The Irish in America


Ireland Celebrates America’s Independence Day

Wouldn’t you know that even the Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest held every year on the Fourth of July on New York’s Coney Island has an Irish connection?

Legend has it that on July 4, 1916 Irish immigrant James Mullan consumed 13 hot dogs in 12 minutes during a hot dog eating competition. The contest was set up by hot dog stand owner Nathan Handwerker when he witnessed four immigrant men arguing over who was the most American of the group.

How do you prove your American-ness? Naturally, eat the most hot dogs in a single sitting! At least this was Nathans’s solution – he didn’t want the disagreement to turn into a brawl and if they were busy eating hot dogs, they couldn’t fight.

Nathan was a genius. His effort at conflict resolution turned into one of the best marketing gimmicks ever. The contest is still going strong, nearly one-hundred years later. Read the full story here. In case you are wondering, Joey Chesnut won last year’s contest – 62 hot dogs in ten minutes. Only in America?

Thankfully we don’t need to gorge ourselves with hot dogs to prove our patriotism or to celebrate the Fourth of July. The McCormack family has typically taken a low-key approach to the holiday – usually just fireworks by the Mississippi and burgers on the grill – nothing too extravagant.

I think that is why I am so impressed by the Fourth of July festivities planned by the folks in Wexford and Limerick this year. Wexford’s Irish America Day features a parade, Mark Twain readings, a performance by comedian Des Bishop, American-style BBQ, fireworks, and much, much more.

The Prom Night being held July 2nd at the Brandon House Hotel and Spa is especially creative. They are even crowning an Prom King and Prom Queen. This is a trip down memory lane for anyone who attended high school in the USA. There will also be the posthumous induction of Liam Clancy to the Irish American Hall of Fame at the Dunbrody Emigration Centre on Wednesday. Visit the Irish America Day website for the full schedule of events!

It is the inaugural year for the 4th of July Limerick celebration as well. Limerick has an entire slate of events stretching out to the weekend following the Fourth (I know a lot of Americans who are also stretching the holiday out!) A couple of the events that look particularly interesting are the Hip Hop Festival (all weekend) and the Cookie Making demonstration on Saturday.

It looks like Dolan’s is the place to be for music with Brian McCann singing Billy Joel favorites on Wednesday, the Hot 8 Brass Band on Thursday, and the Last Waltz Tribute on Saturday. Limerick restaurants, bars, hotels, and retailers will also run special offers through the weekend. Don’t forget the Treasure Hunt on Sunday. I had a sneak peek at the questions and it is a fantastic hunt!

To top it all off, there will be fireworks over the Shannon on Sunday night. Click here for the complete list of events. I suspect there will be plenty of oooohs and aaaahs in both Wexford and Limerick over the Fourth of July.

If you are an American in Ireland, how fun to experience the Irish take on the American holiday. And if you are Irish, try to make it to either Wexford or Limerick next week to experience something a little different. The Fourth of July is the perfect time to think about your family and friends who have emigrated over the years and became Americans themselves. Plus, who doesn’t like to celebrate gaining independence from the British?

Where ever you are this Fourth of July, I hope you have a wonderful time. Enjoy!



Skerries is a Great Old Town

By now you must all know how much I love letters, so let’s take another look at the Stephen Owens Collection. Discovered at the Old Skerries Historical Society in County Dublin in the late 1970s by well-known Irish Emigration historian Kerby Miller, this is a small collection of letters sent from Stephen Owens of Clontarf, Minnesota in the USA to his niece Celia Grimes in his native Skerries, County Dublin, Ireland. The letters are from the first few years of the twentieth century.

I began to look at the letters of Stephen Owens in an earlier post (click here to get caught up.) I will pick up the action with a letter dated July 20, 1900.

Mr. Owens starts right out with the weather (typical Irishman and Minnesotan!) It is the hottest and driest summer in over twenty-five years in Minnesota. No rain and scorching heat have left the farmers with little in the way of grains to cut come harvest time:

Corn and potatoes are Pretty good but the American likes to live on flowers instead of potatoes.

Mr. Owens writes of his younger cousin, a daughter of his Uncle John, who works for a family in Lynn, Massachusetts. He had a letter from her in which she describes her employer and their summer holidays in New Hampshire. She wants very much to come out West to visit her cousin which leads Mr. Owens to write, “I would like to see all my friends before I Die, God bless us all.”

The next letter to Celia is dated April 1, 1902. Mr. Owens tells her of the new priest in Clontarf and how the beloved Father McDonald died of consumption. He goes on to tell Celia that she may miss her brother who recently left home for America, “but it is 49 years last February since I seen your Mother, my sister Eliza.” All those years later, Mr. Owens still misses his sister and family. He even misses Celia, and she was not even born when he was last in Skerries!

Main Street Skerries, ca 1900 (courtesy of the National Archives of Ireland)

In a previous letter Celia must have told her uncle that there is something of an Irish language revival in Skerries because he writes:

Skerries is a great old Town. It is getting very patriotic. I am glad to hear the young People are learning their Country’s language. It is a good sign…

The last letter from Mr. Owens in the collection is dated November 10, 1903. The tone of this letter is less than up-beat. He has been ill for five weeks and sometimes is unable to stand for the pain in his back and legs.

Mr. Owens is pleased to hear that Celia was reunited with her brother who came back from America, and he comments on the latest wave of migrants from Ireland:

…you sent 11 people out from Skerries lately. Them is the kind that is wanting, Old People is only in the way here in America they don’t want them. I suppose it’s that way in every country…

Mr. Owens is clearly facing the fact that he has reached the twilight of his years and he has apparently given up the notion of returning to Ireland to see all of his old friends and family – “I think when we meet next it will be in heaven.” It was another two years before Mr. Owens passed away in December 1905.

I contacted the Skerries Historical Society to see if they had the originals of these letters – I only have copied transcripts. Maree Baker, the librarian at the Society got right back to me and said that they did not have the original letters. She sent along a couple of items from the Grimes family that are part of their collection – a photo from the late 1920s and two memorial cards. Celia’s brother James is on the left in the photo and Maree said Celia could be one of the women to the right.

Grimes Family of Skerries (courtesy of the Skerries Historical Society)

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Wexford: Maps, Oral Histories, and an American President

In addition to the usual information on household and water charges there are a couple of surprises on the Wexford County Council website (they also tweet – check out the latest info here.)

Click on the Interactive Maps link to see a list of maps for nearly every aspect of life in County Wexford – great for visitors and locals alike. Looking for a beach? There are over thirty on this map. Or perhaps a day at a museum is more your style, or even a round of golf. These maps have you covered. Hopefully you will not require medical attention, but if you do, a map of local hospitals is right here.

I love the map of Wexford area attractions. All of the sites I mentioned last time are included, plus a few more. An easy tool for planning a visit to County Wexford!

In the Library section of the County Council’s website, you will find the Oral History Project, complete with podcasts of 130 interviews conducted with residents of County Wexford. The project provides anyone, anywhere the opportunity to listen to Wexford residents tell their stories:

Since 2008, over 130 have been interviewed. The recordings are available here as podcasts and on cd for borrowing from all branch and mobile libraries.Wexford people here are witnesses to and practitioners of aspects of local life which are disappearing fast.Hear about school and childhood, work, trades and crafts, fairs and festivals, shopping and lots more.

If you trace your roots to County Wexford, you may just find a cousin on the alphabetical list of interviews. Select a name from the list and a photograph and a short biography are displayed. It is also possible to browse the interviews by region and townland – another way to learn something new about life in your ancestor’s Ireland.

There were no interviews from Dunganstown, the site of the John F. Kennedy Homestead. Dunganstown is the birthplace of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s great-grandfather Patrick, who emigrated to America in 1849. President Kennedy returned to the small cottage during his 1963 tour of Ireland. This is the speech President Kennedy delivered in Wexford:

It would be interesting to learn if anyone mentioned JFK’s 1963 visit in the Wexford interviews…

It looks like the homestead is closed until 2013 while a modern visitor’s center is built. It will be ready just in time to mark the fifty-year anniversary of Kennedy’s visit. The JFK Park and Arboretum, a beautiful place to visit, is also located in Wexford (it’s on the map!)

President Kennedy’s Irish roots spread across Ireland beyond County Wexford  – his maternal Fitzgerald great-grandfather came from County Limerick. Click here to read more about President Kennedy’s Irish connections.

This is a great video of President Kennedy in Galway and Limerick in 1963. Enjoy!


Wexford Celebrates Ties to America

The folks in New Ross, County Wexford are going all-out this Fourth of July with an Irish America Day celebration. Tons of activities are planned: re-enactments of the Boston Tea Party at the Dunbrody Famine Ship, an American-style BBQ, a performance by comedian Des Bishop, and much more. Visit the official Irish America Day website and follow them on Twitter for all the latest information. Sheila Langan from Irish America Magazine highlights the festivities here. Judging from the slate of events, Irish America Day looks better than most Fourth of July celebrations in the States! One thing…will there be fireworks?

That Wexford is pulling out the stops for a Fourth of July celebration should come as no surprise. The county does a great job of embracing its ties to America and honoring emigrants, both past and present.

The website for the Dunbrody Famine Ship is a fine example of Wexford’s commitment to preserving the memory of Ireland’s emigrants. There is the ship itself – a replica of the original three-masted cargo ship commissioned by the Graves family of New Ross. The ship was intended to transport timber, cotton, and other goods from North America, but from 1845 to 1851 the ship also carried thousands of Irish escaping the Famine on each outbound journey to Canada and the United States. The ship provides a concrete reminder of what our ancestors endured.

Many of the passengers aboard the Dunbrody were tenants evicted from Lord Fitzwilliam’s estates in County Wicklow, as well as tenants evicted from Viscount de Vesci’s Portlaoise estates. Click here to learn more about the Fitzwilliam Emigration Books available online from the New Brunswick Archive in Canada. So, when you locate the name of your ancestor in the list of tenants evicted from Lord Fitzwilliam’s estates and then visit the Dunbrody Famine Ship, you will come closer to understanding your ancestor’s experience more than one-hundred-fifty years ago. That is pretty amazing.

Also included on is an Irish Emigration Database which allows you to search thousands of passenger lists, an opportunity to add an ancestor’s name to the Irish Emigrant Wall of Honor, and information on how to Sponsor a Tree in Ireland.

Turning our attention to present-day emigrants, the Spring 2012 issue of Wexford Worldwide has a great profile on expat John Murphy, a native of Ramsgrange, New Ross Wexford and current resident of Manhattan. Mr. Murphy is the Director and Legal Counsel at UBS Investment Bank. He shares memories of growing up in Wexford, what he misses most, Wexford sightseeing tips, and even his favorite beach.

The Wexford Worldwide newsletter provides a way for Wexford natives to keep in touch with the happenings of their home county – a sort of digital letter from home. It is a terrific effort by Wexford to reach out and keep the diaspora close. Events for the entire year are listed, and coming up later this month is Wexford Day, a celebration of the county’s rich heritage:

Top of the list is a relative newcomer to the calendar – Wexford Day. Sunday, 24 June 2012 will see attractions and tourist sites open for free for visitors and locals to enjoy right throughout the county. Locals and visitors to the county are encouraged to wear Wexford’s county colours while enjoying free access to the gems of Wexford town and county.

The list of Wexford attractions open, free of charge on June 24th is quite impressive: the Dunbrody Famine Ship in New Ross;Duncannon Fort; Europe’s oldest working lighthouse at Hook Heritage; The Irish Agriculture Museum at the 19th centuryJohnstown Castle; the Irish National Heritage Park and its 35-acre heritage trail; the National 1798 Centre at Enniscorthy; and the immaculately refurbished Enniscorthy Castle. A great day to get out and see Wexford!

If you are unable to attend this year, Wexford natives and those who trace their roots to the area are reminded in the newsletter to mark their calendars for Wexford Day 2013 – this would be a great time to visit Wexford as part of the larger Gathering Ireland 2013, a country-wide initiative to welcome visitors to Ireland.

If you are planning a trip to Wexford, why not stay at the gorgeous Dunbrody Country House Hotel? From the Dunbrody House website:

Located on the dramatic Hook Peninsula and set in 200 acres of beautiful parkland, Dunbrody Country House is an enchanting and intimate 1830s Georgian manor.  Ancestral home to the Chichester Family, the house has a long and well-established tradition of hospitality.  A warm reception awaits you here at Dunbrody, an oasis of tranquility where you can escape to crackling turf fires, fresh flowers, romantic walks, explore our kitchen and herb gardens or maybe just feed the chickens or visit our pot-bellied pig Delago…

Sounds perfect to me. Follow Dunbrody House on Twitter – that is how I learned about it!

Next time we will take a look at one of the most famous Americans whose ancestry is traced to Wexford (care to guess…leave a comment!) and we will see what the Archive and Library of Wexford County Council have to offer.

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Exile and Savior: Fiddler Michael Coleman

How could Michael Coleman help but become a great musician? His childhood home in Knockgrania, County Sligo was often referred to as “Jamsey Coleman’s Music Hall” because his father James, a respected flute player, welcomed musicians from near and far into the home on a regular basis. This area of Sligo was (and still is) known for its traditional music – the Coleman’s neighbors included the likes of fiddle players Mattie Kiloran, John O’Dowd, and P.J. McDermott, each of whom would influence Michael Coleman’s playing.

Michael was born in 1891, the youngest child of James and Beatrice  Coleman. Michael was a twin, but his older brother died at birth. It is accepted that Michael learned to play fiddle at an early age, but who was his teacher? Some say his father taught him to play,while the local story is that on the way home from a house dance one night Michael came upon an ancient ring fort and fell asleep. When he awoke he could play – naturally it was the faeries that taught him!

Father or faerie, they did a good job teaching young Michael. He developed into a fine fiddle player. Michael also became an accomplished step dancer. After trying his hand at several jobs and a brief stint in Manchester, England, Michael knew he had to leave Sligo. There was no chance to earn a living playing the fiddle in Sligo, but in America…

In 1914, Michael arrived in America. He stayed with an aunt in Lowell, Massachusetts briefly before traveling across the United States as part of the Keith Circuit, the largest and most successful vaudeville operation of the time. In 1917, Michael settled in New York City, married, and started his own orchestra.

At this time, there was a growing interest in “real” ethnic music in New York. Previously, the Irish music distributed by the record companies had been recorded by “imitation Irish” musicians. A record shop owner in New York City named Ellen O’Byrne was certain that if talented, real Irish musicians recorded Irish music, those recordings would fly off the shelves. She encouraged Michael to make recordings of his music.

In 1921 Michael’s first recording was released on the Shannon label. Over eighty  recordings would follow before Michael’s death in 1945. Ellen O’Byrne was not surprised by the popularity of the recordings in the United States. What no one expected was for the recordings to become popular in Ireland. Shortly after the first recording was issued in 1921, Irish Americans shared them with family and friends, sending the 78 rpm records back home in Ireland.

American record companies caught up to this trend and began marketing the recordings directly to Ireland, which only cemented Michael’s popularity and influence. In 1974, on the road from Tubbercurry to Gurteen in his home county of Sligo, a memorial to Michael Coleman was erected by the Coleman Traditional Society:

To the memory of Michael Coleman, master of the fiddle, saviour of Irish traditional music. Born near this spot in 1891. Died in exile 1945. To the traditional musicians of an older generation who, in this area, inspired his genius – To those of a later generation who, after his passing, fostered and preserved the tradition for posterity.

That says it all. If you find yourself in South Sligo, be sure to visit the Coleman Irish Music Centre in Gurteen (exhibit, gift shop, replica of the Coleman Cottage – “Jamesy Coleman’s Music Hall”, music archive, theater and more!) And if you’re lucky, you will hear the sweet sounds of the Sligo-style fiddle wafting from the local pubs.

Thanks to J. Michael Finn for his article on Michael Coleman – especially for the story of the faeries!