The Irish in California

(Right): Hollywood legend James Cagney who had Irish roots.

By Tom Deignan, Contributor
February / March 2008

in 2005, when it became clear that the Ronald Reagan Pub in Ballyporeen, Tipperary was no longer a viable novelty to locals or tourists, Irish-American businessman and Republican booster Frederick Ryan Jr. facilitated the bar’s relocation to Simi Valley, California, also the site of Reagan’s presidential library. This anecdote is humorous and poignant, and – for Irish critics of Reagan – maybe even a bit satisfying.

But it also captures several central themes concerning the Irish experience in California. President Reagan’s great-grandfather Michael was born in Ballyporeen, and moved to London around the time of the Famine. The Reagans – like so many Irish Californians – lived elsewhere in the U.S. before settling in California. Reagan’s father, John, was a practicing Catholic, who converted after marrying a Protestant.

The Rise to Prominence

It was just before and during the early years of John Reagan’s life – the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s – that the Irish rose to prominence in California. During this era, benevolent and fraternal groups such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians,  Hibernian Society, and the Sons of the Emerald Isle were formed.

Over a decade before New York or Boston elected an Irish mayor, San Francisco elected Frank McCoppin, born in Longford, in 1867. But McCoppin’s election as mayor of California’s largest city was just the latest in a string of electoral wins for Irish candidates. Seven years earlier, Roscommon native John G. Downey became the state’s governor. Galway native John Conness was elected a U.S. Senator in 1862 while Westmeath native  Eugene Casserly won election to the same body in 1868. Also during the 1860s, two Irishmen who would have a huge impact on the state’s future politics arrived:  Boss Chris Buckley came to the region at the age of 17 with his immigrant parents in 1862, while perennial reformer James D. Phelan (also the son of immigrants) was born in San Francisco in 1861.

Ronald Reagan’s father, of course, would not achieve quite the same level of fame.  But his son, born in 1911, joined a trail of Irish-American talent that flowed into Hollywood.

Reagan’s second career, as a politician, saw him become the world’s most powerful leader.  Ballyporeen, perhaps, could not sustain the Reagan Pub, but California certainly could.

The Most Irish Americans
Because it is home to the All-American dream factory – Hollywood – as well as the sprawling polyglot metropolis of Los Angeles, California is rarely mentioned as an Irish state on par with the likes of New York or Massachusetts.

But according to the 1990 census, California actually had the largest number of Irish-Americans, with nearly two million residents identifying themselves as Irish.

Movies such as True Confessions (based on John Gregory Dunne’s novel) and L.A. Confidential have touched upon Irish-American characters navigating the underbelly of California urban life in the 1940s and 1950s. But the vast Irish contribution to California stretches back to the days of Spanish colonization and the Gold Rush of 1849. By the early 20th century, Jimmy Cagney, John Wayne and Grace Kelly were members of Hollywood’s Irish royalty, while politicians such as Ronald Reagan and Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan epitomized the endurance of Irish-American political influence.

To this day, new Irish traditions continue to thrive, with schools such as the New College of California, San Francisco, establishing an Irish Studies program. (How the Irish Invented Slang author Daniel Cassidy is one of the directors.)

The Spanish Irish

Two of the most important Irishmen in early California history are Count de Lacy and Hugo Oconor (spellings of his name vary). De Lacy came from a “distinguished Norman-Irish family of aristocratic stature, long prominent in stirring events in Irish history,” Thomas F. Prendergast writes in Forgotten Pioneers: Irish Leaders in Early California. De Lacy was one of the so-called Wild Geese, exiled Irish military men who served in the armies of Spain and other nations across Europe and the Americas.

De Lacy never set foot in the U.S., but while stationed in St. Petersburg in the 1760s he did warn his Spanish superiors that the Russians might be looking to settle the westernmost lands of what would become the United States.

The Spanish set out to settle the region first, led by “Captain Colorado,” as Hugh O’Conor (that is, Hugo Oconor) was known. General Alexander (or Alejandro) O’Reilly also took part in the expedition. All three of these Irish Spaniards battled the Native Americans up and down the West Coast and laid the foundation for European settlement of the state.

By the 1820s, John O’Donoghue, an Irishman, was instrumental in implementing the treaty under which Spain recognized Mexico’s sovereignty, while Wexford native Timothy Murphy was made a regional administrator while living on a ranch of well over 20,000 acres.

The Donner Party

One of the most famous episodes in the history of the Western frontier involved several Irish families and occurred in 1846. Patrick Breen was among those trekking to California as part of the Donner Party. In his diary on November 20, the Irish immigrant wrote: “We went out to the pass, the snow was so deep we were unable to find the road, then turned back to the shanty on the lake. We now have killed most of our cattle, having to stay here until next spring. It snowed during the space of eight days with little intermission.’’
In the end, half of the Donner Party’s 100 or so travelers died.  It could be said that this dark episode marked the end of one era in California, before the start of what would literally be a Golden Age.


The Gold Rush – just before California became a state in 1850 – swelled the region’s population, and the Irish seem to have been particularly attracted. One estimate suggests that gold camps were consistently 10 to 20 percent Irish, while nearly one in four miners at the Grass Valley camp were Irish-born.

Sam Brannan (the son of Irish immigrants from Maine) is believed to be the first person to become a millionaire in the wake of the Gold Rush. By the mid-1850s, Brannan owned about 20 percent of the land in San Francisco. Even those Irish who made a more modest fortune were able to flex their newfound muscle, electing the aforementioned politicians to public office in the 1860s. The roots of San Francisco’s Irish and Democratic machine were being formed.

San Francisco & Los Angeles

As early as the 1860s, San Francisco clearly had a strong Irish Catholic presence.  The city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade started in the early 1850s. Within two decades, 6,000 people marched in the two mile procession, which is said to have drawn over 50,000 spectators. There was sporadic anti-Irish and anti-Catholic organizing, but just as often the Irish were taking advantage of discriminatory sentiments, as when they were among those who fought to keep Chinese laborers out of California.

By contrast, Los Angeles had a more consistently Anglo-Protestant tradition. One 1830s survey lists a single Irish-born resident in the city. Even by 1900, while almost 70 percent of San Francisco’s churchgoers were Catholic, Protestants significantly outnumbered Catholics in L.A.

Still, Irishmen played key roles in the creation of modern-day Los Angeles. Edward Doheny (born to immigrant parents in Wisconsin) went west looking for gold but instead found oil, becoming one of the region’s wealthiest oil tycoons. Daniel Day-Lewis is playing a character based on Doheny in the movie , currently on release, There Will Be Blood. Perhaps even more important to L.A.’s evolution as a city was Belfast-born William Mulholland. Once a lowly worker for the city’s water company, he rose up the ranks to become L.A. Chief City Engineer. It was Mulholland who developed the Los Angeles Aqueduct, delivering water to this thirsty city. Later, John Joseph Cantwell, the Limerick-born bishop of L.A., welcomed Hispanic immigrants with open arms during the first half of the 20th century.


Of course, California’s most famous industry is the motion picture business.  From Hal Roach of Our Gang fame to Joseph P. Kennedy (an executive at RKO), Irish-Americans played a key role during Hollywood’s earliest days. The roster of Irish-Americans who relocated to Hollywood ranges from John Ford and Spencer Tracy in the early days to Roma Downey and Ed Burns today.

As is often the case, however, under the glitzy surface there are darker problems. These days, California’s Irish Catholics struggle with issues related to immigration and abuse. Cardinal Roger Mahony was the public face of the Los Angeles Archdiocese when it settled a multi-million-dollar sex abuse lawsuit.

Finally, a debate regarding the clash of Irish and Hispanic Catholicism in California has erupted. Last year, the New York Times Magazine published a cover story by David Rieff entitled “Nuevo Catholics: The Hispanicization of American Catholicism.”
The “last four decades have been such a catastrophe for American Catholicism,” Rieff notes grimly, reciting a litany of by now familiar statistics about how few American Catholics enter the priesthood or care for their religion deeply. Rieff notes, however, that America’s swelling Hispanic population (centered in Los Angeles, where Rieff did all of his reporting) may breathe new life into the American Church, thus transforming it from an Irish institution to a Hispanic one.

But famed Irish-American priest and sociologist Andrew Greeley believes the California Irish deserve credit for helping the Church make a transition into the 21st century.

Indeed, whether you agree more with Greeley or Rieff, one thing all of this makes clear is just how Irish the current Church remains. Rieff talks at length with an L.A. parish priest named Jarlath Cunnane, a Sligo native. Rieff also talks to priests named O’Connell, Boyle and Carroll. You could make the case that the U.S.  Catholic Church is so thoroughly Irish that it will remain “Irish” even when those O’Connells and Boyles are replaced by Guzmans and Lopezes. This makes perfect sense.  After all, it was the Irish and Spanish who created California as we know it.

The Future

Technology has created a new Gold Rush of sorts in California. Late last year, Irish trade minister Michael Martin visited Palo Alto to meet with founding members of the Irish Technology Leadership Group. Made up of Silicon Valley Irish executives, the group, established by Palm Inc. Senior Vice President John Hartnett, includes current and former executives from Sling Media, Intuit, Apple, Intel, Cisco and Hewlett-Packard, and aims to help Ireland take advantage of fledgling technological opportunities.

3 Responses to “The Irish in California”

  1. Mary Moore says:

    loved reading about the Irish hx of Ca.

    Mary V

  2. This article rather jumps all over the place. Need to settle down, writer. To say a Hispanic California is really Irish? What about the first mayor of San Francisco and final alcalde, Mr. Geary? Also I believe California’s first governor was Irish. What about the Donahue brothers who founded what eventually became PG&E? What about the Silver Barons whose Nevada Bank became Wells Fargo? You have many articles all jumbled together in your piece, which I find irritating. Better to make several articles of it and go more in depth. Who cares about the repressive Catholic Church anyway?

    Try again.


    • st. modestus says:

      I am irish spanish then Mexican american born 1955 in cailfornia. I war born from an Irishman, and a Spanish from spain,Then mexican from Mexcico. iam a fulblooded immirgrint amercan human being.And iam the bloodline of St. Modestus from irland from the 8th century A.d and mother of god has followed this bloodline for almost 600 years, and iam catholic. Love,Life, and humanity for as long as i live life on this earth take care, a friend St, modestus from modesto ca.

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