by Lou Mancinelli and Len Lear
Irish-Americans and Irish immigrants accounted for almost one-third of General Washington’s Revolutionary Army. Commodore John Barry was an Irish-born Philadelphian who is now celebrated as the father of the American Navy. More Irish lived in Philadelphia during the 1800s than in New York or in Boston.
They came to live in the city of homes. Marita Krivda presents a photographic history of the Irish in Philadelphia in her new book, “Irish Philadelphia: Images of America” (2012, Arcadia Publishing).
Krivda, 65, is a medical librarian (for more than 30 years) who worked as director of the medical library at Chestnut Hill Hospital until it shifted to a volunteer-only library. She was raised in a Queen-Anne style East Oak Lane home designed for hosiery manufacturer Owen Osborne and built in 1888. She still lives on the same block.
“I had a lot of assistance in writing my book,” Krivda said, “from the owners of the Irish Edition (a monthly newspaper). Tony Byrne and Jane Duffin allowed me access to their extensive files on the local Irish.” The Irish Edition has been located in Wyndmoor ever since it was founded in 1981.
In addition, the author used books by Chestnut Hill College historian David Contosta and Chestnut Hill Historical Society’s Liz Jarvis as source material. Also helpful was “The Irish in Philadelphia: Ten Generations of Urban Experience,” by former Temple University professor Dennis Clark.
The images in the new book show the faces of a hard-working, tight-knit people who played a major role in the industrialization of a nation. In Philadelphia the Irish have played a major role in politics and in organized labor, particularly those unions representing construction workers, firefighters and police officers.
In Northwest Philadelphia, the Irish connection dates back to colonial times. James Logan, for whom Logan Square in center city was named, was the Irish-born secretary of William Penn who built the historic Stenton mansion in East Germantown in 1726 in the Georgian Style architecture which was also the rage in Ireland at the time. It was situated on 500 acres and surrounded by vast gardens.
In 1858 the Sisters of St. Joseph bought Monticello, the mansion owned by a man named Joseph Middleton on a seven–acre tract of land where they established their mother house. On that land they founded Mount St. Joseph Academy in 1871 and Chestnut Hill College for Women in 1924. The sisters were a French order but had come to Philadelphia in 1846 and had persuaded many Irish women to become nuns.
The book contains a photo of Chestnut Hill College and discussion of its founding as well as information about the Irish Center, aka the Commodore Barry Club, at 6815 Emlen St. in Mt. Airy. Jim McGill, co-founder of the Philadelphia Céilí Group that is housed in the Irish Center, lives in Chestnut Hill.
The center was founded in 1958 by two tavern keepers, Mickey Cavanaugh and Michael Scullion. According to Krivda, “They located and purchased a large rambling building at Carpenter and Emlen Streets with several bars, restaurant facilities, meeting rooms and an auditorium … Irish county societies, in particular the Donegal Society and Mayo Society, promoted the club with the hope of growing their membership.”
For over 50 years, the Irish Center has been essentially non-political, unlike many similar groups around the country which have been involved in the “struggles” in Northern Ireland. Their focus has been the promotion of Irish culture with regular Friday night dances of the Philadelphia Céilí Group, Gaelic language lessons, lectures and traditional Irish music concerts
Another Chestnut Hill area connection has been the 1855 founding of Our Mother of Consolation Church. According to Krivda, “Joseph Middleton, a convert from Quakerism to Catholicism, purchased the land and paid for the church construction. During the Know-Nothing riots (anti-Irish) in the 1850s threats were made against this church … Two other churches in the city, St. Michaels and St. Augustine, were burned to the ground in riots in 1844. OMC was dominated by Irish clergy, Irish nuns and Irish parishioners until the early 20th century.”
The first parishioners were mainly Irish. The east side of Chestnut Hill was home to nearly all of the Irish. About 30% of Chestnut Hill residents in 1930 were Catholic (and of this group 57% were Irish). Krivda said, “Many families of well-to-do Protestants in Chestnut Hill had live-in domestic servants, mostly women, who would bring the number of Irish even higher. These women tended to dwell in the homes of their wealthy employers.”
Class divisions dominated on the Hill at least until the middle of the 20th century for the Irish. Those who owned their own homes lived in East Chestnut Hill and worked as mechanics, chauffeurs, gardeners and truck drivers. Also, the better paid domestic servants and cooks lived in East Chestnut Hill, as well as a small group of shop clerks and bookkeepers. Those who had become wealthy and socially prominent tended to live in the north and west sections of Chestnut Hill.
“The Irish set the standard basically” for working class Americans, according to Krivda’s book. Their labor contributed in major ways to the industrialization of America. At home, they had suffered conditions of extreme economic hardship. Across the ocean, Irish-American families wrote back home about owning their own homes, which was most impressive because Irish Catholics were prohibited by law from owning land in their own country until the 1900s.
The Irish started immigrating to America in the 1700s and arrived in waves in the 1800s, the new book points out. At least 28 Philadelphia Irishmen were preeminent soldiers during the Revolutionary War. The catastrophic potato famine of Biblical proportions caused thousands to immigrate to Philadelphia between 1845 and 1850.
They came seeking the American dream. After they arrived, they discovered their labor was cheaper than black labor because blacks were often considered property as slaves, and therefore valued as investments. But Irish were mere commodities.
“They would do anything,” said Krivda. Back home they were farmers or linen workers but rarely industrial laborers. When they arrived here on ships, however, merchants often hired them on the spot at the docks. The workers were promised good wages, shelter and food, but those promises were not always kept.
“Irish in Philadelphia: Images of America” progresses in chronological order from the colonial Irish to the famine victims to the “lace curtain Irish” on through the 20th century. Philadelphia inherited its first Irish mayor, James H.J. Tate, in 1962, when Richardson Dilworth resigned as mayor to run for governor. Tate won re-election twice and served for 10 years.
In 2011, Krivda published (with a co-author) a similar “Images of America” book focused on East Oak Lane. She studied English at Temple University, graduated in 1968 and attended graduate school at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. That experience contributed to the Irish roots she explored and celebrated in the creation of this book.
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