Just living life has felt like a movie, hasn’t it?
From crazy discussions at our faculty lunch table, to crazy discussions with students in class, to trying to come up with constantly changing coordinated plans for the school and the coffee shop as the ground continues to shift.
On Thursday, I went to visit my mother in the rehab nursing home where she is staying until mid-week, and as I was leaving, they were posting big Day-Glo neon-colored signs at all the entrances saying visitors were no longer welcome.
Today’s visit to the grocery store was other worldly, with so many odd things out of stock, and too many shoppers swathed in a sense of something other than “weekly grocery shopping” about them.
It wasn’t like blizzard prep. The bread shelves looked like a turkey carcass– bare except occasional gristle, but Doritos were fully stocked. People weren’t buying to party for a day or two, they were buying to bolster their chances of survival.
There were hushed whispers between husbands and wives over canned goods. There were large families, carefully combing coupons trying to stretch out as far as possible what could be the last visit to the store for a while.
Then there were most folks, trying to gently move through the panic to grab a couple of things, maybe like they would on any Sunday; but the way they moved through the aisles was nothing like any Sunday anyone had ever experienced in a Tops or Wegmans or Dash’s before.
As somebody who has spent decades communicating with people through tragedies and calamities, I feel like I have an innate feeling for what people want to hear– what people need to hear during times like these.
I’ve been writing words and coordinating plans for a coffee shop and a private high school in the midst of a public health crisis, but it’s no different than hosting an overnight talk show during the October surprise storm or wandering the streets of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.
Just like in the movies, just like when the power’s out for weeks at a time, people want to know in the midst of chaos, that someone, somewhere, has something under control… and that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t a mirage– and that things might be different, but eventually OK.
It’s the role we all need to play in the movie that we’re all living in.
We’re all going to need reassurance and a life preserver or two before this thing goes away… so, when you can–
Be the guy who reassures others that everything is going to be OK– and work to do whatever you can do in your power to make sure things are all right.
Be the gal who has things under control, and throw out a life preserver or two when it feels safe.
If we all feel good about reaching out when we need to… and we’re all there to grab a hand in trouble when we can… we’ll all come through this a little battered– but just fine when eventually, this all just becomes another one of those experiences that make us stronger and wiser.
Nurses and doctors talked to us, but no one said the words. Even euphemistically.
We were all confused, even when we were taken into the room where she was.
I couldn’t feel my legs as a priest anointed her body, but the palpable feeling of the pain that radiated from my wife and her dad and her brother is the worst sensation I have ever felt.
Five years ago today, my mother-in-law died in a routine surgery. The pain from her loss and the way she left us still radiates and is really a part of our existence now.
I’m just going to say it— Pam could be a real pain in the ass. No one who knew her or loved her could deny that.
In so many different ways, life had broken her spirit and her mind and her body.
From that brokenness, came someone who could be difficult. But also from that place came the purest, most complete love. From that same place came someone who cared deeply about those who either didn’t have anyone to care about them… or someone who needed a little extra. And trying to make people laugh… even at her own expense.
All her emotions and feelings were always 100%. If it was bitterness or anger, watch out— but it was worth hanging through that for the uncompromised love and support and goodness and LAUGHTER that so often poured from her unbridled.
It’s easy— comfortable, even— to dwell on that terrible day, and to feel anger and sadness over what happened and the way it was handled and the loss it created in our lives.
Instead, though, I want to remember the woman who spent the whole time I knew her, fighting through what life had dealt her and trying her best to create the world she wished she lived in for the people around her.
The thing is— could be nothing, could be a nationwide tragedy.
You don’t know until you know, and then when it’s your grandma who dies, you want to know why nobody told you how bad this thing could be.
Or… you can suffer through overreaction and silly TP hoarding and prepare yourself.
Human nature only allows for one of these eventualities to be true— either we’re surprised and pissed, or warned ad naseum and either hoarding or laughing.
Whether you’re scared or a tough guy right now, most of us would rather be ready for what we might be facing.
Most of the scared folks and the tough guys will be making jokes about Coronavirus in five years… unless you love one of the 50 or 500 or 5000 who perish, and you spend the rest of your life wondering if as a society we did enough.
You don’t have to like it, but wash your hands and be a decent human being until this thing passes. And then continue to do those things after it passes, too.
I just had a conversation with myself about how to share this (it’s ok, as you’ll read, I’m a bit crazy.)
Humor, especially self-deprecating humor, helps me get through the day.
None of this is anything to joke about, but it was through self-deprecating humor that I first spoke to other human beings about it all, and really got on the path to a much more comfortable place.
With divisive politics and instant hot takes on every stupid thing that crosses our social media newsfeed, it’s becoming more and more difficult to talk thoughtfully about the things are most important to us… but talk (or write) is how you share, and share begins a discussion, and discussions help you think, and thinking is how you grow.
Get outside your own head. Be good to others— Especially those in most need of your goodness. Realize everybody has their own stuff.
Mental health isn’t easy to talk about, in fact, it makes me sick to my stomach to do it.
The only thing worse than talking about it– is not talking about it. That’s why I sat down to talk with WBFO’s Nick Lippa. His tremendous radio report and a transcript of our chat appear after this 30 second PSA:
Suicide Prevention Coalition campaign aims to normalize men talking about their mental health
Western New York organizations like Crisis Services and the Suicide Prevention Coalition have launched a campaign that encourages men to speak up about their mental health. The campaign titled “Be A Man” features several local men sharing their stories of living with mental illness. WBFO’s Nick Lippa spoke with writer and former radio newsman Steve Cichon, who is one of the people who shared his story dealing with anxiety and depression. They discuss toxic masculinity, how to ask for help and more.
WBFO’s Nick Lippa spoke with writer and former radio newsman Steve Cichon, who shared why he talks openly about his anxiety and depression.
So first off, let’s talk about the project itself and what’s happening with crisis services and this PSA. What is it exactly?
Steve Cichon: I’m more or less just a participant. Just a cog in this larger piece. I didn’t have a lot to do with planning it. But it sort of plays into something that very important to me. And really, it’s just talking about mental illness. It’s being transparent with something that more and more people are suffering from and don’t know how to talk about and are afraid to talk about. And I mean, I know that because I was that guy until I just got so angry at some of the misinformation. The way that that people thought that they understood what was going on inside of somebody else’s head when they clearly didn’t. So just talking about it, starting trying to start conversations for people getting shining light in the darkness is really what, for me why I’m involved with it every time you can turn on a light and bring a little more light to a corner that’s dark. You’re doing something, you’re helping somebody. That’s why I’m involved.
I know one of the big key components is talking about toxic masculinity. And you mentioned this was a little frustrating for you at times when addressing these issues at first. Can you go into a little bit more detail about that?
SC: You know, I’m a pretty emotional guy. Super Bowl commercials make me cry. Watch those 30 second commercials and the tears (start) forming in the corners of my eyes. So when I read the newspaper and just see the numbers of young people who have died suddenly, or they actually go into detail and you see their friends post these things on social media and they don’t have any idea what happened and they wish that they could have known or they wish done more than that, you can’t necessarily help that person. There’s nothing. There’s no life preserver you can throw that person, but the thing that you can do for everybody is just be kind, is just be nice, is just give people room. And it’s something that takes practice, especially when we’re surrounded by so much toxicity, not even necessarily toxic masculinity, just toxicity. Open up Facebook and Twitter and it’s just people being angry and having to top each other’s anger and just being nice, for me, that’s what this is about. It’s not just allowing people to see around them somebody you know.
SC: I know a lot of people who work here at WBFO. I just talked to five people out in the hallway who I’ve known for 20 years and (previously) none of them had any idea that I was suffering from depression and anxiety. Through the 20 years where I’ve known them very well and we’ve been very close. Why did they not know? A combination of maybe some kind of shame on my part, not knowing how to deal with that. Not wanting to put out into the world this notion that something about me was broken. Wondering how people would react to that idea. The same thing that I think anybody would have with anything that they perceive as a weakness in themselves that they don’t want to broadcast it. By broadcasting it, you’re putting your weakness, if that’s what it is out there, and just start dealing with it. And it’s just sort of one day at a time.
Why before did you not feel comfortable talking about it with peers and coworkers?
SC: I think part of it is understanding what’s going on inside of you. In this instance, understanding what’s going on inside of your head. It’s difficult to talk about something that doesn’t have a name. I have a huge South Buffalo family and depression and anxiety and just about any diagnosable mental illness is prevalent in my family. I can point to the person who suffers from it. So to me, it almost seemed kind of normal. Like okay, I’m just like aunt so and so or I’m just like cousin blank where I’m just like uncle or my grandpa or whatever. So we never talked about it as a family and I don’t think that’s unusual for any family. It’s the same way cancer was 50 years ago. He didn’t talk about cancer people just disappeared and died from it. But once you have the tools and the ability to know what it is you’re talking about, you have a word that you can say what this thing is– and I can almost, I can’t tell you the date, but I can tell you the day, when I figured out okay, boy, this has been going on for 30 years. And now I know what this is.
SC: After I felt like my brain was falling out of my ear one day, having a panic attack, having lived with constant anxiety, and not even realizing that I was suffering from constant anxiety, but being on a nine on the anxiety scale and all of a sudden having that cranked up to a 17 one day, and literally thinking I was dying. And doing what everybody does type it into old Web MD to see what’s going on. And like wow, that was a panic attack. Okay, boy, I need to figure out how to start getting some help. And that was a seven or eight year journey from there. In order to get to a spot where I was sitting in front of somebody who was able to help me get through it. And even from there was another year before I talked about it. What made me want to talk about it was, well, Robin Williams’ suicide shook me. I was a radio news person when Robin Williams died. And I was there all day, we found out that he had passed away and then we found out that it was probably a suicide. Then we found out some more of the things that that went into it. And that really shook me, knowing at this point what I knew about myself. (It) helped me along on my journey to get to a point where I was able to talk about it.
SC: I was a radio news person when Anthony Bourdain died. And I was a news guy on a morning show with people having happy talk. They were doing happy talk but talking about Anthony Bourdain, and neither one of them had any idea what was going on in his head. And it just it made me mad. Not mad at them. They just had no idea. And at that point right then and there, I realized, if they don’t know that the guy sitting 10 feet away from them is having the same sorts of issues that Anthony Bourdain did. Who was going to tell them about that? Well, I guess that’s got to be me. And I sat and wrote a very long blog post piece on just what’s going on in my life. And that was a very freeing moment when you hit send on something like that. Very graphic and very detailed. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You have no idea. Did I just ruin my life? Did I just tell everybody this thing that was going on? The response was resoundingly amazing. Support from friends. People that I hadn’t talked to in years calling and going, this is amazing what you did. People I hadn’t talked to in years going, I got the same thing going on. I’m really glad to know that I’m not alone. I’ll be honest, there were a couple of friends who said how dare you have this thing going on? And not tell me? Which is kind of a weird response. And those people aren’t necessarily my friends anymore.
SC: I don’t know. Your original question was, why didn’t I talk about it? I think it had to be the right instance. It had to be the right spot. And just sitting there and having read to read this news of somebody having taken his own life. And having two people who I considered friends, not having any idea and just having all the wrong notions about this. And me having the facility to sit there and bang it out with my thumbs on my iPhone, my thoughts and feelings about it. And realizing that, you know that there are a lot of people who are suffering from kind of the same thing, to varying degrees. The loneliness of it all is terrifying. And to not be so lonely because somebody has written down the same feelings that you have to be able to provide that to people is a gift to me to be able to do that for people.
You can read ‘A brief memoir in depression and anxiety’ by Cichon here.
One of the things which you mentioned, perceived weakness before. If there’s a perceived weakness to be open about having feelings. When you talk about toxic masculinity, it’s the idea that, ‘Oh, well you cry Super Bowl commercials. That’s a weakness. You cry during movies, right? Suck it up. It’s not okay to show your emotions like that.’ But you’re openly like, ‘Hey, this is okay. I’m an emotional person and that’s fine.’
At times you didn’t feel comfortable talking about some of these issues, but is it fair to say you’ve always been an emotional person?
SC: Sure. I would say so.
Have you felt throughout your life there were times where you weren’t able to be around certain people or groups of people where you couldn’t be that emotional person? You felt like they would be negative towards you potentially crying at a Super Bowl commercial or having those kind of moments to be able to emotionally share yourself with your environment?
SC: Yeah. I teach boys at an all-boys is high school now. I am just as likely to bust their chops for crying at a Super Bowl commercial. Maybe I am part of the toxic masculinity problem (he laughs).
SC: Maybe this is me taking it to the ‘nth’ degree. If I am with a group of guys and they see me crying at a Super Bowl commercial, I fully expect them to hammer me on it. When I wear pink pants to school, and I have. They’re salmon, but let’s be honest, they’re pink. When I wear pink pants to school, I will mock myself before someone else has the chance to say something about it. A lot of those tricks are the same thing that come into dealing with having these feelings. Having these emotions. Having this mental illness. People who are very close to me had no idea because I was good at masking it or good at being able to flip the switch.
SC: We talk a lot about chirping at school. I’m on the school climate committee. I’m on the anti-bullying committee. I’m on all these things. We talk a lot about chirping that is just the way of life at an all boys school you put 200 teenage boys together in a building and they’re just going to— know, it’s just a constant. Everybody is going to be whatever it is. And people expect it. I just said this last week to my class. I think chirping is okay. I think it’s okay to say to somebody, what are you crying at the Super Bowl? What’s the matter with you? I think what matters most is what’s in your heart when you’re chirping. We’re friends. I can chirp you all day and I hope you understand that I’m doing what I love because I love you, brother. And I’m not afraid to tell you that I love you brother. Right? But when somebody else walks in and I’m saying the same thing, but I’m not chirping them out of kindness.
SC: I see less of that today probably than I did when I was in I’m 42 years old. I think we’re in a better place now. When I was watching the Bills’ Super Bowls, I don’t know if it would have been okay for me to react emotionally to a commercial during the game. Now, I might get chip for it, but I don’t think it’s unacceptable or at least as unacceptable as it would have been years ago. I think we’ve progressed in that. Then I can come out and say, I suffer from anxiety and depression. I talked about that with my students too. I think that’s a huge step and, and an essential step. To be a man 50 years ago or 60 years ago, to go and work in an awful job, work at the plant. And work in a job where you’re risking your life every day, and you’re going to provide for your family. You’re going to come home. You’re going to read the paper and leave me alone. And maybe you’re going to drink too. Alleviate some of that stress. Maybe you’re going to gamble to alleviate some of the stress. There’s probably some stress reliever involved. Because for damn sure you’re not going to cry. You’re not going to show any weakness. But a huge number of them didn’t make it out. They died of alcoholism or they had a heart attack at the age of 52. Or, you know, whatever that the case is. There’s always room for improvement, but I think we’ve made leaps and bounds of improvement over the decades.
You can look at one side where somebody says, well any kind of chirping to that extent, it’s going to lead to some bad behaviors or open the door to some things getting out of hand. But there’s another side to that. And you mentioned it. You’re looking at a history where you may be the son of somebody who wasn’t as open to talking about things and was raised in that type of environment. It’s part of a history that comes with developed habits. In the meanwhile, you are also learning and recognizing how to be more open with yourself and others.
It leads into a larger talking point. When we talk about making ourselves vulnerable in those kind of positions, it goes back to that weakness idea. The idea femininity is negative or a weakness. You talking about the salmon pants that are pink. It’s that association. That kind of mindset can potentially lead to some those other problems. It could be unhealthy, right?
SC: Yeah. You know, it’s just difficult to wrap my mind around just because it’s so absurd. I don’t go into my closet and go, I’m feeling a bit feminine today. I think I’m going to grab the salmon pants. I don’t. I think they’re sharp looking. I like them. Honestly. You know, as a ‘manly man’ the ladies like when I wear the pink pants (laughing).
SC: So to me, the whole that whole notion is absurd. And you know, even showing feelings being labeled a sign of femininity, to me it’s just absurd. We have the right to say anything in America. You could say whatever you want but there are always consequences to the free speech. I remember kind of struggling with a friend whose wife passed away in a work environment. This is maybe 15 years ago and saying to that guy who clearly needed a friend– I love you, buddy. I do. I love you. To look into a man’s eye and say that is probably the first time that I have ever done it. It made sense to me. It wasn’t– how will this be perceived by the outside world? Maybe that’s what the whole discussion of toxic masculinity is. But I have since said that dozens of times, hundreds of times and never had a problem with it. I’ve never had somebody go, ‘what you love me? (in macho voice)’ I’ve never had that that happened.
SC: For me in my head in my space, it’s just so absurd. I think that’s where something like what we’re doing with this public service announcement becomes very powerful. I had that conversation with myself in order to be able to say to my friend, I love you buddy. And it’s just absurd that you would have to think about that or I would want to, but once I did, the floodgates were open. Maybe more people will have a conversation with themselves about saying it’s okay to get help. I have to imagine that a lot of people my age, our age, post-baby boomer folks– clearly feel that that this is an okay thing to do. It’s just that we don’t have the skills or the ability to do it. How do you eliminate toxic masculinity? Start being a less toxic guy. And it’s really that simple. And all of a sudden, you see it start to melt away.
Where do you think you would be if you didn’t seek help?
SC: Bad things grow in darkness, mental illness grows in darkness. I probably wouldn’t be sitting here. If I would have figured out how to talk to a therapist 10 years ago, 20 years ago, or 30 years ago, I wouldn’t be sitting here. Things just fester in that darkness. Your brain can be a dark place. My brain was a dark place for a very long time. It’s a lot lighter now. And you need to bring other people in. You need to be able to say, even if you’re not saying I don’t feel so hot, something ain’t right with the way I’m thinking. Even if you’re not saying that, just to see that other people are kind of in the same area and you happen to go to your health care website if you’re lucky enough to have health care and you look up the name of a therapist and you click that button. All right, you know, that wasn’t too hard. Now I’ll go and talk to this person. If this conversation helps that to happen, then that’s just amazing. Like, why isn’t there a line of 20 people in here waiting to talk to you to tell this story? It’s not comfortable. I don’t want to be known as the crazy guy, the guy is going to come in and talk to you about his mental health problems. But that’s not what I’m known as. I’m still known as everything else. But now I have this other extra thing that I talk about that really, really, really helps people.
To those people who may be in an environment where they’re not sure they can be open with how they feel, what would your advice be to them?
SC: Especially if it has changed for you, the way that you receive somebody saying something different hits you harder lately. I can say from my personal experience, there was a bit of a downhill. If you’re looking around yourself and things that didn’t bug you a week ago are all of a sudden bugging you, then you know, there’s probably something going on inside of your head that you really have very little control over. And you know, if not, talk to a friend. There’s a phone number and crisis services calls it a suicide hotline or at least they did for a long time. It is a suicide hotline, but it’s also a– hey you know what? My brain isn’t working so good. Can we talk for a second? And they do and they talk to you and they help get you in a better place. And hopefully, from there, you figure out at some point, you finally make a call where you can get the mental help that you need from your doctor, from a social worker, from somebody who’s really going to help. And it’s a lot of work. And it’s something you deal with for the rest of your life.
SC: I always kind of envisioned that going and talking to a therapist would be like having a broken arm. I had a broken wrist once. I’m going to go get my wrist reset and it’s going to be in a cast for three months. I’m going to walk out and my wrist is going to be pretty much be okay. It’s not that. It’s more like, ‘Well, sir, your wrist didn’t heal exactly the way that it used to be. So you’re going to have to figure out how to continue your life with maybe a limited mobility in your wrist.’ That’s something that’s terrible, but it’s something that you deal with every day. I would say do whatever it takes if you feel it. Especially if you notice a change in yourself. Reach out to somebody if you don’t have a friend that you can reach out to make a phone call. If you don’t want to make a phone call, go to a website. There are enough resources now that you can get on the right path. So use them. It’s easier said than done. I think that’s the thing that made me the most angry, which forced me into writing that missive that I wrote a couple of years ago, was people saying, ‘Gosh. Why didn’t he just get help?’ It’s not that easy. There’s so many different things that go into it. But man the alternative is pretty dark. So figure out a place where you can where you can go get some help.
You went and got help and it doesn’t sound like you were judged too harshly for the most part it sounds like.
SC: My dad was a diabetic. And we all knew that if dad started acting a little loopy, that he probably needed some sugar. He didn’t take his insulin properly. And that happened a lot with my dad. But it was important to know that because if we didn’t know that, it could lead to really bad things. I’m glad that the people around me know that. That I suffer from anxiety and depression and if they see something that isn’t quite right, they can say something to me or try and help me get on the right track. Or say something to my wife or just be concerned and know exactly what’s going on. For me it was a very difficult thing to admit. Not just that I need help and I need to go to a therapist, but I need help from my community. I need everybody like, ‘Hey, everybody, keep your eye out for me, would you?’ For me, that was a difficult thing to do. And it may or may not be difficult for other people, but it’s just essential.
County Donegal, along Ireland’s northern coast, is the ancestral home of my branch of the Coyle Family.
Insulated from the rest of the country by mountains and bogs, the specific Tullaghobegley Parish area near Gweedore where the Coyles come from was the poorest and least fertile districts in all of Ireland.
The Coyles in Ireland
The Paddy Coyle who is the head of household on these 1821 and 1841 census abstracts is the father of the John and Patrick who are listed in the 1857 Griffiths Evaluation. He is also the grandfather of the three Coyles who left County Donegal for Pennsylvania coal country in the mid-1800s. Paddy Coyle and Sheelah McGee-Coyle are my fifth-great grandparents.
Patrick and John Coyle, sons of Paddy Coyle and Sheelah McGee-Coyle, and their cousins, Cormack and John McGee, shared plot 4A in the 1857 Griffiths Valuation in Lunniaghbeg, Parish of Tullaghobegly, in 1857.
This Patrick Coyle was married to Cecilia McGee-Coyle. They are my fourth-great grandparents, and the parents of John Coyle, who later left for America.
This map illustrates the Coyle and McGee plots as recorded in Griffith’s Evaluation, 1857.
Three children of the Patrick Coyle from the Griffith Evaluation left Lunniaghbeg, Tullaghobegley Parish, County Donegal through the mid-1800s, coming to America and winding up in Pennsylvania’s coal mines.
Coyles in America
Each of those three Coyles who emigrated to the US may have eventually married spouses with ties to the families left behind in Lunniagh.
Frances “Fanny” Coyle (c.1847-1916) did for sure. She married John Gallagher at St Mary’s in Tullaghobegly near Gweedore in 1870 before they moved to Jermyn, PA. They had two children, Charles and Margaret. John was crushed to death working as a laborer in the Delaware & Hudson mine. She died in Pennsylvania in 1916.
Bridget Coyle (c.1842-1907) was the second wife of John McGee. They married in Pennsylvania in 1866. There were at least six McGee children. It’s not clear whether McGee was a cousin from Lunniaghbeg, but he did come to Audenreid, PA in the 1850s from Ireland. He died in 1903 from “miner’s asthma.” Bridget died in the mine town of McAdoo, PA in 1907.
John Coyle (c.1849-1908) married Mary Dugan in Pennsylvania in 1865. It’s possible—but it’s unclear whether Mary’s mother, Rose Gallagher-Dugan, was related to the Gallaghers of Lunniaghbeg. John and Mary Coyle had eight children, including my great-great grandfather, Patrick Coyle, who was born in 1872. He moved his family from Scranton, PA to Buffalo, NY following the death of his mother in 1916.
Gweedore was one of the most infamous spots in Ireland in the mid-19th century, and was the next town over from the Coyle home of Lunniagh.
Most of the population there were ethnic Irish Catholics who were displaced from more fertile land that was resettled by British Protestants. The soil around Gweedore is rocky, unforgiving, and very difficult to make yield anything edible for people or livestock—except for the places where it is too soft and boggy.
“Although there are signs of human habitation in the Gweedore area, including the remains of a medieval church at Magheragallan, indicating that the area has long been inhabited, the population of this ‘remote and inhospitable area’ probably only began expanding ‘during the seventeenth century as a result of population displacements associated with the Ulster Plantation.’” -History of Gweedore, Tim O’Sullivan, 2002. (This history is posted on a great site about the history of this area, http://donegalgenealogy.com/chapter_one.htm)
A mountainous border surrounding the area and the elsewhere marshy earth made for few roads leading in or out. The Irish language was the only language spoken by many, and the land was occupied according to the medieval Rundale system as late as the mid-1800s. Clachan houses of individual families surrounded the larger rundale plots which they farmed together.
When tax collectors came to Gweedore in the 1830s, they were beaten, their arms confiscated, and they were turned back.
Not only did the people of Gweedore, Lunniagh and surrounding areas not want to pay taxes to the British crown or tithe to the Church of England—they didn’t have much to give.
Patrick McKye, teacher in the National School, wrote a letter to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1837 describing the horrific conditions in the parish that the Coyles called home.
“That the parishioners of this parish of Tullaghobegly… are in the most, needy, hungry, and naked condition of any people that ever came within the precincts of my knowledge, although I have travelled a part of nine counties in Ireland, also a part of England and Scotland, together with a part of British America. I have likewise perambulated 2,253 miles through some of the United States, and never witnessed the tenth part of such hunger, hardships, and nakedness.”
“None of their either married or unmarried women can afford more than one shirt, and the fewest number cannot afford any, and more than half of both men and women cannot afford shoes to their feet; nor can many of them afford a second bed, but whole families of sons and daughters of mature age indiscriminately lying together with their parents, and all in the bare buff.
“Their beds are straw, green and dried rushes, or mountain bent; their bed clothes are either coarse sheets or no sheets, and ragged, filthy blankets.
“And more than all that I have mentioned, there is a general prospect of starvation at the present prevailing among them, and that originating from various causes; but the principal cause is a rot or failure of seed in the last year’s crop, together with a scarcity of winter forage, in consequence of a long continuation of storms since October last in this part of the country.
“So that they, the people, were under the necessity of cutting down their potatoes, and give them to the cattle to keep them alive. All these circumstances connected together have brought hunger to reign among them, in that degree that the generality of the peasantry are on the small allowance of one meal a day, and many families cannot afford more than one meal in two days, and sometimes, one meal in three days. Their children crying and fainting with hunger, and their parents weeping, being full of grief, hunger, debility, and dejection, with glooming aspect looking at their children likely to expire in the pains of starvation.”
Lord George Hill was the British landowner who worked to improve the lives of the people in his care—but at the same time worked to undermine their identity and way of life. He wrote a pamphlet called “Facts from Gweedore,” which made both of those goals easily apparent. He called the people of the area “more deplorable than can well be conceived; famine was periodical, and fever its attendant; wretchedness pervaded the district.”
In the wake of a particularly striking famine in 1858, parish priests in the area wrote an appeal to Queen Victoria and to the people of the world begging for help.
“In the wilds of Donegal, down in the bogs and glens of Gweedore and Cloughaneely, thousands and thousands of human beings, made after the image and likeness of God, are perishing, or next to perishing, amid squalidness and misery, for want of food and clothing, far away from aid and pity. On behalf of these famishing victims of oppression and persecution, we appeal for substantial assistance to enable us to relieve their wretchedness, and rescue them from death and starvation.
“There are at the moment 800 families subsisting on seaweed, crabs, cockles, or any other edible matter they can pick up along the seashore or scrape off the rocks. There are about 600 adults of both sexes, who through sheer poverty are now going barefoot, amid the inclemency of the season, on this bleak northern coast. There are about 700 families that have neither bed nor bedclothes… Thousands of the male population have only one cotton shirt; while thousands have not even one. There are about 600 families who have neither cow, sheep, nor goat and who…hardly know the taste of milk or butter.
“This fine old Celtic race is about being crushed to make room for Scotch and English sheep.”
It was around this time that a teenaged John Coyle left for America to make a new life in coal mines.
My friend Samantha shared this photo this morning, and it made me think of a kid I kinda knew.
South Buffalo’s Mulroy Playground was around the corner from my house. During the summer of 1983, there were always dozens and dozens of kids— and zero adults.
Everyone was there mid-morning, when the city would drop off free lunches off the back of big yellow Pep Dairy trucks everyday.
Wrapped on a small styrofoam tray about the size for a pound of hamburger, came rock hard peaches, sour orange juice in a sealed plastic cup, and a sandwich— either thick-sliced low-grade bologna or a “choke sandwich,” which was wrapped to look like an ice cream sandwich, but instead was peanut butter and jelly between graham crackers. There was milk, too, but unless it was chocolate milk, I don’t remember anyone drinking it.
There was a 1950s concrete wading pool, which normally was filled with broken glass, but no water. After a heavy rain, we’d carefully wade in the rainwater, brown glass bits, and floating gold foil Genesee Beer labels.
Next to that, there was a monkey bar castle to climb on, but the older boys commandeered what was another worn-out 1950s structure. That was actually fine with us, because who ever had been throwing the beer bottles in the wading pool had been using the castle turrets as urinals. On hot sunny days the smell was unbearable.
Over on the swings, where everyone was doing their best to try to swing over the bar, Jimmy was usually on the last swing, barely swinging, his feet making noise with the gravel and dirt with every pass. He was obese in a way that most of us had never seen in another kid. He was big. He was also my age—around 7— but I didn’t know him. He went to a public school a couple of blocks away, I went to Holy Family school right behind the playground.
I’m not even entirely sure that his name was Jimmy, but it’s hard to forget this kid. As the early summer morning sun turned up the swampy heat and the smell of piss coming from the castle turrets, seven-year-old Jimmy laconically sat swinging all day, chain smoking.
Even among this group of vagabond, hobo, street-urchin children, something felt terribly wrong about Jimmy puffing away non-stop; inhaling even.
It wasn’t even the fear that he’d get in trouble— it just didn’t seem right. And sometimes, often even, other kids would say something.
Like a 12 or 13 year old would take a drag off a Marlboro and ask, “Aren’t you too young to smoke?”
With the same amount of detached interest he showed in swinging, he’d answer, “Nah, I’ve been smoking since I was 6.”
He told a lot of stories that seemed unbelievable, but there he was– a seven-year-old chainsmoker. It really made anything seem possible.
I don’t remember talking about Jimmy with my parents, but since it bothers me this very moment almost 40 years later in the same way it did back then, I imagine I might have said something. Probably to my ol’man, who probably half-listened, and probably responded with a Parliament dangling out of the corner of his lip as he growled.
“Don’t let me find out that you’ve been smoking over in that goddamn park,” he would have said. “I’ll put my boot so far up your goddamn ass you won’t sit for a week.”
We moved and I never saw Jimmy again. I hope someone put a boot up his ass and he’s doing ok today.
Through the 1800s, Grandma Cichon’s father’s family were sailors and sail makers in North Shields and Tynemouth in Northeast England.
After brothers George Henry Scurr and William Gordon Scurr were killed at sea during the Great War, their mother Mary Alice would walk to the sea every day and just stare, awaiting a return that she knew would never come.
With sadness, Mary Alice, along with George Henry Sr., and eventually sons John and James, moved to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and then Buffalo, New York, USA.
My grandmother was the daughter of James Scurr, and among her things was this photo… of a group of people on a beach.
For the 20 years or so I’ve had this photo, I’ve never known anything about it. Not who, not where, not anything. It was with photos that belonged to my great grandmother, so I assumed that this was her family—and through the years, to no avail, I’ve searched dozens of beach photos from Ireland and Scotland for any sign of these landmarks.
No avail— until today, when I was having a cup of tea with my Aunt Elaine, also daughter of James Scurr and Grandma’s youngest sister.
She was talking about visiting the Longsands and the beaches of Tynemouth, and her description made me think of this photo.
After an hour or so of searching for historic photos of Longsands, I knew I was in the right area, but I wanted to find another photo with the building or the walkway or the giant wheels to prove it conclusively.
A mile or so north of Longsands is Cullercoats, so I searched that, too. The first image I clicked on had the building, the walkway, and the giant wheels! What a great feeling after so many fruitless searches…
It’s wonderful to know that the photo was taken at the Cullercoats Life Saving Station, no more than two miles from where the Scurrs lived until the early 1920s.
Perhaps over the next 20 years, I’ll figure out which of these folks are my Scurrs- but knowing these are my relatives or people loved by my relatives, enjoying a day on their local beach is good enough for me.
I’m really obsessed that I can go there and take almost the same photo right now!
It’s hard to put into words, that warm, strong, unquestioned grandmotherly heart.
And working in a high school, with plenty of boys who clearly don’t have anything close to a Grandma Coyle in their lives, I love and appreciate all that she was— and continues to be for me, my brother and sister, my mom and her brothers and sisters, and just our whole family.
She wasn’t some perfect saintly woman, but that makes what she gave so much more special.
She swore, drank beer, smoked Parliaments, and she’d crack ya if you needed it. But she also loved all of us fully, completely, and deeply every moment. Just as important as the love, she constantly let us know how much she loved us.
She’s been gone a long time, but the love she built in my heart lasts and grows as her example shows me how to love the people in my life without compromise.
Even if someone doesn’t deserve it or if someone needs a crack or if someone isn’t wearing an undershirt (the crime of which I was most often guilty in Grandma’s court) love never wavers.
Happy birthday in heaven, Grandma. (And I am wearing an undershirt.)