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Q & A: Jack McEneny digs deep into history, Irish-American heritage

Q & A: Jack McEneny digs deep into history, Irish-American heritage

Jack McEneny’s inquisitive mind finds many different things interesting, but the two subjects at the

Jack McEneny’s inquisitive mind finds many different things interesting, but the two subjects at the top of his list are local history and Irish-American genealogy.

The Democratic Assemblyman from the 104th District for the past 12 years, McEneny grew up in the Pine Bush section of Albany wanting to teach history, and notwithstanding his day job, he’s done exactly that. While his position as assemblyman keeps him pretty busy at the state capitol, McEneny still finds time to talk about history and to share the knowledge he’s learned about his Irish-American roots.

Irish-American Genealogy, Jack McEneny

WHERE: Schenectady County Historical Society, 32 Washington Avenue, Schenectady

WHEN: Saturday, 1:30 p.m. reception and 2 p.m. program

HOW MUCH: Free and open to the public

MORE INFO: 374-0263 or www.schist.org

The author of the book “Albany: Capital City on the Hudson,” McEneny speaks to various groups about a variety of different subjects, and this Saturday at the Schenectady County Historical Society, the topic will be Irish-American genealogy. A reception will be held at 1:30 p.m., with the program scheduled to start at 2 p.m. The public is invited free of charge.

McEneny is a graduate of Christian Brothers Academy in Albany, and holds a B.A. in history from Siena College and certificates in Community Development and Public Administration from New Mexico State University School of Agriculture and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia, and returned home to Albany in 1965 to begin his public service career as a social services caseworker. McEneny was also the director of the Albany County Neighborhood Youth Corps and worked for Albany Mayor Erastus Corning in a variety of capacities, including Albany City Historian. In 1985 he became the first full-time director of the State Urban Cultural Parks Program (now known as Heritage Areas), and in 1992 he was appointed Chief of Staff to Assemblyman Richard J. Connors, D-Albany. When Connors decided not to seek election in 1996, McEneny took up the reins and won both the primary and general election.

McEneny lost his wife, Barbara, to cancer in December of 2005. They had married in 1968 and raised four children, John, Rachel, Daniel and Maeve. McEneny, who resides in Albany, also has a granddaughter named Madeline.

Q: When did you become interested in history?

A: I was a child of older parents, and I also grew up around my 90-year-old grandmother. We were the last house on the block to get a television set, so I was always fascinated with oral histories and trying to figure out why people moved here and there. I always wanted to be a history teacher and I did do some substitute teaching at Hackett Junior High School. But then, I ended up getting a summer job in the Neighborhood Youth Corps and that just blossomed into other things.

Q: Why do you find history so fascinating?

A: Being a historian, you get to ask a lot of personal questions, and for me I think it was my own family history that really triggered my interest. I can remember getting out of my job at 4 p.m. and heading on a dead run to the old Education Building, where I would go down in the basement and literally read the 1855 census from cover to cover. I found that sort of thing very interesting, and I wasn’t looking on the Internet or microfilm. It was the hard copy.

In one census, I discovered that Tom McEneny was out of work for seven of the previous 12 months. When you read that, suddenly the Panic of 1873 takes on a whole new meaning.

You can see how a family with nine children was affected, and understand why some of those kids had to drop out of school to work, even though they had good grades. It changes something very abstract and academic into something very real and personal.

Q: What was the biggest myth you learned about your Irish-American heritage?

A: There’s an assumption that most of our ancestors came over to America and went through Boston or New York to get here. That’s the stereotypical notion, but a lot of the impoverished Irish went to Canada and then walked down to different places in New York.

Another thing I learned is that it wasn’t good manners to talk about the bad times too much. When the potato famine killed a million people outright and forced more than another million to leave their ancestral home, people didn’t want to talk about it. It was just too painful.

It’s like the Jews talking about the Holocaust, or World War II veterans talking about the war. They have to be a safe academic distance away from the event before they open up about their experiences.

When I went to Siena to study history, they all assumed I knew all about Irish history but I didn’t. My parents didn’t talk about it, and I’m sure my grandparents didn’t talk to them about it.

Q: What’s your favorite time period in history?

A: Every great-grandparent I have lived and died in Albany, and of my eight great-grandparents, six were born in Ireland and the other two were born in Albany of Irish parents. Nobody got here before 1825 and no one came after 1850, so it’s that time period, the post-famine era up to the Civil War experience that really fascinates me.

A lot of Americans were not very accepting of the Irish up until the Civil War. Prior to that they were very suspect as foreigners. People thought they were going to be loyal to the Vatican and would never be good Americans. The Civil War changed all that.

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