Wednesday, February 19, 2014


Richard Daley is Mayor of Chicago and to distinguish himself from Richard of Athy he spells his name with an “e”.  I was reminded of both when I recently spent some time in the Windy City during which I took the opportunity to do some research on the Irish in that part of America.  Daley, the Mayor, has presided over the affairs of the Illinois city for several years and by all accounts his stewardship meets with the general approval of the residents.  Certainly the doorman of my hotel was loud in his praise of Mayor Daley.  Patrick O'Sullivan, a native of Sneem, Co. Kerry has lived in Chicago for 29 years but even as he spoke to me the Kerry blas reasserted itself so that by the time he finished talking he sounded as if he was standing outside the Great Southern Hotel in Parknasilla instead of a hotel in the Chicago Loop. 

Everywhere you look in Chicago you see the results of a municipality geared to making the city a pleasant place in which to live and work.  Renowned for its architecture Chicago has developed a cultural awareness which is second to none.  Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the Millennium Park, a development of recent years which complements and enhances the already existing people oriented facilities of the city.  Just a short distance from the Park which includes an auditorium capable of catering for thousands, is the worlds largest public library opened just a few years ago.  It was there that I spent some time, much shorter than I had expected, because of the readily accessible records which with the minimum of fuss were made available to me to consult and to copy as I wished.  I found myself contrasting the ease with which I was able to conduct my research there with the sometimes stultifying procedures I've had to comply with before doing similar research in this country.

My research centered on a man of whom I had often heard my mother speak.  He bore the same name as her only brother, Anthony O'Regan, but his place in history was assured by virtue of the fact that he was Bishop of Chicago before the diocese became an Archdiocese.  In fact he was the third Bishop of Chicago, an appointment he had initially refused but eventually accepted when pressed to do so by Rome.  I knew nothing of the man who was the uncle of my Mayo grandfather, but amongst my mother's papers I found a copy of the Bishop's Will, his photograph and a press cutting regarding the return of his body for burial in his native Cloonfad.  The story of Bishop Anthony O'Regan unfolded as I picked up and read various tomes on the church in Chicago, most of which had been published many years ago and all of which were long out of print and unavailable in this country. 

Having achieved what I had set out to do in a much shorter time than I expected I delved into the history of the Irish in Chicago and could only marvel at the impact that Irish emigrants had on Chicago and the mid West.  Indeed the influence of the Irish is everywhere to be seen in the social, economic and religious life of the American people, but perhaps nowhere other than in New York,  is such influence stronger than in Chicago.  The reason is fairly obvious.  The Catholic Church had a presence from a very early stage of the development of the city of Chicago and nowhere is that presence more visible even now than in the area which was once a predominantly Irish neighbourhood.  St. Patrick's Church on West Adams Street with its twin towers of contrasting styles is the iconic reminder of the working class Irishmen and women who a few years after the Great Famine financed the building of the Church.  The priest in charge of the parish at the time was Timahoe, Co. Laois man, Fr. Denis Dunne who a few years later, despite recognising that the average Irish emigrant was not enthusiastic about the abolition of black slavery, nevertheless set about the raising of Irish volunteers to fight on the Union side in the American Civil War.  The 90th Regiment comprising 980 Irish emigrants left Chicago to fight in the war, but only 221 returned in June 1865.  Their contribution did much to integrate the Irish into the new United States.

The nave of St. Patrick's, itself unusual in the context of Chicago in being a brick built Church, had an interesting collection of stained glass windows depicting Irish saints.  Irish politics of defiance is represented by a stained glass window commemorating Terence McSweeney, the Mayor of Cork who died on hunger strike in London in 1920.  Stained glass played an important part in the architectural revival of Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871 and one of the great architects of the time was Irishman Louis Sullivan, many of whose concepts and designs for stained glass windows are on display in the Smith Museum of Stained Glass on Chicago's Navy Pier.  It's quite a magnificent display of such work, indeed the best collection I have ever seen in one place.

Another element of the Catholic Church's involvement with the Irish in America centered on education and care of the sick and elderly.  It was here that the Sisters of Mercy played a major role.  Interestingly the first Sisters of Mercy arrived in America in December 1843 having travelled from St. Leo's Convent in Carlow.  Seven nuns out of twenty-one from that convent who had volunteered to take up the invitation of an Irish priest in America travelled to the States where they set up the first Sister of Mercy convent in Pittsburgh in December 1843.  I had understood that one of the nuns involved was related to Patrick Maher of Kilrush but I am now not at all sure on that point.  Maher was one of the principal benefactors of the Convent of Mercy established in Athy in 1852 and of the Christian Brothers Convent founded nine years later and indeed one of his daughters was for many years superior of the Athy Convent of Mercy.

The nuns from Carlow earned for St. Leo's the right to be called the cradle of the Mercy congregation in America by virtue of that first American convent founded in December 1843.  Just three years later six Mercy nuns travelled from Pittsburgh to Chicago and opened there a convent which they called “St. Francis Xaviers”.  Within ten years the Sisters of Mercy in Chicago had opened an orphanage, a hospital and schools, one of which they called “Francis Xavier Female Academy”, a forerunner of the present day St. Xavier's University and the Mother McCauley High School.  However, before the 8th anniversary of their arrival in Chicago was reached, five of the original six nuns had died, none of whom were more than thirty years old.  They succumbed one by one as victims of the cholera epidemics of 1849 and 1854 during which they had tended to the sick of the city.  However, their places were quickly taken up by young Americans so that by 1856 the Sisters of Mercy in Chicago numbered 88.

I did not get an opportunity to visit the Irish American Heritage Centre in Chicago but from what I heard it is an organisation actively involved in promoting Irish culture amongst the second and third generation Irish and fulfilling that role quite well.  Indeed I could well understand how any organisation involved in promoting arts and culture would prosper in Richard Daley's Chicago.  It's a handsome place in which the City Council takes pride in promoting community involvement in the arts.  Everywhere is to be seen evidence of that in the promotional material produced by the City Council.  How I wish the municipal governors of our little town would take a similar interest on our behalf.  Maybe the Mayor's namesake would take up the cause.

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