The Irish in America


The AOH: From Concord to Clontarf

I wanted to write about Irish fraternal organizations and societies that emerged in nineteenth century America as the population of Irish immigrants grew, but then I realized I really don’t know anything about the subject.  Instead, I will share some thoughts on the Irish immigrant experience, with a bit on Irish-American organizations.

When I was in Concord, New Hampshire early in October, the parish secretary of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church pointed to a house where Mass was said in the days before the church was built and the parish established in 1869.  She said that the Irish (who were more or less the only Catholics in Concord at the time) had to be careful because they could be evicted for having a priest say Mass in their home.

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church - Concord, NH (photo by Regan McCormack)

My great-great-grandfather came to live in Concord shortly after arriving in America in 1864.  His name was Patrick Foley, and he came from Kilmichael Parish in County Cork (see the last post.)  Patrick Foley could read and write, and at various times served as doorkeeper, secretary, and president of the St. Patrick’s Benevolent Society in Concord.

Another one of my great-great-grandfathers, John Regan, came from Kilmichael Parish in County Cork as well and settled in Concord.  He could neither read nor write, and very likely couldn’t even speak English when he left Ireland.  If the people of Concord were intolerant of Catholics, one can imagine they did not have much time for non-English speakers.  Organizations such as the St. Patrick’s Benevolent Society and the Ancient Order of Hibernians (the AOH, who had a branch in Concord) would have been very important in helping new immigrants adjust to life in America and help protect their religious rights.

My great-great-grandfathers moved west to Clontarf, Minnesota in the late 1870s as part of Bishop John Ireland’s Catholic colonization efforts.  Most of the early settlers were fellow Irishmen and women who had worked for ten years or more in the crowded cities on the East coast or farmed small plots of rented land, saving what money they could for a chance to own land and live in a community where they had their own church and their own priest.

St. Malachy Catholic Church Clontarf, MN

The AOH hall still stands in Clontarf, Minnesota and serves as St. Malachy Parish Hall.  On the prairie of Western Minnesota, the goals of the AOH began to shift.  They could turn their attention toward selling insurance policies and planning St. Patrick’s Day programs now that they were free to practice their religion.

What does any of this mean to you, as you search for your Irish relatives who came to America?  Not sure, exactly, except I hope it contributes to your understanding of what life was like for Irish immigrants in America.

The AOH still exists today.  There are a number of local branches throughout America.  Go here for a list.  Maybe your relative was once a member, or your cousins still are…


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The Young Americans

First Generations Americans      (click to enlarge)

This photo appeared in the December 2008/January 2009 issue of Irish America Magazine.  The following text accompanied the photo:

In March 1864, boyhood friends John Regan and Patrick Foley from Macroom, County Cork, arrived in New York port on the City of Baltimore sailing from Cobh.  They took to life in America quickly and in 1870 both were married.  John Regan married Mary Quinn and they had four sons and two daughters: Cornelius (Neil) , Ellen, John, Patrick, Jeremiah (Jerry), and Mary.  Patrick Foley married Mary Crowley and the couple had four children: Margaret, Timothy, Mary, and John.  After 15 years at work in the mills and machine shops of Fisherville, New Hampshire both families seized the opportunity to move west, own their own land, and raise their families in an Irish Catholic community.  By 1880, the Regan and Foley families were established in Tara Township near Clontarf, Minnesota – active in township government, members of St. Malachy Catholic Church, and proud farmers on land they owned.

This photograph of the sons of John Regan and Patrick Foley – four first generation Americans – captures one of those moments in American history when anything seemed possible.  It is the turn of the twentieth century and Neil, Jack, and Jerry Regan and John Foley look poised to take on what the world had to offer.  Their confidence is palpable and represents the optimism shared by many Americans at the time.

Over the years, confidence waned as youth faded and the realities of life took hold.  This included falling crop prices, farm failures, personal hardships, and economic depression, but on the day this photograph was taken, with cigars pursed in their lips and hats perched jauntily on their heads, these four young men look as if the world is their oyster.

The Regans and the Foleys came together again in the next generation –  Mary Foley  was my grandmother’s mother and Cornelius (Neil) Regan was my grandfather’s father.

(Submitted by Aine C. McCormack, Saint Paul, Minnesota)

Since the photo was published, I have learned that Patrick Foley and John Regan came from Kilmichael Parish in West Cork.

My great-grandfather Cornelius Regan is seated on the left, next to John Foley.  These two men were members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a fraternal organization formed in 1838 largely in response to discrimination faced by Irish Americans throughout the country.  These types of organizations became very important for new immigrants from Ireland, as well as to more established Irish Americans.  More to come about these Irish American fraternal societies in a future post…


Family and Emigration

While reading up on Irish emigration, I found an interesting article by County Fermanagh historian John Cunningham on the Cassidy family website.  In the article Mr. Cunningham considers the effects emigration has had on Ireland and the Irish people.  Click here to read the article, which is actually a lecture given by Mr. Cunningham.

Mr. Cunningham uses his own experiences to show how family members who stayed in Ireland felt about emigration.  He tackles the often complex and emotional issue of emigration in a straightforward manner with a bit of humor thrown in for good measure.  I found the account of his mother’s visit to America particularly insightful, as well as the description of the parcels and letters from America.

As his mother learned firsthand, letters home to Ireland often didn’t tell the whole story of the emigrant’s experience in their new home.  Regardless of their accuracy, letters are one of the best resources for learning about your emigrant relative by providing tangible evidence as to where the relative lived, possibly where they worked, or names of spouse and children.  Consider yourself lucky if you have an emigrant letter!

My great-grandmother came to the United States in 1899, joining an older sister who had arrived six years earlier.  A sister and a brother remained in Ireland, and one sister has previously emigrated to Manchester, England.  Unfortunately, no letters survive (on the American side) from relatives at home, but there are a few postcards, greeting cards, and photographs that were sent to my great-grandmother and her sister.  The following photograph was included in an album belonging to a niece of my great-grandmother who lived in Montana, USA.

John and Catherine (Hill) Howe Family, Johnstown Co. Kildare

John and Catherine (Hill) Howe Family - Johnstown, Co. Kildare (courtesy of M. Jeffrey Harshman)

Among the few items belonging to my great-grandmother is a sweet little Christmas card from her sister Katie (Catherine, pictured above), as well as a torn and tattered photo postcard depicting a Whitsunday parade.  It is intriguing to see what pieces of someone’s life survive for later generations.  These bits and pieces have helped us learn a great deal about my great-grandmother’s life before she came to America.

So, if you don’t have a letter, all is not lost in your quest for information about your emigrant relative.  Letters can make the initial search easier, but other information can prove to be as useful.

I invite you to share your family’s emigrant stories by leaving a comment!  Let me know what clues you have, and I will help you begin your search for information on your relative.  If you think you don’t have any information to go on, but really want to learn about what may have happened to a relative, you should leave a comment, too.  We never know what we will find when we start looking!

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Emigration Networks

Last week I received a comment from a woman from County Wexford who was interested in learning about her great-uncle’s family, the Coadys, who left for America in the early twentieth century.  Her mother had kept in contact with a cousin in America for many years, but eventually lost touch.


Sample of 1930 US Federal Census (click image to enlarge)


She had a few solid clues: the names and birth dates of the parents, the children’s names, and the town in Pennsylvania where they once lived.  I did a quick search and found the correct Coady family in the 1920 and 1930 U.S. Federal Census.  I also found the ship manifest for their voyage to America, and even the uncle’s death as registered with the Social Security Administration.  This is but the tip of the iceberg for the Coady family in America; much more information is available.

When I searched the census, I came across an interesting tidbit of information that helps illustrate the point I made in my last post regarding the predictable nature of Irish emigration.  My search of the 1920 census brought up the Coady family I was looking for as well as a second family – a generation older, but with the same surname.  There were even three grandchildren with identical names to the children in the original Coady family.  The three girls were older, so I could be fairly certain it wasn’t an error.

Clearly the family who immigrated in 1914 were not the first Coady family to come to this part of the United States.  The older family had been here since 1888 and were firmly established in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The presence of kin would have helped the young immigrant family tremendously to adjust to life in America.  Ten years later, in 1930, the young Coady family moved to another town in Pennsylvania where Mr. Coady found work in a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients.

The network had been in place for generations before the Coady family came to America in 1914.  Emigration had become an accepted option for so many in Ireland.  In the book Emigrants and Exiles, author Kirby Miller describes how changes in Irish society affected emigration during the years 1856-1921:

“Many emigrated eagerly or at least without protest, either alienated from a society impoverished in more than economic respects, or conditioned to join relatives abroad whose letters and remittances promised advantages unavailable in Ireland.”

What about those they left behind in Ireland?  I wonder if they were relieved to not have to leave home, or were they envious of those who went to America?

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Patterns of Migration

I just returned from a trip to New Hampshire.  New Hampshire is a state located on the East coast of the United States, north of Massachusetts.  My sister and I conducted research on several families who came from County Cork in the mid-1800s and settled in Concord, New Hampshire before moving west to Minnesota.


New Hampshire State House - Concord


Our first stop was the New Hampshire Historical Society research library.  We scoured the city directories and looked through other pertinent items in their collection.  We made some interesting discoveries, and along the way I was struck by a common pattern of Irish migration.

From the city directories it was very clear how the Irish came to the US.  They immigrated in waves, joining relatives who had previously settled in a certain area.  Given this pattern, the new arrival would have a place to stay, possibly a job waiting for them, and a community of family and fellow Irishmen ready to welcome a new member to America.

This is a key thing to remember when researching your relative who came to America: most often emigrants followed a path made by previous family members or neighbors.  Of course this was not always the case, but the migratory patterns of Irish coming to America are somewhat predictable.

Does anyone have a story to share, perhaps one that would prove the exception to my “theory”?  Please leave a comment.

I received the first inquiry and have found some promising results that I will share with Margaret.  She made it easy – she had some names, dates, and the place where they lived in America.  If you have a similar query, please don’t hesitate to ask me for help.

I would also be interested in hearing from anyone whose relatives settled in New Hampshire.  All over the state are towns named after towns or counties in Ireland, including Derry, Dublin, and Antrim.  The mills of Manchester and Concord, as well as the building of the infrastructure they required, created hard-laboring jobs for new immigrants.  The story was the same in most major American cities and towns during the Industrial Revolution.

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Getting Started…

In the first official posting to the blog, I would like to extend an open  invitation to anyone who is currently tracing a relative who emigrated to America, is thinking it may be time to tackle the American branch of your family tree, or has even once thought, “I wonder what ever happened to….?”

Please share your stories about family who left Ireland for America, questions you have about genealogy research in America, and successes (or frustrations) encountered when tracing the history of your emigrant relatives.

Please leave comments!  Don’t be shy…

(and if you are shy or would otherwise like to keep your comments private, email me directly

Please take a look at the About page to learn who we are and what The Irish in America blog is all about.  I am eager to learn what Irish people are looking for in their search for their relatives in America.

I need to shift my thinking a bit about genealogy.  I need to get away from the traditional genealogy carried out by most Americans, intent on finding out where they came from, or  who they are.  In the great big melting pot that is the United States, Americans are often inclined to define themselves in terms of their heritage.  This endeavor – tracing an emigrant’s story – differs from strict genealogy in that the focus is on an individual (or individuals) who left, and the challenge is to discover where they went and who they became.

As we go on, I will share my own experiences with Irish genealogy.  My heritage is entirely Irish, although my people left Ireland three and four generations ago.  All of my ancestors reached America on a ship, and most came through New York harbor, but each one had a unique experience once they began their new life.  I am knowledgeable in the patterns of Irish migration throughout the United States, as well as the history and geography of the country.  All of this, I believe, will help me help you in your search.

Feel free to send me your comments and questions.  Go on…

You can check out the list I started of free online databases if you click on the Resources tab at the top of the page.