Kathleen Murtaugh— The Girl from The County Mayo

Above: Kathleen Murtaugh. Photo © Katharine Gilbert

By Msgr. Francis A. Carbine

Kathleen and John Murtaugh on their wedding day at Immaculate Conception church.

Kathleen and John Murtaugh on their wedding day at Immaculate Conception church.

“My brother, Bernard, was born in America. My parents, who had married in Philadelphia, sailed back to Ireland in 1930. When Bernard turned 18, he wished to return to Philadelphia. My mother decided. ‘If Bernard goes, we all go!’
“And so my parents, with five children, sailed on the RMS Mauritania and arrived in New York, May, 1949. I was 15 years of age.

“Our townland, Carracastle near Ballihadereen, was on border of Mayo and Roscommon. We traveled to St. Attracta’s Well in Sligo, and ‘the little old church’ at Knock.”

Ellen Cawley and Bernard Murtaugh, Kathleen’s parents, had married in St. Francis of Assisi Church, Germantown. Ellen had trained as a nurse in England. She stressed the importance of education.

Kathleen recalls: “When I was 14, I climbed Croagh Patrick. In 2000, I climbed half-way. My back was acting up!
“My father worked on his 36-acre farm with help of ‘Charlie,’ our horse, and ‘Neddy,’ our donkey. My brother and three sisters likewise worked on the farm.

“We worked like men. We worked in the hayfields—raking the hay—and in the bog. We ‘footed’ cut turf and loaded the creels–hanging baskets – on the donkey.”

To earn a few pennies, Kathleen collected empty jam jars and sold them in Swineford. Her nickname was “Jam Jar!”
She well remembers the Statue of Liberty. However. “traveling through the Holland Tunnel under the river was the scariest part of the trip.”

Kathleen Murtaugh (right) and her sisters from left: Margaret Fee, Linda Steiner, and Helene Johnson

Kathleen Murtaugh (right) and her sisters from left: Margaret Fee, Linda Steiner, and Helene Johnson

Kathleen met her future husband, John, at an Irish dance at Immaculate Conception parish, Germantown. The pastor introduced them. “I loved Irish dancing. Dancing was my thing!. He later married them and obtained for them a papal blessing.

“John died at age thirty-eight. We had six children. We had no insurance. John, however, had briefly served in the U.S. Navy and I was eligible for pension.

“My faith kept me sane. Faith is all that you have!”

Kathleen’s education in Ireland made her fluent with the Irish language. In 2017, she can recite prayers and poems in Irish, and easily hold her own in an Irish conversation.

She studied payroll and bookkeeping at the Immaculate Conception Commercial School. “I wasn’t the smartest in my class, but I wasn’t far behind!”

Three months before her graduation she was hired by Zimmermann Engineering Company. After her youngest started school, Kathleen worked for today’s Meenan Oil Company, Upper Darby.

From her mother, Kathleen learned “the songs of our country.”

Kathleen Murtaugh and her children: (row 1) Kathy, Helene and Maureen; (row 2) Kevin, Jack and the late Brian.

Kathleen Murtaugh and her children: (row 1) Kathy, Helene and Maureen; (row 2) Kevin, Jack and the late Brian.

She can readily recite the words. “The Minstrel Boy to the war is gone / In the ranks of death you will find him.. The words were composed by Thomas Moore to commemorate friends who had died in the Irish Rebellion, 1798.

She remembers that “I sat under the tree near the Wicklo. Mountains where Thomas Moore composed his songs.
“There’s nothing like music,” says Kathleen. “My mother played the accordion and sang at weddings. My son John Joseph plays with the ‘Misty Isle Band.’”

Regarding the “then” and “now” of Ireland, Kathleen says “There is no comparison!”

“I am very thankful for the very happy life that I had growing up in Ireland. Everything was for the family.”

After school, Kathleen and her siblings worked on the farm. Small children picked berries and fed ducks. Later, they did their homework by light of a kerosene lamp. At 8 p.m. we prayed the family rosary.

“We walked two-and-a-half miles to Mass in Swinford. Sometimes my mother and the children traveled by horse and trap. My father rode his bicycle behind us. At Mass, men sat on one side of the church and women on the other. Religion and faith were very important to us.”

From time to time, Kathleen Patricia Murtaugh has received recognition for her contributions to the Irish community. For instance, she has been accorded the “President’s Award” of the Mayo Society. She has been commended in the Irish Edition newspaper. Her name is in gold letters in the Irish Center’s Hall of Fame.

Kathleen Murtaugh and Leslie Alcock. Photo © Katharine Gilbert

Lesser known are her efforts to aid disabled children at St. John of God School, New Jersey. “Even on cold and rainy days, I sold chances outside stores and churches all over Delaware County. She remains quite active at the Irish Immigration Center, Upper Darby.

Kathleen lost her husband in 1971, and her son, Brian Francis, in 2015. Her other children are John, Kevin, Maureen, Helene and Kathleen. There are 18 grandchildren.

Kathleen’s last visit to Ireland— the Misty Isle was in 2005.

“I have lived all my married life in my home in Havertown. Children came and filled it up, but left it empty again.
“Over the years, God was always on my side. Whateve. He took away, He always gave more back to me.”

One Comment

  1. Kathleen was one of a kind. Knew her brother Vince Murtaugh. very well. Her four nephews Vince, Timmy, Chris and Shean .their sister Shelia Murtaugh did Irish dancing for a long time. They were great at it. To see her four nephews dance as they grew and as adults was breathtaking. Kathleen deserves this more then you know.. In her free time she enjoyed playing BUNCO a dice game.

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