When I was a little boy my mother told me that I had a great grandmother named Unity McFadden, a magic name. Unity had a hard life and faced tragedy many, many times. I wrote this about her.
Unity McFadden, I know your secret.
Illiterate Donegal peasant girl, raised on seaweed and potatoes. You survived the great famine and the coffin ship, but couldn’t escape your fate.
Living in a squalid 1850s coal town, digging Pennsylvania dirt. Did your heart cry out to the wilds of Cloughaneely and the slopes of Mt. Errigal?
Even the famine was not as cruel as this new land of plenty. 8 sons born, 6 buried. 4 killed in railway crashes. 2 young daughters lost. One to disease and the other perished in flames when the house burned down in 1880. Unity and her mother Bridget McFadden leapt from the second floor onto a mattress below and survived. The surviving men quickly built a huge new house with many bedrooms, including the room where my mother Edna was born in 1915. That house still stands and belongs to friendly neighbours.
Unity lost her husband Charles Cooney to asthma in 1892 likely caused by underground coal mining. All those loved ones devoured by America.
Ghost woman of old Ireland I would give anything for one faded picture of you, for one letter that describes you, still stubbornly speaking Irish Gaelic at 78, or was it 85?
I imagine a thin faced old woman, beaten down by the relentless sea, but hard as the cliffs.
They told you one morning in 1913 that your nephew and walking companion had suddenly died and early Sunday morning you learned that your favourite grandson, John Morning of Altoona, had died of peritonitis.
How much suffering can one person endure?
30 minutes later you were walking across the fields to St. Brigid’s Catholic Church in Lilly at 8:30 a.m. when the # 3 express train ran you over at the same spot where you lost one of your sons, Michael, in 1903.
The Johnstown Tribune wrote that your life “was filled to the brim with tragedy and sorrow” and reported you were reading your Bible and “stood bewildered” as the train “bore down upon her.” Some say you never saw the train coming, even though the whistle was blowing.
Unity McFadden, your secret is safe with me.
Unity’s mother and son’s gravestone in Lilly, Pennsylvania. Briget was born in 1797!