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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Philadelphia Irish Memorial


Regan and I are heading to Philadelphia for a few days later this month. I have never been to the City of Brotherly Love, and I can’t wait!


So much to see and do …the Liberty Bell, the Barnes Collection, Betsy Ross House, and Rocky’s steps are some of the attractions I think of initially, but there is much more to Philadelphia. Over the next week, on the blog and on our Facebook page, I will feature some of what Philly has to offer for those of us interested in the Irish in America.

I already told you about McGillin’s Olde Ale House, the longest continuously operating tavern in the city, established by the Irish immigrant McGillin family. And last week I shared MacDougall’s Irish Victory Cakes – delicious cakes created using a family recipe straight from early twentieth century Belfast.

We’ve covered food and drink, so it seems somehow fitting (or maybe it’s ironic?) to highlight the Irish Memorial at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia. The Irish Memorial is a National Monument, opened to the public on October 25, 2003. The thirty-foot bronze sculpture commemorates the Great Famine of Ireland of the 1840s and was created by artist Glenna Goodacre.

The memorial tells both sides of the story as it remembers both those who suffered and died in Ireland as a result of the Famine, as well as those who escaped the starvation and came to America. The Irish Memorial website says:

The Irish Memorial is dedicated to the memory of more than one million innocent men, women and children who perished during the years 1845 to 1850 and to the millions of Irish immigrants who found here in the United States of America the freedom, liberty and prosperity denied to their ancestors in Ireland.

I look forward to seeing the Irish Memorial at Penn’s Landing. Stay tuned to our Twitter and Facebook for photos and posts when we visit Philly next week! Please leave comments with your suggestions for things not to be missed in Philadelphia…would love to hear from you!

For more information on the Philadelphia Irish Memorial visit


Latest Irish American “Discovery”: Victory Cakes


Deborah’s and her cakes

Two things attracted me to this article on mention of QVC (I am not ashamed – I love the home shopping channel) and the photograph of the friendly woman holding a platter of adorable mini Bundt cakes. MacDougall’s Irish Victory Cakes? Never heard of them, but I definitely needed to learn more…

Deborah Streeter-Davitt bakes delicious cakes using an old family recipe. Deborah’s great-grandfather, James MacDowell, was a native of Belfast.  Known by his family as “Dassie”, he was a baker by trade who became well-known for his exquisite butter cakes. Dassie created his cakes from a special recipe (which remains secret today) for the rich and famous throughout the British Isles. Dassie may have become  the most sought-after baker by royalty and the elite, but he gave it all up to follow his dream of a better life for his family in America. Dassie moved to Syracuse, New York where he worked in a modest bakery for the man who sponsored his immigration.

MacDougall’s Irish Victory Cakes is definitely a family affair. Deborah’s parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews all come together to help her create the rich, buttery cakes, available throughout the Philadelphia area at farmer’s markets, specialty stores, and festivals. You can even order the cakes online – both the sweet butter cake and a “dressed-up” version are available. Here’s how they describe Dassie’s Traditional cake:

Dassie’s award-winning sweet butter pound cake (Massie’s Sweet Butter) is adorned with wonderful rich and velvety Wilbur Chocolate and Butterscotch ~ a perfect and delicious compliment to Great Great Dad’s recipe. These creamy confections are both baked inside and lovenly drizzled on top of each golden cake, along with sprinkles of tiny kelly green shamrocks and wee orange nonpareils. Dassie’s Traditional is perfect for EVERY occasion and mostly just for YOU to celebrate YOU!

Sounds heavenly! I can’t wait to track down one of Dassie’s cakes when I am in Philadelphia at the end of the month. I bet that Dassie would be very proud that his great-granddaughter was carrying on the baking tradition and sharing his Irish cakes with the “sweet-teeth” of America.

Click image for history of MacDougall's Irish Victory Cakes.

Click image for history of MacDougall’s Irish Victory Cakes.

  • Click here  for a nice article on Deborah and the Victory cakes.
  • “Like” MacDougall’s Irish Victory Cakes on Facebook – click here.
  • Order your very own cake – click here to visit website.


Day 19 of Irish American Favorites: McGillin’s Olde Ale House

McGillinsI have never been to Philadelphia, but that is not stopping me from selecting an Irish bar in the City of Brotherly Love as one of my favorites in Irish America. I am visiting Philly later this summer, and I can’t wait to go to McGillin’s Olde Ale House. For starters, I love “olde” anything. William McGillin, an Irish immigrant, opened the tavern in 1860. Established in a row house, “Pa” and “Ma” McGillin raised thirteen children upstairs. After nearly 100 years, the tavern was sold to another family in 1958. Click here to read the history of McGillin’s.

McGillin’s is the oldest tavern in Philadelphia in continuous operation. I’ve seen McGillin’s on several lists of the Best Irish Bars in America, and in 2010 Gourmet Magazine named it one of the 14 coolest bars in the U.S. Last December USA Today said McGillin’s was one of the best places to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

One reason I am looking forward to visiting McGillin’s is because I don’t think they overdo the “Irish thing”. Many Irish bars in the US seem to either go overboard with the cheesy menu item names and decor, or they are too sophisticated, with tons of dark wood and mood lighting. Both versions are trying too hard to recreate the feel of a pub in Ireland. In my opinion, it is impossible to have a truly “authentic” Irish pub in America. But what we can have is an olde tavern, established by an immigrant family in a city full of history, with friendly people, and great food and drink.

We’ll see you in July, McGillin’s!

Follow McGillin’s on Twitter: click here.