The extraordinary life of a woman from Belfast’s Short Strand and who arrived in the United States
on the day of the Wall Street crash has been lovingly documented by her family in a
“Anne Devlin Hamill – An Irish-American Odyssey,” is a meticulously researched family tribute to a formidable woman who decided to travel to America on her own in order to make a new life for herself.
It documents her life, and that of her offspring and extended family through an extensive collection of family photos, old letters, mementos, documents, newspaper clippings, interviews, intricate family tree diagrams and written
memories of a much loved Irish-American matriarch.
Much of the book is based on taped conversations between Anne and her only daughter, Kathleen, conducted when Anne was experiencing the onset of Parkinson’s disease in 1989. She would eventually die from the illness in 1998 at the
age of 87.
The full transcript of these interviews have been published in a supplementary book entitled “Anne Devlin Hamill – Belfast’s Gift to America.”
Anne, who was born to Peter and Kathleen Devlin in Madrid Street in 1910 in the shadow of the Harland & Wolff shipyard where Titanic was being built, had initially moved to America with her parents and older brother Maurice at the age of four.
Her father secured work as a shipyard engineer almost immediately; however, he was to die prematurely in a
workplace accident, prompting Kathleen Devlin to take her young children back to Belfast in 1916, the year of the Easter Rising.
She would remain in the Short Strand for a further 13 years during a period of heavy sectarian turmoil in Belfast in the aftermath of the Rising itself and the subsequent War of Independence.
Short Strand bore the brunt of this sectarianism as it was the only Catholic enclave in the deeply Protestant and deeply pro-union East Belfast.
After the death of her mother in 1928, Anne sold the family piano and booked a ticket back to America. She arrived in New York on October 29, 1929 – “Black Tuesday” – the very day of the collapse of the New York stock market which prompted the years of poverty and upheaval that was the Great Depression.
She stayed with her uncle Tommy McClelland who sponsored her immigration and found work immediately for her in Wanamaker’s department store. However, the effects of the Great Depression meant that Anne was soon laid off, though she found work as a domestic aid for a well-to-do Brooklyn family.
Anne would meet her husband William ‘Billy’ Hamill at an Irish dance hall in Brooklyn.
Billy himself was a Belfast native, hailing from Locan Street in the Beechmount area of West Belfast, on the other side of town from Anne’s Short Strand.
The couple married in December 1934 and set up home at 471 14th Street in Brooklyn, finally settling at 378 Seventh Avenue in the Park Slope neighborhood where they would rear seven children – Pete, Tommy, Kathleen, Brian, Johnny, Denis and the youngest, Joey.
The book paints a picture of a cash-strapped childhood for the Hamill children in post-war Brooklyn. However, although money was tight, the family unit was a happy and loving one, living in the cultural melting pot of the Big Apple while their native Belfast was convulsed by sectarianism and civil unrest.
The Hamill brood would go on to have illustrious lives of their own that made some of them household names in New York and beyond. Oldest child Pete would join the navy before becoming a reporter and then celebrity columnist for the New York Post.
An author of numerous books, he is Currently “Writer in Residence” at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.
Tommy trained as a chemical engineer and would end up working for NASA. Kathleen would become a journalist for the Staten Island Press where she had her own column. Brian went on to become a famous photojournalist covering the areas of music, sports, movies and Ireland.
Johnny, who would serve during the Vietnam War, became a screenplay writer who, along with Denis, wrote screenplays
for 1980s films “Turk 182″ and “Critical Condition.”
Denis Hamill is an author and journalist who is currently a columnist for the New York Daily News. Joey Hamill, who has since passed away, became a distinguished journalist and writer, winning an Emmy in 1985 for his work on a television documentary called “The Mob in Atlantic City.”
With several journalists among their many children, it’s no surprise that many column inches in New York papers were filled by Billy and Anne Hamill, some of which are included in the book. Photographs of trips back to the old country
that both Anne and Billy made in 1965 and in 1976, are featured, including some touching photos taken in Dublin airport in 1976 where Billy was reunited with his twin brother Frank whom he had not seen since he left for America in the 1920s.
Billy would eventually die in 1984 aged 80.
Such was the high esteem Anne was held in by the Irish American community of New York that her 60th anniversary as an American citizen was marked with a congratulatory letter from the then governor of New York, Mario Cuomo.
Family trees of the extended Devlin/Hamill clan are dotted throughout the pages of the book, giving some context to how far the Irish diaspora can reach both across continents and time.
The latter part of the book focuses on the life and family of Anne’s brother Maurice, who tried all his life to get to America but was restricted by legal wranglings. He would eventually get his wish in 1970 at age 64, but died
just a year later.
You don’t have to be a member of the Devlin/Hamill clan to find Anne’s story deeply fascinating. It gives a snapshot of a life that embodies the American dream held by so many Irish who set sail over the past century in search of a better life.
The book is available to purchase by visiting www.ques timagery.com or you can email email@example.com.