Early Years

Chapter Three

Family History

Jim Coffey Boxing Pose

According to most writers and also the Internet, Jim Coffey’s date of birth is given as 16th January, 1891. Billy Gibson when he later became his Boxing Manager decided for publicity reasons that Jim’s date of birth would look and sound better as the Fourth of July—still 1891. This date is adhered to in Nat Fleischer’s “The Ring Record Book and Encyclopaedia”—the most reputable last word on all boxing details.

Actually his Birth Certificate shows he was born on the 27th January 1890. This is corroborated by the 1901 nation-wide census which shows Jim then as eleven years of age.

However, the 1901 Census is not perfect in all other respects. It is well known that there was another girl, Bessie (Elizabeth), then aged 15 between the twins (John and Bridget) and Mary - an understandable omission when registering eleven children - five boys and six girls. Jim was the sixth child. The father of the family, John, was then fifty years old and the mother was ten years younger, which means she was married when she was about twenty or twenty one.

The same Census shows a Patrick Coffey, John's brother, in a contiguous farm. He had seven children at the time. One can only envisage the confusion there must have been with two Kates, two Johns, two Bridgets, two Pats, and two Ellens, living in adjoining farms!

There was, of course, an essential need for nicknames. For example, Kate of the John family would be called Katie John, Kate of the Patrick family Katie Pat, and so on, but there would be even more confusion when it came to John and Pat and their respective fathers, and Anne and Maria with their mothers; So that 'twas sometimes necessary to use more than two nicknames, often bilingual like the story book Jimin Mhaire Taidhg (little Jimmy Mary Tim). Indeed they say that Pake Quinn, the local blacksmith, (Jim Coffey's uncle), was not always able to determine which of the children had come with the horse and he'd make the bill out to the horse itself, which he invariably recognised.

In the remote villages like Tully in North West Roscommon the norm was to leave school at fourteen and then eke out some sort of existence until the age of nineteen or so when the American emigration and quota regulations allowed entry in to the United States.

For the men (and the boys) once the spring turf cutting and seed sowing were completed they could avail of seasonal work on large farms in England, with long hours from dawn to dusk throughout the long months of June, July, August and even in September. Certainly it is known that Jim and his elder brother John went on the English Circuit several times. Life on those farms was, of course, primitive, but for the developing, giant-forming Jim, 'twas a tremendous muscle and body building exercise. Back home then for the potato digging; Jim was particularly fond of hand-ball in the ball alley only about two miles away - the one great athletic activity of his formative years.

For the women (and girls) there were fewer opportunities of earning a crust. There were some vacancies as domestic help (always referred to as "Servants", only the Priest's was known as "The Housekeeper") with the school-master and some of the married women teachers who had families; with the Dispensary Doctor; with the Solicitors in the town and sporadically with the local gentry - Erritt Lodge was the nearest to the Coffeys. Some of the shops in town (Ballyhaunis) would take on the odd girl as a general factotum. And, of course, the pay was poor. A Priest's Housekeeper might earn as much as £10 a year. That would be the top job.

The only consolation was that there was a turnover of workers as each in turn would emigrate to America, and thus create a home vacancy. Of course the training (or should it be called more correctly experience?) in domestic service, coupled with automatically induced nursery training in the family home, was invaluable for their future careers in the United States. No wonder over there they were highly sort after and greatly regarded. In the West of Ireland they were sometimes called skivvies; in the United States, professional housekeepers and in many instances home-makers.

It is known that John, the father in 1901 Census, died suddenly when relatively young. At the time all the older children were either in New York or in menial jobs waiting to go there, and so it fell to young Ned who was just then about to finish his schooling to undertake a major part in the work and running of the homestead. In fact he was to continue doing so for the rest of his life. This was why Ned never emigrated and how he came to inherit the tenancy and eventually the homestead.

All Ned's other siblings as they came of age were destined for New York. There they all would be quickly and readily absorbed into a substantial Coffey colony, mainly in the Bronx. Even before the famine exodus ( and the threat of famine really started in 1842, but came to a climax over the tragic years 1847 to 1849) the Coffeys, along with many other families from that part of the West of Ireland, were well accustomed to emigration, particularly to New York. By the year of that Census in 1901 there would be third or fourth generation Coffeys established there. As well as kith and kin there would be near neighbours and their offspring from the adjoining townlands of Erritt, Gortaganny, Clooncan, Cahir and Carrowbehy (well known for its sub-post office and out-lying surgery) combined with townlands in the adjoining County of Mayo, like Brakloon, Derrynacong, and so on.

Commonplace, in those days, in New York were names like Dillon, Duffy, Hand, Waldron, Moffat, Ellwood (later to run the only pub between Loughglynn and Ballyhaunis called, predictably, "Coney Island"), Hoban, Brady, Quinn (Jim Coffey's mother was Nee Quinn who was of course busy all her life in Tully), McNamara, and of course a lot of Coffeys in New York. Inevitably the rate of emigration accelerated and came to a head over the Famine years.

The Famine Years

Famine Memorial PhotographFamine Memorial, Dublin

As to the situation in Tully during those dreadful years, the Coffey family fared somewhat better than most. The famine struck hardest at tiny holdings; fifty per cent of those in Mayo and Northwest Roscommon were less than five acres, many of them only one acre. On the failure of the potato crop such small acreage farmers whose total dependence was on the potato had no hope. Not only were the holdings incredibly small but the families were unusually large. Of course there was a panic rush to emigrate but unfortunately those very poor people couldn't even afford to do that. It is true that they died in their thousands. The Census of 1841 shows a population of about 8,200,000; A very rural population spread out across the countryside with no great concentration in Dublin or any of the provincial towns. Mainly as a result of the famine, coupled with consequent emigration, the Census in 1910 records population of about 4,000,000 a drop of over 50%.

In contrast, it is reckoned that any tenant farmer with thirty acres or more could and did survive. A search through "Griffith's Valuation", Irish Records of Occupancy, set up in 1952 when interpolated and back-dated to the Famine Years shows that a John Coffey tenanted thirty seven acres in Tully in those years.

This would enable this patriarchal to diversify, grow some oats, even have two cows, keep poultry and grow vegetables immune to the fungal blight that so affected the potato. And of course there was per person a handout of Indian meal. In addition the Tully townland was blessed with an abundance of wildlife, rabbits, hares, and also fish from the large lakes which adjoined the farm. All had to be poached but this was no great problem. The attached genealogy note (Appendix 6) shows that John Coffey who came through the Famine was Jim's grandfather. In drawing this up the guiding lights were the Griffith's Valuation (Appendix 5), the 1901 Census showing the Coffey family at that time (Appendix 3), and Jim's Birth Certificate (Appendix 4).

In the Famine, the Coffeys were lucky, but their good fortune does not denigrate in any way the true stories of the misery and the terrible fate of those who died horribly in those days.

This was more especially true of the adjoining Strokestown Estate, where the Landlord, the infamous Major Denis Mahon, cleared his land to rear cattle and sheep, dispatching many of his starving people to the tragic "coffin ships", while at the same time demolishing the poor hovels of those who had to remain behind. Some of them tried to seek some refuge in the Loughglynn Estate, but most wound up as corpses in roadside ditches and mass graves.

Famine Artist's ImaginingSkibbereen 1847 by James Mahony

The Townland of Tully formed a small part of the vast Loughglynn Estate, where the English Dillon dynasty reigned supreme for several hundred years in a vast three storied mansion surrounded by dense woodlands on the shore of a picturesque lake; Not that they availed of it much. They were absentee landlords.

During the famine periods (and they stretched out for many years, mainly from 1842 to 1849), the all powerful man in charge was Lord Dillon's Agent, a Mr Charles Strickland, and in this the Loughglynn tenants were blest. Although a dour character he was a reasonable man with some feeling for his tenants. There is no record of any evictions during his period of tenure and legend recalls him and his family cooking and issuing Indian meal porridge (ground maize) on a generous scale.

As the famine subsided in about 1850, he is greatly remembered too for his building of the large masonry school about half a mile west of the village. The school was opened and proper teachers appointed in 1856. This was the first purpose built school in the district and it was eventually followed by other schools in Lisacul and Meelick, Clooncan and Gortaganny. Indeed it is on general record that between 1850 and 1900 the number of Primary schools (called National Schools) doubled, especially in the rural areas. In that period those who could read and write increased from about 30% to 85%. The vast majority were keen on attending school and were very educable. Discipline and corporal punishment were quite severe (except, oddly enough, in Loughglynn school - again the Strickalnd influence) and if you were caned at school, you were double caned at home because of it.

This punishment regime also carried over into the Secondary Colleges which were established about this time. For example, (Appendix 7), shows that Edmonston College, Ballaghadereen, opened in 1893 as a boarding college - later to be re-christened Saint Nathy's College; There was also a secondary day school in Ballyhaunis; In Sligo, Summerhill (boarding) College was by then well established. Others were springing up on a more or less Diocesan basis. They were principally intended for Ecclesiastic Students destined for Saint Patrick's (Seminary) College in Maynooth (opened in 1795 with Endowment in 1845) and other Seminaries, but quickly became the gateways to the National Universities, Dublin, Belfast, Galway, and Cork. These were built in the Famine Years about 1847 and eventually evolved as endowed Universities.

However, the advancement in the realm of higher education was more understood and appreciated by the growing urban population, while greatly ignored and even disparaged by the struggling rural farming communities. And, of course, the secret invisible emigrant income from the USA, enabled the continued rearing of large families, who, in due course, inevitably took their place in the emigration queues.

Crossing the Atlantic

Oceanic Liner 1899Oceanic Liner 1899

Emigration had, of course, been made easier by the advent and great advancement of the steam ship. Ocean liners and tramp steamers were a far cry from the “coffin ships” of the famine years—not that all the sailing ships were “coffin ships” even in those days. It’s worth mentioning that “The Dunbrody”, a three-masted sailing ship meticulously reconstructed as a full-scale model, now moored at New Ross quays as a heritage centre, is an example of a reliable barge, that between 1845 and 1869 (i.e. over twenty-four summers) sailed across the Atlantic many times and carried many thousands of emigrants to Canada and New York—one of the most famous of these being a Patrick Kennedy, the great-grandfather of John F. Kennedy, who became President of the United States, tragically assassinated in Dallas in 1963. The usual complement of passengers was 176, but on one occasion at the height of the famine in 1847, she carried 313. Most passengers went steerage, paying £3 to £4 (the equivalent of two months income for a tenant farmer). It is thought that the time taken to cross the Atlantic was six weeks, but was, of course, dependant on the wind and the weather. For more details you can visit the following web site: http://www.dunbrody.com/

Without going in to too much detailed research it is well established that Belfast ship-yards were turning out steamships in the last quarter of the Nineteenth century. The Provincial weeklies were advertising direct routes to the United States through Steam-Packet Companies, e.g. in the very first publication of “The Roscommon Herald” in April 1859, The Steam Packet Companies in Philpot Lane, Galway, stated that several of their ships provided the most direct route to New York (calling also at St. John’s, Newfoundland); the fare was nine guineas for Second Class, six guineas for steerage, with an extra fifty shillings for “Provisions and Liquors”. The advert suggests monthly sailings, and this could mean four weeks round trip with voyage duration at two weeks (but this is a guesstimate). The liners continued to be larger and more luxurious.

Ellis Island PhotoEllis Island 1905

We can now pick up on one of Jim Coffey's sailings. The attached Appendices 8 - Oceanic, 9 - Passenger List and 10 - Passenger Record show that he returned to New York on 15th October 1913. Appendix 8 contains a photograph of the Oceanic, and details of the ship. The ship's manifest (Appendix 9) confirms that Jim Coffey was a passenger who was travelling with his sister, Anne, 4 years younger (the 1901 Census in Appendix 3 confirms) - in fact Jim was bringing his younger sister to New York for the first time. The manifest also shows that the ship sailed from Queenstown (now Cobh, pronounced "Cove", Co. Cork) on 9th October 1913, with an estimated time of arrival in New York, 15th October i.e. six days.

It is worth noting that only six months previously the largest ship then afloat which was scheduled to greatly reduce the voyage across the Atlantic, the giant luxury liner, The Titanic, hit an iceberg and sank with the loss of 1,500 passengers, with only about 700 survivors - that was April 14/15th 1912 - just 6 months previously. So it must have been with some misgivings that Jim and Anne, and the 1,710 other passengers boarded The Oceanic. Both ships were built in Belfast by Harlem and Wolff, both went via Queenstown, both heading for New York, and the rogue icebergs still roamed the North Atlantic. Jim Coffey and sister Anne would have travelled by train from Ballyhaunis to Cork and then were ferried out to the Liner by tender from Cobh Harbour. See also Appendix 9 showing the Ellis Island Record (the manifest shows Jim Coffey had already lived in New York, 1911 to 1913).

Photo of Immigrants DisembarkingImmigrants Arriving

To complete the shipping story mention must be made of another maritime tragedy, this time in Cobh itself. On 7th May 1915 the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine and sank within twenty minutes. Of the 1,959 passengers and crew aboard, 1,198 were lost and only 761 saved. Of the dead 128 were Americans (the ship was returning from New York to Liverpool, with many prominent Americans on board - some millionaires amongst them). The Germans always claim they had intelligence that there was ammunition aboard; Otherwise the 32,000 ton liner would not have exploded as it did. The English deny this and claim it exploded because the torpedo ripped through the boilers. Either way corpses were washed up for a long time on the Cork coast. The American people were not amused.

The Glebe

The Glebe Farm

Back on the Loughglynn Estate, on the retirement of Charles Strickland, a new Agent tried to set the clock back. Throughout the country, but especially in Mayo and Northwest Roscommon, rack-rents (excessive and frequently increased rents) combined with consecutive bad harvests and the plummeting of prices for agricultural produce, resulted in mounting rent arrears. For three years after the end of the famine there were an estimated 50,000 evictions. This time Loughglynn was no exception. It was the tenant-farmers’ darkest hour, but desperation produced resistance. History is dotted with the turmoil of the times; the Fenians, The Irish Republican Brotherhood (all paralleled in America), Michael Davitt and the Land League, Parnell, Captain Boycott; eventually resulting in the Land Purchase Acts at the end of the 19th century together with establishment of the Congested District Board—all combined and conspired to the breaking up of the great estates.

The Glebe from stone wall boundary

A prime example of this change was the purchase of the Dillon mansion by the Bishop of Elphin and although by now reduced to two storeys by a recent fire, it was still a magnificent building newly re-roofed and restored. He invited a Belgian foreign-missionary order of nuns, The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, to take it over as a Convent - which they did in 1903. Was there ever a more drastic change of ownership? They were an enclosed and strict Order comprising Choir Sisters (Matron and Sisters) who took solemn vows, and lay nuns who took simpler vows. They were dedicated to all types of work in the house and farm. Gradually the Convent became the heart and soul of a thriving, industrious farming community. They employed local labourers/farmers on the farm with cutting and saving turf a great priority. They harvested hay and grain and looked after cattle and pigs. A new Creamery was started up with the local farmers supplying milk in churns conveyed mainly by ass-and-carts. The local girls were taught the art of cheese and butter making by master craftswomen. Indeed the finest butter and cheese in Europe at that time was made there, the recipes exotic, and beyond compare. The girls were also employed (always of course at admittedly very low wages) in making altar cloths and vestments. Others were shown how to hatch out and look after special breeds of poultry. All of these skills were to stand them in good stead when they emigrated - which, of course, most of them had to do.

For other places too there were rumours of ownership changing hands. About September 1907 (this would make the young Jim Coffey approaching eighteen years of age) he was returning home from the Presbytery where he had just delivered the annual stipendiary load of turf, when he came across Paddy Beirne painting the big wrought iron gate at the entrance to the Glebe—the big house Jim had always admired. Paddy had a small farm only a few yards along the main road. He often helped out the vicar with the odd job and was also regularly asked to help out with grave digging and other chores about the graveyard. Jim knew him well.

A Chance Conversation

Paddy came out to the cart-side. "Been to the Canon with the turf" Paddy remarked as he noticed the high crates on the horse-cart. "It's a long haul for you from Tully."

"Taking up painting?" said Jim. "That's a great deep green the Vicar has picked for the gate."

"Aye," replied Paddy " they're doing a bit of titivating lately around the place. I saw the young clergymen the other day trying to touch up round the hall door."

"They're busy so" said Jim.

"Not at the steeple, they're not" went on Paddy. "Not many Protestants left around here now; two or three side-cars on a Sunday afternoon - that's about the size of it. Indeed at Creatons after Mass on Sunday John himself - and he's a bit of an auctioneer so he should have his ear to the ground - was saying that they're thinking of selling the Glebe."

"But," said Jim, "they couldn't sell the steeple and what about the graveyard?"

"They might be thinking of selling the rest" said Paddy, "'twould be a marvellous place - the slated stables, the big cobbled yard, not to mention the big house itself and a great hill of land."

"Some place right enough," said Jim. "Well it needs a few things doing to it - a big hay-shed is badly needed and one'd have to invest in a decent horse and cart. The Clergy here weren't really farmers, pony and trap people I'd call them."

There was a silence then for a few moments until Paddy started off on a different track altogether.

"What are you doing with yourself this weather, Jim lad?"

"We're just back from a hard-working farming season in England. My brother John has been before but this was my first time. The work was hard, the hours long - dawn to dusk - but we got used to it - anyway 'twas better than sitting at home in Tully with nothing to do."

"But I would have thought the United States'd have been a better bet for you."

Jim quipped back "They're getting America ready for my arrival - New York actually. I've a few sisters already over there, not to mention aunts and uncles - but we have to abide by U.S. quota and age regulations. But I'll be over there in another couple of years or so. Maybe another season in England, then hello America. Now then Paddy, I'd better be getting back. No doubt we'll meet again at the next Tully funeral."

Jim re-fixed his plank in the slots between the crates and adjusted his truss of hay ready for off. Paddy returned to his work at the gate. "God bless" said Jim as he drove away. Paddy held up his paint brush in silent salute.

But Jim's thoughts were to stay at the Glebe and often afterwards they were to return there.

Now, plodding back through the Lochan and the long usually monotonous two mile stretch he began to notice the profusion of multi-coloured balsam lining the flat ditches . He smiled at the crested almost iridescent filbeens (the school-master always called them lapwings), cavorting and tumbling as they laughed, whistled, and peewitted in the clear evening air. Far over to the right he always liked the soft gentle contour of the Dromond foothills melting into the local Post Office at Carrowbehy; then on past Gortaganny School of Beloved Memory.

The Glebe aerial photo

He blessed himself passing the utility Church, thought of the poaching and fishing as he went past Errit Lodge and thought to himself how peaceful his trip had been so that when he pulled up on arrival in the yard at home a sort of strange sadness came over him and he had to shudder to shake it off as he thought wryly to himself “It’s a bit premature for me to be homesick.” But Jim realised even then that he would always love his native place.

Kate, the eldest of the family, was the first to emigrate in 1902; She was nineteen years old. It is known that she became ill in New York and Mary and Bessie were dispatched to bring her home. She then had to remain at home for some time and when she recovered she returned to New York on her own. Meanwhile as they came of age Mary and Bessie emigrated in their own right and a few years later, in 1910, they came home and Jim, then twenty years of age, went back with them to New York.