The DIB and North America


The Dictionary of Irish Biography and North America: a record of diversity

‘A nation’, postulated James Joyce’s character Leopold Bloom, ‘is the same people living in the same place.’ When challenged jocularly by one of his interlocutors that he himself, then, was a nation, for he had been living in the same place for the previous five years, Bloom hastily added: ‘or also living in different places’.

The Dictionary of Irish Biography not only records the lives of those Irish who lived and pursued careers on the island of Ireland, but also those who lived and worked ‘in different places’. Over the centuries, the Irish people have cast a far-flung diaspora, touching many different places, on every continent. The DIB is not per se a dictionary of this diaspora; readers will not find accounts of persons of Irish ancestry who were born outside of Ireland (unless such a person subsequently pursued a career within Ireland, or a career that made a substantial contribution to life within Ireland). The DIB does, however, recount the lives of Irish emigrés: persons born in Ireland who made their marks in other lands.

No overseas region has been a stronger magnet for Irish emigration than the North American continent. Irish emigration to America is often conceived solely as having been post-famine, catholic, and nationalist. The articles in the DIB paint a much lengthier, more complex, and vastly interesting portrait. Irish people in America have been remarkable in their diversity: a threefold diversity of background, of geographic dispersal, and of achievement. From James McGregor (1677–1729), leader of an emigrant band from the Bann valley of Ulster, and first presbyterian minister in Londonderry, New Hampshire; to Michael Flannery (1902–94), Tipperary-born Irish republican activist and founder in 1970 of the Northern Ireland Aid Committee (NORAID), the Irish in America have hailed from each of the four provinces of Ireland, and have represented different religious beliefs, political ideologies, and cultural traditions. From William Russell Grace (1832–1904), international capitalist and first Roman Catholic mayor of New York; to the redoubtable Nellie Cashman (1845–1925), whose prospecting and entrepreneurial ventures ranged from the Arizona deserts to the Alaska tundra, the Irish presence in America has touched every corner of the vast continent. Politicians and priests, soldiers and scientists, actors and industrialists: Irish achievement in America has embraced every field of endeavour.

The DIB recounts several Irish-born figures among the founding fathers of the USA. These include three signatories of the declaration of independence: James Smith (1713–1806) and George Taylor (1716–81), both of Pennsylvania, and Matthew Thornton (1714–1803) of New Hampshire. John Dunlap (1747–1812), official printer to the continental congress, printed the first copies of the declaration. Prominent in the revolutionary war that secured independence was the Wexford-born John Barry (1745–1803), ‘father of the American navy’. Charles Thomson (1729–1824) from Co. Londonderry was secretary to both the continental congress and the confederation congress. Two signatories of the US constitution appear in the DIB: Thomas Fitzsimons (1741–1811) of Pennsylvania, and William Paterson (1745–1806) of New Jersey, who forged the constitutional convention’s ‘great compromise’, and later served as associate justice of the US supreme court.

The White House was designed by architect James Hoban (1762–1831) from Co. Kilkenny. It was burned during the war of 1812 by British troops commanded by a Dublin-born general, Robert Ross (1766–1814) (slain by American sharpshooters three weeks later); Hoban oversaw the building’s reconstruction. The civil war divided the Irish in America as it sundered the American nation. John Mitchel (1815–75) and Thomas Francis Meagher (1823–67), former political allies in the Young Ireland movement at home, and fellow exiles in America, found themselves on opposite sides of the conflict: Mitchel, apologist for slavery and champion of the confederacy; Meagher, commander of the Irish Brigade in the union army. Cavalry officer Myles Keogh (1840–76) fell with Custer at the Little Bighorn; artist John Mulvany (1844–1906) painted one of the first artistic representations of what he termed ‘Custer’s last rally’; mountain man and Indian agent Thomas Fitzpatrick (1799–1854) was remembered by an Arapaho chief as the ‘one fair agent’ his people ever had. In the twentieth century, journalist Cornelius Ryan (1920–74) vividly recorded the experiences of American fighting men, their allies, and their enemies on the Normandy beaches on ‘the longest day’, while Kay Summersby (1908–75) was secretary and chauffeur to the supreme commander of the Normandy invasion, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Throughout the centuries Ireland has provided America with religious leaders and educators. Presbyterian minister Francis Alison (1705–79) engaged in the great theological controversies of his day, helped shape Scots-Irish opinion in America to resist British colonial rule, and was integral to the early development of the universities of Delaware and of Pennsylvania. Gilbert Tennent (1703–64), Alison’s theological adversary as a proponent of ‘new side’ presbyterianism, was a major leader of the religious ‘great awakening’ of the mid-eighteenth century. Catholic religious leaders in the DIB include John Joseph Hughes (1797–1864), first archbishop of New York; Frances Teresa Warde (1810–84), who founded the Sisters of Mercy in the USA, and oversaw the establishment of numerous of the orders’ convents, schools, and hospitals; and the priest Edward Joseph Flanagan (1886–1948), founder of Boys Town.

The Irish in America have made significant contributions in the written and spoken word, in motion pictues, and in music and song. Muckraking publisher Peter Fenelon Collier (1849–1909) founded one of America’s great magazines; Carmel Snow (1887–1961) was editor of both Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar; Maeve Brennan (1917–93) was a popular New Yorker columnist and author of stylishly acerbic short fiction. Theatre in America was enriched by playwright, actor, and impresario Dion Boucicault (1820–90); the ambivalent achievement of the richly talented actor James O’Neill (1845–1920) haunted the genius of his playwright son, Eugene; film director Rex Ingram (1893–1950) is numbered among the masters of the silent era; actor Maureen O’Sullivan (1911–98) graced movie screens in her younger years as Tarzan’s Jane, and in her elder years as mother of Hannah and her sisters. Francis O’Neill (1848–1936) was chief of Chicago’s police force, and collector of a vast store of Irish traditional music, while brothers Tom (1924–90) and Paddy (1922–98) Clancy helped redefine Irish America’s understanding of what was meant by an Irish song.

The DIB preserves the memory of such Irish-born sports figures in America as the original Jack Dempsey (1862–95), the ‘Nonpareil’, middleweight boxing champion of the world in the 1880s; and Martin Sheridan (1881–1918), Con Walsh (1881–1961), and the other medal-winning ‘Irish Whales’, who dominated weight-throwing events in the early Olympic games. In business, science, and technology, the Irish made their mark. James Gamble (1803–91), a soap-maker from Co. Fermanagh, combined with his English-born brother-in-law, a candlemaker named William Procter, to form one of America’s most successful commercial enterprises. Thomas O’Connor (1817–87) was a major Texas cattle rancher. The dogged persistence of engineer John Philip Holland (1841–1914) bore fruit in his invention of the first modern submarine. Scientist and engineer John Forrest Kelly (1859–1922) made important theoretical and practical contributions to the generation and transmission of high-energy electricity.

The diverse achievements of Irish-born immigrants in the twentieth century are typified by the contrasting careers of two nearly exact contemporaries. Jack Mulcahy (1906–94), from Dungannon, Co. Waterford, became an American business tycoon with interests in steel and pharmaceuticals, and was a firm supporter and friend of Richard Nixon. Paul O’Dwyer (1907–98), from Lismirrane, Co. Mayo, was a lawyer specialising in civil rights and civil liberties cases, and a Democratic party activist, who served as president of New York city council. Both men made notable contributions to the country of their birth: Mulcahy was the first Irish-American businessman to invest heavily in Ireland, in both industry and tourism; O’Dwyer, as an intermediary between the Clinton administration and the Irish republican movement, played a key role in the Northern Ireland peace process.

While the emigrés to Canada who appear in the Dictionary are necessarily fewer in number than those who emigrated to its more populous southern neighbour, they too exhibit the same broad diversity of background, dispersal, and achievement. Guy Carleton (1724–1808), 1st Baron Dorchester, soldier, and colonial governor, born in Strabane, Co. Tyrone, was hailed as the ‘saviour of Québec’ after the hostilities of 1775–6; Richard Montgomery (1738–75), from Swords, Co. Dublin, opposed him as commander of one of the invading armies of the continental congress, and was slain in the famous New Year’s Eve night attack. Henry Caldwell (1738–1810) was a soldier, administrator, landowner, entrepreneur, and seigneur in colonial Québec/Lower Canada. Thomas Talbot (1771–1853) supervised and developed a vast settlement on lands in Upper Canada from his residence, Castle Malahide, overlooking Lake Erie. Important figures in the politics of Ontario include journalist and politician Francis Hincks (1807–85), who became premier of Canada West; James Beaty (1798–1892), influential Toronto newspaperman; and the Young Ireland activist turned conservative Canadian journalist, Thomas D’Arcy McGee (1825–68).

The Red River rebellion is represented by William Bernard O’Donoghue (1846–78), treasurer in the provisional government headed by Louis Riel (and subsequently leader of the 1871 Fenian invasion of Manitoba); and by Thomas Scott (1842–70), the anti-Riel adventurer and Canadian ‘martyr’, executed by his Métis captors. Immigrants from Ireland have been especially prominent in the political history of Newfoundland. Patrick Morris (1789–1849), merchant shipowner in whose vessels numerous immigrant settlers arrived on the island, was a major figure in the reform campaign that secured a colonial charter and representative assembly. Three premiers of Newfoundland appear in the DIB: John Kent (1805–72), W. S. Monroe (1871–1952), and Frederick Alderdice (1871–1936) (last premier of Newfoundland as a self-governing dominion). Two of the early provincial premiers of British Columbia were George Anthony Walkem (1834–1908) and Andrew Charles Elliott (1828–89).

Canadian religious leaders in the DIB include the Palatine methodist Barbara Heck (1734–1804), the ‘mother of methodism’ in North America, and loyalist emigré from New York state to upper Canada. Joseph Meldicott Scriven (1819–86) was a Plymouth Brethren preacher and hymnist, composer of ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’. James Louis O’Donel (1737–1811), vicar apostolic of Newfoundland, was the first English-speaking catholic bishop in British North America, while John Joseph Lynch (1816–88) was first catholic archbishop of Toronto.

Cultural life in Canada was enriched by such Irish immigrants as the artist Paul Kane (1810–71), who executed vivid images of native American life on the nineteenth-century frontier; the popular physician poet William Henry Drummond (1854–1907); and playwright John Coulter (1888–1980), whose work drew on the historical experience of both his native and adopted countries. Among the earliest DIB subjects to touch Canadian soil was the bilingual poet Donnchadh ‘Rua’ Mac Conmara (1715–1810), whose satirical macaronic poem ‘As I was walking one evening fair’ is set in the seasonal fishing settlement of St John’s about 1750. On the field of sport, sprinter Robert Kerr (1882–1928) won Olympic gold for Canada in 1908. Merchant Timothy Eaton (1834–1907) founded a major Canadian retail dynasty.

It was an Irish-American president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who described the United States as ‘a nation of immigrants’, a description equally valid if applied to Canada. The Dictionary of Irish Biography enumerates the diverse experiences – the achievements, the tribulations, the controversies – of hundreds of noteworthy immigrants from Ireland to those two great nations across the sea.

Lawrence William White

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