In the 1840 census, 192 Pittston residents listed Ireland as their birthplace. The same search in 1850 counted 721 Irish-born Pittstonians. In 1860, there were 1,500. By 1870, more than 4,000 native Irish were living in Pittston — over half the city’s population of 7,500.
Today there are few native Irish living in the Greater Pittston area, but there are thousands of descendants of the Irish who emigrated here from 1840 to 1870. Jim McFarland, 70, who was born in Pittston and lives in Wyoming, is a good example. He took a DNA test through ancestry.com and it shows 91% Irish and 9% Scottish.
“He’s so Irish,” a friend once said, “his DNA is green.”
McFarland grew up on Lagrange Street in Pittston in the 1950s and early 60s, one of six kids of Mary A. and Joseph M. McFarland Sr.
“Irish heritage was important in the family,” he said. “We learned about our ancestry, history, Irish customs and traditions like Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Sunday family dinner, Irish music and folklore and of course superstitions like sweeping the dirt out the door after dark, having a person with dark hair walk through the house on New Year’s Day, not letting a bird fly all the way through the house.”
Today he’s a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians Division 1, Luzerne County and the Greater Pittston Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, where he is a past president. In the past he was a member of the Wilkes-Barre Donegal Society. In 2015, he was appointed to the advisory committee asked to create bylaws for the first Pittston City St. Patrick’s Parade Committee.
If those memberships don’t cement his Irish bona fides, consider the surnames he found in his family tree. McFarland has been digging into his roots since the 1990s.
“I started with family stories and history. On my father’s side was a family tree which helped a lot. Talking to older relatives gave me a good start. My mother had done a lot of research through the Mormon church files in Clarks Summit. The libraries were a great source of info by providing the online census and then came ancestry.com, which is a key to a lot of information.”
McFarland’s ancestors were among the half million Irish who immigrated to America during the potato famine in the 1840s. They all came through New York.
“The Gallaghers came from Donegal and wound up in Archibald,” he explained. “The Lavins came from Kerry and finally settled in Duryea. The Reddingtons and Coynes came from Mayo to Pittston, another Gallagher, no relation to the others, from Cork to Cork Lane.”
His maternal great-grandmother was a Reddington, the other a Coyne. His paternal great-grandmother was a Lavin. He was surprised to learn both his grandmothers were Gallaghers with very similar names. But Mary Loretta Gallagher and Maria Loretta Gallagher were not related to each other. One married a McLaughlin and one married Leo McFarlane.
“James MacFarlane married Elizabeth Monaghan,” McFarland said. “They were my great-grandparents. Notice the difference in spelling. They married in County Armagh in 1880 and came over in 1881, stopping in Wilkes-Barre and then settling on Cherry Street in Avoca. The only one I’m having trouble nailing down is my great-grandfather Thomas McLaughlin, but I’m working on it. He was killed in a mine accident and his wife remarried. He seemed to move around, so I’m not sure where exactly he was from. I know he is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in the Junction.”
Thomas McLaughlin was one of three ancestors killed in the mines. Thomas Gallagher and his brother James were killed in an explosion on Oct. 30, 1881 at the Number 7 Shaft of the Pennsylvania Coal company off Thompson Street in Sebastopol.
“Their bodies were unceremoniously left on the front porch on Railroad Street in Pittston,” McFarland said.
“Another ancestor, John Gallagher of Duryea, was a carpentry foreman in the shops and James MacFarlane, who was a shipbuilder, became a carpenter here. My grandfather had two brothers, they all spelled the last name differently — McFarland, MacFarland and MacFarlane. My great-grandfather never changed his spelling.”
McFarland said his family, as well as Irish-Americans at large, believe in keeping extended families close.
“Our cousins were our first best friends,” he explained. “We lived and prayed with our brothers and sisters and we would all get together for weddings, birthdays and funerals, which were all great parties.”
McFarland has never been back to the “Old Sod.” But never say never. “It’s on my bucket list.”
I smile at myself in the bathroom mirror whenever I snug up the half Windsor knot on my Harley Davidson tie. That tie is as out of place on me as a nose ring. And I know my students are going to call me on it. That’s why I smile. It means I get to tell them about Rob Sager.
Sager — we all called him by his last name, and he liked it that way — didn’t talk about motorcycles when he came into my life more than 20 years ago. We found out about that much later.
I was advising the student newspaper at the college at the time and Sager sent in an essay he had written for his English class. His teacher encouraged him to submit it. The title was “Cheaters Prosper in Developmental Math Class.” It was about the little short cuts, or means of “cheating,” his math teacher had taught him. The essay was delightful. And before long Sager became a journalism major.
We use the term “non-traditional” for students like Sager, the ones not right out of high school. Sager could have been 35 or 45, it was hard to tell. He looked down on his luck, but that was not the case. He was just, well, different. His hair was long and straggly and he didn’t give a hoot about what clothes he wore. But, darn, could he write.
That was just the half of it, however. Sager was brilliant, more fellow professor than student. He could talk in depth about most anything. That was borne of a lifetime of reading and a lifetime of experience. We eventually learned he’d already had a successful career as a professional photographer, shooting mostly for Ironhorse Magazine, a publication for motorcycle enthusiasts. It turned out Sager had taken a lot of photos of bikini-clad women sitting on Harleys, but told wide-eyed young male students they’d be surprised how quickly you grow tired of that. Which they found hard to believe.
Sager had run for a while with Hell’s Angels and had seen more than his share of guns and drugs. I found an old article online about Sager once telling a bunch of young martial arts students in New York City where to stand for a picture.
“Don’t get upset,” their instructor told them, “he even bosses Hell’s Angels around.”
Yet, for all of that, Sager had a boyish innocence. He’d somehow managed to remain an idealist, a guy who saw the good in everyone.
What brought Sager to Luzerne County Community College we never did find out. He didn’t say much, but every now and then he’d reveal a glimpse of his past. We learned he grew up in New Rochelle, an upscale suburb of New York City. And he had taken the daughter of actor Alan Alda (think Hawkeye in the TV show “M*A*S*H”) to his high school prom.
Everyone loved Sager, teachers and students alike. He had a way of taking care of everyone, whether with a kind word, a non-judgmental ear, half a sandwich, or a ride home.
Fellow teacher Michelle Leonard was particularly fond of him. Unlike me, Michelle was right at home on a Harley. She referred to herself as “Biker Chick.”
Sager had been diagnosed with cancer a few years before he came to the college. We did not know that until right after he graduated and took a turn for the worse. We emailed each other all summer. He professed to be an atheist, but still, I ended each email with, “I’m praying to the God you don’t believe in to comfort you.”
He allowed it.
That fall, Michelle called to say Sager was nearing the end. His aunt was taking care of him in a little house at Sylvan Lake and Sager had requested that I and another professor, Andy Petonak, visit him. We did, somehow finding our way on a black, blustery night.
Sager sat on the edge of his bed and talked and talked until he wore himself out. His aunt told us later he had insisted on leaving his oxygen off for our visit. He didn’t want us to know how bad he was doing.
Andy and I tucked him into bed and each kissed him on the forehead. It was the last time we saw him.
A few days after he died, Michelle came to my office with a gift. A Harley Davidson tie. “Wear it in honor of Sager,” she said.
I do. And when students notice, I tell them all about him. And encourage them to apply for the Rob Sager Scholarship, established in his honor. It’s an endowed scholarship which means that while I will not be at the college forever, the scholarship will. Along with Sager’s memory.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.