“1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History”

Regular readers of this blog know
that our paternal family originated primarily in Ireland. In fact, I’ve traced members of our family with the surnames Dunn, Grace, Nolan, Ring and Cavanaugh - each of which are part of our paternal ancestral family lines - back to those who risked everything to cross the ocean when they emigrated to the United States.

It’s been a very interesting process – one that is ongoing as I continue assembling our family history.

In the process of researching our family’s stories I came across a book called, “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History” by Edward T. O’Donnell. The book is an amazing and interesting collection of short “stories” about all things Irish American, numbered for easy reference.

Following are a few excerpts from the book to give readers the flavor of it. The numbering is the same as that of the book itself.


127. Sources of Early Immigration

The Irish were among the earliest settlers in the European colonies that formed along the Atlantic coast in the 1600s. The great majority came as impoverished persons displaced by war, land seizure, and economic change. Some elected to go voluntarily, boldly striking out in search of new opportunities in the New World. Unable to afford the cost of passage, many signed on as indentured servants. Others were involuntary migrants - generally convicts, subversives, or the victims of upheavals brought on by the likes of Cromwell and William of Orange - sold into servitude and transported to the Americas. As trade between England and Ireland and the New World increased in the eighteenth century, so, too, would the rate of emigration from Ireland.


132. James Murray Writes Home

Like many an Irishman before him and since, James Murray of County Tyrone found America to his liking because of the combination of economic and political freedom it offered. In 1737, he took the time to write a letter home to his minister so that he might pass on the good word to his kin and friends:

“Read this letter, and look, and tell aw [all] the poor Folk of your Place, that god has opened a Door for their Deliverance; for here is ne [no] scant of Bread ... Ye may get Lan [land] here for 10 pund a Hundred Acres for ever, and Ten Years Tell ye get the Money before they wull ask ye for it; and it is within 40 miles of this York upon a River Side that this Lan lies, so that ye may carry aw [all] the Guds in Boat to this York to sell, if ony [any] of you comes here .... Desire my Fether and Mether too, and my Three Sisters to come here ... and I will pay their passage ... I bless the Lord for my safe Journey here ... this York is as big as twa [two] of Armagh .... There is servants comes here out of Ereland, and have served there [sic] time here, wha [who] are now Justices of the Piece.”


134. Indentured Servants

Some Irish immigrants in this period arrived as skilled artisans. But for every skilled artisan or aspiring farmer, there were countless Irish who arrived in American as poor unskilled laborers. Unable to pay their passage, many signed contracts of indenture with ship captains, who in turn auctioned them off upon arrival in America. The contract bound the indentured servant to a term of service for four to seven years at the completion of which he or she received some land, money, or both. Some, like Daniel Dulany, were fortunate. He arrived in 1703, survived his indenture, studied law, rose to become a judge, Attorney General, and a member of the colonial legislature and Governor's Council. Far too many others died before their term expired (especially, if they landed in disease-prone the South), or survived to face a life of low paid manual labor.


222. The Myth of Mrs. O'Leary's Cow and the Great Chicago Fire

Some have argued that anti-Irish sentiment explains the story of Mrs. O'Leary and the Great Chicago Fire. According to popular legend, thirty-five-year-old Catherine O'Leary left a lantern burning in her barn in 1871. When it was kicked over by one of the cows, it started the fire that would engulf Chicago for a day and a half. Flames towered at five hundred feet, trees full of sap exploded, metal structures melted, seventeen thousand buildings disappeared, and more than three hundred people died.

Today, however, research indicates that Daniel Sullivan went to feed his cow in O'Leary's barn and dropped a match or lantern in the straw. In fact, in 1891, two reporters admitted to exaggerating, even fabricating, the story about Mrs. O'Leary. Unfortunately, the damage was done; she had been driven away and lived out her life as a recluse.

The extent of the fire can really be blamed on factors such as an inadequate fire brigade, non-enforced building codes, little rain, and powerful winds. In 1997, Chicago officially absolved Mrs. O'Leary of all blame.


339. Bugs Moran

A notorious Chicago gangster, George "Bugs" Moran's (1893-1957) parents were Irish and Polish immigrants. Moran became the second in command of Dion O'Banion's North Siders gang, and ended up on the wrong side of Al Capone, who ordered the famed mass rubout known as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Moran may have relied on the "luck of the Irish" that day, as he missed being killed because he showed up late. Moran's gang gradually lost power and prestige, and Moran moved to Ohio, where he began robbing banks. He was caught by the FBI in 1946, and died in Leavenworth Prison in 1957.


340. Dion O'Banion

Charles "Dion" O'Banion (1892-1924) grew up the Little Hell district on Chicago's North Side. He walked with a limp, and sang in the Holy Name Cathedral choir. Later, he became a singing waiter who crooned sentimental Irish ballads while picking his patrons' pockets. Gradually, he became the infamous leader of the North Siders gang. He learned early how to bribe officials and silence witnesses. Bootleg liquor and gambling were his big money makers. He covered up his activities by operating a flower shop. It amused him to provide funeral flowers for some of his gangster cronies who'd met their Maker. Eventually he ran afoul of John Torrio, one of Chicago's major crime bosses, and was gunned down in his flower shop.


588. The Irish in the Civil War

The Civil War provided the Irish in America with a superb, if grim, opportunity to disprove the nativist claim that they would never make loyal, patriotic citizens. More than 144,000 Irish-born served in the Union Army. In addition, tens of thousands of American-born Irish also served. Thousands ended up giving their lives for the Union and eighty-nine Irish-born soldiers would earn Congressional Medals of Honor.

One of the reasons so many Irish served in the Civil War was their relative poverty. Many Irish immigrants stepped off ships in America and were immediately confronted by Union Army recruiters offering two-to three-hundred-dollar cash bonuses for enlistment. For penniless immigrants with no specialized skills, this offer - equal to a year's pay at the beginning of the war - was too good to refuse.

Another inducement to enlistment was an appeal to nationalism. Many regiments were formed under ethnic names like Mulligan's Brigade and Corcoran's Legion. The recruiting posters often made clear that England, Ireland's historic oppressor, was sympathetic to the Confederacy. Some hoped to gain military experience that they could later use in an uprising in Ireland against British rule. Indeed, many of the most ardent Fenians of the late 1860s were veterans of the Union Army.


612. Irish American Opposition to the U.S. Entry into the War

When World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, Irish Americans joined the rest of America in opposing U.S. involvement. For most Americans, this was simply an expression of traditional American isolationism. For Irish Americans, however, there were additional reasons, most especially the long-standing belief that whatever was bad for England had to be good for Ireland. At the very least they balked at the idea of American soldiers - no doubt many of them Irish-American - being sent to die on behalf of His Majesty's empire. They rejected John Redmond's decision to pledge Irish support to the British war effort as a means to gain home rule after the war. Irish American opposition reached its apex in the months following the 1916 Easter Rising and summary executions of the leaders. Still, when the U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917, Irish Americans set aside their nationalist ideals and cast their support to the American cause.


905. Railroad Builders

Like the grim experience of canal digging, a popular saying in the era of railroad building had it that there was "an Irishman buried under every [railroad] tie." Irishmen built most of the railroads in the east before the Civil War, and many of those constructed afterward. The greatest road of all, the transcontinental railroad (completed in 1867), was built by a combination of Irish, Mexican, Chinese, and German workers. The work was arduous and very dangerous, especially when sending a road through mountainous areas, and countless Irish workers perished in cave-ins and explosions; still more died of diseases that raged in the camps. Wages in the 1840s were as low as seventy cents per day and stayed low for decades to come.

As with canal digging, there were numerous incidents of gang violence, often between different groups of Irish immigrants. In one incident on the Erie Railroad in 1847, Corkonians were attacked and driven off by a gang of Far Downers. There was more at stake here than old county rivalries. In many cases, groups of workers were attacked and driven off so as to provide work for the victors. As if to emphasize this point, not long after driving off the Corkonians, the Far Downers battled a German work crew. Similar incidents occurred wherever the railroad went west, where the Irish clashed with Chinese and Mexican workers.


Here’s a link to info about the book.

Here’s a link to a site where you can buy a copy of the book. I highly recommend it!
Last revised 10/19/2010

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