Before I met Kevin Henry in April 2013 what I knew about him primarily rested on his reputation as a musician and raconteur. He comes from the same area on the Sligo-Mayo border as Roger Sherlock and Brendan Tonra, both of whom I’d interviewed and Brendan I had the pleasure of playing tunes with during my time in Boston. I knew also that Kevin had been a mainstay of the Chicago Irish music scene for decades. What I was unprepared for was the fascinating story of his circuitous journey from Ireland to Chicago and the aplomb with which he related it.
Kevin was born in 1929, the eighth of eleven children. Following in the footsteps of his older siblings, he left Ireland for England in 1947. He traveled up and down the country working as a seasonal agricultural laborer, coal miner, and construction worker. In 1953 he decided to seek his fortune across the Atlantic and booked passage to Canada, though his ultimate goal was America. He worked his way from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Toronto and finally across the border to New York, where other siblings lived. There, he worked digging tunnels and waiting tables before deciding to head for Florida’s sunnier climes. Unimpressed with the low wages paid laying pipes in the Everglades or working on the construction of a hotel, he moved north again, this time to Chicago. Apart from a four-month stint mining copper in Butte, Montana, he has remained in Chicago ever since. He spent 37 years as an iron worker, a career that included work on the iconic Hancock Tower. Throughout his life traditional music has remained a touchstone for his identity. Now 87, Kevin continues to work to sustain the culture of his native land and the legacy of music collector Francis O’Neill in his adopted home.
In conjunction with that article, I have put my oral history interview with Kevin Henry, photographs, and recordings of his music on my PhD project website Voices of Irish Music & Migration. More material will be coming soon – stay tuned!
A huge thank you to Kevin and his wife Pauline for sharing their time and their stories with me!
I confess, I am allergic to biographies of the famous and exceptional. My dad gave me some prime specimens when I was younger – the lives of Eleanor Roosevelt and Isabella Bird among others – and recently he even tried to interest me in new books about Abraham Lincoln. But I simply cannot finish one. Why? Some subjects perhaps seem anointed from the start, the products of circumstances far removed from the realities of my life and the lives of others around me. Others may have had the benefit of living in interesting times, but I never did finish Eric Hobsbawm’s autobiography either, as much as I like his historical work.
Yet I find myself drawn to read and write the lives of the ‘ordinary’ people, those whose experiences many judge unremarkable. Historian Richard White’s mother told him ‘half jokingly, but only half, that her life was more interesting than my latest book. Why didn’t I write a book about her? I told her, not joking at all, that I would.’ The result is my favorite history book, Remembering Ahanagran. Its subject, Sara Walsh, would have remained anonymous outside her immediate circle of friends and family had her son not become a distinguished historian and taken up her challenge. I take the book off the shelf repeatedly and never get bored. In the space between history and memory White reveals much about life, the ways we tell our stories, and how, through them, we come to understand ourselves.
As I worked on my Ph.D. I started a collection of memoirs by Irish migrants – Angeline Kearns Blain, Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, Anna May Mangan, Seán Ó Ciaráin, any many more – picking up stories from the boxes and shelves of secondhand booksellers. If history remembers their names it is because they took up the pen. Many who did not still have stories to tell. As an oral historian, that realization motivates my work. Some of those I’ve interviewed are household names (at least in traditional music households); others are not, but that does not make their words or memories any less meaningful. Their stories have taught me about the human experience: what it means to be a migrant, why people hold onto their cultures, and what it felt like to live in the foreign country that was the past. In biographies of the famous, perhaps some of those fundamentals get lost amidst the action.
 Richard White, Remembering Ahanagran: Storytelling in a Family’s Past (Hill and Wang, New York, 1998), p.4.