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Irish Ancestry and the Effects of Alcoholism

Updated on March 12, 2009

Traditional Irish Toasts

I drink to your health when I'm with you,

I drink to your health when I'm alone,

I drink to your health so often,

I'm starting to worry about my own!

When money's tight and hard to get,

and your horse is also ran,

When all you have is a heap of debt,

a pint of plain is your only man.

May you always have a clean shirt, a clear conscience,

and enough coins in your pocket to buy a pint!


For my Irish ancestors the local pub held an attraction that was impossible to pass up. It offered the intoxicating elixir that would help them obtain respite from their worldly cares.

It was here the warm beer was sold, which was considered one of life's staples, and a friendly ear was to be found who could commiserate with all their cares and woes. The beginning of the night felt like an adventure, where much could be gained, and the cycle began. Money was spent on "rounds for everyone", purchased with their scanty earnings, resulting in an evening ending in tears as the realization came that they had to leave with even less than they came in with. Their journey home was far from the anticipated excitement they dreamed of when they had arrived at the pub earlier. In the end, it was just another long trip back home to face their wife with empty pockets again. There was nothing left to even see them through another long week, but, there was always hope. That hope was that the "rounds" would be on somebody else tomorrow.

The Plight of the Irish who lived in Ireland in the late 1700's

Around the 1700's, the time when I can trace the beginning of my Irish Catholic roots, the plight of the Irish in Ireland was a sad one indeed. From the beginning of their history as a country, the Irish people were dominated and oppressed by others. They were never free to act or live as they chose. One group or another had dominated them until, to this day; their country still has some civil unrest. The people of the Catholic religion were a majority but were experiencing massive oppression, and if you were a member of that faith, you were not allowed to own property, nor had any vote in any political decision. England was the governing body at the time and the Protestant faith was the dominant force.

Poverty was the condition of most all who lived in this time period, with the exception of the rich landowners, a group in which my ancestors did not fit into. Rising above your station in life was unheard of. Your hopes, dreams, aspirations, were all for naught.

Finding solace in God was not very easy either. At times your fate rested solely in the hands of the Priest himself, especially if he took on the role of both judge and jury, and only could be persuaded by a generous donation. With all these factors against him what was a self-respecting Irish man to do? Surely the answer was the drink itself, certainly nobody would deny him a deserved swig or two, just a momentary bit of peace.

Coming to America was not an easy task for any Irish Immigrant

Coming to America, which was considered the land of opportunity, didn't ease the plight of the Irishman. With the great influx of immigrants to the country came many problems of its own. Jobs were scarce, housing was difficult to find, and frankly the opinion of the American public towards the Irishman was comparable to that of the one directed towards the Negro slaves. They were thought of as dirty, lazy, drunkards, who were completely without any dignity at all. What other relief was in sight than to escape their woes at Kelly's Pub, where they could buy a round, and be "the man" once again, and restore their pride, at least for the moment.

My Great Grandfather, Alexander, was not immune from this disease. Probably his father before him had introduced him to this avenue of escape, as it unjustly had left its mark on his family in the same way. His wife Nellie, his children Gabriel and Kathleen, all became a victim of "the drink."

My Great Grandparents


Marriage, family, and the loss of a baby, were all pressures that added to the drinking problem.

It was December, the year was 1914, and Nellie found herself in quite a predicament. She was in Austin, Minnesota, in the dead of winter, with a nine-year-old daughter, Kathleen, and a two and a half-year-old son Gabriel Robert, and she was about to give birth to her third child.

At home, possibly alone, her thoughts may have wandered back to the past remembering the first time she saw Alexander, the handsome Irishman she took as her spouse. Having worked for the Milwaukee Railroad as a conductor for about ten years already, at the age of twenty-nine, he was considered to be one of the best in his division. My how a young girl of twenty-two, even in all her beauty and grace, was quick to leave the home of her parents to marry one such as that. But that was in the warmth of June in 1903 in Northfield with family, and this was in the cold of December, alone.

Baby Bernadine was born on December 8, 1914, at home. What a Christmas that would be! Have a drink of celebration! Saints be praised! I'm sure the "rounds" were on Alex that day. But something was just not right this time, and Bernadine only lived on this earth fifteen short days. Alexander celebrated his forty first birthday with the death of his beautiful baby daughter, on the 23rd of December, just two days before Christmas. On Christmas Eve, the one hundred-mile journey to Northfield from Austin was made. Bernadine was laid to rest in the Calvary Cemetery, behind the Catholic Church along with her grandfather, Patrick and grandmother Mary.

Where was the Christmas Cheer? The tears and sorrows were probably drowned heavily that season. In fact, the bottom of the glass was seen from then on by Alexander. The drink slowly eating away all that he held dear to him, taking his family and eventually even his life, leaving him in the end with only five shiny copper pennies to his name.

And so the tradition continued, unbroken from father to son. But soon a lesson was to be learned.

The Family Home

The Murphy house in Austin, Minneasota.
The Murphy house in Austin, Minneasota.

My Grandfather

Bud and his sister.
Bud and his sister.

Christmas was a hard time to avoid the damages of Alcohol

The Ghosts of Christmas Past must have haunted Nellie and Gabriel and Kathleen. Those years of sadness are not easily forgotten.

Gabriel was my grandfather, but he was known as Bud. As one might predict, the cycle continued with him. It was a horrible plight he just could not shake. The tradition of his fathers was imbedded so deeply in his every fiber he just could not brake free.

Bud had moved to California and married my Grandmother, Pauline and they were the proud parents of three children, one of which is my father. Bud worked as a custodian for the local high school, which was right down the street from their house. It was Christmas Eve, Bud hadn't returned home from work yet, and as the evening dragged on everyone knew where he had chosen to go instead. The hours passed and finally Bud came staggering in but not empty-handed. Undauntedly he slurred, "Ho, Ho, Ho, Look what Santee left behind the garage!" Raising his hand in the air he proudly produced a vacuum cleaner for all to see. Pauline was furious and rightly so, she tore into him verbally until he sunk into the bedroom with her right behind him screaming insults. She continued to banter him until he re-appeared into the living room clad only in his under shorts where he sat behind the couch to take his licking.

The holidays weren't an easy time for the children but they weren't any easier for their parents. The pressures always seemed greater and "the drink" was still teaching them all a hard lesson. Bud never missed a payday, he'd go into the bar, instruct the bartender to "fill 'em up", and he'd buy drinks for everyone in the bar. He would come home with little or none of the paycheck left, forcing Pauline to try to do whatever she could to make ends meet. She always tried the best she could to make a special Christmas for the children. When other children were coming out of their houses on Christmas morning riding new bicycles, they were lucky to be riding a broomstick.

In fact, one Christmas it was just that, a broomstick. My father had rummaged in the trash bin behind the upholstery shop near their house and found some treasures that his mother would transform into gifts for the two girls. A piece of leather was stuffed and made into the head of a horse and then put onto a broomstick for his little sister. It also was made into chaps and a vest for her to wear as she rode. Some vinyl, discarded from "tuck and roll" seats, was used for the mane. Bud's step-father Syd, made the two girls black and red buggies for their dollies and Pauline acquired a doll somewhere. She worked hard sewing clothes for it out of material scraps. All of these treasures were hid in the closet waiting for Christmas morning and the surprises it would bring.

Then came Christmas Eve and the partying began, the guest of honor was "the drink." Bud's parents arrived early with a few gifts in hand. When they were all sufficiently "happy", the gifts they had brought with them would start to be opened, and at that point, half-crocked, somebody would say, "Go and get the rest of them!" Immediately, Bud would go off to the closet where Pauline had hidden the morning surprises and pull them all out in the open for all to see. There was no Christmas morning wonder, no bright-eyed anticipation; everything was opened then and there while they drank the booze.

Alcoholism can leave ghosts and scars for all who are involved.

Every Christmas to follow was pretty much the same for the children, who were really just victims from the hardships caused by the traditions of "the drink." These were scars passed onto them from the ghosts that had remained in their parent's lives, from previous generations, the injustices that had been carelessly passed on to them. Thus, this horrible cycle continued, but something had changed for these children. They knew that even though they had ghosts to conquer of their own, they no longer had to suffer as victims; they could choose to make a change.

Each generation had tried to take baby steps to improve the situation of oppression that had held them captive because of this vial habit, but my father vowed to step forward with a leap of faith, to a new height, leaving the drink totally behind. My Great Grandfather died from alcoholism, my Grandfather quit drinking in his later years, but my father made the decision not to even start drinking. My father and his two sisters had decided on a better life, with no ghosts, no enemies, no creatures, for their children to battle, only traditions of love, hope and a family to cherish forever. They were pioneers forging a new frontier. They had found faith in something infinitely more powerful than something served in a glass.

"Every Generation Better" is the promise that we have made to each other as a family.

My fathers change was a result of his investigation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, along with his mother and sisters. When the missionaries for the Mormon Church came knocking at their door, they decided to listen and learn for themselves if the message they were delivering was true. They searched, pondered, and prayed, and learned for themselves the truth of this "life changing" message and decided to join this church, and has never looked back.

Now when the bartender shouts out, "Last call for Alcohol", the words continually remind me of the broken cycle that my father braved for us, helping us to utter the resolve, "every generation better." Thank-you, Dad, I love you.


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