MOUNT GREENWOOD — Eleanor Fitzmaurice, as part of her quest to come to terms with a family tragedy, stopped at Steuber Florist and Greenhouses in Mount Greenwood on her visit to Chicago.
Fitzmaurice lives in Ballingarry, Ireland. Her main destination when she reached Chicago? Mount Olivet Cemetery, the final resting place of two great-aunts who perished along with hundreds of others when the S.S. Eastland rolled over in the Chicago River a century ago.
When Fitzmaurice reached the cemetery, she paused and said a prayer beside the graves of Catherine and Hanora Moynihan, two sisters who have become the object of Fitzmaurice's fascination for the past year.
The women were among 844 people who died in the river. Fitzmaurice had only learned of their existence in January 2014. Yet, she was drawn to the story of the disaster as well as how it tied into her own history.
That's how a small bouquet of white flowers ended up on an unmarked grave in the cemetery at 2755 W. 111th St.
"I have been very fortunate to put the pieces of the jigsaw together," said Fitzmaurice, who visited the cemetery with her husband, Paudie, and her two children — Frank Ryan of Dublin and Beth Ryan of Vancouver.
The story of Fitzmaurice's pilgrimage to Chicago's far Southwest Side begins with Hanora Preston. She was born in Ballingarry, Ireland, in 1859 and immigrated to New York in 1878.
She married Michael Moynihan shorty after her arrival, and the couple had two children, John and Catherine. They then moved to Iowa.
"I believe they followed the railroad. Plus the eldest son ended up working for the railroad," Fitzmaurice said.
In Iowa, Hanora Moynihan had three more children — Henry, Mary and Hanora. Michael Moynihan died in 1890, but Hanora remarried Maurice McCann in Buena Vista County, Iowa, according to records unearthed by Fitzmaurice.
Maurice and Hanora McCann had two children. Ellen was born in 1895, and Joseph was born three years later. Ellen McCann is Fitzmaurice's grandmother on her father's side.
Hanora McCann returned to Ballingarry in 1907 with her two McCann children. Her husband, Maurice, had also died, and her father was ill back home. She later inherited the family farm where she lived the remainder of her life.
Fitzmaurice said she always wondered why her grandmother moved back to Ireland from America. Most of the families that she knew that left the Emerald Isle for the states never returned.
"That's where my mystery started," she said on Monday. "It became an absolute fascination for me."
Fitzmaurice said Catherine and Hanora Moynihan came to Chicago to stay with their aunt and uncle, John and Mary O'Keeffe. The pair were married in Chicago in 1898.
Mary O'Keeffe and her daughter Katherine were also on the Eastland on that fateful day but were rescued when the boat tipped over. Catherine and Hanora Moynihan were likely below deck enjoying some live music. Many of those killed in the accident were trapped on the lower levels, Fitzmaurice said.
John Michael Moynihan is also buried at Mount Olivet. The eldest of the Moynihan siblings died in October 1918 while working as a switchman for the Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad. He was struck by a cart in south suburban Harvey, according to the death certificate Fitzmaurice found among the Cook County records during her visit.
Fitzmaurice could only imagine the horror her great grandmother must have felt while living in Ireland and learning her two daughters were killed on the Eastland. Three years later, she'd receive news of another tragedy befalling her son.
After saying a prayer at the gravesite for the two sisters and at the separate plot for John Moynihan, Fitzmaurice vowed to return to Chicago. She plans to erect small headstones marking the plots of her distant relatives.
Still, she was happy that they were buried in a peaceful place. She also seemed touched by the commemorative ceremonies held on Friday for all the victims of the Eastland disaster.
"It was really really moving," Fitzmaurice said.
She was shocked by some of the details. Authors of books on the disaster described the horrific scene on the day the boat tipped as chaos. Babies floated in the water. Husbands were forced to save either their wife or children. The river was filthy.
And yet, the Eastland disaster is largely considered a forgotten tragedy in Chicago. Eleanor Fitzmaurice believes the spotlight quickly moved to the onset of World War I. She also said that most of the folks were working class, unlike the sinking of the Titanic which killed more than 1,500 people on April 14, 1912.
Paudie Fitzmaurice said that perhaps the wounds were too difficult for the victims' families to even talk about. For some, the commemorative ceremony between LaSalle and Clark streets was the first time the tragedy was openly discussed.
"It was cathartic to tell your story," Eleanor Fitzmaurice said.
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