Limerick, Ireland on May 26, 1867.  Possible census records show the family living in East Clare and then Killuran in 1900 and 1910 with Thomas, a widower by then, working as a farmer.  I have recently learned that Thomas' son Patrick Cooney inherited the family farm and house in Ballinabrone.  My 2nd great grandmother, Mary Ryan Cooney, was born in 1841.  Her family was from Clonneyconroy, about 10 miles from Ballinabrone.

My Great Grandfather, Patrick J. Hennessy (1874- )

On January 11, 1894, 19 year old Patrick emigrated to America from his home in Conahy, Killkenny Ireland.  Patrick was born in Kilkenny, the son of Patrick Hennessy (b.1839) and Catherine (Brennan) Hennessy (b.1845).

Patrick (b.1874) married Mary J. Archer in approximately 1895.  They settled initially in Brooklyn NY moving to New Rochelle in 1901 where they raised their four sons until Mary passed away from Meningitis in 1905.

My Great Grandmother,  Mary Archer Hennessy (1867-1905)

Mary Archer is believed to have been born in 1867 the daughter of Richard Archer & Sarah (Andrew) Galloway Archer.  The family may have been from Ballymena in Northern Ireland and emigrated to the United States in the 1875.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Henry Hennessy and the Craig Colony for Epileptics

Henry Hennessy spent a significant part, if not all, of his adult life at Craig Colony for Epileptics in upstate New York.  Craig Colony was modeled after an idyllic vision of  a safe, productive environment where epileptics could live their lives in peace with proper medical care.  The reality was not so idyllic.  While the premise that epileptics needed to be segregated because they were either contagious, dangerous to society, or 'not right in the head,' could not have been more erroneous.

Henry Hennessy is my great uncle, my grandfather's brother.  Few, if any, will be searching for him on ancestry websites as he has no direct descendants.  He wasn't allowed to marry or even fraternize with females at Craig Colony.   Despite attempts to simulate a home environment for colonists, as they were called, Craig Colony was an institution specifically designed to keep male and female patients from interacting, with the sexes entirely separated by a rocky ravine.  Epilepsy was understood to be a brain disorder by the late 19th century, but there was no effective seizure medication and epileptics faced severe discrimination making it almost impossible to live a normal life.  Prior to the establishment of Craig Colony, many were committed to insane asylums.

Henry J. Hennessy was born on January 21, 1901 in Pittsfield Massachusetts, the third son of Patrick Joseph Hennessy and Mary J. (Archer) Hennessy.    Patrick and Mary were living in Brooklyn in 1901 as documented on Henry's birth record, their reason for being in Massachusetts at the time is unknown.  The birth record includes Patrick and Mary's full names and Patrick's occupation  as a coachmen, as well as Henry's date of birth.

Henry had two older brothers, Joseph Hennessy, born in 1898 and Thomas Francis Hennessy (my grandfather) born in 1899.  Joseph and Thomas were born in NYC and Patrick's naturalization record indicates he was living in NYC in 1905, as well.  Patrick and Mary had a fourth son, John (Jack) Hennessy in 1906.  Mary died in December of 1906 due to Meningitis.   The 1910 census indicates that Patrick is a widow living with 3 of his sons in New Rochelle.  John is not listed on that census and his whereabouts are unknown.  Patrick remarried in approximately 1914.  Henry Hennessy is included on the 1915 NY State census living with his family in New Rochelle, consisting of his father, stepmother, Annie, his brothers Thomas and John and his newborn half brother, James.

Groveland, NY - location of Craig Colony
By 1920, Henry was a patient at the Craig Colony for Epileptics in Groveland, NY.  His admission date is unknown, but must have been between 1915 and 1920.  The 1920 Census indicates that 7th grade was the highest grade Henry completed in school which would have been about the time of the 1915 when he was only 14 years old.   There is no way to know when Henry first developed epileptic seizures, but it seems likely  he sought treatment for new or worsening symptoms around 1915 which led to his placement at Craig Colony at about the age of 14.   Henry remained a patient at the Colony until at least 1940, which is the last census record available.  He would have been 39 years old at that time.

Craig Colony admitted it's first patient in 1896.  It was modeled after a colony in Germany and was originally designed to house 200 epileptic patients with the intent to specifically exclude the insane.   Overcrowding quickly became a major problem at the colony with over 1400 colonists in residence in 1911 and over 2700 at it's peak in 1939.   The colony had a working farm, craft shops, school and hospital with colonists employed in various trades, so that the colony could be self-supporting. Doctors and administrators thought of the colony as the most humane treatment of epileptics at the time who they still considered to be mentally ill.  In one annual report, administrators wrote, Not all epileptics are unusually irritable, or so much lacking in self-control, nor are all inclined to complain.

Excerpts of a speech given by a physician in Chicago about 1907 regarding the problems of Epileptic patients and the best way to care for them provides insight into how epilepsy was perceived:  

  • "If the adult [epileptic] be a man… he is very apt to be dangerous, as you know, and a source of danger to the rest of the family….  An epileptic may get a job between his attacks, but after his first attack, as a rule, his job is gone. No business man wants an epileptic around his premises.
  • “Those of you who have been in the home where the mother is epileptic know what a sad and pathetic sight it is.  The children are neglected.  The whole home is one of the most sad and depressing scenes into which an individual can go.”
  • Regarding epileptic child:  “Nobody wants him.  He is excluded from public schools and, very properly.  It is not fair to the rest of the children… that they should be exposed to seeing the contortions and writhings of an epileptic child….He is very apt to be the butt of scorn and ridicule of his playmates. ‘
  • “The best way and, the best remedy for this condition is … segregation of all epileptics into a community by themselves… epileptic colony or village.”
Even for those epileptics not institutionalized, marriage was difficult.  Laws prohibiting epileptics from marrying were passed in 18 states from 1895 to 1939.  The law forbidding marriage among epileptics in the United Kingdom was only repealed in 1970.  Principles of eugenics flourished leading to laws requiring sterilization of epileptics as well.   

Craig Colony accomplished the goal as sterilization without surgery.  A medical director wrote in his report, "One great value of segregating epileptics in an institution like Craig Colony is that it cuts off, to a certain extent, an epileptic progeny, for the disease is handed down from parent to child in 16 percent of all cases.  

The Colony closed in 1968.  It is unknown if Henry Hennessy died while a patient at Craig or if he was discharged or transferred to another institution.  Like many 'colonists' he appears to have lost connection with his family after being placed in the Colony.

See more at:

Thursday, July 28, 2016

My Mother, Through the Smoke


Our family pictured here in 1985 celebrating Mom's first Christmas at Cedar Lane Rehabilitation Center in Waterbury CT.  At the time, we were still optimistic the therapists could wean her from the respirator.  That was not to be.  She spent 4 years, 3 months and 2 days as an appendage to a ventilator.  

I vividly remember my mother's dreadful, raucous cough that seemed to walk into a room before her.  That was part of who she was in my mind, not an ominous sign of Emphysema lurking in her lungs.  I still see Mom sitting at the kitchen table, chin cradled in one hand, a cup of black coffee or glass of Pepsi,  in the other.  That plain, creaky kitchen table was where we talked about everything and mom dispensed her shrewd advice that was almost never well received by my teenage self.  

I've written about oodles of relatives going back hundreds of years, but not my own mother. I glossed right over her.  So much was left unsaid when she was dying. I never said goodbye or told her how I felt because I was clueless. I have to admit I wasn't a very good daughter when she needed me most.  Back in the 80's we didn't have skype, facetime, email, texting nor any digital form of communication.  Mom's tracheotomy prevented her from talking so phone calls were out.  Months turned into years in the hospital which atrophied her muscles and made letter writing difficult so she basically lived for our visits.  Visiting was hard, time consuming and emotionally draining. Every visit ended with us leaving her in the hospital, knowing after the first year or so, that she wasn't coming home, she would never sit at the kitchen table again, laugh or dispense advice, cook one of her amazing dinners or even smell the lilacs she loved so much.  Over time weekly visits turned into monthly and then every few months until she was gone.
Tom, Robert, Jack and Peggy

But enough of that wishy washy stuff. I should be telling you about her roots. It seems impossible to sum up my mother's life in a neat little blog post, but I will try to give you a glimpse of the impact her truncated life made. 

My mother, Margaret Anne Hennessy, who everyone called Peg or Peggy, was the fourth child born on November 17, 1935 to Thomas Francis Hennessy and Margaret Florence (Cox) Hennessy.  Older brothers Thomas, Robert and John (Jack) were 4, 2 and 1 years of age when Peg was born.

Eight years later, the twins, Donald  & Sherry  came along.   In 1940 the family resided at 56 Northfield Rd. New Rochelle, NY.  
Sherry, Peg & Don
In 1954, her father, Thomas Hennessy passed away due to a heart condition, although my mother wondered if his condition was caused or exacerbated by smoking.  Just about everyone smoked back then and for the most part, they were oblivious to the health consequences.  My mother started smoking when she was 15 years old. 

Sherry Hennessy and Margaret
Cox Hennessy about 1980. 

That's our kitchen table and 
Grand Union bicentennial dishes
from 1976,
 Peg's mother and my grandma, Margaret (Cox) Hennessy, was hospitalized around 1956. In the 2  prior years Margaret had lost her husband, mother and sister, all of whom had passed away, leaving a burden she couldn't handle. Margaret remained in the hospital for 25 years until her death in 1981.

Peg, along with her brother Jack, went to work and took responsibility for raising their younger siblings, Sherry and Don. Their brother Tom had left home years earlier and had started his own family, while Robert had joined the military and was serving in the Phillipines.

Stan, Scott and Peggy in 1963
Peggy married Stan Syska on October 20, 1962.  My brother Scott was born in November of 1963, my sister, Suzy, in  February 1965 and I came along 13 months later in March of 1966.  Years later, I came to understand how chaotic a time that was for Mom, when my twins were born and I had 4 children of my own under the age of 5.  I wished my mother could have been there although I'm sure we would have bickered over something important like diaper duty or pacifier protocol.   

Stan Syska, Tom Hennessy and Peggy
(Hennessy) Syska
Life wasn't easy for my parents.  They worked hard always struggling to make ends meet.  Dad was a self employed carpenter.  Mom dreamed of going to college and becoming a writer.  Instead she worked nights as a nurses aid, slept during the day and took care of us in the afternoons and evenings.
I don't know exactly when Mom was diagnosed with Emphysema, but she told us kids in 1981 when she began oxygen therapy.  Eventually, the oxygen wasn't enough, she went into cardiac arrest and was put on a respirator.   The typical onset of Emphysema symptoms occurs in a person's 60's or 70's even for smokers. I suspect my mother may have had a genetic condition  called AAT deficiency (see picture on below right)

On April 25, 1989, my brother and his wife had their first child, Kevin Syska, who was my mother's first grandchild. About 2 1/2 months later, they brought Kevin to Cedar Lane where Mom was delighted to hold Kevin in her arms. All the nurses came in the room and Peggy got to proudly show off her grandson.  And then she knew it was time to go.  Peg stopped eating or drinking, with a do not resucitate order, it was only a matter of time until she passed away on July 27, 1989.

My mother promised each of her children she would give us $100 if we didn't start smoking cigarettes by the time we were 21.  None of us have ever smoked, defying the odds that say children of parents who smoke  are twice as likely to take up the habit themselves. I never got my cold hard cash but my mother had already given me everything: life, love, air.  


Mom had been 'quitting smoking' for most of my childhood. She tried everything from hiding her cigarettes, to joining smokenders, even hypnosis but the addiction was too strong.  She finally quit for good when she started the oxygen therapy, but it was too late.  Emphysema is a progessive, terminal disease that destroys the lung's air sacs.

It's hard to imagine a time when people didn't know smoking was harmful. 
To help illustrate what that era was like, I compiled some  cigarette advertisements with celebrities like Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Lucy & Desi Arnaz and Babe Ruth.  There were many more. Even Fred and Barney Flinstone appeared in cigarette ads in 1960-61.

Then there are the ads that claim "more doctors smoke Camel" or cigarettes make you thinner.  One of the most bizarre is the "Winston, when you're smoking for two" ad that claims low birth weight is a win-win: easy labor, slim baby and great taste. 

Cancer by the Carton

1952 article published in Readers Digest that demonstrated to the public the connection between smoking and lung cancer.  This was based on 30 years of research at the time!

Tobacco companies fired back with the statement below and intense ad campaigns touting low tar and low nicotine cigarettes with filters.  While the number of smokers in the US continues to decline, we have exported the problem. Today there are 1 billion smokers globally with 80% of smokers living in low and middle income countries according to the World Health Organization.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Great Aunt Sherry

Aunt Sherry with  great niece Anika & niece Jill

Picture on Below:
 George & Sherry with great niece, Maggie Kilada.
In the course of my geneology research, I have documented the lives of many ancestors, but rarely written about the close relatives who have impacted my own life.

100 years from now, one of our descendants may set out to research the life of Sherry Jean Hennessy Plevretes.  He might find the date of her birth, her parents names, occupations, residences along with the names and ages of her siblings. The track of her life would show the death of her father, the birth of her son Russell, her marriage to George and the death of her mother etc.  He or she could note the joyous moments such as the birth of four wonderful grandchildren, and the sorrowful loss of loved ones.  

Yet none of these facts nor the thrill of finding original documents could capture the essence of her life.  Perhaps, it is worth writing about some of our living and breathing relatives!  Who knows, maybe this blog will survive 100 years ....

There's so much I could tell you about my aunt; how she has been my rock and the force that held our family together all these years or how blessed I have been to feel her love, support, guidance and friendship.   But these pictures do a much better job demonstrating her  exuberance, joy and love! 

Top left (1989):  Aunt Sherry holding her great nephew, Kevin Syska

Bottom left (1991):  Aunt Sherry holding great niece, Jessica Syska

Top right: Aunt Sherry holding great niece Jessica with Uncle George behind her.

Bottom right (1989): Aunt sherry with Linda and infant Kevin.

Top Left:  Aunt Sherry & Jill Hennessy

Top Right (1993):  Aunt Sherry & Sharon

Bottom Left  (1994):  Sharon, Cathy, Aunt Sherry & Suzy 

Bottom Right:  Suzy & Aunt Sherry

Top Left (1994):  Aunt Sherry with great niece, Emily Cribbins

Bottom Right:  Aunt Sherry with great niece & nephew, Emily & James Cribbins
Top Left:  Aunt Sherry with Gang.  Also on Sherry's right:  Shannon & Sherry Hennessy.

Right middle:  Cathy Hennessy & Aunt Sherry

Left middle:  The twins- Don & Sherry

Bottom left:  Aunt Sherry & Linda

Bottom Center:  Linda, Aunt Sherry holding Kevin with Scott.

Bottom right:  Aunt Sherry & Suzy

Top: Aunt sherry with grandchildren (Nick & Morgan) and great nieces & nephews.

Bottom Left  (1996)-  Aunt Sherry with great nephew- Jason Kilada

Bottom Right -  Aunt Sherry with Emily & Jason

Top Left:  Maggie & Nick

Top Right, bottom:  Aunt Sherry with Maggie

Top Left:  Aunt Sherry, Jason, Cathy & Uncle George.

Bottom Left (1997):  Russ, Jason, Aunt Sherry & Sharon

Bottom Right:  Suzy, Sharon, Shannon, Aunt Sherry & Sherry

Picture Below:  (top row) Maggie, James (Bromley), Jason, Nick, Bella, Morgan (bottom row) Emily, Will, Aunt Sherry & Tommy

Top Left:  Aunt Sherry with great nephews Tommy & Will Kilada

Top Right (2007) - Aunt Sherry & Jason

Bottom Left (2000) - Aunt Sherry & Uncle George with William & Thomas

Top Right - Aunt Sherry & Suzanne
Center- Aunt Sherry & Maggie
Bottom Left - Aunt Sherry & Scott
Bottom Right - Aunt Sherry & Sharon

A few more pictures........


Thursday, March 17, 2016

In honor of St. Patricks Day - Our Irish Heritage

Every year on this day I am forced to remind my children that they are indeed Irish although they don't look it.  And here is the proof....

My Great Grandmother, Winifred Cooney Cox (1868-1956)

In the year of 1891, 23 year old, Winnie left her Irish homeland and family to come to America. She met her future husband, an Englishman, aboard the ship that brought the couple across the Atlantic.  Winnie & John Cox settled in New Rochelle NY where they raised two daughters, Margaret (Flo) Cox Hennessy and Mary (Mae) Cox Schoenherr.

Winnie was born in Galway, one of the eight children of Mary Ryan and Thomas Cooney.   Thomas & Mary were wed in Limerick, Ireland on May 26, 1867.  Census records show the family living in East Clare and then Killuran in 1900 and 1910 with Thomas, a widower by then, working as a farmer.  My 2nd great grandmother, Mary Ryan Cooney, was baptized on July 11,1841 in Ballinakill, Galway Co., Ireland the daughter of  John and Mary (Salman) Ryan.

My Great Grandfather, Patrick J. Hennessy (1874- )

On January 11, 1894, 19 year old Patrick emigrated to America from his home in Conahy, Killkenny Ireland.  Patrick was born in Kilkenny, the son of Patrick Hennessy (b.1839) and Catherine (Brennan) Hennessy (b.1845).

Patrick (b.1874) married Mary J. Archer in approximately 1895.  They settled initially in Brooklyn NY moving to New Rochelle in 1901 where they raised their four sons until Mary passed away from Meningitis in 1905.

My Great Grandmother,  Mary Archer Hennessy (1867-1905)

Mary Archer is believed to have been born in 1867 the daughter of Richard Archer & Sarah (Andrew) Galloway Archer.  The family may have been from Ballymena in Northern Ireland and emigrated to the United States in the 1875.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Fordham University - perhaps the last stop in our arduous, amazing, agonizing college search.

I'm sorry it's been so long since I last posted.  I have been embroiled in motherly duties, helping my daughter wade through oodles of College brochures, facts, figures and websites to find the place she will call home for the next four years.  As a parent, I am supposed to guide her objectively, steer but not interfere, keep my emotional ambivalence with this stage in her life under wraps and insure we can actually foot the bill.  Our oldest is a sophomore in college now and with two more future college students in the wings, that affordability issue is a big one. 
Keating Hall
Fordham University

We've spent the last few weeks trekking from one admitted students day to the next and I'm a little surprised, but happy that Fordham University has made the short list.  We're down to 2 or 3 schools at this point.  I can't say how this will turn out come May 1st, but as you know, our family does have a history at this very old and prestigious institution.

My grandfather, Thomas F. Hennessy (1899-1954) graduated from Fordham University in 1922 after serving on the Students Army Training Corp at Fordham in 1918. 

Thomas won his own scholarship for $100 towards 
tuition and $100 for maintenance in 1921.  He graduated from Fordham Law School in 1925 and served as a member of the Fordham Law School faculty. He is memorialized in 1954 in "The Advocate," a publication of the Alumni Assoc. of Fordham Law School.  After graduating, Thomas went on to serve as a vice chairman of the Westchester County Democratic committee.

Our first visit to Fordham last summer did not go so well.  My daughter, who teeters between being agnostic and atheist, was immediately turned off by this decidedly religious institution as well as a perceived lack of diversity.  She was also intimidated by the stately, looming buildings in spite of their architectural beauty.  Our family heritage was inconsequential to her. No, this was not her kind of school!  

As she continued her search, Fordham's academic offerings and reputation as well as it's proximity to Manhattan drew her back in.  Thus, when they offered her a scholarship, it seemed worthy of another look.  Sure enough, a year later and a whole lot wiser, she found the beauty and history of Fordham inviting and engaging.  I thought all might be lost on my-so-not-into-sports kid when the President devoted much of his speech to Fordham's affiliation with the Yankees, taunting Mets and Red Sox fans.  Yet, when the Father began to talk about Fordham's mission to create graduates who are "bothered" by injustice and the tough questions and issues of our time, it resonated loudly, like the crack of the bat hitting a walk off home run.

1935 Fordham University
 Founded as St. John's College in 1841
The name was changed
to Fordham in 1907
The Law school and
Medical Schools opened in 1905

As for the Catholic tradition of Fordham, she's standing firm on her agnostic-atheist fence.  It could be interesting for her to debate spirituality at Fordham with those infinitely more versed in the subject than I.   Of course I understand her position, having gone through my own period of exploration and I would expect nothing less from her.  She hates it when I tell her that though, feeling it invalidates her position, as if it's just a phase.  And she's right.  This is her journey and whose to say what discoveries she'll make and where she will end up.  But, for the next four years, I wouldn't mind her being in the Bronx, less than an hour away!