Wednesday 21 February 2018

A proud son of New Jersey's shout-out to his Irish cousins

Bruce Springsteen at the RDS in 1993
Bruce Springsteen at the RDS in 1993

On stage in Dublin, in 1999, during his first concert in Ireland since his Irish-American father's death, Bruce Springsteen took a moment to survey the crowd.

"Are there any O'Farrells out there? Are there any McNicholases out there? Are there any O'Hagans out there? Because if you are, you're my relatives."

There must have been quite a few in the crowd thinking: "Oh, my great-grandfather was a McNicholas - Bruce and I must be cousins!"

Well, most likely there are many Irish fans who do share common ancestors with Bruce. His paternal lineage is made up of generations of Irishmen and women - Garritys, Farrells, McNicholases, Sullivans, O'Hagans, McCanns.

While he regards his paternal grandmother Alice as Irish she was actually born in New Jersey. It was, in fact, his great-great-grandparents, Ann Garrity and Patrick Farrell, who made the trip (separately) across the Atlantic and began the family line that would produce the Boss.

Their life in the farmlands of Monmouth County, New Jersey, would have been a tough one, and there was tragedy and hardship along the way, but they had escaped poverty and the Great Famine and, to some extent, they had their American Dream.

If they could only have known what they had started: they married in 1875, exactly 100 years before their great-great-grandson recorded his break-through album, 'Born To Run'.

Ann Garrity was born in the 1830s and it appears from parish documents that there are two possibilities as to where she was from.

The first is that Ann's family hailed from Co Westmeath, most probably near the town of Mullingar.

The second option is that Ann was the daughter of a Christopher Garrity from County Kildare, who emigrated to the United States and later sent for his wife and children.

Whichever line is correct, we know much more about Ann's life in America as records there are intact.

Ann left Ireland in 1852 and found a home among the Irish community of Freehold, New Jersey.

The family house was at 87 Mulberry Street (later renamed Randolph Street), a working class neighbourhood to the south of the centre of Freehold.

Ann's first marriage, to another Irish immigrant, John Fitzgibbons, brought six children. But the American Civil War veteran committed suicide in 1872 and Ann was left with no income of her own and with little time to grieve.

She needed another husband to support her and her family, and she was remarried by 1875 to another Irishman named Patrick Farrell.

Ann and Patrick are Bruce's great-great-grandparents.

Patrick was a shoemaker and by 1880, Ann was bringing home some much needed extra cash by working as a washerwoman.

Shortly after they were married, the couple had twin girls, Amelia and Jennie.

Jennie is Springsteen's great-grandmother.

The couple had enjoyed almost 20 years of happiness before Patrick died of kidney disease in 1894, aged 60. His requiem mass was held at the St Rose of Lima Church on the corner of McLean Street and Randolph Street.

Three years later the church would be the focus of a happy occasion for the family when on St Patrick's Day, 1897, 19-year-old Jennie married labourer John McNicholas, aged 21.

Around the same time the parish would open a church school and convent for the Sisters of Francis. This would later be the scene of Springsteen's rather traumatic schooling - on one occasion he claimed a nun pushed him into a waste paper basket as that was "where he belonged".

John McNicholas had grown up in Baltimore, but his father Richard and mother Annie Sullivan were both born in Ireland. Springsteen would reference the McNicholas surname in his immigrant song, 'American Land'.

Jennie and John had three children including Bruce's grandmother, Alice. Alice's Irish granny, Ann, lived with them.

It was during this childhood that Alice would develop the strong Catholic faith and Irish wit which years later would have such an influence in shaping her grandson.

And it was through Alice that Bruce got something else: his surname. Alice married a local Freehold boy named Fred Springsteen.

Fred's father, Anthony, was of Dutch descent but his mother, Martha, provides yet another Irish branch to the Springsteen family tree: her parents, John O'Hagan and Sarah McCann, were both born in Ireland.

Fred's son, Doug, married Adele Ann Zerilli and Bruce Frederick Springsteen was born in Monmouth Memorial Hospital on September 23, 1949. The family were living at number 87 Randolph Street in Freehold - the very same house which Irish immigrant Ann Garrity had made home almost a century before.

Greg Lewis is the co-author of 'Land of Hope and Dreams', a book about Bruce Springsteen in Ireland. See

Irish Independent

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