Born on the Fourth of July

By on July 10, 2018


by Tom Finan, Executive Director, Construction Forum STL 

I’ve just spent a week in Ireland with my family. While there, I connected with distant relatives and developed a deeper understanding of the reasons that my family came to St. Louis in the mid-19th Century. Along the way I was afforded object lessons in the forces that will shape the world and St. Louis going forward.

Rachel, Tom, and Bobby Finan

I worked for a newspaper in Ireland while I was  in college in the ’70s. I later returned there a couple times over 40 years. My wife Kathi and my daughter Rachel had not visited before. Rachel, 14, was adamant that she wanted to connect with relatives on this trip. Through a distant U.S. family  member I connected with fourth cousin Bobby (Peter) Finan, who also brought together his brother Basil and another fourth cousin Dick.

Great, great grandfather John Finan, center. My grandfather, Thomas, is to his right.

We visited the home that my great great grandfather John Finan had left when he immigrated to St. Louis, from Behy near Ballintober County Roscommon, Ireland in 1859. John was one of five Finan brothers raised in a mud-walled, thatched cottage on a tiny lane in the middle of hayfields. The Irish only held leaseholds on their home and land then, which was part of a British landhold. A Finan would not have title to the house and land until 1909.

When John left it was just after the mid-19th century potato crop failure and subsequent famine. During that period people lay dying in the roads of famine, while the British land owners continued to export grain and cattle. Today the house is part of a storage barn. Nearby is a larger home that was once owned by the British landholder, which is being restored by fifth-generation Finan.

A two-story, 100 ft. X 100 ft.  addition to the cottage is where Bobby and his six siblings spent part of their childhood. While I and my six siblings were raised in suburban St. Louis, the Behy Finans were growing their own food, living in one floor of a house (grandmother lived downstairs) with no running water, plumbing , or telephone. Heating and cooking fuel was done an open fire using  “turf” (blocks of peat). Still, they did very well, thank you.

Bobby and his brother perfected an idea their father, a carpenter, had conceived but had not brought to fruition to build a machine to compress excavated peat into bricks. The brothers built an incredibly successful manufacturing business. Today Bobby and Basil repair turf machinery in a shop on the grounds of the home Bobby built with his own hands. Retirement doesn’t appear to appeal to anyone in the family.  Bobby also collects and rebuilds antique British and American cars, the latest a bright red ’30s Mercedes sportster. Brothers, cousins, and kids all live within spitting distance of one another.

Bobby’s son Cian, a policeman, and family with one of Bobby’s cars, a vintage Buick.

We gathered at Bobby’s dining table until midnight, talking about family history and connecting. Yet another cousin, PJ (Patrick), who I connected with through Facebook, was unable to come to Bobby’s that night. He called me the next morning and let me know that he  was delivering a load to Roscommon with the building supplies truck he drives for yet another Finan. He asked if we could meet him. We held an abbreviated family reunion at a traffic circle.

Same Issues Everywhere

After leaving Roscommon we celebrated our Fourth of July in Dublin. Sitting at a Starbucks in an office building near St. Stephens Green late in the day, we could see, through a glass wall to the building’s center courtyard, where a large group of U.S. expats were holding their Fourth celebration. That night Kathi had the hamburger that the hotel had added to the menu as a special in honor of the occasion.

Rachel with cousins Dick, Basil, and Bobby (Peter) Finan.

That morning the Irish Independent newspaper carried a sponsored section in cooperation with the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland.  Ireland has a vibrant economy, a highly educated workforce, and strong connections to the U.S. and American companies. The stories in the special section illustrated that the issues facing tomorrow’s workforce are the same everywhere: collaboration to solve social issues, concerns about the impact of AI, diversity and inclusion.

The Irish, like many of their European brethren, seem to be scads ahead of us in the area of workforce development.  We learned from Bobby’s wife Marie that all Irish students are judged college-bound (or not) based on points earned during secondary school. In the third year of secondary school many students have a “transition year” where instead of classes they try on a career and work on life skills.(click for white paper explaining the transition year program) Apprenticeships are common, even in professions.

Tone Deaf Celebration

After celebrating our Irish Fourth of July in Ireland,  I read online in STL Today of our region’s  tone deaf ribbon-cutting celebration of a $380 million renovation of the Arch Grounds, where 15 white people stood in a row, rededicating the symbol of our region. At a second, “inclusive” ribbon cutting, my friend and colleague Vin Ko, board member of the Asian American Chamber of Commerce and senior program manager of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership|World Trade Center Mosaic Project, spoke of his family’s immigration to the region, and of what it felt like to always be questioned regarding his identity, despite being raised here. Vin said that the Arch is a symbol of our unity as a region, and that inclusiveness is our hope for the future.

Reading a book that I bought at the Irish Writers Museum in Dublin and thinking about what was going on back home, I was reminded of the long-ago “Know Nothing” party in America. Founded in the 1840s  in response to Irish and German Catholic immigration, it was one of a number of xenophobic secret societies of that era. Its strongest appeal was to working classes who felt threatened by immigration.

It later became a political party, first called the “Native American” and then simply the “American” Party. The party was popularly called “Know Nothings” because that is what its members were supposed to say when asked about it. (“I know nothing.”) As it spread across the country riots, in which people were killed and churches burned, followed. A San Francisco chapter was formed to fight Chinese immigration.  Many were appalled by the Know Nothings. Abraham Lincoln expressed his own disgust with the political party in a private letter written August 24, 1855.

“I am not a Know-Nothing – that is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equals, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

Bottom-Up Change

The morning of July 5th I  also found an opinion piece by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times,  “Where American Politics Can Still Work: From the Bottom Up Civic coalitions are succeeding at revitalizing old towns where governmental efforts have failed.” (click here for link)

Among the things Friedman references are:

• Building coalitions of common interest

• Bringing in best practices and ideas from elsewhere

• A welcoming atmosphere for immigrants

• The United Way taking a leadership role in focusing on coalition-building in key impact areas

Immigrating Out of St. Louis

In traveling through Toronto Canada and spending time in Dublin and in rural Ireland, daughter Rachel was struck by the vibrancy and diversity of the communities, and by thoughtful approaches to such issues as recycling and transportation. Landing in St. Louis and walking through a desolate airport compared to those we had just passed through in Dublin and Newark, she remarked to me that St. Louis has its vibrant areas, but  only in pockets. She is underwhelmed by the homogeneity and complacency of much of the region and frustrated by our aversion to change.

If I were a betting man, I’d say that Rachel, who is an insightful scholar and a great athlete, will join her cousins who have immigrated out of this region. Because she is my daughter I want the best for her. But I also know that her leaving would be our loss.

I hope you and your families had a great Fourth. I know that our family’s opportunity to spend the Fourth in the country of our origins was extremely meaningful.

I’m was happy to return to the home John Finan immigrated to from Behy 159 years ago. I look forward to continuing to work with you to make a better St. Louis region.

About Tom Finan