Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, was honored on Nov. 1 with the Gold Medal of the American Irish Historical Society.

In a speech accepting the award on All Saints Day at the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, Father McShane gave a hearty nod to several Irish saints and recalled fondly his immigrant family.

Sharing Family Anecdotes

It was a talk, perhaps, more aligned with All Souls Day than All Saints, as he celebrated anecdotes of his Irish-American ancestors. He recalled the meeting of the McShane grandparents at a Rhode Island insane asylum—as employees, not patients. He spoke of his grandfather’s job at Dow Jones working the presses with other Irish immigrants, “where he got ink under his fingernails.” And he recalled the series of moves—to Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, then to Harlem, and finally up to Marble Hill, where the family settled and the grandchildren grew up.

Father McShane recalled an afternoon spent with his mother on an “Irish holiday,” which is to say visiting family cemeteries. He then took her down to Battery Park City, where he said the views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island brought tears to her eyes as she conjured up her own mother’s journey.

“Joe, those were the first things that my mother saw when she came to the United States as a young girl,” he recalled her saying. “She was so brave.  She left behind everything that she knew, and that is where her new life began.”

Promise of a Better Life

The anecdotes were personal tellings that crystalized a source of Father McShane’s public support during the past year for the nation’s immigrants under siege.

“Hope for a better life drew them here; love enabled them to make the new life that they dreamed of,” he said. “The boundless faith in the promise, and promises, that America offered made even a daughter of melancholy Ireland an eternal optimist.”

He said that on returning to the Rose Hill campus after the day spent with his mother he said he “had gained a greater appreciation of the mystical importance that the promise of America had for my grandparents.”

“When they boarded the ferries for Lower Manhattan, they were already Americans, endowed with that faith and hope that are the qualities of heart that distinguish us as a nation.”

He called the family history “the unfolding of the American dream writ small, but written in very green ink … The story of hope, promise, opportunity, endurance and the search for both dignity and a better life.”

Father McShane told the members of the society that they and their ancestors lived with the “burden of being Irish,” which means, in part, “living life with the same indomitable spirit of faith and adventure that led our immigrant ancestors to come here to these shores and thus made it possible for us, their wondering descendants, to continue the great migration—from the 30 counties of Ireland to  Hell’s Kitchen to Vinegar Hill in Harlem to Riverdale to the Promised Lands of Westchester or Connecticut.”

“It means turning the memory of those sufferings that stand at the center of our ethnic identity into a firm and unshakable determination to stand with and to champion the poor and marginalized wherever they are found—even if their names don’t begin with ‘Mc’ or ‘O’ or ‘Fitz.’” (Photo by Christel Cornilsen)


Tom Stoelker is senior staff writer and visual media coordinator for Fordham News. After fifteen years as a freelance designer, Tom shifted his focus to writing and photography. He graduated from Lehman College, CUNY where he majored in English literature and photography and he received his master's in journalism from Columbia University. His work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, and The Architect's Newspaper, where he was associate editor.