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  • Writer's picturePatricia Reilly

John O'Hara, the Immigrant

Updated: May 1, 2022



My paternal great grandfather, John O’Hara, left Ireland for America in 1844, and established a home along the Mexico Road, Town of Salisbury, Herkimer County, inches below the blue line. From the moment he set foot on the trail that would develop into a highway during his lifetime, he was in a life-and-death battle with the road. He fought it and made it bend to his will, but the road and the wilderness fought back. Even as the road was being built, it made up its own mind where to bend and where to go straight, winding around boulders and creek elbows. At the end of the story, when John is taking leave of the road for the last time, realizing that the road and the unyielding earth through which it cuts, has won, he looks down at the thin earth, as he did on his first journey up the trail at the beginning of his life in the hamlet, and spies a trilium, a plant designed to push out of the earth when no treetop leaves can hold back the sun, opening its heart for only a month of days. When the leaves are on the trees, the flower goes to sleep until early springtime solar voices call it to wake again.


The Mexico Road is like that. It came into being, but had only the life that the people who created it granted. When their energy is no longer there for the road and the dirt, it all returns to nature.

150 years later, John's descendants have made their way through the woods grown up over the Mexico Road, and have found the depressions in the earth that had formed the foundations of the homes those Irish immigrants built in the 1850’s. Here’s a picture taken on one of those forays, in front of the camp of our guide, Stan Grose. Stan owns part of the property once owned by our ancestor, John’s, brother, William O’Hara. My son, Patrick and I bushwhacked from this camp, west to the Spruce Creek, which we crossed in a canoe. On the other side of the creek were the foundations of the cabins of John, our ancestor, and his brother, Patrick O’Hara.


(Left to right) Stan Grose, Adirondack Guide; Pat Reilly; Stan's Friend; Patrick Reilly

Here's a story that might have been told by John O’Hara, who left Ardee, Ireland for America in 1844, when he was about 23 years old. From the moment he set foot on the logging trail that would develop into a rural highway during his lifetime, he was in a life-and-death battle with the road. He fought it and made it bend to his will, but the road and the wilderness fought back. Even as the road was being built, it made up its own mind where to bend and where to go straight, winding around boulders and creek elbows. At the end of this story, when John is taking leave of the road for the last time, he knows that the road and the unyielding earth through which it cuts has won. On that last trip, as on his first time on the road, he looks down at the earth, and spies a cluster of trillium, small and ephemeral. Nature designed this plant to push out of the earth when no treetop leaves can hold back the sun, to bloom and expose its open heart for only so many days. When the leaves are on the trees, the flower goes to sleep again, waiting for the next golden springtime sunlight power. The road and the community here is like that. It comes into being, but has only the life that the men who created it give to it. When their energy is no longer present for the road and the land through which it cuts, all returns to nature.


It is springtime, late May, as John picks his way north. Listen to him, talking to himself, for there’s no one near him to listen, is there?


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