Secrets in an Irish Diary





McGrath Genealogy  |  Upperchurch Connections  |       Old Mattydale          |  What's New  |  Contact



McGrath Genealogy  |  Upperchurch Connections  |       Old Mattydale          |  What's New  |  Contact






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It’s their senior year in high school and the girl’s pipeline of new mysteries has run dry. In addition, they are beginning to worry about what will happen to their organization Les Mademoiselles after they graduate in June 1966. At her family’s annual reunion in the summer of 1965 Nancy picked up an interest in genealogy after talking with her grandfather’s older sister and her daughter. Her interest in researching her family’s history will show up various times as a minor interest while the girls continue to look for their next mystery.

Nancy’s sister, Shirley, and her friend, Emo, are interested in getting in on the fun. They conduct a campaign throughout much of the book for joining or taking over the Les Mademoiselles organization for the investigation of Mattydale mysteries after the older girls graduate.

Nancy’s interest in her family’s genealogy is what initially pulled her in the direction of going to Ireland. She had to convince Colette and Sam to come with her since she didn’t want to go alone. Her grandfather had inherited a farm back in Ireland from a 2nd cousin, from a branch of the family that hadn’t immigrated. He invited her to stay at the farmhouse on his Irish farm that was located just north of the village of Upperchurch which was close to where the family had emigrated from.

It took Nancy a couple months to convince Colette and Sam to go to Ireland with her. At a St. Patrick’s Day celebration at Nibsy Ryan’s Pub on Tipperary Hill in Syracuse she was finally able to win them over. They arrived in Upperchurch in mid-July and settled into the inherited farmhouse formerly belonging to William McGrath III. It didn’t take long before the girls began to sense that there was something amiss with the circumstances surrounding William’s death in March 1965. They hadn’t been able to find a new mystery in Mattydale, but now, here in Ireland, a mystery had found them.

As the girls endeavored to discover more details about the death of William McGrath, their quiet Irish nights were shattered by the screams of a banshee. For those who believe in such creatures the banshee screams foretell the death of someone.

The Authors

After high school their lives followed different paths. They married, raised families and later retired. After changing circumstances in both their lives, they reconnected in the summer of 2018 and began exchanging emails. As the frequency of the emails increased and Michael learned more about Colette’s old neighborhood in Syracuse, NY, he realized that this was the part that was missing in a ghost story that he had been trying unsuccessfully to get off the ground. Early in 2019 he put together a story outline and sent it to Colette, asking her to sign on as his co-author. The collaboration has worked out well with Colette preventing Mike from making the stories too historically correct and Mike preventing Colette from making the girls behave in a too age appropriate manner. This is the third book to come out of this Les Mademoiselles collaboration.

Colette Smolinski

Colette was born in Cornwall, Ontario, Canada. Her family came to the U.S. in the early ‘50s and settled in Syracuse, NY. In 1959 her family moved to Mattydale. Today she resides in Westvale, just west of Syracuse, NY.

Michael McGraw

Michael was born in Syracuse, NY and lived for a while in the university area. In September, 1949 his family moved to Mattydale, NY. Today he resides in Cedar Park, just north of Austin, TX.

They both attended St. Margaret’s Catholic School in Mattydale and later North Syracuse Central High School.




Mattydale is a small hamlet located in the town of Salina just over the northern edge of the First Ward of the city of Syracuse, NY. Starting in the early 1920s the farm lands that occupied the area had given way to residential developments, which grew rapidly. The name of Mattydale was derived from the name of the development that belonged to the area’s most famous citizen, the former Syracuse politician, Frank Matty. The names of the other approximately dozen developments, with the exception of Hinsdale Farms, faded and the name Mattydale took over as the name for the entire area. After a hiatus for the Depression and WW II, the growth continued with the Baby Boom which followed the war. During the 1950s new schools were popping up everywhere as the children of the boom entered school. By 1966, the residential growth was over as all of the available land in Mattydale had been used.

The southbound lanes of Brewerton Road, running through the middle of Mattydale, had been part of the old Cicero Plank Road. It had been bordered on both sides by the canopies of tall, stately old elm trees until the mid-50s, when the last of the elm trees had been felled by the Dutch Elm disease. The northbound lanes of Brewerton Road had been the tracks of the South Bay Trolley line, which ran along Mattydale Drive which ran into Hinsdale Drive. The plank road was replaced by 1915 and the final trolley ran through Mattydale on the night of January 11, 1932. And with that, the internal combustion engine finalized its complete domination over the older modes of transportation that had at one time passed through this tiny hamlet.

By 1966, life and its routines had changed since 1949 when Nancy’s family had moved to Mattydale. Deliveries to the home of milk, bread, and groceries were declining in number but were still present. These services were needed because most of the mothers didn’t drive and even if they did, there was normally only one car per household and the fatherss usually took that car to work. The insurance agents were no longer hauling their large book door to door to collect miniscule insurance premiums. The conversion from coal to gas for heating was almost complete but one could still detect the distinctive smell of burning coal in the winter streets of Mattydale. Garbage collection had transitioned from men standing in open trucks to enclosed trucks with hydraulic compressors. The ringing of the old knife sharpener’s bell and his call to “bring out your knives,” as he walked through Mattydale carrying his round sharpening wheel on his back were no longer heard. There were no more jeeps traveling the summer streets of Mattydale spraying billowing white clouds of DDT into the air behind them to control the mosquitoes from nearby Bear Trap Creek. The ice cream guy with his short truck filled with dry ice and ice cream treats, with the rhythmically ringing of his bell to announce his approach, never failed to appear every summer, much to the delight of all the children in the neighborhood who, for some reason, called him “Skippy.”

The mail boxes in Mattydale had long ago been moved from their original posts along the side of the road to the front of the houses. The mail delivery routes were timed assuming winter conditions; up and down the driveway, along the road to the next house and up and down the driveway again. However, the mailmen would still go house to house, across the lawns, even in winter. One mailman had a part time job waiting for him at the last stop on his route, which was Kirsch Dairy. He would put in a couple hours working there, before going back to the post office at 3 pm to clock out. Then, he would return to finish out his shift at the dairy.

All the residential lots of Mattydale had been actively cultivated farm land prior to 1920 but now, in 1966, they were populated by houses and a variety of trees that brought a colorful display to Mattydale every fall. At that time, it was the usual practice to rake the fallen leaves to the edge of the street where they would be burned under the watchful eye of the homeowner or one of his teenage sons. During the fall, the smell of the burning leaves was everywhere in the air of Mattydale while filling the streets with a whitish haze. All of this became associated with Halloween and the smoke-filled streets added to the spooky feeling of that night.


The Evolution of the Old Wells Story

The Well in the Woods

            The old well had been closed off by a wooden cover. While many thought its purpose was to prevent someone from falling into the well, others thought its purpose was to prevent “something” from climbing out of the well —such as a Hound from Hell. This was interesting but it wasn’t going to be enough to drive the whole story.


The Well on Leonard – it was really there, but what could we do with it. We certainly couldn’t have the girls starting digging in someone’s back yard.


The Well in the Field

The story needed an old well in an open field. So, we let Mary Kirsch provide the source of the wells – the wells, four of them, had been built by the nursery folks, who had owned the land before the Kirsch family bought it in 1900. Mary remembered approximately where the old wells had been. The well that was located the furthest south was the one on Leonard and they ran in a straight line about parallel to Bear Trap Creek.

The girls plotted out the approximate locations of the wells and discovered that one landed in the open field on the south side of Roxboro Jr. High School. This would be the one that the Onondaga Historical Association was excavating. Even though a skeleton was found at the bottom of the well this story line still didn’t seem to be strong even to drive the whole story. It was eventually tossed to Shirley and Emo to follow up on while the older girls went to Ireland.


The Thorp, Smith and Hanchett Nursey

In 1860, the land that would later become the Kirsch farm was occupied by the Thorp, Smith and Hanchett Nurseries. This nursery employed a number of the newly arrived Irish as laborers. During the early 1950s the Kirsch family was still cultivating the land behind Nancy’s house on Kirsch drive by alternating wheat and potatoes. The field was split along an east-west line with one crop north of the line and the other to the south and the next year the crops were reversed. The potatoes were harvested mechanically and there were always some left behind. Neighbors living along the edge of the field would descend on the field after the harvesters had left and they would fill several bags with potatoes before they were finished. 

Along with the potatoes, these part-time harvesters would occasionally find the remnants of old clay pipes, which had been lost or discarded by those Irish nursery laborers from nearly a century earlier. Of course, our grandmother thought that these pipes had belonged to the wee folk and perhaps they weren’t even as old as everyone had thought. Perhaps, she said, the wee folk had been out in the field at night gathering up some potatoes for their families when they dropped the pipes.  

            The suspected fairy fort, pointed out by our grandmother, was on the other side of the Military Tract lot line, lying on land that was once part of Benjamin Baum’s farm and then later the Michaels’ farm.  

1860 map of Lot 18 in the town of Salina. Alanson Thorp, William Brown Smith, and John. C. Hanchett ran a large nursery bounded by Bear Trap Creek on the west; the north line of Military Lot #18 on the north; the Cicero plank road on the east; and on the south by a line extended from Molloy Road, passing through the Toll Gate house. The black square after the label “T S & H” at the intersection of the north line of Military Lot #18 and the Cicero plank road is the structure that probably became the Roselawn home of Benjamin Baum after he purchased it in 1866.


Sequence of Land Ownership


Charlie's History Lesson


The Water Trough Roadhouse


Tipperary Hill


The boundaries of Tipperary Hill on the west side of Syracuse, NY today — according to the Tipperary Hill Neighborhood Association. This view is looking west, with north to the right.

The Green Over the Red stop Light

The Green over Red traffic light — the only one like it in the country — hangs over the intersection of Tompkins Street and Milton Avenue on Tipperary Hill on the west side of Syracuse, NY. A small green over red icon on the map above shows its location.


Nibsy Ryan's Pub


Founded by Denis "Nibsy" Ryan in 1890 on Tipperary Hill, Syracuse, NY

Denis Ryan had connections to Glown, Upperchurch, Co. Tipperary.


 Nibsy Ryan’s family history


In Ireland

Upperchurch Village

Moyaliff Chapel

Upperchurch Graveyard

Homesteads in Ireland


Fairy Fort - Knockamena


This is a view of the Knockamena fairy fort looking west from the road on its east side.


In this aerial view the village of Upperchurch is situated in the lower right hand corner (southeast). The Knockamena fairy fort is the labeled elliptical structure located toward the top of the image.


Bob Conan, Jr.

The Conan Archival Project


Robert Conan, Jr. was a real person but if he hadn’t existed we would have been forced to invent him. Nancy needed a mentor to guide her genealogy research and all of the girls needed advice on traveling in Ireland. Conan had genealogical research experience which was specific to the Upperchurch area which was of interest to Nancy since her family had emigrated from that area. Conan had been spending his summers in Ireland and became very familiar with the area and in general about things Irish.

In October of 2010, I was reading a Wikipedia article on Tipperary Hill in Syracuse, NY. The article included a reference to the fact that a large number of persons who had settled in Pompey, NY had come from the Upperchurch area of Co. Tipperary in Ireland. That statement referenced a St. Patrick’s Day article in the Syracuse paper from 1977. I looked up the paper and it was a long article with many quotes, including the Upperchurch reference, by a Dr. Robert Conan who was a Chemistry professor at LeMoyne College in Syracuse. I wasn’t aware that anyone else had discovered the large concentration of former Upperchurch residents that had settled in the southern part of Onondaga County, at least not that early. More detail


The Challenge by Paul Conan, Jr.

Dr. Robert James Conan was a unique individual with a brilliant mind and many passions.  His lifelong friends in Syracuse N.Y. described him as a "Renaissance Man" but to me he was Uncle Bob.  He was exceptional not only in his career as a Physical Chemistry professor and Chairman of the Chemistry Department at LeMoyne College, but also as a genealogist, pianist, and music composer.  His collecting interests included ancient roman coins, historical signed documents, historical Irish books, Classical Music records, and Classical sheet music.

Bob Conan's greatest passion was Irish genealogy, and he amassed a vast amount of information from his numerous trips to Ireland and his research in central New York, especially Pompey.  Bob never married or had children, so when he died in 2002 his property passed to his brother (my father) Paul Sr., and then to my mother in 2013.  Fortunately all of his genealogy research has been preserved and stored in dozens of boxes and 3-ring binders.  To honor his life's work, my goal is to scan all his research and make it available to those who are interested.

The challenge of The Conan Archival Project is the sheer scope and the time required to go through the boxes and organize everything, scan each page, and then combine the pages into specific subjects.  The contents include letters from Irish priests in Upperchurch, County Tipperary and baptismal records.  During his many trips to Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s, Bob became friends with several Upperchurch-area priests and was allowed rare access to transcribe church records from the old, fragile, hand written parish registers. 

These boxes and 3-ring binders also contain Irish maps showing where Irish relatives lived, letters from Irish people of County Tipperary, Bob's notes from his Irish record searches, family trees, family photos, cemetery records, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, and even Bob's diaries.  There are binders full of worksheets where Bob was trying to figure out family connections within Ireland in the 1800s.  I also have Bob's two laptops from the 1990s which have not yet been opened or searched. 

This is a long-term project, but hopefully the results will be useful to those seeking information about their relatives in the Upperchurch-area as well as in Pompey, N.Y.