Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Rise of the Irish in Chicago

I have long lamented the fact that so little is written about the Irish in Chicago in the mid- nineteenth century. I have wondered what life was like in Chicago for my great, great grandparents, John Carney/Kearney and Mary Duffy in the 1870s and 1880s. But as so often happens in life, when you put something out there, suddenly help appears! I found a reference to Ellen Skerrett in a Chicago Tribune newspaper article by Ken O’Brien. He described Ellen as “a walking, talking book of Chicago history.”  When O’Brien further stated that Ellen had spent years researching the Chicago Irish, I was hooked! I had to find out more.  

As I read O’Brien’s article, I saw that while working on her Master’s degree at the University of Chicago in 1974, Ellen began studying the part that neighborhood Catholic parishes played in the lives of the immigrant Irish in Chicago in the nineteenth century. From that time on, she has been researching, writing and collaborating with other experts on the Irish American experience in Chicago to produce numerous books. In this post, I will discuss two of her contributions to the field:

“Nineteenth Century Chicago Irish: A Social and Political Portrait” (Charles Fanning, Ellen Skerrett, John Corrigan).  Loyola University Center for Urban Policy, 1980 [title abbreviation: NCCI]

Used by permission of Ellen Skerrett

Ellen, Skerrett, Editor, At the Crossroads:  Old Saint Patrick’s and the Chicago Irish. Loyola Press, 1997 [title abbreviation: ATC]

Used by permission of Ellen Skerrett
From these two works, I learned much about the attitude of US-born people in Chicago to the immigrant Irish, the poverty that plagued the new arrivals, the role the parish church played in bringing the newcomers into mainstream American life, and how the Irish used the Anglo-Saxon government structure to their advantage. The Irish faced the disadvantages of arriving in this urban setting with few skills other than subsistence farming and of following a religion that raised the suspicions of the native Protestant Chicagoans. Yet, as Ellen discusses in her ATC essay "Creating Sacred Space in an Early Chicago Neighborhood", the Catholic Church provided the Irish with a community that held them together, ministered to their needs and educated their children, thus helping the second generation move toward the middle class:

"...Irish Catholics in Chicago used the process of church-building to create a place for themselves -- and leave their imprint on the landscape." p 24 ATC

St. Patrick's Church, Adams & Desplaines Streets, Chicago
 (Cook County, Illinois, from the 
Historic American
 Buildings Survey
"For immigrants and their children, churches such as Saint Patrick's and Holy Name represented a crucial beginning in creating community, identity, and a sense of belonging in their new urban neighborhoods." p. 30 ATC 

"...creating sacred space in the city built community and laid the foundation for other important initiatives, especially parochial schools and social services." p. 34 ATC

The reaction of US-born Americans to the stream of Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century is a familiar one in American history and is still around today in the immigration debate.  Whether newcomers are welcomed or fiercely rejected by those already here depends on several factors. One is the economy. If it is booming and jobs are plentiful, then new workers are accepted. But when jobs are scarce, new arrivals are viewed as a threat. A second factor, discussed by Eileen Durkin, one of the essayists in ATC, in her piece "Saint Patrick's Day at Saint Patrick's Church", is the number of incoming persons:

“By 1843, they (the Irish immigrants) accounted for only 773 of Chicago’s 7,580  residents (about 10%) ….” p. 5 ATC 

These numbers didn’t raise much worry among the native born population.  But in 1845, the Great Famine struck Ireland, and it continued to devastate the land until 1850. Trying to escape starvation, the Irish came to America in huge numbers, and many settled in Chicago as Ms. Durkin writes:

“After the Famine, almost one in five (about 20%) Chicagoans were Irish-born.”  p. 7 ATC

On the Library of Congress website, I found an advertisement for a "short-lived nativist newspaper" -- American Citizen -- that was published in Boston in 1852. It shows the venom of the nativist position:

A paper entitled the American patriot, Boston : Published by
 J.E. Farwell & Co., 1852, LC-DIG-ppmsca-07575, 
Library of Congress website
As illustrated above, another factor affecting the reception given to immigrants is the religion of the new arrivals. The large increase in mostly poor, low-skilled Irish Catholic immigrants caused fear and anger in the city. No longer were these Catholic newcomers unnoticed. An editorial in the Chicago Tribune in 1855, quoted by Lawrence J. McCaffrey in his essay "Preserving the Union, Shaping a New Image: Chicago's Irish Catholics and the Civil War", captured the sentiments of many “nativists” in Chicago:

“Who does not know that the most depraved, debased, worthless and irredeemable drunkards and sots which curse the community are Irish Catholics?” p. 53 ATC

But McCaffrey goes on to say that the Irish showed patriotism and bravery in the Civil War:
Col. Jas. A. Mulligan: Of the Illinois "Irish Brigade", 
New York: Currier & Ives, between 1860 and 1870,
 (digital file from original print),
 Library of Congress website.

 “…the Chicago Times acknowledged the bravery and patriotism of Irish immigrants and noted that thousands of Irish Catholics had already rushed to the rescue of their adopted country, leaving ‘peaceful avocations’; to bring ‘terror and dismay’ to the Confederate foe.” p. 64 ATC

Poverty, its causes and effects can be very public: disease-ravaged slums teeming with families in overcrowded conditions with poor sanitation, abandoned children in the poor house, increasing numbers of the destitute, the hopelessness of lack of opportunity, domestic violence and drunkenness were not easy to overlook.

In the eyes of many of the Anglo-Saxon Protestants of Chicago, the poverty of the Irish and their foreign religion were a double threat to the public order. The fear that somehow the Pope might try to influence America’s government was still present when the Irish-American (4th generation Irish) John F. Kennedy  ran for President in 1960.

While local newspapers and some people running for office on an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic platform decried the Irish, the Catholic Church in Chicago set about helping them. As Suellen Hoy describes in her essay "Walking Nuns: Chicago's Irish Sisters of Mercy", in 1846, the Sisters of Mercy arrived in Chicago and began their life-saving ministry, including building Mercy Hospital:

Mercy Hospital, Chicago Daily News, Inc., 
photographer, 1909, DN-0007384,
Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

By 1849, “the Sisters of Mercy were already operating three schools, teaching Sunday School at Saint Patrick’s, running an employment bureau for Irish working women, volunteering at a free dispensary opened by Rush Medical College, and holding night classes for illiterate adults.”  Then “…when a cholera epidemic struck during the summer of 1849…a large number of Irish died….they [the Sisters] began nursing cholera victims.” p. 41 ATC

Sisters of Mercy, afunkydamsel, Taken on
 April 10, 2011, Flickr, Creative Commons.

The Irish turned to their parish churches for more than spiritual guidance, education for their children, and medical help. The parish became the foundation, the springboard for the Irish to infiltrate Chicago politics. It was in the parish that Irish politicians began building their power base, to take advantage of the Irishman’s desire to become American. Citizenship was an important step towards reaching the goal. And with citizenship came the right to vote. The influx of Irish voters guaranteed a majority voting the Irish ticket in Ward elections. And so control was gradually wrested away from the old Anglo-Saxon power elite. (pgs. 2-3 NCCI)  

But getting people to vote and getting into office was just the first part of the Irish-American politicos’strategy. The new Ward aldermen knew their way around the Anglo-Saxon system of government from all the years they and/or their parents had spent living in Ireland and dealing with British colonialism, a knowledge that the other immigrant groups to America lacked. (p. 2, NCCI) Using the boss system or machine politics, (and some would say abusing their political power), the aldermen provided relief to their communities:

“…the poor obtained food, coal, and jobs; Christmas turkeys and Easter hams found their way to empty tables; and the financial burden associated with baptisms, weddings, and wakes was lightened by contributions from the ward boss or his precinct captain.” (p. 14, NCCI)

As you can see, these two histories  ̶  one edited and one co-written by Ellen Skerrett  ̶  give us a clear picture of the life of the Irish in nineteenth century Chicago: their struggle to overcome prejudice, poverty, lack of a voice in the new land, and the role the Catholic Church played in both ameliorating the burdens of the first generation and moving the second generation into the American mainstream. But there is much more to discover in the two books.

Finley Peter Dunne, "Mr. Dooley", Artist: Ward, 
Leslie Matthew, aka SPY, Lithograph July 27, 1905,
 CCNY Art Collection, Flickr, public domain.
Another of the writers, Charles Fanning, presents the life story and career of Finley Peter Dunne, the creator of the Mr. Dooley columns in Chicago newspapers, in his essay "Mr. Dooley Reconsidered, Community Memory, Journalism and the Oral Tradition":

“Between 1893 and 1900, some three hundred Dooley pieces appeared ….Taken together, they form a coherent body of work, in which a vivid, detailed world comes into existence—a self-contained immigrant/ethnic culture with its own customs, ceremonies, ‘sacred sites,’ social pecking order, heroes, villains, and victims.” p. 72 ATC

As you can see, if you want a glimpse into what life was like for the Irish of Chicago in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, you will want to read Ellen Skerrett’s books. Since they are both out of print, you will need to use interlibrary loan, (ILL) or see if you can locate one on, as I did.

Categories: genealogy tools


  1. Pat, thanks so much for this review of these resources. You and I are evidently on the same genealogical research wavelength!

    1. Thank you, Jacqi. I'm working on records that our poverty-stricken ancestors may have left us.

  2. Pat I have nominated your excellent blog for The One Lovely Blog Award. You will find the link along with a mention of your blog in my own blog, FamilyHistory4u Regards, Sharn White

    1. Thank you, Sharn, for nominating my blog for this award. Because of this, I was introduced to your delightful writing! Unfortunately, due to a medical problem, I have to restrict my computer usage, so I am unable to comply with "the rules."