Occasionally, a phenomenon is so grand and so endearing to so many people that it takes on a life all its own and grows and grows with the passage of time. The tradition of the “Southside Irish” is such a phenomenon. As that tradition has been passed down from generation to generation and has moved further and further away from its origins it has not lost a bit of its energy or lustre. On the contrary, the pride of being part of that tradition seems to have increased with every new generation. The origins of that tradition lie in the 19th century migration of hundreds of thousands of poor emigrant Irish to the area south of Chicago’s loop. There they built their homes and churches and stores and worked as butchers and cops and tavern owners. Compared to what they had in the old country, Chicago was heaven and they appreciated what they had and celebrated it with abandon. It is for that appreciation and celebration of life’s good fortune that they became known, and it is what to this day, marks the Southside Irish.
Ann Finnerty had this Irish in her. Born to immigrant parents, she had learned the value of life early on when her loving father had passed away all too young. Everyday thereafter, Ann would see life for the gift it was and it made her the sweet happy person that she was. The “HMS Majestic” had brought Tom Burke to the shores of America on October 5th 1901. He had arrived with a total of $6 in his pocket. But armed with that and his own sharp mind he started a new life for himself. And as his fortunes grew in the coming years, Tom also grew into the thoughtful, mellow person that so many would know and love.
It was in 1913 that these two kindred spirits met. The occasion was at a burial at Mt. Olivet Cemetery. After the solemn occasion, there was a gathering across the road at Sullivan’s, where as was the Irish way, the family and friends had gone to lift their spirits. Surprisingly, Tom and Ann’s chance meeting at this affair would lead to courtship and marriage within a very few months. Something told them it was right and so, on June 17th 1913, they took their vows at St. Columbanus Church and moved into an apartment in the parish. There they would remain for the next 30 years.
The turmoil the world saw in those years was remarkable and frightening. It was a period of war and depression on a global scale. But this good couple, buoyed by strong tradition and faith, held course. They raised their children with optimism, knowing that somehow they would get through those difficult times.
By the time those turbulent years had passed Tom and Ann had much to be proud of and much to be thankful for. They had given all four of their children fine educations. All three of their sons had served their country during WW2 and fortunately survived. And perhaps their proudest moment had come when their daughter, Eileen, became a nun in 1935. Sixty years later she would still be serving her order in that same cheerful spirit she had learned from her parents so long ago.
During the 1940s Tom and Ann moved to a home in St Felicitas Parish. There they would live on to dote over their many grandchildren leaving them with wonderful memories of family parties with cousins, carving lamb dinners at Easter, hot chocolate on cold winter days, the smell of a fine cigar and funny little things said like “if I’d known you were coming, I’d have baked a cake”. They were a grand couple and everyone who ever knew them would remember Tom and Ann fondly.
At a seventy five year reunion at St. Felicitas, a middle-aged woman told me about the great generosity and love she had known as a child from the old couple, the Burkes, who were her neighbours across the street on 86th place. Her telling me this brought back to my mind a flood of fond memories. That’s the kind of people Tom and Ann were. You felt their kindness and good nature and it stayed with you forever.