March 8, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

My Scrooge Moment, and the Man from Inishbofin

Welcome to Issue XX.... who knew?

The Irish High Holy days started off well enough; our Kickoff Party on 2-22-20 went well (thanks to all), and we anticipated a good season, albeit somewhat normal...but then all this happened. Plan B presented itself, and our series of articles, known as The Big Pivot, has been designed to bring our Museum to you...visits, events and presentations that fascinate.

Today's presentation is an off- campus one, as we have a solid friendship with the folks who are redoing St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery in Baltimore's Clifton Park. Stephanie and Les Town have ancestors buried there, and it seems that I did too. How would you like to see your name on an ancient stone? It was my Ebenezer Scrooge Moment.

My ancestors include another Luke McCusker. He attended Oliver Hibernian Free School as a boy, and lived in East Baltimore. St. Vincent de Paul was the family Church. His father, Phil McCusker was an illiterate soap maker from County Tyrone.

Luke's grave marker is not alone there. Dedicated workers have arranged the remaining markers in a reverential way, and we read them carefully as our Museum leaders paid a visit a few years ago. Among them were markers for the Grogan family, from Boffin Island. Huh? That was a new one for me, and research began about their home, and the life of Peter Grogan.

The Grogan family stones followed the common pattern of Irish immigrants. Counties of origin were listed along with spouses and children’s names, and religious sentiments.

Their modest island homeland was known in the old tongue as Inishbofin (pictured below), a small space five miles off Ireland’s Connemara Coast. Measuring a mere 3.5 by 2.5 miles, its rocky land is covered with rough pasture, with a measure of arable land. A bit of traditional farming was done there, but the main focus was on fishing and seasonal migrant work by the men.

The island itself was used to advantage by Saint Colman, who established a monastery in 665 A.D. It became the property of both the O’Flaherty and O’Malley clans in later years, but was eventually overwhelmed by Cromwell’s forces in the 1600’s. Priests, considered a treasonous lot by the English government, were exiled to a fortress on the island known as Cromwell’s Barracks, awaiting transportation.

Gun runners used the island for its natural advantages in later years, aiding in Ireland’s struggle to achieve independence.

Some considered living on the island as nigh impossible, but a hardy bunch populated five small townlands. Population was perhaps at its highest in 1841, estimated at 1,404 people. The famine years had their devastating effect and population dropped to 909 by 1851. In the years following the departure of the Grogan family, 663 remained on the island. Today’s numbers are less than 200 year-round, but the island has transformed into a center of culture and tourism for its many visitors.

The Grogan family survived Ireland’s massive famine years, commonly thought of as being between 1845-1852, somehow eking out an existence. A second blow hit them in 1862, as another period of famine hit the western islands off of county Mayo. Inspectors arrived in February of that year, finding the people relying almost entirely on Indian meal, flavored with edible brush from the bog lands so common there. Very few potatoes and breads were found, and no meat or dairy. Nothing in the way of seed for the next planting was on the island, and the desperation of the people was obvious to even a casual observer. These conditions were no doubt the tipping point for the Grogan family.

Portrait of Peter Paul Grogan (courtesy of Spirit Wiseman and Michael O'Neill)

Peter Paul Grogan was born on Boffin Island on June 29, 1842, the son of Lawrence Grogan and Bridget Grayson. Census records tell us that the family arrived in Baltimore in 1863, and Peter took work as a clerk in Dugan’s Wharf. The family established a home at present-day 744 E. Lombard Street, just south of St. Vincent de Paul Church along the Jones Falls, with the men of the family establishing a portrait framing business in East Baltimore.

Peter was particularly ambitious. After marrying Catherine Kane in 1870, he hired several boys to help with the family business, and began to set his sights elsewhere. He and Frank J. Murphy established a furniture and carpet business in a city with a considerable German population. Peter learned their language and did considerable business among Baltimore’s largest immigrant group. It did not take him long to discern that the real profits were in the financing of these home goods, and their firm became the earliest to sell furniture on terms in both Baltimore and Washington.

Grogan entered the Washington, D.C. market on April 2, 1883 and business boomed. His mammoth flagship store on Seventh St., N.W. featured furniture and carpet, but headlines read that his was a “Mammoth Credit Establishment”. This innovation brought about huge sales in both Baltimore and Washington, and the real estate business became an attraction to him.

He had a large home in D.C., and also purchased a Baltimore estate. Known formerly as William Worthington’s “Greenfields”, Peter Grogan’s family home was situated at 2700 E. Preston St. Its 35 large rooms, formerly the dwelling of officers during the Civil War occupation of Baltimore, had walnut doors and silver hardware.

The considerable acreage that surrounded the house, once used by Union infantry and artillery units, had become a garden spot, and was often used by the orphans of St. Vincent’s Church for outings and celebrations.
Much of the land was developed for real estate as well, and Grogan led the efforts in building 250 homes on the north side of East Preston St.

Peter’s generosity was noticed by the leaders of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and he developed a friendship with Cardinal Gibbons. They would socialize at times, and discussions began on establishing a new Catholic parish in Northeast Baltimore for those who moved northward in the later years of the 19th century.

While on a cruise, Grogan offered the Cardinal a plot of land he owned at E. Preston and Luzerne St. for the new parish. It would be called “St. Katherine of Siena”, honoring both the saint and Peter’s wife, Catherine.

The Church cornerstone was laid on December 7, 1902, with much ceremony. Festivities were led by Cardinal Gibbons and many prominent priests of the city. 3,000 attended the celebration, complete with parades and marching groups that included St. Peter’s Total Abstinence Cadets and the Ancient Order of Hibernians. After considerable pomp and circumstance, many attended a reception at the Grogan home.

Work on the new church progressed steadily, and the façade was covered with Falls Road granite.

Shockingly, tragedy rocked the community before its completion. Peter Grogan passed away on October 28, 1903. It was decided to hold his funeral in the incomplete structure. A solemn high Mass was held on October 31, 1903, offered by Cardinal Gibbons himself, with twelve priests on the altar. His active pallbearers were all employees, and many Irish and civic leaders were in attendance.

Peter Grogan was interred in St. Vincent’s Cemetery, where his parents and family were also laid to rest. His gravestone did not say a word about his professional successes, or his important associations, but rather spoke of family and heritage. The boy who began life in the most modest of circumstances found rest in a cemetery established by the Irish parish where his family worshipped.

It has been our joy and privilege to bring these issues of The Big Pivot to you and yours; thanks for following along. Please remember that we depend on the donations of Museum friends to keep things going....especially now, as we begin our third month of closure. Could you kindly donate online or mail a check of support to :

Irish Railroad Workers Museum

P.O.Box 20627
Baltimore, MD 21223

Special thanks to those who have sent cards and notes expressing their appreciation and topic suggestions for this ongoing series.

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