Catherine Gregory

Donegal Daily motoring columnist Brian McDaid this week recounts a story told by the driver of the Galway to Derry Express, Ronnie Reilly from Ballybofey. Here is that amazing journey of a very special Donegal lady and her great adventure:

New World.

In 1901 Ronnie’s grandmother, Catherine Gregory made her journey to Derry to start on the journey of a lifetime.

Catherine Gregory was born on Donegal St. in Ballybofey in 1885. When she was just 16 she made the journey from Stranorlar Train Station to Derry and was departing from Ireland bound for America.

As Ronnie was telling me her story I could just imagine her looking back to where we were standing up on the Derry Walls as she set sail bound for New York.

In 1901 that journey took six weeks, she was chaperoned by a fellow Finn Valley lady, Miss Bates who was already working in New York for years and had put in a good word for Catherine where she worked in Park Avenue.

Miss Bates’ employers were looking for a good girl to do housework. and Catherine was successful in getting the job.

On her arrival in America Catherine first had to disembark at Ellis Island where immigrants were screened to filter out anyone arriving with a contagious disease.

Ellis Island

Ronnie’s grandmother got work in the home of an author and humorist called Samuel Langhorne Clemens who worked under the pseudonym of “Mark Twain”.

To a young girl from Donegal, he was her employer and she was there to work.

She was his housekeeper and believed in doing her job right.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain, the famous author asked her on a couple of occasions not to tidy up his room, but Catherine, thinking if she didn’t do her job right she might lose her employment, so she decided to give his room a light tidying anyway.

When the famous writer arrived home, he summoned his cleaner, Catherine: “why did you clean the room when I asked you not to.”

The Donegal housekeeper replied that she only lightly dusted the place. Mark Twain told her by doing so she moved all his thoughts all around the room. He said: “In future, Catherine, even if you see a dead man lying on the floor, don’t move him, just step around him.”

Catherine’s gritty determination was admired by Twain and soon she was promoted to the post of his secretary. Catherine was also to meet “The richest man in the world”, Andrew Carnegie, himself also an emigrant to America from Scotland.

He worked on the railways and progressed through the ranks to make his fortune in the steel business. Catherine was told he was coming to visit Mark Twain but no one thought to tell Catherine that he would be dressed as a tramp, so people would not recognise him.

An image courtesy of Sotheby’s website proudly exhibiting the hand written inscription from mark twain to his Donegal employee, Catherine Gregory on one of the books that the author gave to Catherine when she worked as his personal secretary in America.

When Catherine open the door and seen a tramp standing there, she moved him along so he wouldn’t be there when Mr. Carnignie arrived!

Longing for home.

Catherine worked for Twain for 7 years before she decided to go home to Ireland for a holiday. Catherine made the long journey back home to Donegal and was to meet her future husband Bob Gillespie while on holidays in Ireland.

I couldn’t but just imagine what it was like for Catherine Gregory when she arrived back from America into Derry’s dockside, then to take the train up through St. Johnston, Strabane and back home to Stranorlar Station.

It must have been very welcoming for her to see the dark blue station sign, “Stranorlar “in the station all them years ago.

I’m sure her grandson Ronnie now looks at that same old sign nowadays as he parks up the express bus in what now has become the bus station which now replaced the train that his granny once travelled on to and from America all them years ago.

With her holidays over Catherine was to return to America for five more years.

Always a prolific letter writer with exquisite hand writing, sending letters home, which in turn made her homesick. Catherine and Mark Twain would regularly talk about her home in Ireland, about the River Finn and how it flowed through the Twin Towns of Ballybofey and Stranorlar.

They talked about Bob Gillespie and knew that Donegal and her future husband would finally draw her home again.

Catherine always remembers how Mark Twain encouraged her to follow her dreams and believe in herself as a person.

When Catherine finally decided to go home to Donegal for good, Mark Twain was to give his friend and loyal employee signed copies of his famous books.

Precious records of a wondrous experience.

This week putting the final pieces to this great jigsaw of Catherine’s great experience, I had the great privilege of seeing and handling one of them great books that Mark Twain gave to her complete with an authenticated signature of the great author.

A red bounded book beautifully preserved entitled “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.

It was just one of the books that Catherine received from her friend Mark Twain. Catherine also received a copy of the book “The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” which was the last completed novel that Mark Twain produced before he died.

On that copy Mark included a special inscription to Catherine accompanied with one of his famous quotes, “Its better to deserve honors and not have them than to have them and not deserve them”.

I included the keys of my van along side Mark Twain’s signature on one of his books which looked at h this week was given to Catherine Gregory by her employer and friend Mark Twain which her grandchildren are now so proud of. Photo Brian McDaid

When you consider when Catherine arrived back to Ireland around 1910 it would be 7 more years before the great American car maker, Henry Ford would arrive in Ireland to build his model T Ford Motor Car in Cork.

The age of steam was at its height in Ireland for travel. Catherine’s local railway station in Stranorlar had recently taken delivery of a new 3 ft. narrow gauge locomotive built for the County Donegal Railways by Nesmith & Wilson.

The Donegal train “Meenglass” which was new in 1907 and could have been one of the trains Catherine Gregory travelled on to start her journey to America it is now on show outsider the Railway Museum in Derry. Photo Brian McDaid

It originally was  No.16 and named “Donegal” then in 1926 it then was renamed and renumbered as No. 4 “Meenglass” which just fits in perfectly for our great journey, as that very locomotive now sits  outside the present day train museum in Derry, which was built on the same  location of the train station where Catherine started her amazing journey from all those years ago.

Talking to one of her grand daughters Georgie Reilly, see recalls the fondest of memories of a very positive woman, who came back from America to marry Bob Gillespie and live in Carrickshanndrum, Crossroads.

It was just great to listen to their granny recounting humorous anecdotes of the day-to-happenings in the Twain household. Catherine loved music and could always be heard humming what ever tune was on the radio. And if the music had a good beat to it, the youthful grandmother, who lived into her 90’s could dance around the kitchen floor waltzing with the brush or broom.

Georgie often thinks as she reads about Huck Finn’s escapades on the Mississippi and of her granny Gillespie who all through her life remained a loyal supporter of that great author that was Mark Twain.


And finally…

I feel a bit like Aussie Bryson and his poem about Beedy’s in Dungloe or Only Fools and Horses on the chances of ending up in Sotheby’s.

What, you may ask, has Rodney and Del-boy got to do with this story.

Well I typed in Mark Twain and Catherine Gregory’s names into a search just for the craic online and low and behold it went straight through to Sotheby’s!

I was so proud to find Catherine’s personal inscription from one of the best-known writers in America, Mark Twain. which have been authenticated by one of the most famous auction houses in the world.

Happy motoring folks.