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The Irish in Chicago

Michael F. Funchion
Historical Research and Narrative

Although marked by its own nuances, the history of the Irish in Chicago follows a pattern similar to that of the Irish in most other large American cities where they settled in substantial numbers. Early immigrants formed a visible Irish community. Sustained by certain key institutions, this community remained relatively cohesive into the early-twentieth century. After that, many of the descendants of Irish immigrants gradually began to meld into a more general Catholic American subgroup, although a smaller core of highly ethnic Irish remains to this day.

Man standing on flowers

The early Irish immigrants in Chicago left a homeland teeming with a myriad political, social, and economic problems. Controlled by England in one fashion or another since the twelfth century Ireland became intricately tied to its more powerful neighbor with the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801. Although that union worked out to the satisfaction of most Irish Protestants, most Irish Catholics, who made up over three-quarters of the population, detested it. Not only did the political system deny Irish Catholics the chance to control their own affairs, but for some time it also actively discriminated against their religion.

Worse than the political structure was the land system, in which most of the landlords were Anglo-Irish Protestants or Englishmen, while most of the peasants were Catholics. Peasants often had to pay burdensome rents and live in squalid conditions. By the 1830s conditions had worsened as tremendous population growth in previous decades had forced many to eke out a living on minuscule plots of land. This population pressure also triggered a significant rise in immigration to America in the 1830s. Immigrant numbers grew in the early 1840s, but the floodgates opened with the Great Famine (1845-1849). As a result of this catastrophe, which involved successive and widespread failures of the potato crop on which most peasants depended for their food, one million people died and another million emigrated. The Famine greatly increased Irish bitterness toward England, since the Irish believed that the British government could have done far more than it did to save the starving masses. After the Famine years, economic conditions in Ireland improved, and although substantial numbers of Irish left Ireland for America during the latter nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, relatively few showed signs of real destitution.

The early years of Chicago coincided with the significant rise in Irish immigration in the 1830s. Some Irish already lived in Chicago when it was incorporated as a city in 1837. In the next few years Irish numbers grew rapidly particularly after the arrival of refugees from the Great Famine. By 1850 Irish immigrants accounted for about one-fifth of the city's population. Although the number of Irish immigrants in Chicago continued to increase until the end of the century, their percentage of the city's population was never again as high as it was in 1850, after which an extraordinary large number of Germans and later other immigrant groups settled in the city making it one of the most multi-ethnic urban areas in the United States.

Like those in other parts of the United States, the vast majority of the early Irish immigrants in Chicago came to America in impoverished circumstances. Taking low-skilled and poorly paying jobs in brickyards, meatpacking plants, and the like, they settled in poor neighborhoods, like Bridgeporton the South Side or Kilglubbin on the North. It was in one such depressed neighborhood on the South Side that the Great Chicago Fire (1871) started in the barn of Irish immigrants Patrick and Catherine O'Leary.

In time, the economic status of the Irish improved. The children of the early immigrants appear to have been better off than


their parents, while the new immigrants arriving after the Great Famine were more prosperous and better educated than those who had come before. Yet, at the end of the century, Irish Chicagoans were still overwhelmingly working class, and some lived in considerable poverty. Fascinating insights into the lives of these people are offered in Finley Peter Dunne's fictional accounts of the Irish in Bridgeport, which appeared in his "Mr. Dooley" newspaper columns in the1890s.

After the turn of the century, the Irish continued to gradually climb the economic ladder. Like the Irish portrayed in James T. Farrell's classic Studs Lonigan trilogy, more and more Irish left their old neighborhoods in the central parts of the city and moved to better ones in outlying areas. The Depression, of course, hurt the Irish as it did others, but did not permanently prevent their upward move, which received significant help after World War II with the Gl Bill of Rights. The increased prosperity of the Irish was evident in the steady stream who left the city for the suburbs in the half century after the war.

Although the Irish seem more widely dispersed today than they were a century ago, most of the Irish in Chicago's history have never lived in real ethnic ghettoes. In fact, they have been one of the least clustered ethnic groups in the city. Yet despite the absence of geographic separation, the Irish, at least into the twentieth century, remained a relatively cohesive ethnic group linked together by their Catholicism, devotion to Ireland (particularly their support for Irish nationalism), and by a high level of involvement in the local political system.

Holy Family Church, Chicago
Holy Family Church, Chicago

The overwhelming majority of Irish in Chicago were Catholics. For Irish Catholics, religious and ethnic identities were entwined, as religious persecution at the hands of Protestant England and the Protestant Anglo-Irish establishment had tended to fuse together their Irish and Catholic identities. In Chicago, it was the Irish along with German Catholics and a handful of French-speaking residents who, in the 1830s and 1840s, laid the foundations of the Catholic Church in the city. With a tremendous increase in the number of Irish and German Catholic newcomers in the following few decades, the Catholic Church grew by leaps and bounds. Then in the last decades of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the Catholic population not Holy Family Church, Chicago only continued to grow tremendously, but it also became far more diverse with the arrival of thousands of the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, and Italians from southern and eastern Europe.

Because of their numbers, early arrival, and ability to speak English, the Irish held the dominant role in the Catholic Church in Chicago for decades. Until 1916 all the Catholic bishops in Chicago, except one who served for five years, were of Irish birth or parentage. Although ethnic tensions existed in the church, with few exceptions the Catholics in Chicago remained united. One of the factors that helped to promote this relatively peaceful coexistence of diverse ethnic groups in the same church was that the various Irish bishops supported the practice of establishing separate (termed "national") parishes for the various non-English speaking ethnic groups.

As English-speakers, the Irish did not have national parishes created for them, but instead attended regular (termed "territorial") parishes. The system, however, had a significant effect on them. Because they were virtually the only English-speaking Catholic immigrants, the territorial parishes became in effect Irish parishes, so that for a long time the institutional religious structure not only separated Irish Catholics from American Protestants, but also socially from their fellow Catholics. This system began to change slowly toward the end of the nineteenth century. By 1900 there were large numbers of American-born German Catholics who used English as their first language. As a result, existing German national parishes gradually became English-speaking ones, and hardly any new German national parishes were created. When established, new territorial parishes were intended for Germans as well as for the Irish, although because of settlement patterns, many of these eventually became predominantly Irish or German. The newer Catholic immigrant groups followed the same pattern as the Germans.


Old St. Patrick's Church, Chicago
Old St. Patrick's Church, Chicago
Courtesy: The New World

Old St. Patrick's Church, Chicago, in the 1870s
Old St. Patrick's Church, Chicago, in the 1870s
Courtesy: The New World

The local parish was very important in the lives of Irish Chicagoans. It met their spiritual needs, of course, but it also served other significant functions. The parochial school attached to most parishes provided not only instruction in the Catholic faith but also a solid education in secular subjects. Priests, besides providing spiritual guidance, often acted as surrogate social workers and counsellors, helping their parishioners with a host of everyday concerns. Parish events and meetings, which gave parishioners the opportunity to mix with one another, helped to meet an important social need. Most of these parishes had a vibrant sense of community and the intimacy of small towns.

While being nurtured by parish life, Irish Catholic identity also received reinforcement from anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice. This prejudice was quite intense in the decades before the Civil War. The Chicago Tribune on several occasions, for example, lashed out at Irish Catholics for their political power and religion, and in 1855 Chicagoan selected an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant Know-Nothing mayor and Know-Nothing-controlled city council. Some decades later in the latter 1880s and early 1890s, another wave of anti-Catholicism hit the city, with a number of Protestant Chicagoans lending their support to groups such as the American Protective Association, whose members swore never to vote for or employ a Catholic. Anti-Catholic prejudice had diminished considerably by the start of the new century but was sometimes quite noticeable. As late as the 1920s, Catholics along with Jews and African-Americans bore the brunt of attacks from the Ku Klux Klan. Most Protestant Chicagoans, of course, were not bigots, and many had quiet, friendly relations with Irish Catholics. Nonetheless, anti-Catholicism on various occasions reared its ugly head and made Irish Catholics more conscious of their own identity.

Besides Catholicism, devotion to Ireland held Irish Chicagoans together. The most visible evidence of this was the support they furnished for both peaceful and revolutionary Irish nationalist movements. In the1860s, for example, Irish Chicagoans provided money and men to the Fenians, a revolutionary organization that sought to win the complete independence of Ireland. After internal divisions led to the collapse of the Fenians in the late 1860s, revolutionary-minded Irish Chicagoans turned to the Clan na Gael, which for many years supported the revolutionary cause in Ireland.

The Chicago Irish also backed non-violent Irish nationalist campaigns. During the 1880s they threw their support behind the Irish Home Rule movement led by Charles Stewart Parnell, the head of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Though it still would have left Ireland in the United Kingdom, Home Rule would have given Ireland a separate parliament for Irish matters, and thus many Irish Chicagoans, including members of the Clan, supported it as a step in the right direction. Parnell's campaign for Home Rule failed, however, as did subsequent attempts in the 1890s and on the eve of World War I.

As a result of events in Ireland, the interest of the Chicago Irish in revolutionary Irish nationalism increased substantially in the period during and immediately following World War I. A daring but unsuccessful republican uprising in Dublin in 1916 combined with certain ill-advised British policies regarding Ireland ignited the embers of revolutionary nationalism among many Irish people, and in the British general election of 1918, the radical Sinn Fein party obliterated the moderate Irish Parliamentary Party. In 1919 Sinn Fein declared Ireland independent, and war broke out between its military wing the IRA and the British. The war ended in 1921, and a compromise settlement gave virtual independence to most of the island in the form of the Irish Free State but left two-thirds of Ulster in the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland. During the struggle for Irish independence, the Chicago Irish aided the Irish cause by joining support groups, holding rallies, and contributing money. With the creation of the Irish Free State, which later evolved into the Republic of Ireland, interest in the Irish nationalist struggle waned but revived somewhat again when trouble broke out in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s.

Besides support for Irish nationalism, Irish Chicagoans showed their interest in their Irish heritage in other ways. Some belonged to organizations such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which fostered


Edward J. Kelly
Edward J. Kelly

nationalism but had a broader cultural agenda. Some attended or participated in musical and dance events or in Gaelic football and hurling matches.

Besides Catholicism and a devotion to Ireland, another factor that served to unite many Chicago Irish was their high level of involvement in local politics. From the early days of Chicago the Irish were active in politics. The vast majority voted Democratic, as the Democrats had the reputation of being friendly to the Irish. A knowledge of the English language as well as a familiarity with electioneering in Ireland gave them an advantage over continental immigrants.

In the decades after the Great Chicago Fire, as the first American-reared generation reached adulthood, the Irish dominated the Democratic party and emerged as the single most important ethnic group in the city's politics. The Irish liked the local political system which, like that in many American cities of the time, was based not on ideology but on patronage and other economic incentives. The Irish used the system to get patronage jobs such as those on the police force and thus move up the economic ladder. Good government reformers of the period criticized "boodle" politics as corrupt. There was indeed a good deal of corruption (bribes, vote stealing, etc.), but the system also did much good, providing assistance to the poor and jobs to working class people.

Michael Flatley

The Irish were skilled politicians, using the contacts and connections they made in their parishes or through Irish organizations to enhance their political prospects. They also on the whole were adept at dealing with non-Irish groups and in building coalitions from various ethnic groups. Yet, despite their considerable political power in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the Irish occupied the mayor's office for only a total of eight years during the period from 1871 to 1933. The Irish mayors, all Democrats, during this period were John Hopkins (1893-1895), Edward F. Dunne (1905-1907), and William E. Dever (1923-1927). One of the reasons for this rather spotty representation was that Irish politicians were never as interested in having one of their own in the mayor's office as in supporting winning candidates like the two Carter Harrisons and Anton Cermak. Ironically, during the thirty some years after Cermak's murder in 1933, when the Irish percentage of the city's population fell steadily, Chicago had a continuous string of Irish Democratic mayors: Edward J. Kelly (1933-1947), Martin J. Kennelly (1947-1955), and Richard J. Daley (1955-1976). Of these the most notable was Daley, who was able to keep a political machine with a patronage system running smoothly, even after those in other American cities had died. In the years since Daley's death in 1976, two Irish Chicagoans, Jane Byrne (1979-1983) and Richard M. Daley (1989-), have between them occupied the mayor's office for over half the time, despite the fact that persons of Irish background make up no more than six percent of the city's population.

Although an Irish Chicagoan holds the city's highest office as this century comes to a close, the Chicago Irish are not nearly as visible now as they were at the beginning of the century. In 1990, 660, 343 persons in Cook County (237, 133 in Chicago alone) claimed Irish ancestry, but many of these are probably not Irish in any significant way. Over the course of the century, a number of the descendants of Irish immigrants lost much of their sense of Irishness, either through the passage of time, intermarriage, or deliberate decision. Yet, a core of ethnic-conscious Irish remains in the city and its suburbs. Consisting of immigrants and their children as well as persons of more distant and/or mixed Irish ancestry, this core supports a viable set of organizations that sponsor a wide array of cultural, scholarly, social, athletic, and nationalist events. The vitality of Irish culture in Chicago perhaps has been best demonstrated lately by the artistic success of Michael Flatley, the Chicago-born and-reared traditional Irish dancer and choreographer, who has held the leading roles in the widely acclaimed Riverdance and Lord of the Dance.

Richard J. Daley, St. Patrick's Day Parade
Richard J. Daley,
St. Patrick's Day Parade

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