I thought of an immigrant girl named Annie Devlin as I drove May 4 on Sunrise toward 75 Main to eat a delicious salmon BLT before a screening of a Hamptons Doc Fest film put on by the Long Island Press Club at the wonderful Southampton Arts Center.
Maybe it was the nagging rain that reminded me of Annie Devlin of Belfast, Northern Ireland, where the sun rarely shines.
I thought about how Annie Devlin, at age 19, crossed the Atlantic Ocean in steerage class aboard the SS Cameronia II and arrived in New York on October 29, 1929, Black Tuesday, the day the stock market crashed, triggering the Great Depression.
But this was still America, land of the free.
A land free of the sectarian violence and discrimination Annie Devlin had suffered as a Catholic schoolgirl in predominantly Protestant Belfast still under British rule.
Annie had lived in Brooklyn before with her parents Peter and Catherine Devlin, and older brother, Maurice. Her father was a shipping engineer, earning a fine wage until May 31, 1916 when he lost his footing walking from one ship’s gangplank to another in Robin’s Dry Dock in Red Hook, falling between the two ships, his heading smashing into an anchor.
He was pronounced dead that night in Holy Family Hospital. Gone at 38.
Without a breadwinner and with two young children to raise, Catherine Devlin moved back to Belfast, toiling as a seamstress, always dreaming of one day returning to America.
Annie Devlin’s daughter Kathleen would many years later do a wonderful interview with her mother detailing her school days of sectarian bigotry in Belfast. Her first school was burned down by Protestants. Then she went to a new school in a predominantly Protestant area.
“Before it got burned it started to become so vicious,” Annie said. “The Protestants would beat the Catholics up. My mother warned me to go on a different street each day. She said, ‘If they stop you, give ‘em a kick in the shins and run.’ What she meant was kick them in the, well, you-know-whats.” She laughed. “Sure enough, one day, I was stopped by five Protestant boys, about 12 or 13. Only I wouldn’t say, ‘To hell with the Pope,’ like they wanted me to. Instead, I gave one a kick in his, um, ‘shin,’ and I ran like hell half a block, turned around, and said, ‘To hell with your king!’”
Sectarianism grew progressively worse for Annie and her Catholic schoolmates in Belfast. “Eventually we had to be taken to school by what they called a ‘caged car.’ It was an armored car with a cage over the top of it.”
Rioting began in 1920 when the Catholics could not find work. When Catholics were pelted with rocks, they retaliated by setting Protestant businesses and homes ablaze.
In 1926, Annie Devlin’s mother applied to the American embassy for immigration visas. While waiting, Annie’s mother died of rheumatic fever that triggered a stroke. In 1929 when the visas were granted, Annie sold the family piano and sailed alone on the Cameronia II for New York.
Last week, as I sat in the packed screening room watching the HBO documentary “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists,” I realized it had some of its roots sprouting from Annie Devlin who arrived in New York 90 years earlier. Back then, Annie didn’t know that there was a Belfast immigrant already living in Brooklyn named Billy Hamill, who was 26 and had lost his left leg the year earlier after a tragic soccer accident.
Those two would eventually meet and marry, and their first son would be named Peter, named after Annie’s father, who had died on the Brooklyn docks. That baby would grow up to be the Pete Hamill in the documentary, a dear pal of fellow newspaper legend Jimmy Breslin.
Pete’s also my big brother, the eldest of seven American-born children of Annie and Billy Hamill.
The Friday before the screening I drove Pete two miles from his Brooklyn home to Hamilton Metz Park — formerly known as Commercial Field — in Crown Heights to walk across the soccer field where our father last walked on two good legs on March 25, 1928 when he was playing for St. Mary’s semi-pro immigrant soccer team against another immigrant team called Hakoah. In the fierce game, my father was blindsided with a ferocious slide tackle that broke his left leg, bone piercing flesh.
As we walked in the final footsteps of my father’s two good legs, we were both stirred with emotion. We talked quietly in the stubborn drizzle about how different Billy Hamill’s life might have been had he not sat there on the sidelines by the granite grandstands, endlessly awaiting an ambulance from Kings County Hospital a mere five city blocks away. It didn’t arrive until sepsis had set in, before the discovery of penicillin, and required that the left leg of this young athlete filled with hope and dreams be sawed off three inches above the knee.
“He might never have met Mom,” Pete said, sighing and waving his writer’s hand across the rainy field. “Dad might not have been at that Irish dance at Prospect Hall where Mom approached him and asked if he’d like to dance. To which he said, ‘Sorry, I can’t dance.’ To which Mom said, ‘Och, neither can I but let’s do the best we can.’”
And they sure did.
If Billy Hamill had not lost his leg on that anonymous soccer pitch where two of his sons stood 91 years later in the heart of working-class Brooklyn, Annie Devlin might never have led the young Belfast fella with the wooden leg onto the dance floor. She might not have later waltzed him up the aisle of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church where they became husband and wife, and parents of an Irish Catholic tribe of kids.
The eldest of which was up there on the screen in the Southampton Arts Center talking about how everything he accomplished in life started with his mother Annie Devlin who encouraged him to read, read, read.
As I drove home from the screening in the tireless rain I remembered that the following Sunday would be Mother’s Day.
There was no real need to remember because my family is no different than most American families, where if you have any human decency, you honor the woman who gave you life on a daily basis, because every day is Mother’s Day.
But I did take the time to thank Annie Devlin Hamill for selling that piano and coming to America and asking my father to dance and together for doing the best they could.