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The Irish in Chicago

The River Chicago is dyed green every St Patrick’s Day.



By 1890, Chicago had the third highest population of Irish emigrants in the USA. The city’s Irish-American heroes include Butch O’Hare, Captain Francis O’Neill, Richard Daley, Mother Jones and the men who built the I&M Canal.




I’m a huge fan of Chicago. I’ve spoken at the Casino Club a couple of times, for the Chicago chapter of the Irish Georgian Society, most recently in October 2022. Seven years earlier, I got to give the Vanishing Ireland talk at the Art Institute as part of the fabulous ‘Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design’ exhibition. In 2016, I gave a talk on the Easter Rising under the Tiffany Dome in the Cultural Centre, an event arranged by the Consul General of Ireland. A few days later, I had the pleasure of sharing a stage with Ken Bruen and William Doyle at Cliff Carlson’s fabulous iBAM festival. I also met many fine members of the Irish Fellowship of Chicago when I spoke about the Irish Diaspora at the Union League Club, again in October 2022.

One thing is for certain – there’s a whole lot of Irish in this town.

When I delivered my talk at the Union League Club, I divvied the diaspora into five groups for sake of convenience. The convicts dispatched to Barbados, Australia et al. The Scots-Irish who piled through Ireland for a couple of generations. The people who played ball with the British Empire and made a living that way. The wild geese who skedaddled to more Catholic friendly parts. The beleaguered citizens who fled the horror of their homeland, most especially during the Great Hunger.

One of the earliest Irish connections I found was Billy Caldwell, a fur trader who negotiated the Treaty of Chicago on behalf of the United Nation Tribes in the 1830s. His mother was Potawatomi, but it seems his father was a Scots-Irishman who emigrated from County Fermanagh in 1773.

Robert McCormick Jr, whose son patented the McCormick Reaper, revolutionizing global agriculture, was the grandson of Thomas McCormick (1702–1762) and Elizabeth Carruth, a Presbyterian couple from County Londonderry and County Antrim who were married in 1728. They immigrated to Pennsylvania and settled in Cumberland County in 1735. Robert’s sons Cyrus, William and Leander would become enormously influential in Chicago in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Woodrow Wilson, the grandson of an Irishman, was not averse to playing up his Irishness to woo the ‘green’ vote when campaigning for the presidency. At a Democratic rally in Chicago in 1912, he affably declared: ‘I get all my stubbornness from the Scotch [on his mother’s side], and then there is something else that gives me a great deal of trouble, which I attribute to the Irish. At any rate, it makes me love a scrap…’.

It’s reckoned that six million mostly Catholic Irish emigrants journeyed to the USA between 1815 and 1920. That peaked with the years of the Great Hunger, the most cataclysmic event in recent Irish history when perhaps a quarter of the country’s population was lost to disease, malnutrition and emigration.

Inevitably many fetched up in Chicago. These were the people who worked on the lumber wharves, the railroads, the steel mills and the stockyards. They were the people who built Chicago, and most particularly the canals!  With pick, shovel, dynamite and grit, they dug out the I & M canal, aka the Illinois and Michigan Canal. It ran 96 miles from Bridgeport to the Illinois River. The project had really kicked off in 1837 – plenty of labourers died in the process but the result was a massive shipping route, which came just before the railways, connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. The connection from Chicago to New Orleans was amazing, but just as the railways to the west of Ireland inadvertently drained those counties of young Irish men and women in the 1890s and early 19th century, many now seized the opportunity to journey north from New Orleans, especially the black population, bringing blues with them, and so the world changed again.

More Irish helped build the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal when they reversed the river so that all the city’s do-do flowed off down to Louisiana rather than into Lake Michigan. The children of all those first generation Irish Catholic emigrants were taught by the Jesuits, and taught well. Many became lawyers and doctors within a generation.

In 1847, 20,000 people piled into the mud-flat city of Chicago for the Northwestern Rivers and Harbors Convention, including the Hon. Abraham Lincoln, ‘a tall specimen of an Illinoian, just elected to Congress.’ Lincoln donated $10 (c. $500 today) to Irish famine relief in 1847. He could recite Robert Emmet’s speech from the dock off by heart, while his favourite ballad was Lady Dufferin’s poem ‘The Lament of the Irish Emigrant’ set to music.

Louis Sullivan (1856–1924) is hailed as the father of skyscrapers and modernism, maestro of the Chicago School of architecture and mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright. Patrick Sullivan, his father, an orphan, arrived in Boston on The Unicorn in July 1847 and opened a music and dancing academy in the city. Louis said his father didn’t know if ‘he was a Catholic or an Orangeman.’

By 1890, Chicago had the third highest population of Irish emigrants after Boston and New York. 124,000 Irish adults were living in Illinois in the US Census of 1890, primarily in Chicago. Or perhaps that figure includes children too? By 1900, there were 73,912 Irish-born people living in Chicago, equivalent to a fifth of the city.

Needless to say, the Irish have played a massive role in the city’s rank and file. Nine bishops of Chicago have been of Irish birth or descent since 1843.  Up until 1907, all but four police commissioners were Irish. I am unsure what that figure would look like today but when I first came to Chicago, the commissioner was a McCarthy and when I returned in 2022, the office belonged to an O’Neil, so the Irish are still holding the fort! The most remarkable of them all was another O’Neill, Captain Francis O’Neill from Co. Cork, the chief of police from 1901-1905, who did so much to preserve the record of traditional Irish music.

John Dougherty (1806 –1879), who was elected Lieutenant Governor of Illinois in 1868, was the Ohio-born son of Charles Daugherty / Dougherty, an Irish emigrant, and his wife Elizabeth (née Wolfe) of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

The city has had twelve Irish or Irish-American mayors, accounting for over 80 years between them. Edward Fitzsimmons Dunne, the son of Galway emigrants, was educated at Trinity College Dublin. He served as Mayor from 1905-1907 and went on to become Governor of Illinois in 1913-1917. In 1919, Dunne and two other prominent Americans were sent by the Irish American Congress to attend Versailles, but they were not permitted to land in Ireland

Richard J. Daley, a vital cog in JFK’s electoral victory, was the longest-serving mayor in Chicago history – until his son Richard broke his record in 2011. The Daleys descend from famine emigrants, originating in Dungarvan, County Waterford.

There are other links far and wide. Mike Pence’s grandfather emigrated from Tubbercurry, Co. Sligo, in 1923 & became a bus driver in Chicago. Harrison Ford was born in Chicago in 1942, the grandson of John Fitzgerald Ford, an Irish Catholic émigré.

The Chicago Tribune was established 1847 by James Kelly, publisher and founding editor, who was the son of Irish immigrants. He left less than six weeks after establishing it and went on to be one of Chicago’s leading property owners. He held a government patent on nearly a hundred acres within six miles of the Cook County Court House. He also ran several large tanneries in Wisconsin.

Among the 200,000 Irish who served in the US Civil War was Little Al Cashier, born Jenny Hodgers in County Louth, who I wrote about in my book ‘The Irish Diaspora’. By 1868, he/she had moved to the small village of Saunemin, Illinois, south-west of Chicago, where he/she worked as a general handyman, gardener, janitor, lamplighter and, later, chauffeur.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was famously blamed on a cow that belonged to an Irish couple by name of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary. That was all part of a rising tide of anti-Irish sentiment after the Fenian Brotherhood launched two abortive raids from the US on Canada.

Among those affected by the fire was a famine emigrant from Cork called Mary Harris who had already lost her husband and all four children to a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis when her dress-making enterprise was destroyed by the fire. Somehow, she found the spirit to pull through and reinvent herself as Mother Jones, one of the most celebrated champions of socialism in North America. Variously described as ‘the most dangerous woman in America’ and ‘the grandmother of all agitators,’ she led the garment workers of Chicago out on one of the biggest strikes in the city’s history. Her name is now enshrined as a symbol for feminists and the radical left; a statue of her is due to go up by the Waterworks Tower in the near future.

Uncle Dick Hooley, whose theatre burned down in 1871.

Another excellent example of resilience in the face of adversity was Richard M. Hooley from Ballina, County Mayo, one of the great theatre men of 19th century America. In 1862, he and his brother John opened Hooley’s Theatre in Brooklyn, New York. Nine years later, ‘Uncle Dick’, as he was known, opened Hooley’s Opera House at 124 W. Randolph St,  Chicago, to much acclaim. Alas, the building was destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire just nine months later. Undaunted, Dick opened a bigger, better theatre in 1872 – Hooley’s Parlour Home of Comedy had 1,400 seats and remained one of Chicago’s best loved venues until Dick’s death in 1893.

Given the fact that so many citizens had lived through the Great Hunger in Ireland, it should be no surprise that Chicago was a hotbed for Fenians, as well as the Ancient Order of Hibernians and, later, the Friends of Irish Freedom. When Charles Stewart Parnell (who was himself half-American) and Michael Davitt came on a fund-raising trip to the US in 1880-1881, Chicago was the biggest contributor. Parnell Avenue is a nod to that era, although there is also the dark tale of the murder of Dr Patrick Henry Cronin of Buttevant, Co Cork, a story for another day.

Jimmy Elliott, a notoriously aggressive bare-knuckle boxer from Athlone, was world heavyweight champion from 1865 to 1868. His life plunged into disaster when he was sentenced to 16 years in a Philadelphia jail for assault and highway robbery. He was shot dead in Chicago in 1883.

On a more heroic note, O’Hare International Airport in Chicago is named for Butch O’Hare, the first naval aviator to receive the Medal of Honor in World War II. In 1943, his plane was shot down somewhere near the Gilbert Islands and that was the end of Butch. His father was Easy Eddie O’Hare, a lawyer from St Louis who played a key role in bringing Al Capone down. Easy Eddie’s mum was born in Ireland, as were his father’s parents. Given that I’d flown into O’Hare from JFK, I was struck by the fact that two such huge airports are named for Irish-Americans.

I also have an eye on Lizzie Magie (1866-1944), the real inventor of ‘Monopoly’ (aka ‘The Landlord’s Game’), who was born at Macomb, Illinois, and moved to Chicago in 1906. Her grandfather, Abraham Magie (1797-1869), was the son of a Joseph Megie and Hannah Gegung. Was Megie the same as McGee or MagAodha perhaps?

The Irish-American philanthropist and collector Richard Driehaus (1942-2011), described by the Irish Times as ‘an apostle of classic architecture,’ restored several Gilded Age mansions in Chicago and owned two landmark buildings in Dublin – Staunton’s on the Green hotel (a pair of adjoining Georgian townhouses on St Stephen’s Green which back on to the Iveagh Gardens) and Number 31, a Georgian townhouse, accessed via Leeson Close, with a modernist mews that once the home of the brutalist architect Sam Stephenson. He was also a patron of the Trinity Irish Dance Company.

Almost eight per cent of Chicago are Irish or Irish-American today, comprising just over 200,000 Chicagoans, most especially the South Side Irish. Many of them were in attendance  at Chicago’s Soldier Field in November 2016 to watch Ireland inflict a famous defeat on the All Blacks. As one Irish fellow remarked after the game: Nobody beats Ireland 29 times in a row.



With thanks to Michael Kerrigan, Tom Cooney, Maribeth Heeran, Kathy Taylor, Meghan Burdick, Mark O’Malley, Cynthia Espy, Tom O’Gorman, Jay and Sylvia Krehbiel and, most especially, to Rosie O’Neill.