Museum would frame stories of our ancestry

May 13, 2001|By Michael Olesker

HIS NAME was John Joseph "The Nailer" Ryan, and he left the Irish town of Tuam, in County Galway, that summer of 1908, slightly on the lam from the cops, and landed in a place called Locust Point in Baltimore.

"Where can a man get a job?" he asked the first American he saw. The American noticed the accent and naturally directed him to the B&O Railroad on Pratt Street, which is where so many of the Irish were pigeonholed back then.

At the railroad yard, he saw a sign: "Wanted, Boilermaker." Of boilermakers, Ryan knew precisely nothing. Of bluff, he knew everything.

"You know about boilermakers?" a foreman asked.

"Know about 'em?" said Ryan, utterly clueless about the boilers that helped make the steam that powered the engines on the old locomotives. "I was the best boilermaker in all of County Galway."

"You can start here tomorrow," the foreman said.

"And that," Michael Francis Ryan Jr., grandson of John Joseph "The Nailer" Ryan, was saying last week, "was how my family got its start here. When my grandfather showed up the next day, the foreman found out he didn't know a thing about being a boilermaker. But the foreman was Irish, too. And he must have taught him something, because my grandfather spent the next 30 years working for the railroad."

The tale is a small family treasure, passed along for merely 93 years, and emerges now because of the thing Ron Zimmerman talked about in this space last Sunday. Zimmerman, 73, is the South Baltimore real estate agent who's trying to put together a Baltimore version of Ellis Island, a museum of immigration reflecting the thousands who arrived here during the last century at the shipping piers of Locust Point.

At week's end, Zimmerman was raving about the reaction to last Sunday's piece about the museum plans: phone calls, people stopping him on the street, and a meeting with a local developer.

And there were letters to Zimmerman, including one from Mike Ryan. He remembered family tales. Ryan, a former city cop and investigator for the state's attorney's office, is now an investigator for the police civilian review board.

Ironically, he says, his grandfather came here for reasons relating to police - and to his nickname, "The Nailer." The grandfather was a teacher and, as a sideline during that time of British oppression, a poacher of rabbits and pigs. He left Ireland with the police a few steps behind him.

"These are the stories I've heard since I was a kid," Ryan said. "And I read about the immigration museum plans last week, and it set off all these memories of things I was told."

His grandfather met a girl here, who became Ryan's Grandma Delia. She, too, was from County Galway and arrived at Locust Point. They settled on Payson Street and produced nine children. One of them was Mike Ryan's father, about whom one fact is most revealing: He had no interest whatsoever in Ireland, or in his family's roots.

It is the familiar pattern: The new immigrants hold onto the old stories, and the old traditions, while reaching tentatively for the new world's ways. The second generation wants the full America. But their children want to back up a little, and find out how things got started.

It is that impulse that pushed Zimmerman to spend the last six years trying to start the museum here. Everybody who hears about it expresses great enthusiasm, a desire to know more about their own history, and Baltimore's. But in six years, beyond some architect's drawings, nothing much has happened to the initiative.

When Mike Ryan wrote to Zimmerman, he offered the most heartfelt assistance he could. Ryan belongs to a singing group, the Irishman's Chorale. They sing at ethnic festivals, churches, retirement centers. Last month, they sang the national anthem before an Orioles game. Ryan offered to put the choral group to work in any way possible.

"My interest in my own roots," Ryan was saying now, "came from an old family friend named Tom Feeney. One night he took my fiancee Kathleen and me to the Gandy Dancer, at Carey and McHenry. And there was all this traditional Irish singing and dancing, which I'd never seen. And he's introducing us to people, and it feels like family.

"And everybody's dancing but us, because we don't know the steps. And Feeney comes over and says, `Listen, Michael, when the music's like this, there's only two things to do. You get up and dance, or you go burn a British bus.'"

Fortunately, he learned to dance. Also, he and Kathleen got married and honeymooned in Ireland. They found the farm where Ryan's grandfather, The Nailer, had lived. The Ryans still own it, and Mike had written them to say he was coming.

"This little guy opens the front door," Ryan said now, voice lapsing into an Irish brogue. "It was my grandfather's nephew. He pulls me into him and throw his arms around me and kisses me on both cheeks. I could feel the tears on his face. And he says, `By Jesus, you'll not say a word. I know you're me Ryan.'"

Later, his cousin took him around the farm and pointed to a tree.

"Look up there," he said. "You see that nail up there? Your grandfather hammered it there. That's where he'd nail all the rabbits and the pigs. So that, when the police came, they'd search everywhere but never think to look up there."

And a name was born - The Nailer - which survived a trip across an ocean, to a place called Baltimore, where such tales, and such people, might yet find a home before all memory fades.

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