New U.S. Census Bureau data shows Illinois had nearly 10,000 fewer residents in 2014 than…
DeKalb, Ill. — Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, NIU History Professor Sean Farrell and his former doctoral student Mathieu Billings, now a faculty associate in history and political science at the University of Indianapolis, have a new book out titled, “The Irish in Illinois.”
How did the Irish help shape the Prairie State? Who have been some of the most unheralded Irish in state history? Where does Illinois rank in terms of its St. Paddy’s Day celebrations? Farrell and Billings have the answers.
The NIU Newsroom recently caught up with the authors, who not surprisingly have the gift of gab.
Why did you write this book? Mat: Southern Illinois University Press was initially putting together a popular series of short books on immigration to the Prairie State. In working on our first draft, we both realized the potential for a more thorough and scholarly appraisal of the subject—one that not only took stock of the towering roles that Irish Americans played in the development of Chicago, but downstate as well. What resulted is the first statewide history of the Irish in Illinois.
How did the two of you come to collaborate on the book? Sean: One day Mat came to my office to tell me that he had been contacted about doing a book on the Irish in Illinois. I reached out to the series editor, who suggested that we would have a much better chance of getting a book contract if I got on board. I am really glad I did. Mat was a terrific research and writing partner for the project, and I have learned so much about the Irish in Illinois and broader issues in American immigration history. I do think it’s the type of collaborative project that speaks to what we can do at a place like NIU, a research university where graduate students can work closely with faculty.
How many people of Irish descent are in Illinois? Mat: According to the latest federal census, over 1 million people claim Irish ancestry in Illinois. A 2019 survey shows Cook County, Illinois as the county with the largest Irish population (438,350) in the United States.
Where does Illinois rate in terms of concentrations of people of Irish ancestry in the United States? Mat: The most recent estimate from the U.S Census Bureau ranks Illinois 20th, representing roughly 11 percent of the state’s population.
In what areas of society have the Irish made the biggest impacts in Illinois? Mat: It is difficult to overstate the political impact that the Irish had upon the Prairie State. During the 18th century, Irish soldiers and administrators aided the French and British empires in their conquest of the territory. During the American Revolution, rank-and-file Irishmen under George Rogers Clark seized the Illinois Country for the United States. Irish Catholics and Protestants served on the state’s first constitutional convention in 1818. Nine of the state’s governors (nearly a quarter) traced their ancestry back to Ireland, as have seven of Chicago’s mayors, including Ed Kelly and Richard J. and Richard M. Daley. Economically, they built the state’s canals and railroads. Irish farmers tilled the state’s fertile fields. Others became police officers, teachers, firefighters, domestic servants, meatpackers, and business owners. Some of the state’s most prominent labor activists, such as Mother Jones, Margaret Haley and John Fitzpatrick were Irish. And while initially not as upwardly mobile as other immigrant groups, the Irish today are better educated and better paid than average Illinoisans. They are perhaps best known, however, for their enduring cultural impact. Not only does Chicago famously dye its river green on St. Patrick’s Day, but Irish festivals, musical performances, dance recitals and local pubs are popular in Illinois throughout the year.
Does your book talk about the history of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago? Sean: More people participate in St. Patrick’s Day celebrations than any other Irish-American cultural event. There are certainly St. Patrick’s Day events and parades from the earliest days of the Irish experience in Illinois, but modern-day parades are really a post-World War II phenomenon. Chicago stands particularly tall here, of course, with two of the largest St. Patrick’s Day parades in the world. The city’s official parade was initiated by Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1956 while the South Side Irish Parade dates back to 1953, although it has been reinvented several times since then. Chicago is not alone, of course. There are notable St. Patrick’s Day parades across the state, including substantial celebrations in Bloomington-Normal, Naperville, Peoria, Rockford, and the Quad Cities. The coronavirus pandemic has presented real challenges for these types of public gatherings, but I just saw that Manhattan, a small town in Will County, hosted a virtual St. Patrick’s Day event that featured Irish traditional music from Mary Hatfield, an NIU History alum and fiddler extraordinaire.
What brought the Irish to Illinois? Mat: The Irish first came to the Illinois Territory during the late 18th and early 19th centuries in search of land, liberty and opportunity. In 1816, prominent Irish Americans in eastern cities petitioned Congress to create a federal colony for Irish immigrants. Congress rejected the idea, but by the time Illinois obtained statehood in 1818, word had gotten out: The Prairie State would make a good home for the Irish. Like other white settler colonists, they settled the southern reaches of the state first and moved northward along the Mississippi. They helped wrest control of the land from indigenous tribes. They mined lead in Galena. But it was the construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal during the 1830s that beckoned the first major wave of Catholic immigrants from Ireland. Many canallers eventually became farmers. Most, however, settled in the state’s northern cities, notably Chicago. Industrial growth, economic opportunities, and family connections brought further waves of Irish men and women to all of the state’s major cities. That pattern continued well into the 20th century.
How were the Irish alike and different from other populations of immigrants that came to Illinois? Sean: Like all immigrant populations, the Irish left a place where they felt they had limited opportunities (or fled for their lives during the Irish Famine) in an effort to find a place where they could better support themselves. Irish Catholic immigrants faced discrimination and hardship in mid- to late 19th-century America—although not as much in Illinois as they did on the East Coast—but several factors gave them advantages over other migrant populations. Above all, they were considered white, which meant that they had access to legal and voting rights as American citizens denied to most African American contemporaries. Irish emigrants typically spoke English and had political experience, attributes that help explain their quick rise to leadership positions in the Catholic Church and their significance in American politics.
What surprising information do you uncover about the Irish in Illinois? Mat: There are so many points to make. To begin with, most popular depictions of Irish America tend to characterize Irish immigration as predominantly, or even exclusively, Catholic. This is often with good reason, particularly after the Famine (1845-51) when the vast majority of immigration took place. Yet the first waves of Irish settlements were largely Protestant. And while scholars have long recognized this trend, what makes Illinois interesting is the apparent lack of conflict between Irish Protestants and Catholics during the state’s early development. While religious divisions sparked violence between Irishmen in states such as New York and Pennsylvania during the 1820s and 1830s, they did not seem to do so in Illinois. On the contrary, being Irish in Illinois seemed to supersede being Protestant or Catholic. Naturally, more research needs to be done to explore this question more thoroughly.
Mat: Another perhaps surprising fact to readers will be the relatively large number of Irish farmers in the Prairie State. Most Irish Catholics in the 19th and early 20th centuries settled in American cities. The same was true in Illinois. Until recently, however, many historians have overemphasized their supposed aversion to farming. To paraphrase one Irish American historian: The land had turned its back on the Irish during the Famine, so they turned their back on the land. Despite this common perception, Irish farmers actually increased as a percentage of first and second-generation immigrants during the 19th century. Many had been former canallers who were paid in land scrip rather than cash. LaSalle County, for instance, boasted one of the largest Irish farming communities in the entire Midwest.
Mat: Many readers will be eager to learn how politically savvy the Irish were. To be sure, the Irish were well known then as now for their politicking. But Irish politicians showcased their skills long before the campaigns of John F. Kennedy, Richard J. Daley or even Edward J. Kelly. From the earliest settlements to the arrival of predominantly Catholic laborers in the 1830s, Irish immigrants ran for local and statewide offices—and they won. During the late 1830s, when anti-immigrant fever or “nativism” began sweeping the eastern seaboard, it was not uncommon to read nativist newspapers rail against the successes of Irish politicians in Illinois. Yet part of the genius of Irish politics in Illinois lay also in their ability to build coalitions. Recognizing that they would rarely be able to make up a majority of voters, Irish politicians as early as the 1840s began reaching across ethnic lines. This was made evident during the Lager Beer Riot of 1855, when Irish and German voters joined forces to defeat the nativist Chicago Mayor Levi Boone. Coalition-building became only more common following the Civil War, and it later served as a template for the city’s era of machine politics.
What stories of Irish Illinoisans should be better known? Mat: One of the most remarkable Irish Illinoisans in this book is Jennie Hodgers, a.k.a. Albert Cashier. Born in Ireland sometime during the first half of the 19th century, Hodgers immigrated to Belvidere, Illinois. When civil war broke out, Hodgers changed her name to Albert Cashier and enlisted in the 95th Illinois Infantry Regiment. Cashier served throughout the war, notably during the Vicksburg Campaign under General Ulysses Grant. When the war ended, Cashier returned to Illinois and continued to live as a man—even voting and later collecting a pension. An automobile accident in 1911 abruptly unmasked Cashier’s secret identity. In 2017, the cities of Chicago and Los Angeles ran a folk-country musical entitled, “The Civility of Albert Cashier.”
Sean: John Looney is another interesting figure, perhaps a bit better known. Born in Ottawa in 1865, he became a successful attorney in Rock Island before shifting his attention to journalism and business. Based in a town later known as the “Citadel of Sin,” Looney created a criminal empire that included a regional bootlegging operation, protection rackets and a national stolen-car syndicate. Repeatedly threatened with federal prosecution, he was finally convicted in 1925. After spending eight years in prison, he moved to south Texas, where he died in 1942. Looney was the basis for John Rooney, a character portrayed by Paul Newman in the award-winning film “Road to Perdition.”
Sean: A number of Irish Illinoisans played significant roles in 20th-century struggles for civil rights. One of the most noteworthy is Sister Mary William Sullivan. Born in St. Louis in 1925, Sullivan had a remarkable 73-year career of service as a Daughter of Charity, working in a variety of educational, philanthropic and social-outreach settings in Milwaukee, Chicago, San Francisco, Amarillo, Austin and St. Louis. She is best known for her civil rights work in Chicago, where she was director of the Extension Program in Public House (1959-64) and administrator of Marillac House (1964-68). She worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr. and local leaders on the Catholic Interracial Council of Chicago. A fierce advocate for community, educational, racial and social justice, Sullivan described herself as a “large, loud Irish nun sitting on the corner of Jackson and California.” She died in July 2017.
Media Contact: Tom Parisi
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