Auburn and Washington
When I was a child, I speak as a child,
I felt as a child, I thought like as s child
I CORINTHIANS 13:11
EACH YEAR thousnads of visitors from all parts of America converge on Washington to gaze with eager curiosity upon the nation's finest monuments. The White House is usually the first place visited, and then the tourists proceed up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. After they have inspected the halls of Congress, many of them leave the Capitol and go a few steps eastward to gaze upon one of the most imposing and beautiful edifices in Washingtonーthe Supreme Court Building, seat of the highest judicial tribunal in the United States, a monumental structure with a huge portico containing eight enormous Corinthian columns supporting an entablature and sculptured pediment.
The visitor with a guide book learns that this beautiful building was completed in 1935, and has been the scene of many historic decisions, from the invalidation of early New Deal legislation up and through the National Labour Relation Act, the Rosenberg Case, and the banning of segregation. It is a rare visitor who goes mentally beyond the Supreme Court Building and considers that the site once saw the normal swell of life. Even rarer is the who knows that on this site once lived a boy who was destined to become a missionary bishop, to pioneer new trails in far-off lands, and end his days in a draught-ridden “ icebox ” of a hut that served as a Communist prison in distant Korea. Yes, one can feel
drama as one stands in the politico of the Supreme Court Building. But there is also a hidden and higher drama conected with this patch of ground, a drama that is known only to the initiate.
In the year of the great blizzard, 1888, on the 26th of October, in the city of Washington, a seventh child was born to Patrick and Anna Seales Byrne. Their first three children had died in infancy, and now their surviving sons, Henry, George, and Frank, were joined by a new brother, who was named Patrick after his father. Later, three more children were born to the Byrne family, Ernest, Marie, and Kitty, and two boys, John and Joseph, were adopted.
Mr and Mrs Byrne had been born in Ireland. Patrick Byrne had been brought to America when he was a year old, and Anna had crossed to this country at the age of twelve. Both their families had settled in Auburn, New York, where Patrick and Anna met, courted, and wed. Mr Byrne worked for his brother William, who operated a book bindery and a Catholic book store in Auburn. Mr Byrne was a balding, jovial, friendly man, quick of wit, fond of cigars, and capable of attracting many friends. One of these friends, Sereno Payne, had the good fortune to be elected Congress, and after his arrival in Washington he induced Patrick Byrne to accept a position in the government bindery.
It was for this reason that the Byrne family took up residence in Washington. Byrne eventually became head of the bindery at the Government Printing Office, and his family considered the nation's capital as their permanent home. Ties with Auburn were not broken,however. There were frequent visits with relatives, and each year Mr and Mrs Byrne returned to Auburn to vote.
The world into which young Patrick Byrne was born was a rapidly changing one. Mechanization and industrialization were building the future of America. The early years of his life saw the great Johnstown Flood, the opening of Ellis Island,
the erection of the Eiffel Tower, the invention of the Diesel engine, Coxey's unemployment march on Washington, the beginning of the Chino-Japanese War, the discovery of the X-ray, and Edison's first exhibition of his motionpicture invention.
Although news of these and other events swirled about the Washington scene, they went unnoticed in the ordinary routine of the Byrne family life. Within the family Patrick was given the nickname of “ Ben ”, partly because he had been born during the candidacy of President Benjamin Harrison, whom Mr Byrne greatly admired, and partly because Mr Byrne's sister in Auburn, upon hearing of the birth and not knowing what name had been chosen, sent a telegram of congratulations on the birth of “ a young Benjamin Harrison ”.
Young Patrick early showed a kind and affectionate nature. As time went on, he expressed his feelings in extreme thoughtfulness of others. He went to great lengths to show his appreciation as revealed in the methods he adopted to reciprocate a kindness, and as he grew older, in the care he took in writing letters. He seldom visited a friend without bringing some kind of gift.
Pat had a great affection and respect for both his parents, but there is no doubt that he had more of the qualities of his mother than of his father. Mr Byrne was something of a Pickwickian character. He was the delight and amusement of his children, but it was an amusement tempered with filial respect and love. Mrs Byrne was more reserved, with great natural dignity and sparkling Irish wit.
Father Edward Coyle, a Sulpician, who later became very close to Pat, was studying at the Catholic University and helping out on Sundays at St Joseph's, the parish church of the Byrne family. He tells of a scene one Sunday evening, when the first curate asked him to go with him to visit the Byrne home. When the two priests arrived at the house, they found the family on formal parade, all marching grandly about the parlour in Indian file,singing a marching song at the tops
of their voices. Mr Byrne led the army with a broomstick over his shoulder. The children followed in strict order of seniority. At one point,the oldest son dropped of line and slipped into the kitchen. He coated a pie plate with soot from a candle, returned to his place in the procession, and artistically used the soot to paint a face ー eyes, nose, and mouth ー on Mr Byrne's bald head. While Mr Byrne marched on imperturbably, his following dispersed in helpless glee. Years later, after Bishop Byrne's death, Father Coyle recalled that scene and remarked, “ A martyr befits that home ”.
One never knew what to expect next in the large Byrne family. Mr and Mrs Byrne were devotees of a card game called “ 45's. ” Most of the time Mrs Byrne won. The father of the family always took his defeats as an insult to the stronger sex, so early the next morning he would demand another game. Mrs Byrne might be kneading dough when he made the challenge. She would have to take her hands out of the mixture and wash them before she could sit down to oblige her husband with another game. Usually she would baet him again, and then send him along to his day's work at the government bindery.
At Christmas time Mr Byrne received many boxes of cigars from his fellow employees. He had so many that he kept no count of them. Pat and his brother George used to hide a few boxes in the attic, and later, when the father's supply was low, they would offer to sell him his own cigars.
When Pat was five years old, his aunt Eliza came down from Auburn for a visit. She was Mr Byrne's only sister, and married to Henry O'Neill. The great tragedy in her life was the fact that her marriage was childless. She loved children and longed for them, but unfortunately was never blessed with any. Her deprivation was painfully evident to her when she visited her brother in Washington, and his brood of nine youngsters was her delight.
What occurred between brother and sister during that particular Washington trip will never be fully known. At any
rate, it was agreed that young Pat was to go back to Auburn for a “ visit ” turned out to be a prolonged one, for the boy did not return to his own family until he was sixteen and about to enter the third year of high school.
Auburn is a pleasant, friendly town in central New York State. Once the Algonguin Indians roamed the area, and Indian legends have furnished the material for many a thrilling story of the region. Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn is on the site of a prehistoric mound village. There, too, is a monument to Logan, Indian orator and leader, whose people were destroyed by the white settlers. The thtirty-foot white shaft bears the simple inscription, “ Who is there to mourn for Logan? ”ー a quotation from his final speech.
Auburn is set in the midst of the Finger Lakes country, a region rich in scenic splendour with gorges, beaches, waterfalls, and forests. The lakes and streams surrounding the town abound in pickerel, trout, and bass. On open hillsides, wine grapes ripen vineyards that are reminiscent of old France, and from these vineyards come the finest New York State wines and champagnes. Auburn has two other claims to fame : it was the home of William H. Seward, the Secretary of State who overcome great opposition to purchase Alaska from Russia for $7,200,000 and is also the site of a large state prison, which is located almost in the very heart of the city. Hardly a year before Pat's arrival in Auburn this prison had the “ distinction ” of conducting the country's first electrocution for murder.
Aunt Eliza undoubtfuly thought that she was improving Pat's lot by taking him home with her. She reasoned that he would get more individual and personal attention than was possible in the large Byrne family. She also felt that Auburn was a much healthier than humid Washington for such a skinny youngster. Poor Aunt Eliza! She never realized that a sense of belonging is all-important to a growing child. Hardly conscious of the fact, and certainly never articulate
about it, Pat had an underlying sense of resentment at being separated from his family.
It was not that he was alone or friendless. Aunt Eliza and Uncle Henry loved him and cared for him, and he had a host of other relatives in Auburn, too. And it was not long before he had made friends of his own, friends like Joe Kavanagh and Pat Dunn. Finally, after Pat Byrne had entered Holy Family School in 1895, and learned to read, he began a lifelong friendship in books. This was a friendship that was to stand him in good stead during the many days of loneliness that formed a great part of his adult life. Later he attributed some of his physical troubles to these youthful days which were spent curled up in a chair reading books.
Pat and his friend Pat Dunn swapped books back and forth and, as they grew older, were steady patrons of the Auburn Library. “ How to Make It ” books proved to be their favourites. The boys were almost constantly making something. Boxes and crates from Mr Dunn's grocery store provided an endless supply of material. At the back of the O'Neill yard was a workshop, well supplied with tools, which became the scene of many projects. One of the most ambitious, which met with only limited success, was an attempt to make a wireless set. Marconi had patented the wireless in 1897, and the first transatlantic message was sent in 1901, so it was an exciting new invention.
The two Pats somewhat prosaically spanned the five hundred feet between their houses with a telegraph line. They practiced the Morse code, and as they walked to and from school, their conversation was expressed in variations of code. Although they never became truly adept at sending or receiving, they used the line for almost two years except when heavy rain or snow put it out of business.
Few homes in Auburn had electricity in the early 1900's. When word went around that Pat Byrne had rigged up a light by which to see the clock at night, it caused a sensation. He bought a couple of batteries, some wire, a switch, and a small
electric bulb with pennies he had saved. At any moment during the night he could turn the light on and read the time. The device was a curiosity to the youngsters of Auburn. His friends came to see it, and many copied the idea.
Uncle Henry's workshop also served as a theatre. The two youthful producers put on performances, usually starring themselves. They had occasional magic-lantern shows. The admission never amounted to more than a few cents, but often free passes had to be distributed to get an audience.
The Dunns had a barn that served the boys as part-time gymnasium, besides sheltering the family horses and wagon. Both boys wanted develop muscles. Pat Byrne in particular was not robust. One day he asked a tall cousin the secret of his height. The man, tongue in cheek, replied that he stretched and yawned constantly. Patrick immediately developed the habit of stretching and yawning to increase his height, and every few weeks, after Sunday Mass, he had to be measured to see what progress he was making.
He had little interest in outdoor sports, with the exception of coasting, skating, and hiking through the woods to gather nuts. Years later, when he had become a bishop, he wrote to Joe Kavanagh's mother: “ My kindest recollections of the first half century are those of sliding down North Street in wintertime. I hope there's snow in heaven, so we can slide some more. ”
It was in Auburn, too, that Pat developed his fondness for animals. Aunt Eliza had a nasty-tempered parrot that liked nothing better than to take healthy nips at visitors. The bird had a particular dislike for Pat Dunn and preened itself for attack each time the boy came into the house. On the other hand, Polly exhibited a great fondness for Pat Byrne, and would screech his name, with apparent delight. Perhaps the parrot detected the boy's fondness for animals. Later in life he was rarely without a pet, and spent his long solitude in Japan in company with a parrot which undoubtedly reminded him of hid youthful days in Auburn.