Glasson's Mary McCann.

Walking tour operator meets a forgotten local hero’s ancestors

The largely forgotten and heroic story of Glasson's Mary McCann has become a favourite of visitors to Vincent Harney's popular walking tours of Athlone, since he first began the venture back in 2019.

Little did the Cornafulla man ever think he would be regaling Mary's great-grandson Greg Mishkin, and his wife Christine from New Jersey, about her incredible rescue of nine children from drowning in the PS General Slocum boating disaster of 1904, the largest loss of life in New York prior to 9/11. Over 1,000 people perished in what was terrifyingly described at the time as a “floating furnace” after the steamship full of women and children caught fire.

But that's just what happened quite by chance after the American couple, the first of her ancestors to ever return to Ireland, heard that Mary McCann's bravery was mentioned in the walking tour while in Galway on their very first trip to Ireland last June.

Vincent from Athlone Guided Tours remembered standing on the sideline in Johnstown watching his son play from Clann na nGael when he got a call from an American number late on a Saturday night last summer.

“He told me he was Mary McCann's great-grandson, and he asked if I did tours on Sunday. I said I don't, normally, but for Mary McCann's great-grandson, I'd do it in the middle of the night!”

So with a flight to catch on Monday, the couple spent the day in the area, meeting Vincent and later travelling to Glasson to see the graves of Mary's parents and other ancestors.

“It was a great thrill for me to meet them,” Vincent told the Westmeath Independent. “They were a lovely couple, and they were thrilled to know that Mary's story was remembered.”

And what a story it is, one that Vincent said most locals have ever heard about and that has become a favourite among his visitors from more than 30 countries at this stage and from every county in Ireland.

“To me, they (Greg and Christine) were the most important visitors I've had. Her story is not widely known. Here was an ordinary woman who did incredible things with no thought for herself or her safety.”

Believed to be born around 1886, Mary left Brittas, Glasson, for the United States as a teenager in 1904 alone, with what's said to be just ten dollars in her pocket. Struck down by illness when she arrived, Mary was hospitalised near the East River in New York.

On June 15, 1904, while still recovering, she witnessed a catastrophe unfold from her hospital window. A steam paddle ship, the PS General Slocum, carrying over 1,300 passengers, mostly women and children, from the Lutheran community on an outing up the East River from Manhattan, caught fire.

She rushed to help with no thought for herself, swimming back and forth from the shoreline several times until she was exhausted, and was prevented from going back in. Mary is credited with saving nine drowning children from the water, almost losing her own life in the process.

In a report in the Catholic Advance on July 24, 1904, reproduced in this paper in 2021 in a piece by Richard Coplen, Mary modestly played down her heroism.

“God knows, I shall never forget the awful sight. But we had no time for watchin. There were things to do. There were little babies, hundreds of them, I thought, floating in the water, wailing and holding out their arms most pitiful,” she recalled.

The Glasson native's heroism grabbed headlines all over the US and even reached her homeplace, where, according to the Westmeath Independent dated July 9, 1904, "This young heroine - as unquestionably she is - emigrated from Ireland last April, and the news of her gallantry beyond the seas, was received by her immediate relatives, and many others around Glasson, with feelings of pleasure mingled with surprise.”

The Sun newspaper reported three days later, according to Richard Coplen, that “At the coroner’s inquest, Mary told her story in her simple way, with no thought only that she had done what she could, but expressed the regret that she might have saved more if she had been stronger.”

Such was the impression Mary had on the American public that she received thousands of letters, with almost 1,000 of them reported to be looking for her hand in marriage, and she was held up as the best example of an immigrant at a time when there was much anti-Irish sentiment.

An Irish American solicitor, having heard of her bravery, paid for Mary's education, and she later became a nurse.

Mary McCann, who was honoured by the then President Teddy Roosevelt, later became the only woman among the nine people awarded silver lifesaving medals by the United States Congress in Washington for her courageous action on the day of the disaster.

Some years later, she married David A Pearlman and, while continuing nursing, went on to have four daughters.

Mary died in 1966, the year before her great-grandson Greg Mishkin was born.

Fast forward to the present day, and Vincent Harney, who is restarting his twice-weekly walking tours shortly for the summer season and does private tours by appointment all year around, believes this local woman's “extraordinary” bravery should be remembered in Athlone, her last destination before setting off for the United States.

“I think there should be something (locally) to honour her,” he suggested this week, perhaps a memorial close to the new bridge where Vincent tells her story or a plaque. “Her story is of an ordinary girl who did extraordinary things.”