Pennsylvania’s Irish

Sean Connery as Jack Kehoe in the 1970 movie The Molly Maguires.

By Tom Deignan, Contributor
December / January 2008

From the coal mines to Hollywood, the Pennsylvania Irish have shaped America for over three centuries.

William Penn may have been a trailblazer when it came to American freedom and religious tolerance.  But in the eyes of his father, he was a scandalous disappointment. Penn’s father (also William) served under Cromwell in Munster and he took part in the 1646 siege of Bunratty Castle in Clare. Following his service in the Royal Navy during the English Civil War, Admiral Penn (whose namesake son was born in 1644) was rewarded with several estates in Ireland. In the long run, the Penns’ connection to Ireland led to family shame – and shaped an American state whose ties to Ireland have been strong for three centuries now.

Pennsylvania’s Irish Roots

The younger William Penn spent a substantial portion of his youth in Ireland. At the age of 23, he was living in Cork when, having pondered his family’s role in the violent colonization of Ireland, he converted to the pacifist religion of the Quakers. His father was appalled, but Penn went on to spread the Quaker message from London to Dublin to the American colonies.

Penn’s early missionary work took him to a settlement known as West Jersey in which he (along with 17 Irishmen) was a shareholder. Thus, Penn ensured that the future city of Philadelphia – and state of Pennsylvania – had strong Irish roots.

In the decades and centuries to follow, Pennsylvania would serve as the cradle of American freedom and the site of deadly anti-Irish riots. The state’s largest cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, would respectively produce beauty Grace Kelly and dancer Gene Kelly. More broadly, the Pennsylvania Irish have given America the acclaimed novelist John O’Hara, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick and Villanova University.

Meanwhile, the canals and mining camps in the state’s rural sections would attract tens of thousands of Irish immigrants – many of whom died in accidents. Or, in the infamous case of the Molly Maguires, at the gallows’ pole.

To this day, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Irish immigrants play an important political role. With the presidential race looming, Pennsylvania is again considered one of the most important swing states – and its Irish and Catholic residents the ultimate swing voters.

A Holy Experiment

William Penn envisioned the future state of Pennsylvania as a “Holy Experiment.”  Penn’s Quakers were persecuted in England (though not Ireland) so the colony’s founders made efforts to reach out to minorities, including non-English immigrants, Catholics and even Native Americans. Though its founders were heavily Quaker, Irish immigration to Pennsylvania during the 1700s was largely Presbyterian and Scotch Irish. Roughly half of all Irish immigrants settled in and around Philadelphia, while the other half went further west to rural areas.

When the revolutionary elite descended upon Philadelphia on the eve of America’s break from Britain, the Declaration of Independence may have been conceived and written by Franklin, Adams and Jefferson. But it was printed by a local Irish immigrant from Tyrone named John Dunlap.

By the 1770s, Philadelphia’s Irish community was so strong it decided to form a benevolent group which still exists to this day. The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick was founded in Philly on St. Patrick’s Day in 1771.  It was made up of prominent merchants and military men, such as Commodore John Barry and Cork native Stephen Moylan, a close aide to Washington who later became the Friendly Sons’ first president.  From the start, the Friendly Sons was made up of both Catholics and Protestants. This certainly fit William Penn’s original harmonious vision. After all, Pennsylvania was one of the few colonies that did not ban Catholic religious services.

Jefferson and the Irish

As America grew in the 1780s and 1790s, Philadelphia became the nation’s capital and center of political debate, where newspapers flourished. One prominent publisher and pundit was William Duane, who grew up in Dublin. In 1795, Duane became editor of the Philadelphia Aurora and, during the presidential election of 1800, helped swing the vote to Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson was running against John Adams and the Federalist Party, which advocated the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts, which targeted Irish (as well as French) immigrants. Jefferson later said his victory could not have been possible without Duane and the Aurora.

Away from the intellectual fervor of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Irish were forging more modest lives. Consider County Donegal immigrant James Crockett and his wife Hannah. They purchased over 100 acres of land in western Pennsylvania, after Crockett struggled for nearly 20 years as a Philadelphia stonemason. In an 1822 letter to his father in Ireland, Crockett wrote:

“Twelve years ago, for $2.00 an acre, I bought the land where I now live. It looked a wild, uncultivated place to make a living, nothing but trees and bushes to be seen. But I went to work with my axe and grubbing hoe, and soon felled as many trees as would build a house and clear enough ground for our first crop. It is killing on nature to work outdoors in this country, the summers are so hot and the winters so cold, but I now have 30 acres cleared, 20 cattle, and a good harvest. We are happy and contented. Our house is small but our barn is full. Thank God I came to this country where we are free from landlords, rent and the fear of eviction.”

So many Irish immigrants, such as Crockett, used the Great Wagon Road, which runs from Pennsylvania to Georgia, that it came to be called the “Irish Road.”

The Canals and the Riots

As was the case throughout the U.S., more and more Irish Catholics came to Pennsylvania during the first decades of the 1800s.  Once arrived, there was hard work to be done.  The Pennsylvania Canal from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh was completed in the 1830s.  Naturally, with this hard work came demands for better conditions. Three hundred Philadelphia coal heavers, in 1835, went on strike and called for a 10-hour day.

The Irish of Pennsylvania would spend the first half of the 19th century digging canals, and the second half digging in the mines.

Meanwhile, by the 1840s, William Penn’s vision of tolerance was about to face its toughest test. In 1844, a number of Irish homes, two Catholic churches and a Sisters of Mercy seminary were all burned to the ground by nativist mobs.  The Irish responded by violently disrupting a meeting held by the anti-immigrant American Party.  The Philadelphia Riots illustrated the wave of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment spreading across the U.S. at the height of the Famine. At the same time, the Pennsylvania Irish were advancing. Just a year before the riots, in September 1843, Father John Possidius O’Dwyer was named president of a new Augustinian University in Philadelphia.  Villanova, as the school was called, would go on to educate generations of Pennsylvania’s Irish Catholics.

Pennsylvania, of course, was the site of the famous turning point of the U.S. Civil War.  In 1863, the pivotal battle of Gettysburg unfolded in which Pennsylvania’s 69th Irish Volunteers played a central role. These mostly Irish-born soldiers helped turn back Pickett’s doomed charge.

The Molly Maguires

In some ways, Pennsylvania would experience its own civil war in the 1870s, when workers and their unions battled owners and industrialists. One of the most notorious labor episodes in U.S. history unfolded in Pennsylvania’s coal region, when Irish miners formed a union to counter harsh policies of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad. A faction within the union, calling itself the Molly Maguires, often used intimidation and even violence to pressure management. Twenty alleged Mollys were ultimately hanged in 1877, based on what is now believed to be flimsy evidence.

A more moderate figure in the Pennsylvania labor movement was Terence V. Powderly, one of 12 children born to Irish immigrants who settled in Carbondale. Powderly later became affiliated with a secret labor group that came to be known as The Knights of Labor, the most influential union of the late 19th century. Again, in keeping with William Penn’s vision, the Knights reached out to African Americans as well as women, such as Irish immigrant Leonora Barry, who led a key Knights committee.

The Pennsylvania union movement was strong, but unsafe working conditions still often led to tragedy. In June of 1896, 135 miners became trapped in a Pittston mine, just outside of Scranton.  Two hundred acres of ground above the Twin Shaft mine caved in.  The bodies of the mostly-Irish miners were never recovered.

The 20th Century

As the Pennsylvania Irish assimilated, they left the canals and the mines, and dynamic artists emerged.  Gene Kelly (born 1912) and Grace Kelly (born 1929) hailed from Pennsylvania’s cities, while famed novelist John O’Hara was born in Pottsville in 1905.

One character in O’Hara’s best-seller Butterfield 8 summed up the author’s sense of Irishness:

“I want to tell you something about myself that will help to explain a lot of things about me. You might as well hear it now. First of all, I am a Mick. I wear Brooks [Brothers] clothes and I don’t eat salad with a spoon and I probably could play five-goal polo in two years, but I am a Mick. Still a Mick.”

Irish political and church leaders left their mark on the state as well. The “father of the Pittsburgh Renaissance,” David Lawrence, was mayor of the Steel City from 1946 to 1959.  Before Lawrence’s election, Pittsburgh was a smog-choked city regularly beset by floods. Lawrence not only cleaned up the city’s streets and air, he brought Pittsburgh’s moribund economy into the 20th century. Lawrence, according to one survey of great American mayors, loved to tell “Irish and Catholic stories as if he were straight off the boat from County Mayo.”

Philadelphia did not elect an Irish Catholic mayor until James H.J. Tate in 1962.  But Archbishop Dennis Dougherty (the son of an immigrant coal miner) was a powerhouse in his native city for decades, before dying in 1951.

Today’s most prominent Pennsylvania Irishman is Senator Robert P. Casey, whose father rose from the ranks of the Democratic machine to become governor. Casey is unusual because he is a Democrat but also a devout Catholic and thus opposed to abortion.  Casey attempts to find a harmonious middle ground when it comes to the thorny politics of abortion and religion. William Penn would be proud.

15 Responses to “Pennsylvania’s Irish”

  1. Matthew P. Patterson, DMD says:

    What about Irish railroad workers?
    Are you familiar with the Duffy’s Cut Project?

  2. Joseph T O'Donnell says:

    Nice macro story of the Pennsylvania Irish. I especially liked the individual story of the Irish Immigrant James Crockett from County Donegal, who came to America and was free to make his own life. I can
    relate to this story as I wrote a story about my father -a Donegal man- who built his way out of a tough and suffocating Philadelphia alley. In 1967 my father would build a house near alone with six kids in tow, no wages and one tool box.
    I thought you may enjoy reading about it. I have two links attached. The first link is where youcan find the story and the second ia an article done by the Springfield Sun newspaper about the current owners of my father’s house. Thanks!
    Joe O’Donnell



  3. Great subject .Great writing.Great Magazine and website.



  5. duncan says:

    merp you are a boy!

  6. Karen Maleske says:

    I am trying to find out any information on a Betsy O’Lynn orBetsy Lynn in the 1820 timeframe who had a daughter named Eliza Ann Hale. Eliza is my great great great grandmother and I am anxious to find her family. Thank You

  7. Dave D says:

    Trying to find out info relating to emigrants from Laois, Ireland in the 1950s and 60’s who went to mine anthracite in PA

  8. Dave D says:

    Trying to find out info relating to emigrants from Laois, Ireland in the 1950s and 60’s who went to mine anthracite in PA. Thank you!

  9. Pam Ashenmacher says:

    Hello! If a young woman traveled from Ireland to Pennsylvania in 1841, and then married a U.S. citizen, would it be likely that in census schedules she might say she was born in the U.S. for some reason? Perhaps because it wasn’t very popular to be Irish then? She was my third great-grandmother. The reason I wonder is that in the 1880 U.S. census her son (my great, great grandfather) has indicated she was born in Ireland. I don’t see this in any of the other census schedules earlier. Any insight on this is appreciated!
    This woman’s name was Isabel (Isabelle, Isabella) Smith and married name became Isabel Turner.

    • Anna says:

      This may be the case. We are currently hunting down my mom’s side of the family who were in western PA. My great grandfather was Joseph Leo Wilson, and my great grandmother Lois Margaret Carothers. Turns out, she took her step-father’s name. Also turns out that Joseph Leo Wilson had changed his name from Carothers to Wilson, but with no clear time for when it happened. She married her step-uncle. But anywho, we are trying to find more information on them. The Carothers’ mother was Anna “Annie” Nellis/Neiles/McNellis (it changes from document to document) and the family appears to be from County Donegal.
      Joseph Leo’s name change to Wilson is rather interesting, but not unheard of.

      • Meg says:

        I recognize the last name” Mcnellis “from Pennsylvania this large somewhat confusing family are from Donagel and in my ancestry tree 🙂 Hannah mcnellis is my GG grandmother. Annie mcnellis is her younger sister or half sister, I believe. Feel free to contact me if your searching for more info on this fam.

  10. Jacqueline says:

    Thank you for this very informative article. I am now beginning to understand why some of my Bangor Erris (County Mayo) area families went to America. My own grandparents’ family stayed in Ireland but my grandparents emigrated to Northumberland in England where other families also from the same area settled – most became coal miners.

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