The Irish in America


The Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous

Sister Ignatia Gavin (1889-1966)

Sister Ignatia Gavin (1889-1966)

It’s New Year’s Day. Most of us have at least one resolution in mind to begin the new year on a better path than we ended the last year. I can think of no better person to profile on this New Year’s Day than a woman who helped thousands of people begin new lives.

Today is the 125th anniversary of the birth of The Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous, Sister Mary Ignatia Gavin. Sister Ignatia was born Bridget “Delia” Gavin on January 1,  1889 in Shanvally, Turlough Parish, County Mayo, Ireland. (Click here to learn how Fiona identified Sister Ignatia’s birthplace – photos included.) She emigrated to the United States, arriving in Philadelphia on April 14, 1896 with her parents, Patrick and Barbara, and her brother, Patrick.  According to this entry in the “Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Immigration Records, Special Boards of Inquiry, 1893-1909” found on, a niece was expecting the Gavin family in Cleveland, Ohio.


Click to enlarge. Immigration Special Boards of Inquiry, Philadelphia, PA. Courtesy of

Above is a copy of an interesting record I came across on Immigration to the United States became more strictly regulated beginning in the early 1880s and the motives and situations of those entering the country were often scrutinized more closely than they had been in the past. I wonder why the Gavin family needed to stand before the immigration board? Perhaps they didn’t have proof of the relative in Cleveland they were joining? Was there something suspicious about the Gavins? Any ideas?

Delia joined the Sisters of Charity of Saint Augustine in 1914, became Sister Mary Ignatia, and worked as a music teacher for about ten years. By the late 1920s,  stress and overwork led to ulcers and Sister Ignatia suffered a nervous breakdown. Sister Ignatia’s treatment included removal from teaching and a new assignment at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio.

While working in the admissions department at St. Thomas, Sister Ignatia met a doctor who was in the midst of founding Alcoholics Anonymous. Sister Ignatia shared Dr. Bob’s passion for the necessity to provide a medical treatment program for those suffering from alcoholism. She was determined that alcoholics be admitted to the hospital through the front door like other patients and alcoholism be treated as a disease rather than a moral weakness. For more on Sister Ignatia and her role in Alcoholics Anonymous click here.

Sister Ignatia was known for her practical attitude in treating alcoholism, as well as her “tough love”. She distributed Sacred Heart medals upon completion of the program, demanding their return if the recipient took a drink. She received a medal back less than 20% of the time. Father Mathew used medals of the Sacred Heart during the 1840s during his temperance crusade, as did the Irish Temperance League in the 1890s. The temperance movement was extremely important in the Irish American community throughout the nineteenth century.

A tidbit of AA trivia: Sister Ignatia is responsible for the popularity of the use of coffee in the treatment of alcoholism. She was adamant that coffee be available 24 hours a day to those in recovery, building coffee bars in her Ohio treatment facilities for this purpose.

The first day of 2014 is a good time to remember of something Sister Ignatia once said: “Be a better whatever you are today.” Inspirational words from an amazing Irish American. Happy New Year!


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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!


Mick Moloney and the Music of Irish America

Yesterday I heard a re-broadcast of an  Arts Tonight interview with folklorist and musician Mick Moloney on RTÉ Radio1.  Here is a little bit about Mick from his website:

Mick Moloney is the author of “Far From the Shamrock Shore: The story of Irish American History Through Song” released by Crown Publications in February of 2002 with an accompanying CD on Shanachie Records. He holds a Ph.D. in folklore and folklife from the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught ethnomusicology, folklore and Irish studies courses at the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown, and Villanova Universities, and currently teaches at New York University in the Irish Studies program.

Mick has also recorded and produced more than forty albums, organized and performed countless concerts and productions, consulted on American Public Media programs, and earned a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The interview was very interesting because it reminded me that I can look to music as a historical resource for furthering my understanding of the Irish American experience.  When Mick was asked what he encountered when he came to the United States looking for Irish music, he said that he was amazed by the number of songs about the Irish that existed in America…songs about Irish railroad workers and Irish canal workers, Irish anthracite miners in Pennsylvania and Irish coal miners in Montana, big-city Irish politicians and pioneer Irish farmers, Irish activists and Irish gold-rushers  in California.  Songs covering most of the Irish experiences in America.  Mick’s conclusion?  The Irish “speak of our personal lives and our history as a people through music and song.”

Mick was impressed by the quality of the Irish music being played in American cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, New York City, and Chicago.  From the mid-1970s, Mick documented the music he found as he traveled all over the United States.  The result is a collection of recordings housed at the Taminent Library and Wagner Archives of New York University.  Click here to visit the library’s detailed guide to the Mick Moloney collection.


This looks like a great book.  It was published by Mick Moloney in 2002 and is accompanied by a sixteen song CD.  It is available from – click here to take a closer look.  I will be ordering myself a copy soon…can’t wait to read and listen to it!

I will leave you with a song…

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Memorial Day: Remembering our Irish-American soldiers

Another offering from Jim McCormack…this time he writes about the Irish-Americans who served in the US military over the years.  Jim also takes a moment this Memorial Day to reflect on on a personal heroes, his uncle Jimmy Flannery – one of the many Irish Americans who bravely served in World War II. 

Memorial Day always reminds me of the role played by soldiers of Irish and  Irish American descent in American military history. Irish soldiers fought on both sides of wars America was involved in from the French and Indian War to the American Revolution  in the 18th century through the War Between the States which featured “Irish Brigades” on both sides.

In the U.S. War with Mexico in the middle of the 19th century countless Irish immigrants were recruited directly off the immigrant ships to serve in the U.S. Army.  With little training these recruits from the famine were sent to fight against the Mexicans. Many served with distinction.  On the other hand some of the new recruits changed sides and fought on the side of the Mexicans. According to members of the “San Patricio” Battalion, they felt more comfortable fighting on the same side as the Catholic Mexicans and against the Americans who reminded them of the English oppressors they were fleeing. The vile treatment they received from the Nativist leaning officers they experienced in the American army made their decision easier. Every year they are still remembered and honored in Mexico.

Another interesting fact from the History of Military Service in the United States is the majority of those honored with the Medal of Honor in our country are either Irish-born or of Irish descent.

Closer to home on Memorial Day I always think of the many family members that fought in Americas wars. One of those was my uncle Jimmy Flannery, my mothers younger brother. He was one of my personal heroes as I grew up.

Jimmy Flannery WWII

Growing up in Minneapolis after the war we as kids knew that most of the old guys had “been in the service.” What we did not know was the real meaning of that phrase.  We knew that some of the men had an easier time than others.  Of all the men that I knew or knew of as a boy my uncle Jimmy Flannery was the one that experienced the worst of the war.  As I child I was aware that he had been involved in the worst of the fighting.  No one ever told me directly or sat me down and explained what he had gone through from June 1944 to July 1945. I knew he had gone in a few days after D-Day and had fought the Battle of the Bulge.  I remember I was not surprised by the fact that he “had it tough” because I knew he was a tough guy. I knew also from listening to the adults, when they didn’t think anyone was listening, that he did not get his broken nose from singing in the parish choir. My favorite story was about an evening in Linke’s bar and café that some of the locals were making fun of one of the Holy Rosary guys who was gay. The story went that my dad Bill McCormack and Jimmy Flannery took exception and in short order beat the hell out of the miscreants.  The quote was something like “he might be gay but he is our friend.”  Although I don’t think the term used was “gay.”

Jimmy Flannery

As I grew older I began to read history and like all boys of that generation came to worship the old guys.  Although I was just fifteen when Uncle Jim died I knew that his early death was somehow connected to the war. Going through high school and college I was taught by and knew a lot of the veterans.  Unfortunately most of them never talked directly about their personnel experiences during the war. What I knew I had learned from reading and the movies.  I knew that my uncle Jim had been in the middle of it all. I knew that he symbolized to me the sacrifice of self that generation had made.  He was one of my heroes.

When I began writing my family history I wanted to include a section about his service so the younger generations could put a face on that terrible war. Who in the family could be a better face than my uncle Jimmy Flannery?

Insignia of 30th Infantry Division "Old Hickory"

If they were not too old or too young they went.  The smart ones, the not so gifted, the tough ones, the soft ones, the entire generation went.  If you had been born between 1905 and 1927 chances are you either were drafted or enlisted. The war was fought all over the world; in North Africa, Europe, the Pacific, and at home.  My uncle Jimmy Flannery was a member of the 117th Infantry Regiment of the 30th Infantry Division. With the exception of not landing on D-Day this division bore the worst of the fighting in Europe. The story of Jimmy Flannery and his comrades is the one I will tell. The story is about how the division landed at Omaha Beach; broke through at St. Lo and liberated countless towns in northern France, Belgium and Holland. After successfully invading Germany they had to turn back to Belgium and help stop the Nazi counter offensive that became known as the “Battle of the Bulge.” Historians whether American or German agree on the important role the 30th Division played in the invasion of Europe and the defeat of Germany.

The 30th Infantry Division known as “Old Hickory” had been active during WWI and was manned by Southerners from the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Georgia.  It had achieved distinction in that war and retained its identity as a National Guard unit in the period between the two wars. The 30th was recalled into Federal service 16 September 1940. In 1942 the division was rebuilt with personnel from all parts of the country.  Because of its exceptional record in training and in maneuvers the 30thwas selected for early deployment in combat and was transferred from Florida to Camp Atterbury in Indiana for final preparation before going overseas.

MS John Ericsson

Destroyed German tanks at St. Fromond 7 July 1944

The regiment sailed from Boston aboard the “John Ericsson” a former Swedish luxury liner turned troop ship on 12 Feb 1944. At 1300 hours in a blinding snowstorm they began their crossing of the North Atlantic.  The Ericsson met the rest of the convoy from New York City and Hampton Roads, VA 100 miles east of Boston on the 13th in the early afternoon and became part of the largest convoy to cross the Atlantic up to that time.  Twelve days later after a typically rough winter crossing they landed at Liverpool. They spent the next three months training for the invasion of France at various bases in England.  On 8 June they left Hemel Hempstead just north of London for South Hampton where they boarded the “Judiah Smith” for the channel crossing. They landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy on the 14th of June. The 117th was committed to its baptism of fire on 15 June 1944, in a sector previously occupied by the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, with its first headquarters being established at Les Obeaux after leaving Omaha Beach. Its first mission on landing in France was to secure the high ground north of the Vire et Taute Canal. The small community of La Ray soon fell before the rolling 30thand the mission of clearing the north bank of the canal was completed by 17 June.

Insignia 117th Infantry Regiment

The 117th liberates Evreux Aug 1944

On 7 July the Division moved forward again, crossing the Vire River and penetrating as far as St Jean-de-Day. This began one of the war’s most memorable actions, the St Lo breakthrough. It was here that the 30thslugged through the hedgerows against fortified German infantry and dug in tanks. Advances were slow in July, but by 6 August the 30th relieved the 1st Infantry Division near Mortain. Suddenly the Division was attacked by five armored divisions of the enemy, the German’s purpose being to drive to the sea at Avranches and split the American First and Third Armies. The 2nd Battalion of the 120th Infantry Regiment and Jimmy Flannery’s unit the 1st Battalion of the 117th Infantry Regiment bore the brunt of the assault and were so hard-pressed, that all available personnel of the 30th Division were thrown into action. The Battalions held fast. In a week the Nazi spearhead was broken and the enemy thrown back.

The "Impenetrable" Siegfried Line

After leaving St. Barthelmy the 117th received a four-day rest period. From 19 Aug onward they were engaged in the rat race across northern France.  The 30th was the first infantry division to enter Belgium and Holland, where they liberated Maastricht. The 30th was also instrumental in breaching the Siegfried Line in October 1944, and the capture of Aachen, Germany, the 1st large German city to be captured by the Allies in WWII. This attack into Germany through the “impenetrable Western Wall” exposed the 117thto the greatest concentration of artillery and mortar fire they had yet experienced. After the fall of Aachen they continued the drive into the German industrial heartland. In late November they were part of what the American generals called the “Perfect Infantry Attack near Alsdorf Germany.

Rocket Gun captured by the 117th at La Gleize

On 16 Dec 1944 the 117th was given a new job. They were ordered to reverse course and go back to Belgium to deal with the unexpected German offensive.  This last big push by the Nazis was an attempt to drive through to Liege Belgium, split the allied forces and seize the port.  If they had succeeded the German’s could have won the war. This critical decisive battle was referred to as the “Battle of the Bulge.” After a 48 mile march elements of the 30thengaged the Germans at Stavelot Belgium.

Malmedy 2 Jan 1944

At Stavelot, Stoumont, La Gleize and Malmedy they stopped the German advance and gained control of their sector of the bulge with extraordinary speed. In a savage battle that lasted from 18 Dec to Christmas Eve they destroyed the fighting effectiveness of the elite Adolph Hitler division, the 1st SS Panzer Division.

German prisoners clear land mines

At LaGleize on the 24th they captured over 170 German vehicles including Tiger tanks, halftracks and artillery pieces. As a result of this fight the Germans gave the 30th nickname “Roosevelt’s SS Troops.” According to the Germans this was because the 30th was always “thrown in where the going is the roughest.” The rest of January was spent slogging through chest deep snow over rugged forested terrain retaking the ground the German offensive had secured. In February they were back in Germany crossing the flooded Roer River on 24 Feb. This surprise attack under cover of an artificial fog opened the drive to the Rhine. How much resistance the Germans offered was dependent on the spirit of the individual commanders.  Some fought fanatically and others surrendered with little fight.

In early March the 30th was pulled back to Holland to train with the Navy and engineers for the crossing of the Rhine. The Rhine crossing was second only to Normandy in size as an amphibious operation. The 30th crossed in three places and experienced minimal losses. From there to crossing the Weser River at Hameln on 6 April they met with varying degrees of resistance ranging from sporadic sniper fire to stubborn fighting from fortified strong points. The 30thcaptured 24,000 prisoners and several large cities before reaching the Elbe.

Magdeburg 1 May 1945

Their last big battle was for Magdeburg where on 5 May they met up with the Russians. After a brief occupation of an area on the Czech border near Oelsnitz the 117th returned to Sissone France. After three weeks in France on 31 July they boarded ship to cross the English Chanel to Southampton.  The fourteen months that had elapsed had changed the course of human history. My uncle and hero Jimmy Flannery and the rest of the 117th Infantry Regiment had played a major role in winning the war. While in England the 30threceived the news of the atomic bombs being dropped on Japan. On 15 August the Japanese surrendered. I cannot imagine the joy felt by these brave men knowing they had survived the war and would not be deployed to the Pacific after all.  Two weeks after arriving at Tideworth Barracks England, Jimmy and his fellow soldiers boarded the Queen Mary and sailed to New York on 17 Aug at 0425 hours. The trip home took only four days compared to the 14 on the voyage over. At 2215 the Queen tied up at Pier 99 in New York City.  After a day of record checking and orientation leave arrangements were made and 30 day furloughs were granted.  Most were extended to 45 days and the soldiers were then discharged at the separation center nearest their home. Uncle Jim was discharged at Camp McCoy Wisconsin 13 Nov 1945. Coincidentally his discharge was signed by his brother-in-law, my father Capt. William J. McCormack.

Queen Mary

Fifteen years later in December 1960 my uncle died at age 42.  The stresses of the Ardennes, Normandy and breaking the Siegfried line had finally taken their toll prematurely ending his life.


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…