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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

IRISH - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

IRISH. Cleveland's Irish population, like that in many other cities, did not reach a significant number until the potato famine immigrations in the late 1840s. Unlike those in many Eastern Seaboard cities, Cleveland's Irish never exerted influence beyond their numbers, though they have been part of the city's diverse ethnic community and activities since the first immigrants from Ireland arrived ca. 1820. The Irish continued to trickle into the city, and approx. 500 were in Cleveland in 1826, many of them helping to build the OHIO AND ERIE CANAL. But the Irish population did not reach significant proportions until 1848, when 1,024 immigrants were in Cleveland. Reflecting the clannishness of their forebears in the old country, the greater part of the Irish immigrants who came to Cleveland were from the poor but independent County Mayo in the west of Ireland. Despite being agrarian in Ireland, they did not farm in the Cleveland area, instead becoming laborers who unloaded ships or worked in the steel mills that were opening along the CUYAHOGA RIVER and in NEWBURGH. By 1870 the Irish population had grown to almost 10,000, which represented 10% of Cleveland's total population. Though still more Irish would come to Cleveland, Irish immigration would not keep up with the city's rapid growth, and by 1900, the 13,120 Irish comprised only 3.5% of the total community.

Most of the Irish clustered around the east and west banks of the Cuyahoga River's mouth, particularly in the bend of the river known as the ANGLE, though a significant Irish community was located along Detroit St. on the west side. By 1930 only 8,113 Irish immigrants were living in the Cleveland metropolitan area, and although estimates of Irish descendants living in Cleveland in 1970 ranged from 37,000 to 100,000, no Irish neighborhoods remained. Most Irish were Roman Catholic (see CATHOLICS, ROMAN), but some Protestant Scots-Irish lived in the area from its founding. In Cleveland, as elsewhere in the country, the Scots-Irish assimilated quickly into the mainstream population and lost their group identity, while the Roman Catholic Irish clustered together in recognizable communities. To encourage the continuance of Catholicism in northern Ohio, the state was divided into 2 dioceses, and in 1847 LOUIS AMADEUS RAPPE† was appointed the first bishop of the northern third of the state. Rappe, a French missionary in Ohio since 1840, had visited Cleveland several times during the decade, where he discovered the early victims of the Irish famine crowding in ghettos. Appealing for help to his native France, he attracted to Cleveland several priests and seminarians, along with needed funds.

Rappe began to build a community spirit with religion as the focal point. In 1848 he started a seminary and in 1851 a convent, an orphanage, and a children's hospital were opened. The latter cared, for many Irish children whose parents had died either during the passage from Ireland or from the many diseases thriving in the Irish ghetto. Catholic sisters, whom Rappe had persuaded to come from France, staffed these enterprises. In 1852 the church of St. John the Evangelist at Erie and Superior was completed, the second Catholic church in Cleveland (the first was ST. MARY'S ON-THE-FLATS at Columbus and Girard, which was torn down in 1886). In 1853-54 Rappe established 2 parishes: St. Patrick on Bridge Ave. on the west side, and the Holy Name parish in the village of Newburgh, which was within walking distance of the steel mill where many Irish worked. These separate parishes led to a split in the Irish community in Cleveland. In 2 generations, the east side Irish, encouraged by Rappe, assimilated into the "Yankee" community, leaving their Irish neighborhoods and heritage for the developing suburbs. On the west side, however, Fr. Jas. Conlon, pastor of the St. Patrick parish and an Irish immigrant himself, encouraged the isolation of the Irish by helping form exclusive Irish societies, thus allowing the community to remain intact well into the 20th century. In 1877 Fr. Eugene M. O'Callaghan succeeded Conlon as pastor of St. Patrick's; he found that the parish had no funds and an uncompleted church that Conlon had started in 1871. During the next 2 years, O'Callaghan organized his parishioners to cut and transport limestone from a Sandusky quarry and finish building the A-frame church that still stands today. This effort appears to have solidified the parish community enough to sustain the Irish neighborhood through the end of World War II. O'Callaghan left the parish in 1880 to found the St. Colman parish on Gordon Ave., between W. Madison and Lawn, which eventually became one of Cleveland's most enduring Irish parishes. In the 20th century, Catholic ethnic churches gave way to territorial churches, and by 1960 no distinctly Irish parishes remained.

The Irish were vigorously social. In addition to many church-related activities, there were several secular groups to enjoy. The HIBERNIAN GUARDS, founded before 1850, were "a band of Irish soldiers" who paraded on St. Patrick's Day, had annual banquets, and during the Civil War actively recruited men who saw combat. In the early 1870s, the Irish Literary & Benevolent Society met weekly for social purposes and the promotion of Irish culture. While both groups are now defunct, the St. Patrick's parade continues, sponsored by the United Irish Societies of Greater Cleveland, an organization established in 1958 that represents 13 Irish organizations. Among them, the IRISH AMERICAN CLUB, EAST SIDE, INC., and the IRISH AMERICAN CLUB, WEST SIDE, INC., founded in 1931 and 1978, respectively, have several thousand members. Temperance movements were active in Cleveland, too; an early society was the Knights of Fr. Mathew, which counted Bishop Rappe as a member., Today the Pioneers Total Abstinence Assn. of the Sacred Heart, which was founded in 1956, totals approx. 300 teetotaling members. Irish nationalism in Cleveland found expression in the national Fenian movement during the 1860s. Dedicated to freeing Ireland from British rule, the Fenians organized support in America and trained men for an invasion of Canada. In 1866 3 Fenians were arrested in Cleveland for their quasi-legal activity in the group.

Though equally active in politics, the Cleveland Irish did not build any durable political "machine" like those found in other large cities. Cleveland's diverse ethnic composition was reflected on the city council, and while certain districts and wards consistently elected Irish representatives, city council never had an unusually large proportion of Irish. The term of ROBT. E. MCKISSON†, who served as mayor 1895-98, was the closest Cleveland came to having an Irish political machine. He was accused of using the spoils system for his own political gains. And near the end of the 19th century, JOHN FARLEY†, mayor 1883-84 and 1899-1900, was active in Democratic politics and called a "boss" by some historians. Other notable Cleveland Irish politicians included JAS. J. MCGINTY† (councilman 1913-30), WM. S. FITZGERALD† (mayor 1920-21), Thos. McCafferty (councilman 1934-65), Margaret McCaffery (councilman 1948-63 and 1966-73), and Jas. Donnelly (councilman 1944-55). In addition to city politics, Cleveland Irish such as MARTIN FORAN†, a congressman and judge, and MARTIN SWEENEY† were involved in regional and national politics.

Outside of politics, individual Irish have made their marks in various endeavors. Stephen S. Creadon and John T. Feighan founded one of Cleveland's largest breweries, the STANDARD BREWING CO., which advertised its founders' heritage through the brand name, Erin Brew. Another local businesman of Irish descent, F. J. O'NEILL†, built his family's cartage business into LEASEWAY TRANSPORTATION CORP. and kept major league baseball in Cleveland through his purchase of the CLEVELAND INDIANS. On the other side of the negotiating table, PATRICK O'MALLEY† was a prominent labor leader connected with the United Auto Workers and the CLEVELAND FEDERATION OF LABOR. One of Cleveland's greatest athletes was boxer JOHNNY KILBANE† from the Irish neighborhood at the Angle, while Vincent Dowling came from Dublin's Abbey Theatre to help gain national prominence for the GREAT LAKES THEATER FESTIVAL.

As in other cities in the 19th century, the Irish faced prejudice in Cleveland. The CLEVELAND LEADER consistently reported all barroom scuffles, involving Irishmen and once claimed that 60% of all criminal activity had Irishmen at its roots. Ironically, as in other cities, the police department had a disproportionate number of Irish on the force. In 1874 Cleveland's Irish population constituted 10% of the general population, but almost 20% of the force. By 1902 the Irish population represented only 3.5% of the city, but 12.5% of the police force. Today the Irish have assimilated into Cleveland's mainstream and are employed in all types of jobs.

Rev. Nelson J. Callahan

St. Raphael Church

Callahan, Nelson, and Hickey, William. Irish Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland (1978).

Last Modified: 17 Jul 1997 11:01:42 AM

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