‘Though she be but little’ – Joan Babcock is fierce – and Irish, too

  • Joan surrounded by chickens used to feet them at 5 am every morning Mansville NY by Canada Loved it
  • wedding day 2 14 1964-1
  • Kildare Nationalist Kilcullen correspondent Brian Byrne with Dan Donnelly
  • New York businessman Edward West Daddy Browning (1875-1934)
  • Joan Babcock and her father James Donnelly 1994
  • Joan and Grandmother Northrup 1945 Farm upstate NY plenty of cats and all sorts of animals
  • Joan 1945 Mansville NY 2 week vacation Great place
  • Great-Great Grandfather Irish boxer (pugalist) Dan Donnelly
  • Gary and Joan Babcock
  • Dan Donnelly Boxer
  • Joan Donnelly 1961 21 years 145 St Bronx

By Lynn Colburn

At 81, Joan Donnelly Babcock is as spunky as they come, a large part from her Irish heritage and upbringing. She proudly states that she is 100% Irish. Born in 1940 in Manhattan on her mother’s 43rd birthday, Oct. 20, her family moved to Harlem during the second World War and then moved to the South Bronx when she was just five years old.

There she lived in a cold water flat until age 16. (Modern building codes make cold water flats illegal, but until the mid-twentieth century, they were common in large cities including Chicago and New York.) “The flats had no hot water and no heat,” says Babcock. “When we finally did get heat and hot water, I had to open the windows because I was so used to the cold.”

An Irish family’s history

Babcock has colorful Irish ancestry. Her great-great-grandfather was an Irish bare-knuckle champion, Dan Donnelly, who she says was one of 17 children, “My father and his sister, Roseanne, talked a lot about him when I was younger at our kitchen table.”

Born in Dublin in the late 1780s, Dan Donnelly was nearly 6-foot tall with a long reach. This was in the early days of prize fights when there were no gloves and almost no rules — more like WWE’s WrestleMania without any scripts.

Donnelly, who had a reputation as a successful scrapper in his native Dublin, only fought in three official matches, but reigned as the heavyweight champion of his time, and was a hero to the Irish. Donnelly died of pneumonia at only 31 years old at Donnelly’s Public House, one of the many taverns he owned over the years. A plaque still commemorates the site of his death and a gray obelisk surrounded by an iron fence marks the site of his last fight.

Yet, death wasn’t the end of his story. A few nights after he was buried, grave robbers stole Donnelly’s body and sold it to a surgeon who used cadavers for study.

Donnelly’s fans tracked the body down and it was returned to its resting place minus one appendage. For 200 plus years, Donnelly’s severed right arm that was kept by the surgeon had been preserved (it was eventually bronzed) and had been displayed in pubs and traveling exhibitions all over the world. Since 2006, the arm came under private ownership; however, the owners still allow it to be displayed periodically.

Babcock says the talk was not always so chatty about other parts of her family history, especially about her father, James Joseph Donnelly. Her father was born in Dublin, Ireland, in July 1899, one of 13 children. “There were times when I was little,” she explains, “I would walk into the room and my father and his sister would stop talking. I found out why much later. It turned out that my father had to leave Ireland because of the Black and Tans (British soldiers). They killed two of his friends, they bayonetted them and threw them in the pig pen, and they lay there for three days.”

In Irish history, that was the time of the Irish Volunteers, which was formed around 1912 to fight against British rule in Ireland with the aim of establishing an independent Irish Republic. All organizations calling themselves the Irish Republican Army (IRA), as well as the Irish Defense Forces (IDF), have their origins in the Irish Volunteers. Babcock notes, “My dad knew Michael Collins who was also in the Irish Volunteers and later the IRA.” Her dad, too, was an Irish Volunteer.

“The soldiers also had his name,” she says, “and came looking for him at his parents’ house, looking under the beds with the bayonets in hand. He barely escaped out the window and was on the run for the rest of his life and could never return to Ireland.”

Her father, who had only been about 19 at the time, escaped and made his way across the Irish Sea to a dock in Liverpool, England, where he stayed long enough to sign onboard a ship to work hauling coal into the boiler room. “He worked on different ships and got very musclebound from that,” says Babcock. “He eventually arrived in Nova Scotia, then worked on another ship to Manhattan … [It was around 1918,] but he jumped ship and swam because he was afraid of being caught, sent back and killed.”

Years later, her father’s sister, Roseanne, who had moved to the U.S. and had attained her citizenship, told him he should get his. “I called up the FBI in Chicago just to satisfy Dad,” says Babcock. “And they told me to forget about it, that he is a citizen because all those records that were on Ellis Island were burnt during the 1920s, so there was no proof of who was a citizen and who wasn’t, and he wouldn’t be sent back.”

Meanwhile, Babcock’s mother, Mary Donaghy, who had been born in County Armagh in Northern Ireland, had come to the U.S. with her family and grown up in Manhattan since she was 5 years old.

As a young woman, Babcock’s mother worked for Edward “Daddy” Browning, who was a colorful real estate tycoon in Manhattan. She also worked at the iconic Waldorf Astoria in New York. Recalls Babcock, “My mom knew many people in New York, and she also lived with her aunt in New Jersey next door to Thomas Edison, whose son drank a lot and would end up sleeping on their couch.” It was the 1920s, and she says her mother knew the gangster Dutch Schultz and some other interesting characters of the day in New York.

It was also in Manhattan that James Joseph Donnelly and Mary Donaghy met — and in 1921, the couple married at the Church of St. Agnes’s Church on 43rd Street.

A Tough Young Irish American Woman

Life was tough in the Bronx, so that’s how young Joan Donnelly grew up. This 5-foot dynamo began smoking when she was just 3 years old (although she quit that habit years ago). The youngest of four siblings (she had two brothers and a sister), she said she would watch her brother and his army buddies smoke and take her brother’s cigarettes.

In the 1950s, this tough cookie became part of a New York gang in the Bronx. “It was a division of the centurions; we took care of our own territory and that was where we would hang out. I always felt well protected and safe in our territory. You had to be tough back then or you’d get beat up. So, I learned to stick up for myself and the gang also offered protection in those days. The boys would fight and the girls would hide their weapons,” she says. “We also danced a lot.”

New York City is divided into five boroughs, each with their own special history and characteristics. Gangs were mostly comprised of teenagers aged 12-19 and in the late ‘50s and into the ‘60s, the gang wars were mostly fought over “turf” and girls. Think “West Side Story.”

One of her nicknames was “Little Bopper,” although she said she had others — and while she is tough, even today you can see her warm heart shine through when she talks. She loved to dance, noting that she would learn different ethnic dances from lots of different people: “I would watch one Black man dance. He was amazing … he would do the waltz, rock-n-roll and other dances.”

She recalls, “I went up and told him, ‘I want to dance like that.’ He asked, ‘You gotta have rhythm. Do you have rhythm?’ And I told him I thought I did.” He apparently decided she did because he taught her to do the waltz and other dances; she said all her friends wanted to learn as well, but apparently, they didn’t have the rhythm she did.

She worked at many different places over the years, mostly in Manhattan. She worked for Sinclair and Valentine, which later became Sinclair Oil; other places included a lightbulb company, an insurance company and a textile company.

Like her mother, she met some celebrities in New York. She sat down next to actress Maureen O’Hara who had her Irish Wolfhounds in tow at a St. Patrick’s parade. “She had the most beautiful face on a woman I’d ever seen,” she recalls emphatically. She also met actor/comedian Nipsy Russell in Harlem “at a place called the Baby Grand and he sat down and drank with us,” she adds, “and told lots of dirty jokes.”

She met her husband, Gary Babcock, in a bar in New York in 1962. She was sitting at the bar with a girlfriend and he came up and asked her to dance. He had no idea she was only 5-feet tall until she hopped off the stool and he towered over her at 6-foot, 2-inches tall. “He couldn’t dance at all. It was pitiful. I had to tell him to sit down,” she reminisces with a laugh. He walked her home that night, as he was on a 72-hour leave from the Brooklyn Navy yard. After that they wrote back and forth a lot in between his 72-hour leaves when he would come to see her. “I liked him because he was different compared to the guys I hung out with. He was nice,” she said.

“Opposites must attract because we were completely different.” He likes to hunt and fish and she is an avid reader and loved to dance. Still, whatever it was, it worked for them — and still does.

Irish New Yorker arrives in Illinois

Gary Babcock was originally from Jacksonville and went to Jacksonville High School before his service in the Navy. When they got married on Feb. 14, 1964, they left the Bronx and moved to Woodson, Illinois. Since she was used to walking everywhere in the city and it always being busy with lots to do and people around at all hours, when she moved to Woodson, she says it was a culture shock. No one walked anywhere and there weren’t many people around. In addition, lifelong habits of living in a big city such as walking fast, not looking at anyone directly and checking over your shoulder when you walk were hard to break. People would say “Hi’ as they walked by and in the city that made you think, “what do you want?”

While in Woodson, the couple had their son, Gary, followed by their daughter, Mary, about a year later. “We stayed in Woodson until Mary was 9, then Gary became a

firefighter and we moved to Jacksonville.”

Joan Babcock didn’t get her driver’s license until she was in her 40s and her children were in high school. “I got tired of having to depend on my husband to take me shopping,” she laughs and says, “I said ‘Well, I’m going to go to school and learn how to drive.’ Of course, he thought, ‘she’ll never do it.’ But I did!”

Mary Babcock remembers her mom learning and driving slowly and carefully and the boys in the car behind them, who were from Jacksonville High School, beeping and yelling at her to get moving. “Those boys didn’t know what they were up against!” she laughs. “Mom stopped the car got out and said, ‘What’s the matter with you? You got something to say to me?’ (a little of the Irish temper) but they shut up.”

Mary Babcock continued proudly, “You don’t mess with my mom. She is the toughest woman I know!”

But Joan Babcock also has a big heart to go with that toughness. As her parents aged into their 80s and her mother became sick, they too moved from New York to Jacksonville where Joan took care of them. She says she put her mom in a nursing home for one day and immediately brought her back to the house instead where she could guarantee her the best of care. Her mom lived to be just a month shy of her 88th birthday.

Her father, James, continued to live in the house with them. The grandkids remember the phrase, “Close the door” being said in Gaelic all the time. Mary and Joan Babcock also both remember how he sang a lot of Irish songs. He once won a St. Patrick’s contest on a local radio station and talked on the phone with them for about half of an hour.

Joan Babcock’s dad had to move into to a local nursing home when he was 93 because he fell and broke his nose and he was such a big man that she needed help. She said she was always there advocating for him the whole time because she would see what wasn’t being done for the residents — she says she couldn’t stay silent. Her dad was 95 and a half when he died.

After her father’s death, Joan Babcock’s calling was to be a CNA at Jacksonville Convalescence Center because she saw the need for good care.

“I believe in sticking up for yourself, for people who are right, and for people who aren’t able to take care of themselves,” she says. She loved her job and the people for whom she cared. She worked there for 6-7 years and retired in 2002 at the age of 62 because she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to have a lumpectomy. Today she is cancer-free.

She said while she was at the Convalescence Center, she received a lot of letters and notes from both patients and their families thanking her for taking such good care of their family members. They all told her that because of her they could sleep at night and not worry — a true testament to her big heart and hard work ethic on their behalf. “That was nice,” she says with a smile, “and I appreciated that.”

“It has been an interesting life,” she concludes. This St. Patrick’s Day and during the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, think of this small, but wonderful and tough Irish woman living among us in Jacksonville who has such a rich history in both Ireland and the U.S., and be thankful she shared a glimpse into her unique life experiences and history.

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