Saturday, August 8, 2009

Investigating the Irish Diaspora in Photos

The Irish Diaspora in Philadelphia, Part I

Irish music and dance was big in Philadelphia long before Sinead O'Connor shaved her head and became a priest or Michael Flatley stepdanced his way to numerous lawsuits. Keep your eyes open for the historical proof of my assertions.

The photos in this slide show are in three categories -- first, a trip to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to dig into the collection from the now defunct Balch Institute for Ethic Studies. After walking around the lovely building designed by Quaker architect Addison Hutton, which was built in 1902, I settled into the Robin Hiteshaw collection, and found old flyers from Irish-American dances, benefits and applications to benevolent societies. Great fun could be had for 15 cents at one time in Philadelphia's Irish-American community!

Next, I walked down Juniper to Drury, where my brother Steve joined me at McGillin's Olde Ale House, which was founded by two Irish immigrants in 1860, and is now in a countdown to its 150th anniversary. Though Steve spent many a happy hour at McGillin's in the past, he didn't know that it is an ancestral watering hole of the Allen clan, having been frequented by our late grandfather. Sláinte, Steve!

Finally, a friend joined me to vist The Irish Memorial, located at Front and Chesnut Streets on Penn's Landing, in view of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. This memorial by Glenna Goodacre commemorates the Irish Potato Famine, which began in 1840, and lasted through 1846. It caused the deaths of one million Irish citizens, and created a massive migration to America. The memorial features 35 individual bronze statues that depict the hopelessness and desperation of life in Ireland during the Famine; the ordeal of the ocean voyage to Philadelphia and other American ports; and the hopeful arrival on the shores of the Delaware River.

Someone I met at McGillin's told me Sinead and the Lord of the Dance himself modeled for the Memorial.

Mere blarney I did not investigate.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Philadelphia Ale House Celebrates 150 Years
Congratulations to McGillin's Olde Ale House, which began a 150-day countdown to its 150th anniversary with the launch of its own beer, McGillin's IPA 1860 (Indian Pale Ale.) The brew is unfiltered, as it would have been in 1860, the year the pub was opened by two Irish immigrants, "Ma" and "Pa" McGillin. It was then known as The Bell in Hand, according to the Website.

After 150 years of doing business, it's safe to say that from humble beginnings in a row home on Drury Street, the oldest Irish pub in Philadelphia has arrived. An AP article about McGillin's was carried today in the New York Times .

If my Irish grandfather -- a Germantown resident who frequented the Center City establishment -- was alive to help celebrate, I'm guessing he would say McGillin's "... is a stalwart friend to any Irishman in need of 'the nip of the creature.'"

In my family, on special occasions, the adults would be called into the kitchen to celebrate being together, and "the nip" was Jameson Irish Whiskey -- the older, the better.

Someday, I hope someone explains the derivation of " the nip of the creature." Maybe I should head to McGillin's to see if a friendly patron can offer an explanation. Until then, I can only imagine that this colorful phrase describes a taste of a primeval elixir, good for what ails you. As long as it is just a nip.

N.B. - "creature" was pronounced "cray-chur." Accent on the first syllable.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Irish Immigrants Had a Friend in Pennsylvania

Billy Penn at 22

Perhaps 10 percent of Pennsylvania's Quaker settlers were Irish-born, according to the authors and editors of an excellent book, Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan: Letters and Memoirs from Colonial and Revolutionary America, 1675 - 1815. This surprised me. I thought all of the Quaker settlers were from England, but there were, in fact, a few Irish surnames on The Welcome's passenger list.

However, William Penn (1644-1718), the founder of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia, had a checkered past with the Irish. He was sometimes their persecutor--especially Irish Catholics--and sometimes their protector.

Although Penn is celebrated as a crusader for religious freedom and tolerance, at the time of his religious conversion from Anglicanism to the Religious Society of Friends, he was wreaking havoc on the Irish countryside near Cork.

Oliver Cromwell had awarded Billy's father Sir William Penn with Irish estates seized from Catholics; the elder Penn had served Cromwell with valor as an admiral during the English Civil War. At the age of 22, the younger Penn was at loose ends after spending time at Oxford and the French court. His father packed him off to Ireland to husband the family's extensive holdings. While there, he took up soldiering, and quashed rebelling Irish Catholics. Peace be unto ye, too, friend!

But because he became an avowed Quaker, he suffered many persecutions. As a result, he sought safe haven for his congregation, and when he finally set foot on Penn's Landing in 1682, he was a markedly different man than the young, swashbuckling dandy who had railed against the Catholic Church as the whore of Babylon.

In due time, he welcomed all religious minorities to his 'greene countrie towne,' including Irish Catholics. And though the first families of Germantown were from Germany, the ground was laid to receive Irish immigrants there.

Between thee and me, in the end Billy was a friend.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Frank McCourt, and How He Got That Way

Angela's Ashes

Irish-American writer Frank McCourt, by all accounts an inspired New York teacher, lovely man and gifted writer, died July 19 at the age of 78. He had recently been diagnosed with melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. He then contracted meningitis.

Angela's Ashes, his memoir about his early life in Brooklyn -- where he was born in 1930 -- and later Limerick, Ireland, won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1997, as well the National Book Critics Circle Award. Alan Parker directed the movie, which was released in 2000, and starred Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle. I noticed that it is now available on On Demand.

His Irish immigrant parents left Brooklyn and reverse-migrated to Limerick in 1935 during the Great Depression, because their lives were so hard in the U.S. But things were worse in Ireland.

From Chapter 1: When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: The happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

With his younger brother Malachy McCourt, he coauthored a play, "A Couple of Blackguards." He also wrote another play, "The Irish...and How They Got That Way," as well as two more memoirs, Tis and Teacher Man, about his experiences in the U.S. Army, and as a teacher at Stuyvesant High School New York City , respectively.

My favorite Frank McCourt anecdote is his own comment about struggling to write Tis: "By the time I finish writing it," he said, "the publisher will have to change the title to Twas."

He was grand.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Emmigration: From Tipperary to Philadelphia

It's not an action-packed video, but the song "Off to Philadelphia" is interesting. It's the tale of an Irish lothario who has broken the hearts of too many girls in Tipperary, so he must leave for Philadelphia. Our protagonist Paddy O'Leary shows false bravado. He claims there is 'no man bolder', but at the end of the song he doesn't want to leave Ireland. It must be hard to be forced from your home -- he's a sympathetic cad.

I like the video -- the setting looks right for the Depression. I imagine this record being played on old Victrolas in Germantown parlors. And I can almost hear a rowdier version being sung by a boisterous bunch in a local Irish pub. It's also easy to imagine Paddy disembarking at Ellis Island, however, Philadelphia was an important immigrant port from the eighteenth century right up to the 1980s.

It's unlikely that he emigrated during the Depression. Matthew O' Brien wrote in Erie-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies "...the Immigration Restriction Acts has often been exaggerated to provide an explanation for the decline in transatlantic migration between Ireland and the United States...However, the new criteria for admission would eventually be overshadowed by long-term assimilative pressures and the calamitous event of the Great Depression."

Where did Paddy disembark in Philadelphia? That depends on when he traveled. According to Fredric M. Miller, who wrote for the Balch Institute Online, "From the 1870s through the early 1920s the waterfront was a bustling place, especially around the Washington Avenue wharves where the American and Red Star Lines docked. This was an area of warehouses, factories, sugar refineries, freight depots and grain elevators, all connected to the vast yards of the Pennsylvania Railroad...Shortly before World War I the surging immigrant traffic spread to other Philadelphia piers. By 1912, the Red Star Line had a pier on Reed Street in South Philadelphia; the North German Lloyd landed north of Washington Avenue at Fitzwater Street; and the Allan Line docked at Callowhill Street."

I think Paddy was a Washington Avenue type. He wanted to be near the action, despite his dirge at song's end. He probably ends up in Germantown, even though most immigrants who entered the U.S. in Philadelphia left the city for elsewhere. He never gets back to Tipperary.

It is a long way, after all.

"Off to Philadelphia"

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Grace Kelly was from Germantown

Great public forum on Historic Germantown where ex-pats have posted whimsical messages about the G-town they loved and lost. There are English, Italian and German surnames, but not many Irish. One from 2003 echoes my father's experience. The writer's last name is Murray -- which could be Irish, Scottish or English -- but I think he's Irish. He attended the same Catholic school as my father.

Born Gtn Hosp. Lived on Hansberry St. across from Germantown Cricket Club's high stone wall, over which we hit stickball home runs; glimpses of tennis tournaments from 2nd floor window. Lamplighter w. ladder lighting street lamp, 1940s; hitching post for horses. St. Francis of Assisi school; home through Happy Hollow. Full day of features, cartoons, serial ("The Scorpion!") at Wayne Ave. Theater. Long walks home from La Salle College & running/walking through nearby East Falls, past Queen Lane Sta., reservoir & Grace Kelly's old home, Henry & Coulter. Used to joke that Germantown of my youth was neighborhood of trees, old ladies & cats but I feel fortunate to have lived there. -- John Murray [Edited]

My father talked about Happy Hollow, the movies at Wayne Avenue and stickball. There are stories about him and his twin brother hanging out with Grace Kelly before she left for Hollywood and ran off to marry the Prince. She was from East Falls, the next neighborhood over, but my family claimed her as Germantown Irish.

As I have said, the Allens are full of blarney.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Assimilation Nation: Becoming Irish-Americans

Philadelphia Nativist Riot, 1844

"In the century after 1820, 5 million Irish immigrants came to the United States. Their presence provoked a strong reaction among certain native-born Americans, known as nativists, who denounced the Irish for their social behavior, their impact on the economy, and their Catholic religion. Nonetheless, by the early 20th century, the Irish had successfully assimilated," says Kevin Kenny, a professor of history at Boston College in his article for the U.S. Department of State.

But I wonder about those who arrived in Philadelphia just before or during the Great Depression. Perhaps they came to America for a better life, and when they got here, conditions were worse than they were in Ireland. While on the whole, the Irish have had a very low rate of return emigration, I want to find out if some went home to work the family farms during the Great Depression instead of heading west to California, as so many Americans did.

N.B. I know I promised accounts of visits to the historical societies; I wasn't able to get to either the Germantown or Pennsylvania Societies, but I will, before the summer ends!