July 2, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Among Their Own: Stories of Irish Compassion

The ethnic communities of Baltimore were gathering places for people with similar life experiences and backgrounds. These were segregated neighborhoods where African Americans might have passed through,or performed day labor, but were not usually welcome to become part of the neighborhood’s churches, schools and social organizations. Neither were they welcome to buy homes within the limits of white neighborhoods, and Baltimore’s Black community developed their own networks and methods of community living and support, while Whites had their own affiliations.

Baltimore’s Irish community was part of this arrangement, both informally and formally, and lived among their fellow White immigrants most always. Many lived particularly close to their fellow immigrants from Ireland, and a social safety net of support for “the least of these” among them existed within the Irish parishes and neighborhoods where they lived. These included religious instruction and education, medical care, neighbors taking on roles that loss had created in others' lives, and organizations that had the needs of their fellow Irish as a priority in their charitable work.

Families themselves were often poor, but thought little of it, as their neighbors and friends were in the same predicament. Their modest income did not preclude them for caring for others, however, and the good work of both giving and receiving were common in even the most modest lives. Sacrifices were expected, as everyone did their share, and a spirit of compassion permeated these communities.

A remarkable measure of this was shown in education. Poor families could send their children to parish schools at incredibly modest tuition rates, or sometimes no tuition at all. It was unlikely that poor Irish families would send their children to public schools because they "couldn't afford" a private, parochial school.

This was no magic trick…someone paid for those buildings, and the heat and running water, and the costs involved in providing the tangible objects needed to educate poor Irish children. This was accomplished by the receiving of financial gifts from the parish community, who considered the school an essential ministry.

Labor is needed to run a school, and Christian Brothers and Women Religious (see images below) gave sacrificially of themselves to transform the uneducated Irish into literate, capable participants in a growing economy within one of America’s great cities. These teachers were educated themselves, but displayed a great deal of compassion towards masses of children whose parents insisted would become responsible adults.

We just might have a few stories of a rough-and-tumble Brother or Nun whose harsh disciplinary tactics were legends in and of themselves, but we might peek behind the curtain a bit and consider their basic motivations. Men and women needed to feel effective in their lives, and used by God, but what about their tender care for children that went to the point that they often took a vow of poverty?

This selfless act allowed parish schools to educate the most children, in the most affordable ways.

Pictured are: Pastor John Carroll Moore and assistants with the Class of 1941; Sister Mary Rita Liberty (top) and Brother Leonard (middle), who led education efforts at St. Peter's Schools on Poppleton St.

Compassion also showed itself during times of family crisis. Organizations within the Irish community stepped in to provide when tragedy struck. Among these was the 'Emmett" Social Club, who rose to the occasion when a local family experienced great loss.

One of these was the Skeahan family. Honora Custy (see image below) was born in 1832 in the parish of Kilmaley, County Clare to parents Denis Custy and Mary Tuttle. Honora emigrated with her sister in May 1851, arriving in Baltimore on the Flora MacDonald. Not much is known about her first years in Baltimore; likely she found work as many young Irish girls had done. She married Patrick Skeahan on August 30, 1857 (also from County Clare) at St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church. Patrick worked as a laborer for the B. & O. Railroad at their Mt. Clare Shops. Their lives centered on work, family and church and not unlike many others, they had their daily struggles but managed to persevere.

Honora and Patrick lost their first 3 children in their infancies, a girl and two boys. But starting in 1864 and the years that followed, they had four sons: Thomas, Martin, William, and Dennis.

On the morning of Saturday, September 26,1874 a huge loss would be experienced by Honora’s family yet again. Her husband Patrick was run over by a freight car while repairing its brake at the Mt. Clare Station. Honora was suddenly left a widow with four young children to support. An inquest was conducted that required two separate juries. There was no sort of recompense for workers injured on the job, and there is no evidence to indicate that the Railroad accepted any responsibility for Patrick's death, financially or otherwise.

No worker’s compensation was available to the family; neither was there any other social relief other than the compassion of others. The Emmett Social Club stepped forward to provide help via a benefit dance (see promotional piece). Organizers included several important figures from Baltimore’s Irish community, and it would seem some relatives as well. 

Was there a more modest neighborhood in Baltimore than West Baltimore's Dover Street (pictured below....alas, a modern view)? Irish and other ethnicities lived among the two-story houses with dirt basements, four rooms and an outhouse out back. The neighborhood included the Reeb family, with two parents and six children sharing the space as best they could.

Eileen Cavanaugh Reeb, a native of Limerick Ireland, raised her family there in a manner that reminded her of home. Prayers in Irish were said each night as they gathered before the living room mantle that served as a shrine, with Mom’s brogue leading the family gathering.

Old 78 records were played for entertainment, with Irish singers being prominent in the collection. She made sure her family attended Mass at St. Martin’s faithfully, and especially on St. Patrick’s Day. Sunday dinners always included a vegetable medley with green, white and gold/orange colors on display.

When it came time to serve their nation and world in crisis, sons Joseph P. and Thomas B. Murphy, from Eileen’s first marriage, went off to join the Navy in World War II. Joe served as a frogman, and did his part in the liberation of the Normandy coast when the allies invaded in 1944.

Both brothers’ service is remembered today on the plaque that still is on display at the former St. Martin’s church building (pictured).

The Reebs were a St. Martin’s parish family. Their Church and school was massive, and thousands served both God and man there. The parish itself was known throughout the Archdiocese for its generosity to the local poor. Education of the children was a huge component in the parish (see image below) and in family life. Daughter Marge Reeb attended school there for 12 years, taught by the Daughters of Charity. She eventually graduated from the academic track they offered, and prepared for a career in social work.

The neighborhood itself was both Protestant and Catholic, and the community cared for one another when crises arose. Block parties were held to help a family manage the rent payment when Dad was out of work, or buy groceries as need be. Once the street was blocked off, people paid two dollars to enter and get their dinners from the moms of Dover St. that cooked for the occasion.

George W. A. Reeb, man of the house at 1808 Dover Street, provided song with his brother Irvin, and a time of need for one family became a festive occasion for the neighborhood at large.

These street gatherings happened many times, and each poor family in the neighborhood knew that their time to need a little help would come someday. Showing compassion was commonplace, as was receiving care from others. It was an attribute that was gained while being poor: developing empathy for those who had a little less than you did.

Medical needs were met just a few blocks away, where the Sisters of Bon Secours showed their own compassion to modest Irish and others who arrived for care at Bon Secours Hospital. Young girls of the neighborhood would serve as pinkies there, caring for others as able, while considering whether medical and social work were a good fit for their working life.

Little Marge Reeb walked the few blocks to serve there after school, and discovered that she was a person who wanted to care for others as part of her career. She served as a social worker for many years.

We thank Marge Mulcare (pictured, above right) for telling us her wonderful story about growing up on West Baltimore's Dover Street. She was born as Margaret Eileen Reeb, and has done much to perpetuate the memory of her Irish mother, born as Eileen Cavanaugh in 1904 (County Limerick). We give special thanks for her enthusiastic participation in Baltimore's Irish dance community.

We also thank those who contributed to this article:

Archdiocese of Baltimore

Baltimore Sun

Jacqueline Cooke Frank, Docent at Irish Railroad Workers Museum and descendant of the Skeahan family.

Brother Joseph Grabenstein, FSC Archivist, De La Salle Christian Brothers

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