top of page

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to my Irish immigrant Grandparents: Katie Brady, Patrick Finley, Mary Norris

Patrick Finley and Mary Norris Finley, about 1930 My maternal grandparents

Katie Brady Conrad, in Lilly, Pa. in the 1930s Katie Brady was eight-years-old when she traveled from Ireland to the United States to live with her uncle, Father Philip Brady, in Lilly, Pa. in 1881. Patrick Finley was about 19 when he came to America in 1889, and Mary Norris was about 17 when she came to the U.S. in the same year. On this St. Patrick’s Day more than a century after they came to this country, I remember them fondly, though I never knew them well — or at all. I wish that I had known them better. Here is a sidebar that I wrote about Katie Brady for Johnstown Magazine in 2014, Katie Brady was excited when her uncle contacted her with a great gift: an opportunity to leave Edgartown, Ireland, and journey to America. The 8-year old received the offer from Father Philip Brady, her uncle who was then assistant pastor of St. Brigid's Church in Lilly, Pa. In 1880 she left Ireland to receive an education in the United States. Katie entered Mount Aloysius Academy in Loretto that year and completed her education there, fulfilling her dream. Katie was leaving a country in which religious intolerance had created serious divisions. However, she could never have envisioned that 44 years later, she would lose a child because of that same intolerance. Unfortunately, Katie had experienced some difficult times in America prior to 1924. She became a widow with six children in 1915 with the unexpected death of her husband, Charles. Nine years later, Katie was faced with a mother's worst fear: burying a child. Phil Conrad, her second child, was killed by the K.K.K. in 1924 after a demonstration in Lilly. He was not directly involved in the riot that followed, but was one of three people killed in a skirmish at the end of the demonstration. The emotional toll of his death was difficult on her. “It just devastated Mother,” Helen Conrad, the youngest of the family, recalled in 1994. “She walked to daily mass after that, and I think that she just wore herself down. She came out of it with high blood pressure.” I started to research this event after my father, Hugh B. Conrad, Sr., passed away in 1989, giving us little of his knowledge of that night. Irish-Catholics are notorious for suppressing emotions, and that was apparently the case with my father and his family. My interview with Helen Conrad explained why some of that occurred. “I'll tell you why your father was afraid to talk about (the events). He was scared to death. There were reporters everywhere, all over the place the next day … he didn't want any reporters or police quizzing him because he would have to tell them what he knew. He saw so much that night,” she said. As young children, we were told by our mother to never even broach the topic of the KKK riot to our father. We followed that dictate. In his later years, he would talk about the riot, but always in rather generic terms. We never know how he really felt. One of the problematic stories from the family was how Phil died. The family lore posited that he was hit by a stray bullet. “Phil was back of the crowd, in front of the jewelry store. He had on a light coat. So even though it was dark, they could have seen him,” Helen Conrad said. “But I don't know if they shot at anybody. They just shot into the crowd.” As a result, I followed the Conrad meme that he was hit by a stray bullet– until I started researching this event. A number of individuals who were present that night told me that they knew who had killed my uncle. One said that it had to do with a girl. They gave me the name of the man who killed my uncle, and they said that he resided in Portage and was one of the defendants in the trial in June. Did my dad know about this? He worked as a mail carrier in Portage for 40 years. My father was like his mother, a person who arose at 6:30 a.m. each morning to attend mass at St. Brigid's Church. He never talked much about his faith, although he would kneel down with us each night to say our prayers when we were children. In Lent, that would also include saying a rosary. He led by example. A few years ago, I was contacted by a woman who said that Phil Conrad was her grandfather. His name was on the birth certificate of her father. Was this tied to that story? I still have no idea, but maybe the old timers who told me that they knew who killed my father were correct. What I do know is that the event had a deleterious effect on our family. In a poem I wrote more than a decade ago, “The Rage of Needles,” I tackled my quandary about how that night impacted our family: And while He listened, their painful journey altered the footprints for future generations who also struggled as children, seeking to comprehend the message from that night. Katie passed away in 1940, a little less than seven years before I was born. I wish that I had known her, but she was 67 at the time. Patrick and Mary (Norris) Finley I do remember both Patrick and Mary Finley, my maternal grandparents. My grandfather used to take me to the fire station in downtown Harrisburg and let me sit on the trucks. I remember jumping up and down on my grandmother’s bed when I was little. However, what I do not remember is much about their lives in Ireland and in America. I have so many questions that I would love to have asked them if I was older and could think of such things. Still, on this day, I thank my grandparents for having the courage to leave Ireland and forge a life here in America. They gave me that heritage, and I am grateful for that.

60 views0 comments


bottom of page