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Kenosha's Irish Experience,

1839-1890

by Maureen Funk

 

"Kenosha City is situated upon Lake Michigan, 55 miles north  from Chicago, and 25 miles south from Milwaukee, and is distant from Madison 104 miles. It is the most southern port on Lake Michigan in the State. When the resources of the county are fully developed, when capital finds its account in making necessary

improvements, this place is destined to be a city of wealth, business and importance. The country which imminently surrounds it is eminently productive, and its surface is agreeably diversified and beautiful. The city itself presents a great diversity of soil and surface, and is generally estimated on this account to occupy a more favorable position than those places which have unbroken level surface and perfect uniformity of soil. There is no considerable

stream emptying itself into the lake at this place; but the harbor is mainly formed by a small bay, which extends in a circular sweep for about one mile, where it again intersects the lake, forming an island, and making two outlets from the bay into the lake, thus promising, in the opinion of many, when it shall have been properly improved, one of the most convenient and picturesque harbors upon the whole chain of lakes".(1)

 

This thumbnail sketch depicts Kenosha, or the village of Southport, as it was known until its incorportation as a city in 1850, as an area replete with potential, beckoning to European immigrants during the mid-nineteenth century.

 

Among those immigrants to whom J. W. Hunt's Gazetteer was directed, of course, were the Irish, whose period of heaviest influx into Wisconsin was between 1850 and 1860.(2) The Irish were drawn to Wisconsin by many geophysical attractions, such as favorable climate, productive soil, abundant mineral wealth, and the prevalence of both woodland and prairie. Burgeoning lead mining in the southwestern portion of the state plus the promise of laborer's jobs on railroad and road construction gangs proffered employment opportunities, while the newness and resultant "anything goes" attitude of the region held out the hope of little religious discrimination to a nationality historically persecuted for its faith.

 

Wisconsin, however, never became a focal point for organized Irish settlement, an experience paralleled in Kenosha during the period of 1839 to 1890. During this period, the Irish community devolved from the largest foreign born-component of the village's population in 1843 to a virtually invisible segment of the Kenosha community.

 

McCabe's Gazeteer in 1843 indicated that of 386 foreign-born persons in Southport, 170 were Irish.(3) In 1850, of 1,162 foreigners, 553 were Irish, 244 German.(4). By 1900, the Irish constituted one per cent of the city's population, and were almost indistinguishable as an ethnic group.(5) Depending upon one's perspective, the experience of Irish immigrants in Kenosha may be seen as highly successful, their disappearance as an ethnic community indicative of the degree to which they were assimilated into this originally Yankee-based community (70% of the population in 1850), or as an abortive attempt at ethnic community development, in that the economic growth pattern of Kenosha retarded the growth of a viable Irish community. In a sense Kenosha let the Irish down, failing to live up to the potential that first attracted the Irish to its port. Just as there had originally been incentives for coming to Kenosha, ultimately, for the Irish immigrant, there were deterrents in staying.

 

Deterrents the Irish encountered in Kenosha, however, were certainly not as great as those remaining in the Old Country. The severity of socio-economic circumstances in Ireland precipitated the influx into the United States of 3,400,000 immigrants during the period of 1830 to 1855 alone.(6) Contrary to popular belief, the Great Famine (1845-1848) was not the single compelling reason for emigration to the States. While it certainly ranks as the final "convincer," the Famine exacerbated other concurrent problems arising from consolidation of peasant landholdings and subsequent tenant evictions, limited agricultural and industrial opportunities, residual anti-Catholic discrimination despite the abrogation of the Penal Laws, and loss of hope for reform after Ireland suffered political defeat in its dealings with England. A second-generation Irish Kenoshan aptly expressed the hopelessness of the Irish during the emigration years and later. Parents' aspirations for their children, she recalled, were "to send everybody out because there was nothing there and there still isn't."(8) If conditions in Ireland were pushing people out, conditions in America, actual or perceived, were pulling them in. Exaggerated stories of the high standard of living enjoyed by Americans and tales of California gold discoveries excited people's wanderlust and eased the pain of leavetaking. At a more realistic level, however, the steady stream of "America" money which flowed back to Ireland from relatives and friends who had already crossed the Atlantic provided tangible expression of the possibility of a better life.

 

Although not systematically tabulated for this study, impressionistic examination of federal census data for the years 1850 and 1860 suggests that many of the families of Irish-born heads of house- holds had resided in the East or Canada prior to their arrival in Kenosha, as evidenced by the existence of offspring born outside of Ireland or Wisconsin(9) "the conclusion is that among pioneer Irish settlers...a heavy proportion were seasoned denizens of the United States, familiar with American social ways and political institutions."(10) Others, chiefly those listed as laborers, with no offspring and no declared real estate or personal estate, probably managed to work their way westward, "stopping wherever public improvements were going on which would furnish favorable conditions for labor during their early years in the country."(11) Ultimately, Kenosha would not provide such opportunities and many would not remain.

 

Lack of funds did impede the settling of newly- arrived Irish in Wisconsin and by extension, Kenosha. One letter appearing in Eastern newspapers exhorted the Irish immigrants to seek "honorable independence and comfort. [C]rowded together in cities and along our seaboard, overcompeting with each other in laborious and ill-recompensed occupations...[you ought to] seek the free air of the West..."(12) At this time, however, when Wisconsin's efforts to attract immigrants were directed at all groups, of which the Irish were the largest, lack of funds initially prevented the Irish from going West; the money scraped together for passage to New York or Boston was typically all the landless peasant could muster. Thus, Irish immigrants usually experienced a period of "Americanization" prior to settling in the pioneer areas, a fact which probably tempered their Midwest experience.

 

Marjorie Fallows in her book Irish Americans suggests additionally that

the newness of the existing pioneer societies into which the Irish entered prevented the formation of rigid boundaries, thereby facilitating Irish absorption into the dominant society. Likewise, the paucity of Irish in these areas impeded the establishment of subsocietal boundaries; thus, both Irish and non-lrish were freer to ignore Irishness as a handicap or discomfort.(13) This, coupled with the fact that the Irish, by and large, had experienced an Eastern "breaking-in" period, undoubtedly made the Irish experience in Wisconsin easier.

 

If the experience of those Irish immigrants who chose to remain in Kenosha proved to be relatively "easy" their arrival prior to construction of a harbor certainly was not. A notice in an early edition of the Southport Telegraph encouraging immigrants to disembark at Wisconsin's southeastern most port was overly sanguine in its assurances that the experience would be a pleasant one: "They may rest assured that, with the exception of points where they have harbors or steamboats to take off passengers...the facilities for landing are as good here as at any place on the lake "(14)

 

The lack of a safe harbor was undeniably no small matter. Obviously, this lack profoundly influenced the immigrants' initial contact with Southport, often making it an unpleasant one. Indeed, the diary of Colonel Michael Frank, first president of the Village of Southport and first mayor of Kenosha, is riddled with entries regarding the precariousness of disembarking at Southport. An entry of May 5, 1850, relates how "one family lost their all" when a steamer overturned in rough waters.(15) Frank does not specify the nationality of this family, but because many Irish were coming to Southport at this time, they were, in all likelihood, exposed to such calamities.

 

The influx of Irish was so great that, by August, 1842, they were "putting a premium on rooms in Kenosha."(16) That it created difficulties in landing was not the least of Kenosha's harbor problems, however. During this early period of Kenosha's development, hopes were pinned on the economic growth which a reliable port would foster, after having provided many laborers jobs in its construction, jobs especially befitting unskilled Irish laborers. Mayor Frank in his 1853 inaugural address fully acknowledged the importance of an adequate harbor: "Without this improvement [harbor] other enterprises can avail but little as a means of establishing the business interests of our city on a permanent basis. Without it, our prosperity and growth as a commercial point are secured beyond question."(17)

 

Exhibiting a burst of enthusiasm for Kenosha's potential regarding the lead trade with southwest Wisconsin, the Kenosha Telegraph prematurely envisioned a network of transportation facilities radiating from Kenosha.

Nothing is wanting however but a suitable communication, such as a railroad or a macadamized road affords, to bring a vast proportion of the lead to market by the lake route. And what other point on the lake shore, we ask, is so favorably situated to receive and ship the lead from the western mines as Southport?(18)

 

Southport's "favorable location," however, proved less favorable than those of its neighbors --Milwaukee and Racine to the north and Chicago to the south. Despite local and federal expenditures of $265,000 by 1875 for harbor improvements, the maintenance of a harbor deep enough to handle large carriers proved difficult. Because no stream of any size flowed through Kenosha's harbor, silt and sand bars were formed by the northeasterly currents, creating a need for continuous and often inadequate dredging. At a time when wheat and lumber were the big import and export items, Kenosha's commercial capacity was greatly diminished due to the problematic harbor. Ultimately the lack of capital which active trade would have generated retarded the building of railroads and roads.

 

The growth of industrialization was postponed because of this lack of capital, as well as the lack of waterpower .(19) Kenosha fell behind its neighboring communities in attracting Irish immigrants: "the City of Kenosha did not grow as rapidly as Racine and ceased to attract Irish laborers; hence the Irish in Kenosha between 1850 and 1860 decreased."(20) The industrial boom it experienced, beginning with the arrival of the Chicago Brass Company in 1886, would bring in a wave of "New Immigrants" from southern and eastern Europe to man the machines of "the most highly industrialized city in the state."(21) By this time, Irish laborers were no longer streaming into Wisconsin. From May to November 1869, only 50 out of 14,576 immigrants entering Wisconsin via Milwaukee were Irish.

 

Thus, the growth of Kenosha was, for the most part, not conducive to the settlement of a large Irish population, yet those that did take up residence devised techniques to protect their way of life to the extent they deemed necessary. To the Irish, for whom the church was a historically vital part of daily life and national culture, the organization of a parish was a top priority. Usually the first indication of Irish settlement in an area, the church was "the most enduring piece of the immigrant's cultural baggage2" serving both spiritual and recreational needs. (22)

Social and political groups often functioned under the aegis of the Irish Catholic Church, and in this respect the Kenosha Irish experience was no exception.

 

Throughout the period organizations radiating from St. Mark's Church (as the Irish parish was known until 1882, when the name was changed to St. James) met immigrants' needs for ethnic identity, mutual aid, religious participation, and support of both Irish and American political interests.

When the first settlers, representatives of the Western Emigration Company, arrived in 1835 at the site of the future City of Kenosha, no Irish were among their number. But by 1837, Bernard McLaughlin, the first Irish settler, was offering the use of his house at the corner of 58th Street and 8th Avenue for church services.(23) Early histories of Kenosha give varying dates and accounts of the appearance of missionary priests serving Southport, but, apparently by 1839, 51 families were concerned enough about their religious future to sign a petition for the formation of a congregation, which would become the mother parish of all Catholic churches in the county.

 

Likewise, prior to the parish's formal incorporation on March 12, 1844, Southport's Irish population expressed more broadly based interest in the question of diocesan location in Wisconsin by participating in an organized St. Patrick's Day celebration in Milwaukee (1843). In an account of the proceedings was listed "St. Mary's [sic] Congregation of Southport (Kenosha), with a flag bearing the representation of the American Eagle hovering over the Irish harp, with an appropriate motto, 'where Liberty Dwells There Is My Country " and 'Erin Go Bragh,"(24).  Not unexpected was their concern over the issue of a Milwaukee Diocese, but what is striking is the strong identification as American citizens

which the Kenosha participants displayed in their banner, perhaps attributable to their previous Eastern experience.

 

The organizer of this demonstration in which Kenosha's Irish loomed large was also the priest under whose direction St. Mark's was constructed. Father Martin Kundig, traveling vicar-general from Milwaukee, assumed guidance of the parish in 1843 and followed up on a subscription series begun in 1841 for funds to construct the church. He provided the impetus to purchase a lot on the corner of Wisconsin and Ann Streets (Sheridan Road and 58th Street) for $100.00 When Bishop Henni of Milwaukee visited the parish and urged the building of the actual church, the Irish men and boys responded enthusiastically by completely digging the basement in nine hours. The parish secretary's account captures the spirit of the undertaking, lauding the effort as "the greatest digging ever dug in these or any other diggings."(25)

 

The enthusiasm of the Irish for their parish seems to have been matched by that of non-Catholics in the village, as well. In a notice appearing in the Southport Telegraph in 1844, two years before the building was finally completed by Irish contractor William Craney (undoubtedly not for want of enthusiasm but rather lack of funds), Southport's Catholics acknowledged the $400 subscription contributed by the village's Protestants, many of whom were prominent citizens:

Resolved That the sincere thanks and grateful acknowledgements of the Catholics of Southport and its vicinity are eminently due and hereby given to our Protestant fellow citizens who have so generously contributed to the erection of our Church; and that as citizens of a free and happy land, we exult in their Christian-Iike liberality as affording incontestable proof of the friendly feeling and Christian charity which exists among the citizens of different religious denominations in our enterprising and flourishing village.(26)

 

An apparently similar display of religious altruism on the part of non-Catholics again evoked the gratitude of Irish Catholics in 1884 when the newly constructed St. James Church was dedicated. Again a notice in the Telegraph stated that "Father Cleary and his people feel very grateful to their non-Catholic friends and neighbors for the generous assistance they have given and for the kind sympathy and interest manifested in the work."(27) These examples suggest that there was not in Kenosha an abundance of the anti-Catholic or anti-Irish feeling so pervasive in the East, making a less troublesome environment for the Irish.

Of course, all was not sweetness and light for the Irish immigrant during this period.

 

Unlike the more established Eastern urban areas, there were no ghettos in Kenosha, nor does there seem to be any evidence of "Kerrytowns" or shantytowns composed of transient road gangs, due to the general lack of this type of work. The Irish did, however, congregate on the lakefront, near the business district, east of Sheridan Road in the area comprising the first ward. This area, of course, encompassed St. Mark's Church, to the west of which lay the mostly open fields then known as the Irish Prairie.(28) Unfortunately there is a dearth of evidence regarding the housing of the Irish in Kenosha during the mid-nineteenth century, making an account of their living conditions impossible. That for a time they lived in some degree of squalor seems likely, however.

 

Although certainly more conservative than the Telegraph and probably overreacting out of a sense of panic, the Democrat directed harsh words to the Irish section of town in its response to the cholera outbreaks which occurred in 1849, 1850 and 1854. "In Park Street...it is but one putrid pool of abomination, the birth place of frogs and reptiles. Market Street...teems with the emblems of death, and at other points her offal smells rank."(29)

 

Indeed, the Irish population was hardest hit by the disease. The traditional attitude taken even by the medical profession during the nineteenth century cholera outbreaks was nativistic; cholera was a "moral ill, a disease of filth, of intemperance, and of vice" of which "the low Irish suffered the most, being exceedingly dirty in their habits, much addicted to intemperance and crowded together into the worst portions of the city .(30)

 

His open-mindedness in other areas notwithstanding, Frank's diary entries during the 1850 outbreak reflected this bias. Most fatalities he listed occurred among the Irish, "nearly all poor and very many intemperate."(31) Not surprisingly, the Democrat saw fit to blame the victims, "with but a few exceptions, being foreigners," who contracted the illness through their "indiscretions."(32) Because Asiatic cholera could not flourish where filth and want did not already exist, the Irish or anyone, for that matter, could only be "predisposed" to the illness by being a victim of poverty, forced to live in unsanitary conditions. That Kenosha's Irish population constituted the majority of the fatalities leads one to believe that, at the time of the epidemic, they were relegated to living in the most unhealthy areas of town.

 

Federal census rolls for 1850 suggest the poverty of the Irish as well, though evidence is sketchy. The five occupants of the Poor House run by the county until 1857 were from Ireland--a mother and four small children. The immigrant  female, not socialized to a life in the workplace, was even more vulnerable to the vagaries of immigrant life than was her male counterpart. Female heads of households appear in the census rolls usually with no occupations listed, or if employed, as "washerwoman." One woman was listed in the 1875 City Directory as a milliner, running her own shop, but she was the exception.

 

By far the majority of unmarried Irish living in non-lrish households were young (12-30) females serving as domestics, whose chances for upward mobility would hinge on the marriages they could effect. A cursory examination of later census rolls indicates that these women either married, often exogamously, or left town, either factor effectively contributing to the disappearance of the Irish community.

The only direct reference to an Irish neighborhood appears in the memoirs of Mary D. Bradford, first female superintendent of schools in Wisconsin. During the 1874-75 school year, as a teacher she had problems with gang members, to whom "teachers were natural enemies and school a hateful place, a waste of precious playtime. This gang, a not uncommon form of immigrant organizational life according to Marjorie Fallows, emanated from "The Patch," a neighborhood "inhabited chiefly by Irish families of different grades of social status and repute."(34) Because it was inhabited by families of varying socio-economic status it was most probably not a squalid ghetto; if it had once been

a stigmatized area, by 1911, one second-generatian Irish resident indicated that the Italian neighborhood was accorded the dubious distinction of being "no- man's land."(35)

 

The obituary of an early Irish settler of the community, who arrived in 1842 and died in 1883 after establishing and running a meat market with

his brothers for thirty years, eulogized the man: "The community has sustained a great loss, for Patrick English was an upright, enterprising citizen, who always had the best interests of the community at heart," and whose funeral was proclaimed "the largest seen in Kenosha for many years."(36) Perhaps because English and his compatriots appear to have demonstrated behavior and values regarded as suitable by the community, their Irishness was less an issue than it had been in the East.

 

If evidence regarding Yankee-Irish strife seems to be lacking, the formation of St. George Catholic Church (known for years simply as "the German Church") indicates coreligious differences between the Germans and the Irish of the city. On July 17,1851, fifteen German families formed themselves into St. George Congregation. No doubt language and cultural differences precipitated the schism, for the Germans nationally placed great emphasis on language and the religious customs they had known in the Old Country.(37) Concerned that abandonment of their native tongue would result in the loss of their native identity and faith, the Germans of Kenosha were among many in the state to establish their own parish, a need to which the Catholic hierarchy was sensitive, as a letter from Reverend Anthony Urbanek to the Archbishop of Vienna in 1853 indicates:

German Catholic schools are the crying need in this country, because German children, by some strange fate generally become alienated from Catholic life. On the other hand, Irish children, if well instructed by their priest in any English Catechism, generally are saved to the Catholic faith.(38)

 

Language, as well as geography, defined the parish boundaries. A visit to the German settlement, north of the Pike River on the lakefront, was referred to as going "over the Rhine to Little Germany."(39). Despite the establishment of their own ethnically oriented parish, the Germans apparently continued to experience some disharmony with the Irish. "Fights on the bridge" between members of each group were a common occurrence during the second half of the nineteenth century.(40)

 

By 1900, however, German and Irish Catholics were collaborating to form Catholic organizations such as the Catholic Women's Club, the Catholic Youth Organization, the Catholic Knights of Wisconsin, and the Catholic Order of Foresters to conduct social service and charity work. Much of this organizing was done by descendants of pioneer Irish families, and "New Immigrant" co- religionists joined them in this work. These organizations served as important agencies for crossing ethnic boundaries within Kenosha; they also indicated the extent to which "Old Immigrant" Irish had become assimilated into the larger social structure of Kenosha.(41)

 

Throughout their experience in Kenosha, the Irish demonstrated a remarkable ability to function within the society at large although that society was admittedly small, having only reached by 1875 a population slightly under 5,000. In the five year period from 1870 to 1875 Kenosha's population increased by a mere 651, compared to 2,500 in Racine, 50,000 in Milwaukee, and 7,000 in Madison, indicative of Kenosha's economic stagnation.(42) Even so, the shrinking Irish component appeared to be functioning as well as any.

 

Much earlier, in the 1840s, the Irish segment of the population had been instrumental in the establishment of the first free school system west of the Appalachians, somewhat of a departure for a nationality which historically had maintained the primacy of parochial education to inculcate its children with Catholic values and assure the continuity of the faith. Colonel Michael Frank sponsored the territorial act which authorized the Village of Southport to establish a public school supported by general tax revenues upon local ratification. He later credited the parishioners of St. Mark's for assuring ratification in the village.(43)

 

The impetus for Frank's school act was the hope that a public educational system would attract more people to the area. Since the Irish were the largest foreign group in the village at the time, and since they traditionally supported church-controlled education, it was unlikely that the referendum would pass. Because of their economic status, however, a free school system was to the advantage of the Irish, a fact which both Frank and Pastor Kundig were careful to emphasize.44 The bill passed by a narrow margin and on June 16, 1845, the school opened in the basement of St. Mark's Church with the stipulation that no religious instruction be given during school hours. Frank's Christmas entry of that year glowed with pride in his account of the celebration in the basement of the Irish Church.45 The actual school building, however, did not materialize until 1849.

 

In addition to its support of the free school system, Kenosha's Irish community was involved in two other educational facilities, one a failure, one a success. In 1851, two nuns from the Brigidine Sisterhood, Mountrath, County Carlow, Ireland, arrived in Kenosha. Sponsored by Pastor Michael McFaul of St. Mark's, they established St. Mark's Female School. McFaul's effort to provide parochial education failed, however. Despite a report in 1852 which indicated that the staff had grown to three professed sisters and several novices and that "the Sisters of St. Bridget...arrived here from Ireland extremely needy, but now are doing very well in teaching a large school " by 1855 the sisters had departed for Michigan and Pennsylvania. That the two founders had left Ireland without their superior's approval, coupled with the order's failure to expand beyond one school in a parish whose pastorate changed hands three times during the period certainly contributed to the institution's instability.(46)

 

Three years later, in 1858, St. Mark's School, offering sex-segregated educational facilities, was begun by Pastor James Roche. This school, an example of traditional parochial education, was highly successful with an annual enrollment of 200 students by 1878; it recently celebrated its centennial anniversary. As was suggested earlier the fact that St. Mark's School was founded only after the public school reflected the early economic difficulties of the Irish population. Until economically feasible, the city's Irish were willing to forego parochial education, but as the Irish community's security and static nature increased, due to the lack of incoming Irish, the idea of non-secular education again took precedence.

 

Unfortunately, records regarding the early history of the school are not available, making elaboration impossible. There is evidence, however, that Kenosha's Irish population did participate in organizations at various levels--local, state, and national--promoting both unity among themselves as well as assimilation and cooperation with the larger, multi-ethnic society.

 

At the local level, both in Ireland and America, the neighborhood saloon traditionally served as an informal organization offering camaraderie and consolation for the worker and providing a forum for social and political discourse. Because liquor often comprised part of a worker's wages, the local American pub was the logical hangout for the likes of road gangs who lived a bachelor lifestyle. For Kenosha's Irish, however, this saloon-oriented mindset was probably less significant because there were few unmarried laborers wandering the streets; Kenosha's Irish population was composed largely of families.

 

Neither is there evidence of any Irish-run drinking establishments in early city directories. These factors, in conjunction with the broad-based support of  temperance and abstinence on the part of the area's population as a whole, suggest that drinking liquor as a form of social recreation was probably less a part of the immigrant Irish experience in Kenosha than it was nationally.

 

The Irish collectively espoused temperance early in Kenosha; by 1845, a Catholic Total Abstinence Society had been organized by Father Kundig. Indeed, it was common for a pastor to be the organizer and leader of such movements, as had been the case in Ireland, where abstinence societies were frequently organized. The Catholic Total Abstinence Union, however, was not established on a national basis in the United States until 1866, with headquarters located in Philadelphia. Kenosha's organization, then, was offering sociability

and support for those who "took the pledge" well before the nation as a whole did.(48)

 

Temperance at the time was an important issue in Kenosha, but it was not until after the Civil War that the Irish actively took up the cause again.

The other identifiably Irish concern evident in Kenosha during the ante-bellum period was that of the Irish Repeal Association, a movement in which both Kenosha's Irish and non-Irish visibly participated. The organizational meeting, held on February 16, 1844, was "numerously attended, the Hall being filled with enthusiastic friends of Repeal. The Hall was appropriately decorated with emblems of Irish and American history."(49) With "human liberty" as the watchword, the Association demanded the repeal of the 1800 Union with England and granting of Irish autonomy.

 

While Father Kundig was elected as treasurer of the state Repeal Association and ardently campaigned to extend the movement to different towns

in Racine and Walworth counties, Colonel Frank was elected president of Southport's chapter. One of many annual St. Patrick's Day galas was held in the village that year, attended by both "the Irish and many of our native citizens." The glasses that were raised on behalf of Ireland were accompanied by toasts from many of the village's founding fathers and leading citizens.

 

One such leader was L.P. Harvey, a Kenosha teacher later to become governor of Wisconsin, who expressively drank to "Ireland--her soil nourishes the growth of no noxious reptile--may the time soon come when tyranny and oppression may not be found in her borders."(50)

 

The strong Yankee identification with the cause of Ireland was reciprocated by the Irish in their response to Independence Day celebrations. Proclaiming that "we celebrate the birthday of our independence and of the liberty we enjoy," the parishioners of St. Mark's Church organized a parade in 1846 that they rather immodestly announced would likely surpass the doings in towns, numbering both more inhabitants and more years of existence." 1 For the most part, it seems that the Irish of Kenosha displayed both a strong identification as American citizens and an acknowledgement of themselves as sons of Erin, an acknowledgement which apparently cost them little in terms of society's opinion of them.

 

This ethnic consciousness was greatly enhanced, according to Grace McDonald, by the Civil War, an event which "served to stimulate a group consciousness among the Irishmen of the state which was not existent prior to this time." That consciousness took tangible form with the formation of the Seventeenth Wisconsin Regiment, the Irish Brigade.(52) Their antebellum involvement in temperance, fire companies, and patriotic activities notwithstanding, the boom in organizational activities in which Kenosha's Irish participated does indeed seem to have occurred

during the post-War period. The sharing of war experiences as well as the bonds of nationality produced a more self-conscious ethnic group, despite the decimation of Milwaukee's Irish elite in the Lady Elgin disaster of September 7-8, 1860.

 

Kenosha, however, lost only one Irish boy in the maritime accident, the son of merchant and ex-sheriff Peter Cosgrave. Kenosha's Methodist Church held a memorial service for the more than 300 victims.  St. Mark's conducted James John Cosgrave's funeral.(53) The Kenosha Irish response to the Civil War was more visible. Of the 743 Kenoshan men who participated in the Civil War, 62 Irish were mustered into Co. B, "Mulligan's Guards," representing 8.5% of Kenosha's human contribution to the effort; the percentage of Irish-born in Kenosha's population of 4,970 was 12% in 1860.

 

City Marshal Hugh McDermott resigned his office to devote his time to raising the Company, which was the first Kenosha military company to leave for training near Madison on January 9, 1862. Despite the traditional adherence of the Irish to the Democratic Party, and Irish anti-draft demonstrations nationwide, Kenosha's participation appears to have been valiant. Captain McDermott made the presentation speech to Colonel A. G. Malloy, regimental commander, in which a sword inscribed "Erin-Go-Bragh" was presented him for meritorious service. The text of the speech indicates a strong identification on the part of the Brigade both as American citizens and as "true Irish knights."(54)

 

Although the "true Irish knights" who returned home to Kenosha following the War and their offspring would sporadically exhibit a greater interest in ethnic organization, local newspapers of the day give no evidence that anyone in the city participated in or even condoned the Fenian Brotherhood's nationwide plan to

invade Canada as an anti-British demonstration in 1866. Many veterans of the Irish Brigade responded to the Brotherhood's call, but the only Kenosha response was a sound indictment of such radical activities issued by the Telegraph.(55)

 

Greater local attention was later focused on the Irish National League, the American counterpart to the National Land League in Ireland, whose objectives were Home Rule, land reform, and governmental reform for Ireland.

The advocacy of these goals reflects the thinking of what Marjorie Fallows terms "the more idealistic and educated members of the Irish American community who were determined to free Ireland and to remodel it in the image of America."(56)

 

 As the Irish attained stability and economic security in their new homes, becoming more comfortably assimilated, they could afford the luxury of participating in Irish nationalist groups. Whether or not this is true, Kenosha's Irish did support the state convention of the Irish National League, which convened in December 1883. Delegates from 27 Wisconsin counties attended; Kenosha with seven delegates, ranked tenth in county representation. Father Cleary, pastor of St. Mark's pronounced the convention" a grand success,"(57) even though, for all intents and purposes, the National League eventually proved ineffectual, the last stand of Irish nationalistic effort in the United States.

 

By 1890, it was a dead organization, destroyed both by the intense factionalism rampant in Ireland itself and by the disillusionment suffered after Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell's unfortunate fall from the good graces of his compatriots. As the Irish increasingly adopted America as their home, they began to relinquish their nationalistic interests: "Irish faction in Ireland killed fund-gathering in America, and chilled Irish-American interest in Ireland."(58) The transitory kindling of Irish nationalism was quenched with the demise of the National League, and by and large, the Kenosha experience attests to this fact.

 

Newspaper documentation of temperance activities also waned as Kenosha entered the final decade of the nineteenth century. As previously mentioned, temperance had been a broad-based issue in Kenosha during the antebellum period. Once again, in January 1872, much to the approval of one of the local papers, the Irish took up the crusade: "Good.--Our Irish friends have taken hold of the temperance cause in this city in good earnest. ...This is a first rate beginning and we trust the good work will go on. No better step could be taken by all our citizens than this, and there is a great need that it should be taken."(59) Because of the general interest in Kenosha regarding temperance throughout the period, it seems plausible that the Irish interest stemmed less from a desire to dispel

unfavorable ethnic stereotypes than from an effort to cultivate upstanding American citizens.

 

By 1875, St. Mark's Total Abstinence Union, No. 280 had merged with both St. Mark's Temperance Society and Brass Band and St. Mark's Juvenile Temperance Society to form a temperance league of over 200 members pledged "to abstain from all intoxicating drinks, except used medicinally and by orders of medicine men, and to discountenance the cause and practice of intemperance for one year."(60)  Not limited to Irish membership, the temperance and abstinence societies city-wide maintained a moral rather than ethnic, orientation, prompting sermons and speeches by priests and ministers alike at festivals and parades.

 

At the parish level, the Irish abstinence league went beyond simply discouraging alcoholic consumption. It sponsored a brass band furnished with "Helicon" style instruments and conducted debates on issues ranging from whether the use of dynamite was justifiable in the cause of the Irish people ("negative") to whether George Washington was a greater general than Napoleon ("affirmative").(61)  Its social aspects notwithstanding, the league evidently ceased before 1889, for no temperance organizations are listed in that year's edition of the City Directory, nor is the Irish Brass Band listed. The name of one former Irish band member, however, appears in the membership listing of the National Cornet Band in 1889, a group composed of members with varying ethnic surnames.

 

Less directly connected with parish life nationally the abstinence societies were benevolent societies which, unlike the former, were composed entirely of Irish membership. Generally these functioned to serve newly arrived immigrants, providing both monetary and psychological support for newcomers. The Hibernian Benevolent Society organized in Milwaukee in 1851 typifies this "aid-to-the-greenhorn" orientation.(62) The Emerald Benevolent Society of Kenosha (also referred to in an early volume of Kenosha history, as the Emerald Beneficial Association, Branch No.2) was formed May 25, 1876, long after the steady stream of Irish to the city had ceased to flow. Perhaps residual Irish consciousness, left over from Mulligan's Guards, or the nativism of the 1870s fostered the formation of this organization.

 

More likely it was the hard economic times that contributed to the formation of this sort of precursor to workmen's compensation. A cursory examination of the decade's local papers indicates little evidence of nativistic thinking, perhaps because immigration rates were low, and the growth of population was decidedly slow compared to that of other areas of Wisconsin. The Emerald Benevolent Society did, nevertheless, provide funds when misfortune prevented a member

from working. It also stipulated minimal financial aid to families of deceased members. Members paid an initiation fee of $2.50 and $3.00 annual dues thereafter, enough to meet the Society's obligations and to meet monthly in its "new hall." The Society provided a stipend of $3.00 to ailing members and a death benefit of $50.00 to the families of deceased members. Organized around the lofty "principles of Faith, Hope, and Charity, which it aims to inculcate and practice toward all mankind," the Society's goals were "to care for its members, provide for the sick, bury the dead and practice the virtues of life."(63) Because evidence concerning this organization, as well as others in Kenosha, is sketchy, often limited to occasional newspaper accounts, full explication of their activities proves impossible. The 1889 City Directory lists the Emerald Benevolent Society among its entries of Kenoshan organizational life, indicating that its existence was a transitory event in the course of Irish assimilation.

 

The only distinctively Irish group which appears in the Kenosha Directory of 1889, or any subsequent directory, for that matter, is the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The purpose at the A.O.H. was to be the "center of Irish Catholic unity," both in Ireland, where it was reputed to have been established in the mid-sixteenth century as a defense against English persecution of Catholics, and in the United States, branching out across the country from the original order formed in New York. Just as nationally it outlived and outgrew other Irish organizations, so to did Division 1 A.O.H. of Kenosha County. The Order was active at least as early as 1883, when a notice appearing in the Telegraph announced a grand ball in celebration of New Year's Eve, assuring potential ball-goers that "everything is being done to make it the ball of the season." Music for the occasion was provided by a German orchestra from Racine.(64) It enjoyed greater longevity than any other Irish-oriented group in Kenosha's history, appearing in the 1904-05 and 1908 City directories supported by a ladies' auxiliary that had been authorized nationally in 1894. In 1918, however, the ladies auxiliary no longer appears, foreshadowing the demise of the Kenosha A.O.H., which is absent from the 1920 Directory.(65) The same names appeared and reappeared as officers, suggesting that a small hard-core group of citizens continued to foster an appreciation of their Irish heritage, an interest which died as they did.

 

What is one to conclude from this encyclopedic listing of Irish organizational life in Kenosha? Their mere existence obviously reflects a small but viable Irish community, which apparently functioned comfortably within the larger social community, as evidenced by non-lrish cooperation and collaboration. Those members and officers of various groups from the earliest church officers to the last officers of the A.O.H. indicate relatively constant middle-class respectability.

Small shopkeepers, harness-makers, butchers, tailors, the ubiquitous priest, grocers, and the like appear frequently as the occupations of those on organizational rosters. This, of course, is a select sample upon which to base any broad generalizations concerning the Irish experience, but the Irish component was small. There were not many laborers who chose to remain in Kenosha due to unfavorable economic circumstances. Those that did make Kenosha their home seem to have fared well, perhaps because of the absence of their more stereotypically "Irish immigrant" compatriots. Had circumstances been more propitious, fostering a greater influx and subsequent settlement of Irish, perhaps evidence of their past would be more prevalent today.

 

The other side of that coin, however, is that large numbers might have encountered more obstacles to comfortable assimilation. Be that as it may, Grace McDonald, in summarizing the Irish experience in Wisconsin, could be speaking specifically of the Irish in Kenosha when she wrote:

Undue emphasis should not be placed upon the role of Irishmen in Wisconsin, but it is probably correct to maintain that... Irishmen led the way in becoming Americanized. They proved to be adaptable to the American way of life without, however, losing entirely their national identity...and their love for Ireland.(66)

 

Thus, despite the eclectic architecture and decor of St. James Church, which alone remains as tangible evidence of Kenosha's Irish community, one can still see "in the transoms over the side doors...the Celtic cross entwined with shamrocks, emblems of Irish faith and Irish nationality.(66)

 

Please see the original published account for a complete list of the references.

 

Copyright 2001, Robert W Fay LLC. All rights reserved

Sunday, October 21, 2001

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