The event which led to the recording of the lives of the three Mary Driscolls occurred along the Gulf Coast of Texas in September 1863. On the 8th of that month, a small contingent of largely Irish American Confederates under the command of Dick Dowling from Co. Galway turned back a vastly superior Federal force at what became known as the Battle of the Sabine Pass. The vanquished Union troops also contained copious numbers of Irish Americans that day- some mere boys, such as James Nugent, whose life and fate I have written about here. Another Northern Jack Tar at Sabine Pass was Michael Driscoll, then serving as a Landsman aboard the converted paddle steamer USS Clifton. During the battle he toiled shoulder to shoulder with men like George Range from England, Irish emigrant Edward McGowan, and Kerry (most likely Dingle) native Patrick McKenna, as the Clifton sought to silence Dowling and his Confederates in Fort Griffin. But they were doomed to fail. The ferocity of fire the Irish Confederates laid down forced the Clifton‘s grounding, and ultimately led to the men’s capture. However, Michael’s time under lock and key proved short. Severely wounded during the engagement, the young man died a few days later aboard the CSS Uncle Ben, as she transported her new captives up the Sabine River. (1)

The USS Clifton (left) during the Battle of Sabine Pass, the action which led to Michael Driscoll’s death (Internet Archive)

Though Michael had been born and raised in the United States, there is little doubt that he would have proudly espoused an Irish American identity, with a particular affinity for Co. Cork. His family hailed from there, and he had grown up as part of a expatriate Cork community in Massachusetts. On a more immediate level, nearly every decision he had taken in his young life- up to an including his fateful choice to enter the Navy in July 1862- had been influenced by concern for his father, Denis. By the time the war was looming Michael was the main breadwinner for his two sisters and widower father, who was largely unable to work. By the age of 15, in 1859, he was out working in the Middlesex Bleach, Dye and Printworks in Somerville, where the $3 a week he earned was paid directly to his ailing parent. At 16 he moved on to the American Tube Works, where he earned the same amount maufacturing brass tubing. While his wages slowly began to rise as he came of age, it is hard to imagine that economic factors did not play a considerable role in Michael’s decision to leave the Tube Works and enter the Union Navy in 1862. The only letter he sent his father during his brief period in service-a letter his father subsequently lost- concerned his pay, and Michael’s inability to send money home as “he had not been paid in a long time”. (2)

Map of the Battle of Sabine Pass (NARA)

As is so often the case with the pension files, young Michael’s fate in September 1863 instigated the creation of a paper-trail that preserved a multi-decade, transnational window into the lives of the Driscoll family. The person who it reveals the most about is his father, Denis, and Denis’s three wives- all of whom were Irish, and all of whom were called Mary. Denis Driscoll had been born to Florence Driscoll and Honora Donahoe on Cape Clear Island, Ireland’s most southerly settlement, around the year 1811. While his year of emigration is unknown, he was in Boston by the start of the early 1840s. On 22nd February 1841 he married Mary Jordan there in St. Mary’s Church. Mary was also an Irish emigrant, and was probably also from Co. Cork. The couple had three children who survived infancy- Honora, born around 1843, Michael, the future sailor, born in 1844, and Johanna, born c. 1847. The family made their home in a tenenment at 277 Ann Street in Boston’s North End, a poverty-stricken area that was particularly notorious within the city. It was here that the risks inherent with 19th century childbirth caught up with Mary; in late 1849 she died while in labour, as, it seems, did her child. The young woman-still only in her mid twenties- was laid to rest in Charlestown. (3)

Aerial view of Boston in 1860 (Wikipedia)

Denis remained a widower for around 5 years. The Cork connections of his second wife, who was also Mary, were betrayed by her surname- Donovan. Born around the same time as Denis, by all accounts she was a remarkable woman. By the time of the 1855 state census they and Denis’s children had moved to Somerville, which was to remain their permanent home. Already the ailments that would curtail Denis’s working life as a common laborer were beginning to show themselves. Years of hard physical work had crippled him with lombago, and he would also soon be tormented with regular fluid buildup in his scrotum. His new wife Mary was not going to let that any of that hold them back. While young Michael and Honora contributed where they could, their stepmother, through “hard labor…at the wash tub” began to save. Little by little as the years passed their modest funds grew. Surviving traumas such as Michael’s 1863 death, by 1868 Mary, who like Denis was illiterate, had pulled together $300. This allowed her to buy a piece of land on Frost Avenue and build a modest home on it. Though it was Denis’s name that went on the mortgage, everyone was aware that it was Mary’s endeavours that had made it a reality. (4)

Maids draw water from a well, 1864. Johanna spent the majority of her life in domestice service in Ireland and America (Oscar Gustave Rejlander)
Domestics in the 1860s. Mary Donovan’s tireless work as a washerwoman helped her family to ownership of their own home (Oscar Gustave Rejlander)

By 1870 the Driscolls were enumerated with a personal estate of $300 and real estate of $4000. But the good times were not to last. Mary’s health began to fail in the late 1870s, causing the couple to fall behind on the taxes due on their land. Denis’s condition also continued to deteriorate, forcing him to be tapped a number of times for dropsy. Given their condition, it is hardly surprising that in the years that followed they were forced to rely on charity from the city on several occasions. The extent to which Mary had managed the couple’s affairs was revealed when Denis was interviewed regarding their property in 1880. While the examiner thought him an “old gentlemen” and an “honest, upright man” despite the fact that he was “very poor”, he found Denis completely ignorant of issues relating to his real estate: “I find it hard to make him understand the difference between a mortgage and any other claim or encumberance on this piece of property”. His prospects looked bleak indeed when Mary, by now his wife of more than 30 years, succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 72 on 26th November 1889. (5)

Map of Somerville in the 1880s (Boston Public Library)

This was the moment when yet another Mary from Cork entered Denis Driscoll’s life. On 23rd April 1892 Denis, then in his 80s (though his marriage documentation recorded him ten years younger) married 60-year-old Mary Cotter from East Co. Cork in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Mary had been a late emigrant to the United States. She had been born to Thomas Graham and Johanna Forest in 1832 in the townland of Ballynakilla. As was commonplace in 19th century Ireland, Mary had first married locally. They didn’t come much more local than Thomas Cotter, the farmer who lived directly beside her childhood home. Thomas, who was a little over ten years Mary’s senior, succumbed to Tuberculosis on their Ballynakilla farm in the summer of 1867. This was the event that sparked Mary’s emigration, though the precise year of her departure for the United States is unclear. She was almost certainly middle-aged if not older by the time she arrived in Massachusetts. The match with Denis made sense- he had access to a pension which would help to support Mary, while she could offer him the care he needed in his final years. It was surely no accident that both were also from Cork, despite the fact that Denis had last seen the county of his birth when Mary had still been a child. (6)

Mary Graham grew up in the group of houses at the bottom of the map, her first husband Thomas Cotter farmed from the group of houses at the top. 1840s map of Ballynakilla, Co. Cork on the left, modern aerial photograph on the right (Ordnance Survey Ireland/Google Maps)

Denis’s final marriage proved short-lived. He died on 7th September 1893, the cause given as “Old-age”. The Cape Clear emigrant was laid to rest in St. Paul’s Cemetery, Arlington, Massachusetts. I have yet to establish the fate of Mary, his third-wife.

The story of the three Mary Driscolls provides us with an extended insight into both the similiarity and variety of experience that could be the lot of the 19th century female emigrant. All three weddings may well have been arranged matches, as was relatively common during this period. They also serve to demonstrate how extraordinarily cohesive the Irish American community in the United States was, with emigrants often maintaining strong bonds with their home counties throughout their lives. The Cork links of the three Marys was no coincidence. This is something we have encountered time and again on the site.

Yet the three women also lived different lives. Mary Jordan had emigrated at a young age, before the Famine ravaged her native island. But her poverty consigned her to a crowded tenement in what was a miserable neigbourhood at the height of the Famine influx. It was there that she died, a victim of one of the great killers of young women- childbirth. Mary Donovan was an older woman, one who had led a life of hard domestic labour, an occupation that had denied to her an opportunity for a family of her own. Her marriage to Denis while in her mid 40s provided her with an opportunity to make a home, and she grasped it with both hands. She turned her labour to the benefit of her new family, and her hard work propelled them into the propertied classes. Unfortunately, despite all she had built, the vagaries of health which was so central to working-class fortunes, combined with the fate of Michael Driscoll, turned her final years into a struggle. Finally, Mary Graham/Cotter, who had lived the majority of her life in Ireland, likely found herself forced to emigrate to join family in the United States after the death of her husband in Cork. As an older woman without years of domestic service in America, her marriage to Denis was perhaps the most transactional, as it offered both of them a modicum of security in their final years. We are fortunate that something of their ordinary, yet compelling lives in Ireland and the United States has been preserved for us- all because of the sacrifice of a 19-year-old Irish American at the Sabine Pass in the Autumn of 1863. (7)

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St. Paul’s Cemetery, Arlington, Massachusetts, where Denis Driscoll was buried in 1839.

(1) Pension File, Navy Enlistment Rendezvous; (2) Navy Enlistment Rendezvous, Pension File, Samuels & Kimball 1897:462, Haley 1903:123; (3) Pension File, 1855 Massachusetts Census, Massachusetts Death Records; (4) 1855 Massachusetts Census, 1860 Federal Census, 1870 Federal Census; (5) 1870 Census, Pension File; (6) Pension File, Catholic Parish Registers, Griffiths Valuation; (7) Pension File; (8) Pension File, Massachusetts Death Records;


1855 Massachusetts State Census.

1860 Federal Census.

1870 Federal Census.

Irish Catholic Parish Registers.

Massachusetts Death Records.

Griffiths Valuation.

Michael Driscoll Pension.

U.S. Navy Enlistment Weekly Rendezvous.

Mary Alice Haley 1903. The Story of Somerville.

Edward A. Samuels & Henry H. Kimball 1897. Somerville, Past and Present.