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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Bit Cracked Story in the Pantagraph

From the Daily Pantagraph with my bitter and spiteful annotations

If today's McLean County Irish are indeed lucky, as the saying goes, they may have their very unlucky ancestors to thank. (oh horsesh*t, just getting here was extremely well planned, hard work, and more than a little bit lucky. My gggrandparents could have stayed in Ireland but they didn't. At least my grandmother, who I knew very well never looked back one minute, and was one of the happiest people I ever met)

Today is St. Patrick's Day, an excuse for many to drink 'til they see green. For others, it's a time to look back on McLean County's Irish history, largely written by early immigrant laborers and business leaders whose life's works are still visible in Central Illinois.

Fleeing a potato famine that first hit Ireland in the 1840s, the Irish and other immigrants came for work, many on the Illinois Central Railroad, then the largest private construction project in U.S. history. The rail line reached Bloomington in 1853, with laborers paid $1.25 per day. (Hey wasn't $1.25 pretty good money in those days? If you had $100 you were considered wealthy, so...80 days of work and you hit it big!)

The brutal conditions would be almost unrecognizable to many of today's workers. Common were 14-hour days without overtime, poor sanitary conditions and threat of cholera, said Twin City labor leader Mike Matejka, who has studied labor history. (Unrecognizable to whom? A Wapella Hog Farmer "fixing" pigs? A mother (or father) taking care of a sick kid? A plumber making a service call to unclog a kitchen sink on Christmas Day? I am one of the laziest people in Wapella's history and I have put in enough 14 hour days to recognize hard work when I avoid it)

"If you get hurt on the job, they said, 'Tough luck, we'll go find somebody else,'" Matejka said, adding that the Irish carried with them a long tradition of organizing resistance to British rule. (Right, thats why they got $1.25 per day and traveled halfway across the world to get it. Working for the Illinois Central or one of the various ditchdigging operations was by no means equivalent to armed resistance to the English takeover and occupation of Ireland)

Their hardship is visible today at Funks Grove Cemetery, where about 50 Irish workers who apparently died of cholera in the 1850s are buried in a mass grave marked by a Celtic cross. (Sad to hear, and I am sure some of my relatives were buried there, but cholera hit everyone regardless of nationality in the 1850's.)

By 1880, the 6,300 or so Irish immigrants and their children were about 13 percent of McLean County's 50,000 residents, said Greg Koos, executive director of the county's Museum of History.

Though the notion of immigrant ethnicity faded as a stronger national culture took hold after World War I, Koos said, a familiar Irish stereotype -- drinking -- traces some of its origins back to this time.

"The social destruction these people experienced as a result of famine, seeing their culture and families totally torn apart - it creates a tremendous grief," Koos said. "Alcohol becomes a means of drinking away that pain."

(And was a means of bringing families together for a toast. My grandmother would tell stories about driving 15 miles on a horse drawn cart with my grandfather to visit with various and assorted Toohills, Kiley's, Flaherty's, O'Brien's, and most of all the Donovan's to enjoy (just grandpa) having a beer, and considering it the some of the best times in her life)

Generations later, the mark of the Irish is still on the Twin Cities, namely Holy Trinity Catholic Church, or the Constitution Trail (on the old Illinois Central rail line). (Sure, and St. Patricks on the West Side and St. Patricks of Merna had at least a tiny connection to the Old Country)

As of 2008, the Census Bureau estimates about 25,690 McLean County residents, or 16 percent, have Irish ancestry (not including Scotch-Irish) - the second most common ancestry behind German (about 32 percent).

Today's Irish

The oldest continually operating funeral home in Bloomington-Normal, Carmody-Flynn Williamsburg, is now in its fourth generation of Irish-blooded ownership.

Founded in 1872 by C.C. Deneen, it was bought around 1910 by George R. Flynn, who was joined in business by his son, John, whose son, Tim, joined in 1979 and is now owner. (George Flynn's father, J.C., ran a local grocery store and served Irish railroad workers.)

Today the funeral home serves all faiths, but it grew in its early years in large part to its Irish customers.

"It was a building block in our business for several decades, and it's still a part of our business today," said Tim Flynn (Tim is a fine gentleman as was his father and the rest of his family, they are only bright part of this lame story).

The Irish-immigrant experience was even the impetus for the fictional lore behind Maggie Miley's, named for the real-life great-grandmother of one of the uptown Normal Irish pub's founders who may (or may not have) departed Ireland with dreams of running a pub.

Still, the pub's interior is authentic Irish, and general manager Peter Connolly is a Dublin native, said owner Tyler Holloway. "(Customers) want to feel like they've gone out of the country for an hour or two," he said.

(Er, what about Don's World of Beef, that was the best thing ever to hit Bloomington)

For a less-boozy way to honor St. Patrick, Matejka said it's a good time to consider the harsh conditions today's immigrants experience. The anti-immigrant "Know-Nothing" movement that challenged Irish laborers is similar to what today's Mexican laborers experience, added Koos.

"Let's think about what it's like to be an immigrant, not just of the 1850s, but for the immigrants of 2010," Matejka said. (There...I thought about it, now move on to the next subject and quit degrading my ancestors for using their own common sense to get out of the hellhole that was Ireland and cheer the day that DeWitt County seceded from you McLean county gripers.)


Anonymous said...

Mod, your "bitter, spiteful annotations" are, nonetheless, accurate. You should have also noted that your Irish immigrant ancestors came here legally. The author of the article failed to make that distinction.


Anonymous said... sound like your Dad when he returned from a family vacation to Ireland..."Get down and kiss the ground!! Thank God our ancestors had enough sense to leave that rock"!!


JBP said...


I am sure if there was some way to work illegally in the country, my ancestors would have done it, just for the sport of it.

And yes, Jewel, I don't see how the Pantagraph writer can assign some lack of common sense to people who worked their tails off to get out of one of the most poverty stricken countries in Europe.


Anonymous said...

I personally never saw any naturalization papers for any ancestors. Based on my knowledge of some of these folks a trip to the immigration office was never on their agenda.

Their poverty was brought on by the imperialist Brits who worked for centuries to subjugate anyone who could make them a pound.

I don't know that it is ever easy to be an immigrant.



Anonymous said...

Jewel, channeling Rod, said it best.

Badger Cat

Anonymous said...

When my great-grandfather and Great-Granduncle Jim Jordan landed in NYC in the early 1850s, the only entry requirement was not falling off the gangplank. Only if infectious disease was aboard was a ship required to anchor for a period of quarantine. Ellis Island, with all of its health, criminality, and financial hurdles, wouldn't open for another generation, and Castle Clinton not until 1855.

Don't confuse entry with naturalization, either. Many Irish immigrants - and nearly all of the women - never bothered with the latter. In fact, Rt. Rev. Msgr. Bernard J. Sheedy didn't become an American until 1965, when Trinity parishioners gave him an all-expenses paid trip back to Ireland, only to find that he had to be hurriedly naturalized in order to get a passport. Unless you wanted to vote or take a hand in politics - or were feeling especially patriotic - most Famine immigrants thought that the naturalization game wasn't worth the candle.


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