Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Sharing Some News and A Story About Grandpa

I haven't talked about this yet, because it's hard and it's not my story to share, but with permission here it goes...

My wonderful dad, 81 years young, was diagnosed with Pulmonary Fibrosis earlier this fall.  You can read more about the disease here.  Sadly, his brother, Tom, and my mom's brother, Jack, both died of this same disease a few years ago and although my dad doesn't have a specific prognosis yet, he has started needing oxygen and gets out of breath quickly just doing normal activities.  The doctors have put him on an immunosuppressant because his symptoms seems to be progressing quickly and they are hoping that maybe this can slow the progress.  Because of the immunosuppressant, neither he nor my mom are able to leave the house, for fear of catching any viruses, and visitors need to be masked and stay socially distanced.  Luckily, we live above my parents condo and can help them with errands and visit with them often.  My siblings all do likewise and it certainly shows the blessings of having a large family in times like these.  I'm sharing this to ask for prayers for my dad and also because I recalled an essay that JP had submitted last year for a college scholarship.  The essay was to be written about an Irish American Who Made a Difference and to be honest, we wrote it together because he didn't know the full story (I would have felt slightly guilty if he had won the scholarship but he didn't) so without further ado...the story of our favorite Irish American...

What My Irish-American Grandpa Has Taught Me

By: John-Paul Martin

My grandfather, John Sweeney, immigrated to America from Letterkenny, Donegal in 1960.  As he likes to tell the story, he had $50 in his pocket, hopes of a better future in his mind, and the love of a girl in his heart.  

John was born the twelfth child to Andrew and Jeannie Sweeney on July 9, 1940.  Andrew was a gardener and Jeannie stayed home to take care of all the children.  Money was always tight, food was simple, and personal space was scarce.  John grew up sharing a bed with three of his brothers and attended trade school in order to start working young.  When John was 17 he left Ireland and moved to Scotland hoping to apprentice with a ship building company but was unsuccessful.  Instead, he worked as a conductor on a double decker bus before moving back home where he was able to find work as a welder in a foundry.

One evening, John attended a dance and saw the most beautiful girl in the world, Maggie Kane.  Maggie’s parents had lived in Donegal, moved to America where she was born, and then back to Ireland.  Maggie had stayed in America to live with an Aunt and finish her schooling as a nurse.  She was back in Ireland to visit with her family for the summer.  John couldn’t take his eyes off of her and asked her to dance multiple times before she finally agreed.  He fell in love with Maggie but learned she was already spoken for, having an American fiancé back in Massachusetts.  Maggie returned home to her life, and John quickly decided he was going to move to America to start building homes with his brother Tom, who had already immigrated a few years earlier.

John and Tom Sweeney

Upon arrival in Boston, John went to live with his sponsor, who also happened to be Maggie’s Aunt and Uncle.  Very convenient for this smitten Irish boy trying to make it in America.  As one can imagine, the relationship between John and Maggie and her fiancé was complicated.  John and Maggie started out as a friendship but John made it clear he was interested in marrying her, and Maggie felt confused as she realized John was actually a better match for her than her fiancé.  Maggie eventually broke off the engagement and started dating John.  But true to her strong Irish pride, John had to propose marriage to Maggie three times before she finally accepted!  I’m thankful my grandpa John finally won her over because their love story produced a family of six children, and one of those children was my mom, Colleen.  

John and Maggie had to struggle to build a family on their own, but with John building houses and Maggie working as a nurse, they settled down in Norwood, MA and found a wonderful faithful Irish community.  Once their last child was born, they moved to Cape Cod so that John could build houses and Maggie opened up an ice cream shop.  Maggie’s Homemade Ice Cream became a little slice of Irish-American pride on the Cape.  The décor was heavy on the shamrocks and the color green, and for 20 years the shop employed Irish students who used to come to the Cape to find summer jobs when Ireland’s economy was struggling.  John made sure to reach out to his contacts in Ireland to offer jobs and housing to anyone who needed a summer job.  He even reconstructed a building behind the shop to create apartments where these Irish kids could live while they worked to save money before flying back home to Ireland in September.  My mom, along with her siblings, grew up working with wonderful Irish college students who would come back for multiple summers because my Irish-American grandparents made them feel at home.

John taught his children the value of hard work by his own example, and encouraged them all to invest in their education.  Because of this, all of his children went on to college and beyond, started their families and he now has 22 grandchildren with very Irish names!  The love for Ireland is apparent in everything my grandpa does.  He loves to tell stories of the “old country”, listens to the Irish radio on his Alexa, wears his Irish sweaters and caps with pride, loves the color green, and is strong in his Catholic faith.  Everybody who meets him loves hearing his Irish brogue and he puts it on a little thicker to make sure we all know he’s an Irish lad through and through.  Something I really admire about my grandpa is that even though his Irish roots are loud and proud, he fully integrated them into his life as an American.  When he immigrated at nineteen, he joined the American Army and became a sharp shooter to defend his new country.  He is forever grateful to the opportunities that America opened up for him as a young Irish kid, and makes sure we share that same gratitude.  America gave a hardworking kid a life that Ireland couldn’t at the time, so he is very proud to call himself an Irish-American.

My grandpa, John Sweeney, has been a true inspiration to me for my life, but especially now as I stand on the brink of leaving home for college.  I often think what he must have felt when he left his family, his country, his life behind for the hope of a better one.  Suddenly going to college 12 hours away from home doesn’t seem as daunting.  With the faith he has passed down to me, I know I can trust that God provides for those who work hard, are thankful, and treat others well.  He built a life as a builder, and I want to build a life in the medical field, but with my grandpa’s example in my mind, I feel confident that I can be an Irish-American who makes a difference in this world too. 

John and Maggie Sweeney, happily married for 55 years


  1. What a beautiful story! His love for his family just shines through your words! Many prayers for all of you!

  2. So many prayers as you navigate all the next steps. What a man your father is!

  3. I feel as if I know your father after reading this! I absolutely love your parents’ story, and your son told it so well. What an amazing example your parents are for you and your kids. And they are such a cute couple! 💚☘️

    We will keep your dad and all of you in our prayers.

  4. Prayers for your father. I'm so glad you are near by to help your parents.

  5. Love this story! Sending prayers for his health & for your family. Also love that your parents started out in Norwood! That’s where I live!

  6. Love this story! Sending prayers for his health & for your family. Also love that your parents started out in Norwood! That’s where I live!

  7. What a wonderful story. I just love it. My dad is also 81, he isn't from Ireland. His grandparents were. My dad has had leukemia for years. He and my mom have to be very careful. They've done very little during the pandemic. It is sad. We won't gather for Christmas as a family, but we can walk to my folks' house and we will probably go over and stand on their patio to chat until we get cold.

    I will remember your dad in my prayers, so sorry that he is sick. How great that you've helped JP record this story for posterity.


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