Ireland on My Mind: Recollections of Castleisland Descendant, Michael Murray

Big boys do cry, I’m pleased to say,
Sometimes occasionally, Sometimes all day.

– Michael Murray

An illustrated memoir, 87 Years of Michael’s Miscellaneous Memories, was the gift of Michael Murray, a native of Brookland, USA, to Castleisland District Heritage during a visit to the town last month (April 2024).  Michael was in Kerry to visit the former homestead of his grandmother, Catherine Theresa Quinlan, a native of Kilcow, Castleisland, Co Kerry.[1]


Centre image shows Michael Murray seated between John Roche (left) Chairman of Castleisland District Heritage, and Jerry Flynn, Vice Chair. Above left, Michael’s grandmother, Catherine Quinlan Healy who died on 2 March 1945 and on the right, Michael’s memoir


Michael, one of ten children of Grace Mary Delores Healy and Jerome Stanton Thomas Murray, was born on 13 July 1935.  Both parents were of Irish descent.[2]  His mother left an account of her family which included Catherine Quinlan’s childhood:


My mother Catherine Quinlan Healy was well educated.  She attended school run by the Presentation nuns in Castleisland, County Kerry, Ireland.  She told us of walking through the fields to town, carrying her shoes (to preserve them so that they would be presentable on arrival at school).  The nuns would not allow bare feet in class. My mother had a wonderful memory and could recite long poems and did so many times during the day as she carried on her household chores.  She also had a large range of Irish songs and current ballads and we all enjoyed her singing and dancing of Irish jigs and reels as she moved around the home. This affinity for music by both of my parents carried over to the children and we all naturally sang and harmonized over dinner as we washed and cleaned up the kitchen.[3]


Grace, who was born in 1906, married Jerome Stanton Thomas Murray on 11 July 1928.[4]  They were married by Jerome’s uncle, Rev Samuel Jacob Peck in St Joseph’s Church, 2nd & C Sts NE.[5] Grace recalled ‘funny happenings’ in the Jerome Stanton Murray family:


One day while in campus day school some of the children rushed home for lunch and excitedly wanted to know from where they had come.  In class that morning the subject of descendancy had come about, probably out of a history lesson.  Someone had declared that he or she was descended from Robert E Lee.  I reassured them that they also were descendants of an important person – King Brian Boru of Ireland.  Then I was asked did that mean they also could be kings.  ‘No,’ I replied, ‘you are princes and princesses and would be so considered if living in Ireland.’  All were very happy to return to school and spread the word.  Of course every Irishman claims descent from one of the many kings of Ireland and Murray–Healy folks could well be from the Brian Boru stock.  Murray means mariner.


On one occasion Michael was unwell but his mother did not allow this to affect family celebrations:


During the years we always enjoyed and celebrated the numerous holidays – Christmas of course was best.  On Halloween dad liked to dress in an outlandish costume and wind his way through the neighbourhood along with the other kids seeking tricks or treats.  I generally stayed at home with the littlest angel and then after returning with their spoils, we participated in an apple ducking game.  One year Michael had Scarletina and a sign from the health department prohibited visitors, quarantining the other children as well.  We celebrated Halloween indoors but left the window shades open, some of the neighbourhood children collecting around couldn’t resist staring in at our fun.  We felt sorry that they couldn’t join us!


Three Generations: Thomas and Catherine Quinlan Healy (centre), their daughter Grace Healy Murray (left) and Grace’s son Michael Murray (right). One of Michael’s treasured possessions is a Claddagh brooch he bought for his mother the night before she died


87 Years, Michael’s insightful memoir, is presented in the style of an interview, with questions and answers, and a strong sense of Irish wit and humour running throughout.  He recalls his childhood home at 1311-1313 Allison St, NE, Washington and responds to a question about his behaviour as a child:


When I was five or six, my two maiden aunts, Agatha and Loretto, in the presence of my aged grandmother (born and raised in Ireland before emigrating to America), gave me a birthday present.  Eagerly I unwrapped the gift.  I thought sure it would be a fun toy, at least.  Much to my horror and disgust it was a vest! … I shouted, ‘A vest?’ and threw it on the floor.  My two aunts were shocked.  My parents were mortified.


Michael’s grandmother, however, was philosophical, and reminded her two daughters that no child would welcome such a thing!  In later life, Michael developed a particular fondness for vests and keeps a colourful assortment of them.


On the question of sibling rivalry, Michael recalls his brother Jerome (Jerry) Thomas Murray, one year (and six days) his senior, and the scrapes they had as children.  Jerry, being a little older, often got the blame until one day it all changed.  The mother of a neighbour, ‘the big blabber mouth Mrs Driscoll, a recent arrival from County Kerry, the same area where my mother’s parents emigrated from,’ called to his mother:


She told my mother, with a thick Irish accent, that she saw me, ‘the wee lad Mikey’ throw the first punch.  Busted!  No longer was my big brother Jerry going to be automatically blamed for starting the fights.


Jerry died in an automobile accident in his first year of college at age twenty, ‘the pain of his way too early death affected me greatly then and remains with me to this day.’


Michael describes his childhood as a ‘gorilla warfare existence’:


We basically raised ourselves.  Not much supervision or direction.  Back in the 1940s I was old enough to get into a lot of trouble and young enough not to know any better.


Here he describes a scene from one of his ‘culinary transgressions.’  It happened when a blueberry pie was being served at the table:


Dividing up a pie into 12 pieces takes great skill.  Making sure each piece is even in size, either actually or perceived, is impossible.  I felt that my older brother received a bigger piece of pie and wanted him to trade his piece for mine as he insisted they were even.  He refused.  I, in all my great understanding and respect for my older brother, took my piece of pie and threw it at him from across the table.


In answering a question about his favourite family road trip to the West Coast in summer 1952, Michael begins by describing his lack of enthusiasm for excursions:


Picture the scene.  Ten kids and two adults into one, average sized car.  Jerry and I, with our older sister, get in the back seat first.  Then the next three in age, sit on our laps.  Then the next three sit on their laps.  The merging of nine heads, nine rear ends, eighteen legs, and eighteen sharp elbows into one hot sea of angst … with the baby on mom’s lap … then off, like a herd of turtles.


The trip to the West Coast took the family to twenty-three states: Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota and Kansas plus Mexico and Canada before returning to their home in Washington DC.  Towards the end of the trip, at Notre Dame, Indiana, Michael recalls:


If you thought we looked like poor gypsies before, real gypsies would ask us to improve our appearance so as not to give them a worse reputation than they already had.[6]


Above left shows Michael (left) and Jerry on horseback in the 1950s. The brothers hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon in 1952, which Michael described as one of the best days of his life.  In the centre, Michael Matthew Murray is awarded a Diploma from De Matha Catholic High School in 1954 and (right), De Matha’s Student Parking Lot in the 1950s.  Michael attended the University of Notre Dame, Indiana from 1954-1958


At the age of sixteen, Michael experienced his first ‘real’ kiss which came from a girl in the Christ Child Society’s summer camp at Ferry Point near Annapolis:


Quietly, privately, hand in hand, we walked together to a secluded part of the camp by the river where she held me close in her arms and planted a firm, lips-to-lips, real kiss on this quivering, embarrassed young kid that I was, then wished me Happy Birthday.  My face turned a deep red.  There were other bodily changes that I prefer not to mention.


In his humorous style, Michael writes that this memory happened to be written on National Kissing Day which he hoped to ‘celebrate as best I can without getting arrested.’


From 1959 to 1963, Michael lived in Africa, mostly in Basutoland (Lesotho) and the Republic of South Africa.  He recalls a time he was almost locked out of Gorongosa Game Preserve in Mozambique:


It was almost nine o’clock and nearly dark when I was close to the preserve when I heard a terrible noise under the bonnet.  Stopping, I discovered that my fan belt had broken and I was in serious lion country … Fortunately, I had many spare parts and tools.  With one eye on the surrounding jungle and both ears to the many rustling sounds both near and far, I replaced the fan belt in record time.  I made it to Gorongosa just before the gates were closed.


Pages from Michael’s memoir.  The painting in the centre is Michael’s work


Michael was living and teaching at Pius XII College in Basutoland on 20 January 1961, the day John F Kennedy was sworn in as 35th President of the United States of America. Michael returned to the Washington/Maryland area in September 1963 and planned to attend the Christmas tree lighting at the Ellipse next to the White House in the hope of a glimpse of President Kennedy.  However, he was working as a salesman nearby on 22 November 1963 when all the telephones in the office stopped working.  A man rushed in and said the President had been shot.  It was only after leaving the office and passing the White House with the American flag flying at half-staff that he realised the shot was fatal.


In recalling random acts of kindness, Michael recounts running out of gas on a lonely stretch of road on his way home to Union, West Virginia.  A man stopped to help by siphoning fuel from his own car into a container using a length of pipe and his mouth to create a vacuum, managing to get a mouth full of fuel in the process.  Michael offered to pay, but was refused, his rescuer asking only ‘that I help others as I go through life.’


Music has been an important part of Michael’s life since childhood.  In 1992, at the Augusta Heritage Workshops at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia, he learned to play a number of instruments including the Hammered Dulcimer.


Who Threw the Overalls: A selection of some of the Irish sheet music of Grace Healy Murray which Michael generously donated to the archive of Castleisland District Heritage during his visit[7]

Michael devotes a chapter to memories of his late mother, who he refers to as ‘Amazing Grace,’ and recalls the joy of bursting into the house after school and shouting out for her, as she provided ‘motherly comfort and assurance that all was right in our young world.’  The only time his mother was not home was when she was giving birth except on one occasion, when she went on a trip with her husband in a PanAm Clipper Flying Boat from New York to Bermuda in the early 1940s ‘returning with souvenirs instead of a baby.’  In later years, his mother travelled widely including a trip to County Kerry where her mother was born.


Michael’s memoir is a tonic as well as a social history, a light-hearted yet philosophical approach to a long life that, with the ‘Big D’ and medical issues, has not always been easy. It carries across the seas the indelible bond of old Ireland that despite the passing of generations, grows ever stronger.


In 2021, Michael, who lives near his son Shawn and his family in North Carolina, designed and printed a tee-shirt, I’m Still Vertical at 86, to celebrate his birthday. It perfectly encapsulates his Irish sense of humour.


Looking back over the years, Michael considers himself ‘damn lucky’ to have survived as he continues to grow ‘older and older and older,’ and is thankful ‘I still know who I am, where I’m at, and who are the many family and friends around me.’


[1] 87 Years of Michael’s Miscellaneous Memories, 426 pages, undated but a production of recent date.  Michael retrieved a small piece of rock from the former homestead at Kilcow which he took back to America as a treasured memento.

[2] Michael’s mother, Grace, was the daughter of Thomas Aloysius Healy of Washington DC (whose parents Thomas Healy and Brigit Kennedy hailed from Cork or Limerick) and Catherine (Kate) Theresa Quinlan (whose parents were Timothy Quinlan and Catherine Greaney) of Kilcow, Castleisland, Co Kerry. Thomas and Catherine married on 4 June 1895. 

[3] IE CDH 192.  From a handwritten account held in this series which continues: ‘Catherine Theresa Quinlan married Thomas Aloysius Healy on 4 June 1895.  Catherine, always called ‘Kate’ by her husband and family, was 28 years old.  Thomas or ‘Tom’ was 33 years old.  Sometime previous to marriage Tom was told by his doctor to seek outdoor work evidently for health reasons.  He was tall – 6’ over and slender, Kate around 5’ and average size.  My parents were married in St Paul’s Church, 15th I V Sts NW, Washington DC and came directly from church to a wedding reception in the home just purchased at 1036 Bladensburg Road, NE DC – a narrow house with Latrobe heat in the parlour, wood and coal burning stove in the kitchen with flues from each to upstairs bedrooms – no heat in the bathroom or middle bedroom.  The cellar underneath the house was fixed up with big icebox and room to handle milk cans for the business my father carried on from the house known as the Cottage City Dairy.  Each morning Tom arose at 3am, had breakfast which later on was prepared by older children in turns and who also assisted him hitching his horse-drawn wagon and loading it with clean bottles and milk cans.  Finally harnessing up the one horse which always seemed to be known as ‘Prince’ name continued on even through replacements as needed.  He then drove directly to a freight depot at 2nd St NW where he picked up fresh milk, shipped directly from outlying dairy farms and left his empty cans for the next days and went into Washington distributing his milk. Thomas Aloysuis Healy’s father was proficient in the Gaelic language and taught it to students, at his home and elsewhere.  Because of this knowledge his services were sought out by personnel of the Library of Congress whenever they were stumped by letters and other matters pertaining to Irish affairs.  Tom’s education must have been sufficient – his penmanship was Spencerian and beautiful to behold.  I have report cards signed by him attesting to his ability in this field.  He loved to read good books, Dickens seemed to be a favourite, he also enjoyed and was proficient in music.  I remember being taken as a young child to the national theatre in Washington DC to an operatto performance which memory recalls being named ‘Ermine.’  This was a highlight since it was night-time – the two of us had tickets in the highest balcony and it was very late when we returned home by streetcar and walked up Bladensburg Road to number 1036 where the six Healy children were born. My mother Catherine Quinlan Healy also was well educated.  She attended school run by the Presentation nuns in Castleisland, County Kerry, Ireland.  She told us of walking through the fields to town, carrying her shoes (to preserve them so that they would be presentable on arrival at school).  The nuns would not allow bare feet in class (shades of today’s colleges).  My mother had a wonderful memory and could recite long poems and did so many times during the day as she carried on her household chores.  She also had a large range of Irish songs and current ballads and we all enjoyed her singing and dancing of Irish jigs and reels as she moved around the home.  This affinity for music by both of my parents carried over to the children and we all naturally sang and harmonized over dinner as we washed and cleaned up the kitchen. My father kept his own records while operating his milk route but he depended heavily on his customers’ honesty and this was not always returned.  We did run an exchange system with a small neighbourhood grocery store.  Each had books in which purchases between the parties were noted and then at the end of a certain period a balance was struck and accounts settled. Note: The family moved to Capitol Hill – 619A St NE while Grace was still in grade school (this was her home until her marriage).

[4] Grace Healy’s father’s uncle, Patrick Kennedy, attended.  He was brother to Brigid Kennedy Healy and his wife’s name was Rose.  Grace’s only attendant was Ethel Kroger.  Jerome’s attendant was his brother, Francis E Murray.  After the wedding reception at home – 619 A St NE – her brother Norbert and his friend, Gladys Myles, drove them to their apartment at 2435 Monroe St NE DC.  Grace continues her account: ‘This was upstairs of a two storey house, the lower floor being occupied by an employed married couple who needed our rent to make payments on the house they were purchasing.  Lived there until 1931 when in April we purchased and moved to 4529 South Dakota Ave NE.  We accumulated money for the down payment and first trust by going very close to a budget.  The two of us just barely jointly brought $50 a week when first married.  Jerome was continuing his education so had tuition to pay along with everyday living expenses.  After graduating from Franklin (three year course) he decided to try to build up a bookkeeping/accountancy business so gave up his job with Sam Grocery/and/or Safeway Stores).  He walked around and tried to sell this service to small enterprises which had difficulty keeping necessary records.  One of such accounts acquired was a carpenter/contractor who was building houses and needed help especially on income tax returns.  Jerome realised that houses were built through sub-contractors employed by the person who directly took on the job of arranging sites, financing and assumed final responsibility for failure to complete.  He interested his family in such a project and Jerome Murray Company was incorporated.  Jerome and a brother Francis who was also a bookkeeper in a bank then began actively employing the workmen and managing and directing the building of individual homes.  They were constantly on the job and worked as long as needed and as their skills permitted.  This meant also daily contact with the financing people and arranging loans [text missing] … Banks closed, drying up construction funds.  Jobs hard to find, finally it seemed best to dissolve the Jerome Murray Co and the Murray family took over as Murray Company with Francis who was unmarried continuing as its head.  Jerome then began operating from his home.  I continued the necessary typing which I had originally done when he carried on his strictly bookkeeping/accounting practice.  There was a small distribution of the Francis and Annie Peck Murray Estate which up to then had been handled by sisters Helen and Anna as executors.  With this financing Jerome looked around in other fields and explored the real estate investment possibilities.  He did not continue in the construction field but on occasion purchased existing buildings and converted them to new use.  He was successful in his foresight and from his familiarity with the city from his boyhood days of bicycling around it which enabled him to act quickly when opportunities arose.  Patrick Murray, grandfather of Jerome Stanton, born in Ireland, was on his way to the boat on which he was scheduled to leave that country.  On passing a quarrel and fight going on between a husband and wife he tried to intercede.  They turned on him and he was so badly beaten that he had to be hospitalised. The rest of the family group proceeded to America, since tickets and passage could not be delayed.  That group settled in Plattsburgh, New York.  When Patrick arrived after recovery from his beating he made his way into New York City and remained there. Jerome Peck, grandfather on the maternal side of Jerome Stanton Murray – owned and operated a canal boat on the old C and O Canal.  He hauled coal, secured from regions near his home between Cumberland and Alexandria VA.  The two older children, Sylvester and Mary Ellen (Ella) assisted him with this route.  During winter months he also used his mules to scoop out around for reservoirs being constructed in Washington DC.

[5] Father Samuel Peck was a secular priest in the Baltimore diocese who entered the priesthood when older than most seminarians.  He had to take special courses in Latin to qualify and take odd jobs to finance himself while preparing for his acceptance into seminary.  He was pastor of church at Issue, Maryland (Rockpoint) and to Charles County, Maryland in 1928.  Later became pastor of church at Elkridge Maryland until his death.  Sister Madeline (Sims) a blood sister of Sister Genevieve at Emmetsburg. Sister Genevieve (Sims) a blood sister of St Ann’s Orphanage, DC served at Issue, Maryland.  Both acted as his housekeeper.

[6] Michael’s mother recalls the trip in her handwritten recollections: ‘In June 1952 we took eight children in two station wagons to the West Coast.  We followed the National Parks wherever possible, read up as we travelled about the cities we would be visiting.  We especially tried to get to the capital city of some and visit the capital building.  This was an educational trip for all of us.  We visited Vancouver, Victoria, BC, and took an overnight cruise so as to see the huge virgin forests up that area.  After sightseeing in California we returned home by the coastal route, arriving in time for school to begin in September.  Before we began our trip the older boys with assistance from the younger and under the direction of their father built a flagstone retaining wall.  The wall still stands and we take pleasure in viewing it whenever occasion brings us to our old neighbourhood.’ 

[7] IE CDH 192. The music sheets are as follows: Who Threw the Overalls in Mistress Murphy’s Chowder copyright 1937 Calumet Music Co, Chicago; Bridget O’Flynn (Where’ve Ya Been?) copyright 1926 Shapiro, Bernstein & Co, New York; My Dear Irish Home copyright 1914 John Howard; Rose of Tralee copyright 1935 Calumet Music Co, Chicago; Ireland Must be Heaven, for my Mother came from There copyright 1916 Leo Feist Inc, New York; Kitty Maloney copyrighted 1877 by S Brainard’s Sons; Pretty Mollie Shannon copyright 1901 M Witmark & Sons; Where the River Shannon Flows copyright 1905 M Witmark & Sons.