Dear Switchback fans,
As a little kid growing up in Woodstock, I viewed my Grandpa Luke Patrick McCormack as sort of an exotic figure.
First of all, he was a very quiet man. He had deep set, dark eyes crowned with bushy dark eyebrows offset wonderfully by his white hair. His thick brogue stood in stark contrast with the nasal Midwestern twang of his grandchildren. His hands were big farmer's hands, though he lived most of his adult life in Chicago. Grandpa’s life was one of adventure, though talking to him never gave a clue that he took a leap of faith that would forever change his life.
When he was about 19, Grandpa left Ireland. The story was a familiar one: the farm was going to the eldest brother and he would basically be working for him there, providing for the dowry of his sisters, with no land or future of his own. Grandpa left behind the farm, the horses, his parents, and a way of life that had changed little in over 500 years.
He chose to do what a lot of Irish did: leave for America. Ireland at the time was part of Britain, and so, leaving Ireland was also leaving the war in Europe. Britain needed recruits and the Irish made for good soldiers. Grandpa clearly did not opt to serve in British uniform.
After arriving in New York, he set out for Chicago and did some odd jobs there for a time. He did a stint as an elevator operator. He volunteered to serve in the US Army, which was mobilizing; the ugly European war followed Grandpa to America. He enlisted in the Army at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri on July 26, 1917.
The earliest pictures we have of Grandpa are from 1917, with him dressed in a doughboy’s uniform. Joining the army must have been a momentous decision for Grandpa, because he pledged to lay his life down for a country he barely knew. On Grandpa’s military portrait card, his regiment/company number of the 9th Division (Regular Army) at Camp Sheridan, Alabama is visible on his collar. (My cousin Ray McCormack also found out that the great writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, was part of the 9th and met his future wife, Zelda Sayre, at Camp Sheridan). Grandpa spent the war far from Ireland in the Deep South, which must have been bewildering with the heat of the summer, marching in a scratchy uniform. Did he embrace his new life? Did he miss Ireland?
The papers recording his honorable discharge give a little insight into Grandpa: he was never absent without leave (AWOL) and was “Excellent” in his character. He was a sergeant at the time he was mustered out. I got a chuckle when I saw the signature of the Captain who signed his papers “Robert E. Lee” of the 19th US Infantry at Camp Grant, Illinois.
Headquarters, Camp Grant, Illinois
April 25, 1919.
Soldiers of the United States Army, Camp Grant, Ill.,
The Army is being demobilized; you are returning to your homes and vocations of peace. If the soldiers of the American Army take up their duties as citizens, with the same zeal and devotion to duty which has characterized their military career, a bright future is assured for our nation.
You have not only contributed your share toward the winning of this war, but have built, at home, the physical and spiritual fortifications which will stand as long as you live. The sacrifice you have made in the defense of our institutions and the cause of LIBERTY shall be an enduring monument and a guide-post for future generations, to remind them of your noble deeds, and inspire them with the same spirit of patriotism, loyalty, self-sacrifice and love for Our Country. I wish you, one and all, God Speed.
W. A. Holbrook, Commanding Genera
At the war’s end, the country rewarded him with citizenship and $60 in discharge pay. Grandpa returned to Chicago to find his “vocation of peace.” First, he served the Chicago Fire Department and then became a Chicago policeman.
Grandpa made an excellent policeman. But it certainly wasn’t a “vocation of peace.” It seems that Grandpa experienced more violence and danger on the streets of Chicago than he did while in the US Army.
He would tell us stories of close calls, like the time he was chasing a burglar up some stairs. The man turned, pointed a gun at him and fired. The gun jammed; Grandpa nabbed the thief and kept his life. Then there was the time Grandpa, riding in the sidecar of a police motorcycle, went through a plate glass store window. Other stories came out later, the ones Grandpa did not tell, like when he was so beaten by National Tea strikers that his uncle did not recognize him in the hospital.
While those stories of bravery and sheer luck (and its opposite) were thrilling to us kids, it was the stories of Ireland that truly captivated us. Grandpa would talk about his youth in Ireland, creating the beds for potatoes, raising horses, and the farm, Bolinree, that was run by his brother, Martin.
Grandpa returned to Ireland twice in his life. There is a picture of Grandpa over in Ireland, working the fields with Martin. It is poignant picture for me in that it is the only picture I know of in which I see my grandfather relaxed and smiling.
Later, Grandpa brought his wife, Cecelia, over to see the family farm and visit. Considering that one took an ocean liner in those days (considered by a many a luxury for those times) meant that Grandpa still loved and missed Ireland and his family.
As Grandpa got older, he talked bit more about Ireland. He would visit our house and we would hold hands with him and dance the Irish jig. All ten of us kids, flanking him on each side in the living room.
In many ways, Grandpa became the embodiment of Ireland for me. And that desire to connect with that element, melancholy as it was, was something that drew me into Irish music and to connect with Ireland itself. One of the greatest pleasures was to be able to visit my cousins in Mayo and walk the very same land that my Grandfather walked, to hear the family stories he heard and to catch another glimpse of him. Perhaps part of that desire to connect was my own curiosity over Grandpa’s decision to leave and that the result of his decision was my own existence. At 19, Grandpa was leaving Ireland for a life of adventure and change. At 19, I was deciding if I was going to work the shift at McDonald’s.
I will always treasure the night that I was asked to sing at the Woodstock Opera House for its very first “Irish Night.” I was 12 at the time and the house was packed. The Moran family, a local Irish group, were entertaining, along with some others. At the last minute, I was asked to get up and sing for the audience. I had gone over there with Grandpa and my folks. They sat in the audience and I headed out on stage to sing “Danny Boy.” The emcee asked for the house lights to be brought up. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a real Irishman in our midst,” he said. “Martin McCormack’s grandfather, Luke Patrick McCormack, is from County Mayo, Ireland. Will he please stand?”
And there, with the audience applauding, stood Grandpa. As usual, he did not betray much emotion, or even smile. Just raised his hand to acknowledge that he was the "real Irishman” in the room. And I sang "Danny Boy" for him.
I still travel to Ireland, I still am looking for my grandfather after all these years.
American Roots & Celtic Soul