Posted by: SJS | April 13, 2018

Irish. Catholic. Ambitious. Attitude? You bet.

Growing up in the Philadelphia of the 1950s and 60s as part of a large Irish Catholic family gave me a rather good perspective on the Kennedy experience which so captivated the nation’s attention in that era.

The O’Neill Family was bursting with youthful energy, good looks, entrepreneurial ideas, lots and lots of kids, and intra-family rivalries that would eventually pit relatives against each other and lead to hostile feelings that persist even to the present day.  The Kennedy clan that produced siblings like Joe junior, JFK, Eunice Shriver, Rosemary, RFK, and Teddy bore remarkable similarities to the family of Barney and Nellie Sheehan O’Neill of Philadelphia during those turbulent years of the mid-twentieth century.

What brothers Joe and Jack Kennedy carried with them as they entered the armed forces of the United States at the outset of World War II was characteristic of the many Irish Catholic young men who answered the call to service as hostilities broke out across the globe.  They were fiercely competitive, eager to take on challenging assignments, determined to prove that Catholics were as patriotic as anybody else in the country, and a certain spirit of “go-ahead-and-knock-this-chip-off-my-shoulder-and-see what-happens”  that made them sometimes only too willing to get into a fight.

When George “Red” Stahley married into the O’Neill family, he surely carried a lot of that Irish attitude which he inherited from his mother, Mary Young Stahley, who was a first generation American, the daughter of two Irish immigrants.  Red’s father, George F. Stahley, was my only non-Irish grandparent–a member of the Church of the Brethren who hailed from from Lebanon, Pennsylvania.  For all the Irish blood in my veins, it was Pop Stahley whose example, kindness, and deep faith most influenced my childhood spiritual development and my decision to enter the seminary to study for the Catholic priesthood. In my years as a parish priest, it was Pop Stahley who served as my model of service.

Looking back over my earliest years, I’ve become convinced that Red’s PT service stood him in good stead as he became integrated into the tribal rituals of the O’Neill clan where holiday meals often became sparring matches filled with glib remarks, veiled insults, and alcohol-fueled invitations to compare business triumphs.  While I happily joined my multitude of cousins running in and out of our O’Neill grandparents’ basement on Third Street, getting our holiday clothes dirty and our new shoes scuffed, the adult men were busy engaging in the blood sport known as “after-dinner” discussions in the smoke filled living room where the topics ranged from economics to politics to religion.  Jungle warfare training came in handy as Red made his way through the O’Neill holiday events.  Of course, he was always ready for a robust verbal jousting match as any O’Neill or Kennedy or anybody else for that matter.  Red was never much of a drinker which gave him an immediate advantage–both in terms of coherence and knowing when to bail out.

As an only child who married into a family of eight siblings with a dominant patriarch who was second in power only to an even more powerful matriarch, Red had to earn a new set of campaign bars that were not easily bestowed.  My mother once told me that Nana O’Neill had benign feelings for her choice of Red as a husband.  “He’s a fine lump of a man,” Nana O’Neill answered when asked her opinion of Rita’s choice. High praise indeed for the Navy vet who dodged Nazi strafing runs and Japanese sniper bullets.   Whether you entered the Kennedy or the O’Neill clan as an in-law (or “out-laws” as they called themselves in Philly), you were required to prove your mettle.  And the proving never ended; neither did the intrigue or the surprise attacks that were a common feature of every family gathering.

In the left photo above, Red Stahley stands at the far left, next to fellow “out-law” Frank Morris who served in the Army in the China-India-Burma theater as part of the MP (Military Police) security detail for “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell, one of the leading strategists of the American forces.  Next to Frank stands Eddie O’Neill who served as part of the Normandy invasion force and lost half a leg to a German sniper in June of 1944.  Eddie was a recipient of the Purple Heart.  Red, Frank, and Eddie shared a special bond as the three WWII vets in the family who saw action overseas.  Their wartime service mattered not a whit in the pecking order of the O’Neill ranking system- most especially if your surname was not O’Neill.  Military distinction registered not at all in a family that was fully immersed in the business of business.  Everything was the business.  And when the business dissolved in a tsunami of acrimony, jealousy, and blame there was precious little remaining to hold the family together.   To paraphrase the poet W.B Yeats, “the center could not hold.”

In the center of the photo sits Peggy O’Neill, the eldest sibling, who became Sister Margarella, OSF who had a distinguished religious and academic career with the Sisters of St. Francis of Glen Riddle, PA. In addition to establishing the nursing program at Villanova University (go Wildcats!), Aunt Peggy (as we lovingly knew her) served as president of Neumann College, a liberal arts school established by the Franciscans in Southeastern Pennsylvania near Delaware.  Pop O’Neill stands off to Aunt Peggy’s left and Nana O’Neill sits at Peggy’s immediate left.  Rounding out the top row are O’Neill brothers Bud (Number One Son) and Tim on either side of their father, then the twins, Rob and Al, who were the youngest of the siblings.

Seated are Joan (Rob’s wife), Helen (Frank’s wife), Margaret Sheehan (the wife of Nana O’Neill’s brother Jack), then next to Nana, Rita Marie (my mother), Bette (Tim’s wife), and Theresa (Bud’s wife).  The individual photo to the right is my favorite of my mother, taken when Rita Marie O’Neill was 18 and a senior at Little Flower High School in Philly.

The extra “juice” that the Irish Catholic fighting men brought with them against the Germans at Normandy,  and against the Japanese in the jungles of the India-Burma border, or in the hostile waters of the South Pacific made them formidable adversaries and resourceful, tenacious soldiers and sailors.

Between my father, Frank Morris, and Eddie O’Neill (my godfather), I had three of the best examples that a boy could ever want.  I’ve been fortunate, indeed!

 

 

 


Responses

  1. Too bad every child couldn’t have had the childhood you had. I think the world today would be better off if your childhood and mine could have been shared.

    • Thanks, GP. That’s why I think it is so important that we share our memories and the lessons we learned. S

      • Indeed!!

  2. Thank you Stephen. Keep the flame alive.

    • Thanks, Mike. Will do. S


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