Our Irish heritage – an inspiring,yet tragic, story about a mystery chair

As we celebrate the feast day of St. Patrick, the patron saint of our Irish heritage, it is natural to reflect on the lives of our ancestors, their sacrifices that brought us to Boston, and the later sacrifices they made to make a life for themselves and those who followed them.
I hope you will forgive me; this is a very personal story.

My grandparents, Michael Joseph Leary and Catherine Agnes Fennell, both with families stretching back 3,000 miles to West Cork, were married in Boston on April 10, 1901 at the Holy Cross Cathedral. Michael and several members of his family had been living in South Boston for many years when he met Catherine. He was 29 and she was 24. I suspect many of their family members were in attendance that day as were several firemen since Michael had been a Boston fireman since February 1898.
We can assume the day was filled with hope and energy, yet, as things turned out, it was the beginning of a long, yet uplifting, tragic story: Just eight-and-half months later, on New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 1901, Michael was injured while fighting a brief but ferocious fire near South Station that ultimately took his life.
Michael was assigned to South Boston’s Engine One when, according to the Boston Globe the next day, a hose got away from the Engine 38 crew and crushed his lungs. Michael was then pensioned by the Fire Department and went back to being an upholsterer, his job before he became a fireman. But the fire had damaged his lungs beyond repair, and Michael died five years, on Dec. 18, 1906.
Catherine went to work at the Liggett Rexall factory on Huntington Avenue near today’s Northeastern University, beginning more than 40 years of supporting herself and my father. After the fire and before he died, Michael basically could not work anymore due to his condition, so with time on his hands he set out to create a unique and extraordinary “horned” chair.
My father told me the chair, which has been in my living room since my grandmother died in 1960, was crafted during Michael’s hoped-for convalescence. The chair is made of 12 pairs of matched cow horns, hollowed out and fitted with a wooden dowel for strength. Each horn had to been dried, polished, and fit into place. My father, who was born a couple of years after the accident when Michael was still relatively healthy, was told by his mother that each horn took two weeks to make. They came from the Brighton slaughter house when it was located next to the Charles River near where the current Staples store is located.
Where did Michael get the plans? Or did he simply create his own design? Although there are many cow horn chairs in Texas and California, and deer horn chairs in various parts of the world, no one has seen a strong and muscular one like this. I did find a very different one on display at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
Who or what gave Michael the idea to build such a chair? Where was it built? In their apartment? Did Michael travel to the slaughter house? Probably. Did he have a friend or friends there? Probably. Did he have to pay for the horns? Was it to be sold? Are there other chairs he made that were sold? Did Catherine keep the chair for 50 years out of love and respect for Michael? Probably.
There is a humorous side to this story – Michael’s doctor’s advice that they move away from the South Boston’s ocean-side environment to a place with a dryer climate. They moved all the way to Roslindale, which is where Michael died.
Catherine later moved to Pleasant Street in Dorchester, then to Dorchester Avenue next to the-then St. William’s parish church. Michael’s chair stayed with her the entire time. And for the past 50 years it has been with me wherever I have lived.
Catherine and Michael, two first-generation Irish Americans, started life with such excitement, then were forced to adapt their lives to what had been handed them. They lie together now, reunited side by side in Boston’s New Calvary Cemetery. And the chair still stands in tribute to Michael’s craftsmanship and their love of each other.
So this year, as I celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, I will remember these two strong first generation Irish who contributed so much to my life.