As Saint Patrick's Day approaches, Patch revisits the past, looking at the Irish roots of South Orange. We spoke to Michael Lally last year, who told us about his family's deep roots in the community.
The town’s first police officer was his namesake and grandfather, says Lally, South Orange native, writer and actor. “He was badge number one,” recalls Lally.
The senior Lally was born in 1869 in Ireland and immigrated to the United States in the late 1880s. The family history was compiled by one of the modern Lally's brothers, a Franciscan priest, and family lore has it that the immigrant Lally worked first as a “coachman,” a footman who rode on the back of a carriage when that mode of transportation was common. Lally met his wife, Rose McBride, who was a live-out scullery maid, at a home in South Orange where she worked.
The couple was part of a large Irish population in town, clustered primarily in the neighborhood loosely bounded by Valley and Academy streets and by Hixon Place and Third Street. Michael Lally then worked at the train station. Before the tracks were elevated, his job was raising and lowering the bar to stop South Orange Avenue traffic to allow freight trains to pass. At another stage of his working life before joining the police force, he owned a hardware store and did contracting jobs.
When the senior Lally was hired as the town’s first police officer, his growing family lived on Hixon Place, where neighbors were relatives, according to family lore. “The children—and there were probably 60 or 70—created an Irish village,” he recalls. “The area was called Cabbagetown, and I remember summers when the kids played on the streets. There was no television or air conditioning there, so the adults sat on the stoops. Some families had 15 kids, so there were a lot of us. That’s why Hixon Place was called Lally’s Alley.”
Officer Lally patrolled the town on a bike, but the town invested in patrol cars by the time he retired. He still lived on the corner of Hixon and Valley near the Maplewood border, where South Orange police turned around as they patrolled the community. Lally recalls that his grandfather sat outside daily, saluting the officers who drove past the house.
The contemporary Lally’s South Orange upbringing has found its way into much of his poetry. Lally, who has published 27 books, wrote the autobiographical “South Orange Sonnets,” which led to a New York Poetry Center Discovery Award in 1972. His writing and acting has taken him around the country, but he has recently returned to the area. Family and memory pulled him home, to Lally’s Alley.