The Donahue/Segrave Story
Updated: May 6
First of all, Gram was a Donahue. She said it, “Dun uh hoo.” She was born in Albany, New York, on the 16th of June in 1859, but she spoke with an Irish accent in the 1940’s, just the same. When I sat with her, on her rocker in the bay basement window at 185 Elk Street, she was about the same age as I am now. Ancient, but strong. I was about 4, or 5, and I put my mouth on the arm of the chair. I can still remember the smell and taste of the varnish, and the wood that lay exposed from Gram’s hands caressing it, over the years. She cut that pleasure short, warning me never to put my mouth on anything that wasn’t clean. I think she told me the same thing about sucking my thumb. I remember that taste, too, acrid when I got into bed without a bath, and sweet by the time I fell asleep, one hand in my mouth and the other rubbing the frayed satin binding on the old woolen blanket on the bed in the cold, dark room upstairs. Only second-hand moonlight came to comfort, after it had passed through the high-up transom that connected to the back bedroom that had a window to the sky. My parents’ room.
That reminds me of one of my secret spy episodes. It had almost disappeared from my memory, but returned in sharp focus the day my daughter, Michaela and I were invited to come in and look around the home I’d known during The War. We had been researching genealogical stuff at Albany Public Library, and when we came out the back door to get into our car, I told her that I learned to float in the cement-lined kiddie pool across the street and way down the hill, in Gander Bay. We crossed from the library parking lot to the rim of what has now become a much larger field of cars, the parking lot for employees of the State of New York. Down there, I told her, was the circle of cement with a sprinkler mounted in the center. I was allowed, at six and seven, to go there by myself to “swim.” “So, where did you live?” Mickey asked. “Right up this block, at 185 Elk Street. Let’s go and get a picture of what it looks like, today.”
So, up the block, toward Lark Street, we went, past neighbors sitting on their stoops, just as I had done in the 1940’s. As we were snapping away with our cameras, a young woman came out of the doorway at the top of the stoop at 185. “Did you used to live here.” “I did, during The War.” “Want to come in and look at the place?” “Do I?” Mickey said, “Yes, please.”
For some, the unimproved condition of the place I’d last seen in the Spring of 1944 would have been sad. Not for me. The only significant difference was that the big bedroom at the back of the second (principal) floor had been turned into a kitchen, and the basement level was now a separate apartment. The woodwork was still the same old varnish I remembered. The black marble mantels in the parlor and back parlor were still there, still-not-working fireplaces within. The front bay window was just as I remembered it, spacious and gracious.
The bathroom was, I have to admit, improved a little. I think they had hot running water, which we did not, unless we lit the tank next to the toilet on a Saturday night, and took the bath. But all the rooms were configured just as I recalled. I was a little anxious to ask if I might see what had been my old bedroom, since our hostess clearly shared the flat with others. She said, “Sure!” when I asked. I was most interested in knowing whether my memory of climbing upon a chair, then a dresser, to look through the transom between my bedroom and that of my parents was real or imagined. That transom was exactly as I remembered, and I saw in my mind’s eye and heard with my mind’s ear the fight that my parents were having, in whispers, that long-ago night at 185 Elk Street. It was not my first secret closet hidey place, But I think it was my last.
Mickey filmed my talking about when I lived there, and there will be a link to it on this website.
The Stairway at 185 Elk Street
185 Elk Street was a three-storied row house, built in 1895. We lived in “the Principal and Basement levels,” which meant the lowest level, half beneath ground, and the main floor above it. That main level was accessible from the high wooden stoop outside or from the door under the stoop that led to the basement hallway indoor staircase. That lowest flight of stairs from basement to principal floor wasn’t open, with a shiny banister and ceiling light fixture, as was the middle level staircase, the one that that led from the second floor to the third floor flat where the O’Callahans lived. The basement stairway was completely enclosed in dark, lacquered wainscoting to ensure against loss of heat. We did most of our living on the basement level, where the heat from the parlor stove and the kitchen stove kept us warm, gathered around either the kitchen table or the dining room table at the back half of the basement parlor. The parlor seemed big, with space for Gram’s rocker by the bay windows, a couch and side chair, a full dining room set, including a china closet, and a telephone table with a little seat attached.
When I think of that stairway to the second floor, I don’t remember light at all. I remember the dark! Once that door with its tight springs slammed shut behind you, all light and heat were gone until you got to the upstairs hall and pulled the string that hung from the ceiling fixture there, if you could find it. You waved your searching hand around, knocking the little metal bell-like thing at the bottom of the string in crazy arcs. The trick was to hold your hand quite still, moving ever so slowly under where you thought the string should be, feeling each empty space gingerly, until your fingers brushed against that little silver bell on the end of that string. Even when you moved ever so carefully, it still swung away from your hand at the slightest touch. A child had to stand on tiptoes to get near it. You learned to stand absolutely still, waiting for the bell with its string, magically connected to the saving grace of light, to come to its place of rest. You grabbed it. You breathed again. You exhaled into the miracle of forty watts.
Coming down the stairs was worse. You had to turn off the light at the top of the stairs and feel your way down, hands running along the wall’s two-inch tongue and groove slats, eyes on the strip of light shooting under the door at the foot of the stairs. A little kid’s legs can’t move fast enough, coming down those stairs. But, it was a race for life, to swing that door open and hear it slam behind you as you welcomed return to the glow and hiss of Gram’s basement parlor stove.
Gram and Mame and My Mother and Their Sisters
Gram, who was actually my great-grandmother, but who had claimed the title, “Gram,” so firmly that there was never a question about whether or not her daughter, Mary Genevieve, would ever inherit it. My own grandma was always called “Mame” by all of us, her grandchildren, and by everyone else who knew her. Sometimes, Gram would call her “Mamie,” to scold her. Gram was powerful, and took care of Mame, and just about anyone born into or married into her family. The house at 185 Elk was overrun by widowed husbands of her sisters, widowed sisters of her husband, daughters, granddaughters, great granddaughters, one and all. There were four actual bedrooms on the second floor, I believe, and a small spare room off the basement dining room in which I recall Aunt Lizzie stayed. She wore a red wig, and ate a lot of crackers. None of us, old or young, ever went to or called in a doctor. The old people just kind of wound down and were gone, without much fuss. By the time World War II came, and the men all went off to fight, and the women with kids came home to Gram, one remaining old aunt had to book a room with the O'Callahan family that lived on the top floor, because we were fully committed. After Gram died, right in the midst of the war, on St. Patrick’s Day, 1943, we let go of the “principal and basement” for which Gram had paid thirty dollars rent for more than thirty years, and we scattered. Mame began her itinerant phase, living with each of her children for a time, and then, moving on to another one, in a cycle she did not seem to mind. She never, as far as I remember, had a room of her own.
I did not know any of Gram's Donahue family, but remember conversations about them. The names became familiar. Ancestry research has filled in lots of gaps for me. Facts can be found on ancestry.com in my file: O’Hara Family Tree 2015-1. The only cousin of whom I was acquainted was Gram’s sister Delia’s daughter, Ann Myers Murphy, who was very close to our family. She was godmother to my sister, Maureen, and the most steady benefactor to her and my brother, Kevin, and to me. I have just been united with Ann’s grandson, and we will pursue the Donahue family history together, now.
The little I had gathered from censuses and cemetery records gave me a sketchy idea of Gram’s early life in Sheridan Hollow. Her parents, John and Ann Nolan Donahue, were both born somewhere in Ireland. Among their friends were John Kenny and Margaret Ward, who were godparents for Catherine’s Baptism at St. Mary’s Church on June 27, 1859. I believe DNA results for me include some people with “Kenny” in their lines, but have not made significant discoveries yet. The only other Donahue document I have is for Catherine’s marriage to Thomas Segrave, at St. Mary’s on November 14, 1877. Witnesses were Francis Elliot, born in Ireland, and Bella Savage. Elliot’s family may have been shoemakers, according to census records for 1860, 1870 and 1880, and they may have lived at 51 Hudson Avenue. I only include Elliot because he may have come from the same townland in Ireland as the Donahues, and might someday provide a clue for us.
Among the denizens of 185 Elk Street who Catherine Donahue Segrave welcomed, over the years, were her sister’s widower, Hugh Gillan, (who lived there before my time, around 1930) as well as her husband’s widowed sister, Lizzie Segrave Graham, who I do remember (late 1930’s, early 1940’s). The top flat of 185 was separate quarters from the Principal and Basement.
Mame suffered shock and loss in the space of a few weeks in 1909. Her first husband, Matthew Aloysius McMahon, a thirty-year-old produce pedddler with a fine horse and carriage and a burgeoning trade, died quickly of pthysis. Within weeks, Mame's 10-month-old son, Jack, (my mother's twin) succumbed to diptheria. The house that Matthew owned, built by his father at 90 Myrtle Avenue in the 1860's, was "lost to taxes." Gram took a flat on North Lark Street and rented out rooms to boarders to pay the rent. One of those boarders was a fellow named Edward Aloysius Heelan.
Mame married Edward Aloysius Heelan on June 10, 1913. He and Mame moved in with Gram at 185 Elk, Mame had two more kids, and was widowed again before she was 40. Mr. Heelan worked at the Keeler Hotel at the time of their devastating fire on June 17, 1919, and his lungs, apparently, were never the same after that. Gram helped Mame to raise the three McMahon and two Heelan children at 185 Elk. Gram was a cleaning lady at the D&H Building on Broadway; Mame cleaned at the Education building. They would walk down Elk Street at 4 o'clock in the morning, and finish their work before the people arrived at the offices for their day's work.
INSERT STORY ABOUT THE NIGHT MAME TOLD US ABOUT MR HEELAN
You Can't Call Them Secrets When They Appear in the Newspapers!
I’m not sure you could call what follows, here, a story. It’s more than a list, but I’m not sure where it starts nor where it should end, and I can’t find the middle at all. It’s about something that may have happened when my great grandmother was a girl in Sheridan Hollow. I only know the bits I’ve found in ancient newspapers and the memories I have of these Irish Donahue and Segrave girls when they had withered with age and were in their last, wrinkled years.
There had been a big uproar over the sister of my great-grandmother, Catherine Donahue’s, boyfriend, Thomas Segrave. His sister, Lizzie had been taken advantage of by the son of her employer. She was with child. Her brothers, William and Thomas, clumsily and unsuccessfully attempted to kill the accused during a couple of assaults, sometimes with guns and knives. It wound up in the papers, and the poor pregnant sister, Lizzie, was exposed for all the world to know! She subsequently sued the fellow for bastardy, and he was arrested, and released on bail. He was from a family of means and social standing. I’ve never found out what happened to Lizzie’s baby. She married late in life, but had no children. She's the Lizzie who lived in the bedroom off the basement dining room, and who was fond of crackers.
Well, then, you can imagine how reluctant my grandmother, Catherine, known affectionately as Kate or Katie, might have been to reveal to her own Donahue brothers that Thomas Segrave, her boyfriend, the guy who had a fit over his sister’s dilemma, had made Kate Donahue pregnant! She waited four months with the secret baby within. The two of them were nineteen, and both had been working since they were little more than children, bringing their wages home to Mother. It was November, 1877 when they were married at St. Mary’s. Mame was baptized there in April of 1878. A son, John, was born to them in 1884. Gram’s husband, Thomas J. Segrave, died in 1892, when his daughter, Mame, was about 14. Her little brother, John, died in 1896, aged 11, of “Exhaustion.” I have never been able to find out what that means.
Mame was taken under the wings of her uncle and his wife, John J. and Margaret M. Donahue, after her father died. Here are some items that relate to Mame’s life before her marriage to Matthew McMahon.
St. Mary’s Church, the site of many marriages, baptisms and funerals for the Donahue/Segrave Family, including my own First Holy Communion, when I was a Second Grade Student at St. Mary’s School, in 1942. They tied rags around the kitchen and bathroom faucets at 185 Elk Street the night before, to make sure I didn’t accidentally take a sip of water before Mass. That would have made me ineligible to get into the line with my classmates, all dressed in white.
Exerpt from Newspaper
Will Marry Tomorrow (c. October 9, 1890) (Mame’s Uncle Johnny).
John J. Donahue and Miss Margaret Brannigan will be married at St. Mary’s church tomorrow morning at 7 o’clock by the Rev. Father Dillon. After the wedding breakfast Mr and Mrs Donahue will leave on a southern trip and on their return will reside in this city. Mr. Donahue is one of the popular employees of Pike and Capron’s.
Here’s another baby in the christening gown. Not sure who it is. A Donahue? A Murphy? A Myers?
I had inherited a copy of this picture, but no one could say just who it was. I was quite sure it was not Gram, because I have a portrait of her from the same era. When Anne Myers Murphy’s son, George and his sister, Leslie, found us, they brought the original with them. We believe it has to be Anne’s mother, Gram’s younger sister, Delia Donahue Myers. Delia died when Ann was quite young.
Maureen and I, in Anne Murphy’s back yard on Second Avenue, with baby Leslie Murphy, 1946
Below is a portrait of Anne, as a young woman.
Anne and her granddaughter, Leslie.