The History Of The Irish In Springfield

Mar 16, 2017

Credit KevinHoule/flickr

Today’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration has changed over the last one hundred sixty years, but a few things remain the same. The Irish still wear green, parade, and finish with a big party. Our local history segment is sponsored by the Sangamon County Historical Society.

“The Irish were all out today, dressed in their best bib and tucker.”

Law student William Gross wrote that in his journal on March 17, 1860, after watching the Springfield Catholic Institute’s annual St. Patrick’s Day commemoration. His journal is in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library’s manuscript collection.

"They marched to the tune of “St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning. The streets were overrun with old women and young ones. How fondly the Irish cherish the memory of that Saint, who rid their little island of those pests, the frogs and snakes…”

Only a small percentage of our area’s earliest settlers were Irish-born, according to the book, “Early Settlers of Sangamon County.” But by 1850, the federal census reported that they were the largest immigrant group in Springfield. Many fled here in the middle eighteen hundreds to escape the potato famine that killed about one million in their homeland.

The majority of Irish here were unskilled or laborers, according to information from Lincoln Library’s Sangamon Valley Collection. They included domestic servants, which worked at one out of every five Springfield homes, according to Mary Lincoln biographer Jean Baker.

Mary had an Irish domestic in 1850 named Catherine Gordon. She may not have lasted long. According to Baker, Mary once said or wrote to a sibling:

“If some of you Kentuckians had to deal with the ‘wild Irish’ as we housekeepers are sometimes called upon to do, the south would certainly elect Mr. Millard Fillmore.”

Fillmore was an anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant presidential candidate.

Springfield’s Irish kept strong ties with their homeland. Perhaps that’s why local papers carried articles and even poems about Ireland, like this one from the March eighteenth, 1888 Illinois State Register.

“The Irish-American… Columbia the free is the land of my birth, and my paths have been all on American earth; but my blood is as Irish as any can be, and my heart is with Erin afar o’er the sea.”

Irish immigrants here raised money to send back home and lobbied for our state and country to support the Emerald Isle’s fight for freedom.

In 1919, they even got Irish President Eamon De Valera to come to Springfield. The October twenty-second, 1919 Illinois State Journal reported:

"Valera came here “to plead the cause of an oppressed nation and to pay tribute to Abraham Lincoln, whose name has been the inspiration of the Irish people in their struggle for liberty.”

Valera spoke at the Leland Hotel downtown, addressed a large meeting at the arsenal, and visited Lincoln’s home and tomb.

If he had come earlier, he could have celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with us. By 1919, everyone marked the occasion, not just the Irish.

On March fourteenth of that year, the Journal wrote:  

“First thing this week appears a holiday – such a jolly, universal, informal holiday that everyone celebrates with an Irish smile and a sprig of Shamrock! St. Patrick’s Day parties are popular with persons of every age and nationality – and we should be queer creatures indeed if we did not all eat potatoes and wear green ribbons…”

That year the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were few – The National Protective Legion had a dance and St.  Patrick’s Church had a party.

It seems a far cry from those rousing celebrations that law student William Gross witnessed here in the middle eighteen hundreds, when the Irish paraded downtown in green sashes and rosettes, and ended the day with a bang, as Gross described in his diary.

“The festival closes tonight, with a grand ball. At this moment, the sound of music strikes my ear….”

The grand ball was held at Concert Hall, on the east side of the square, directly across from the present Old State Capitol. The March eighteenth, 1859 Journal said the Hall was “crowded to its utmost capacity.”

The toasts were at capacity, too, reported the next day’s Journal:

"Here’s to “The Immortal Washington, Ireland, America, The Liberty of the Press, Freedom of Conscience, The Hierarchy of America, The Heroes of the Revolution and the Martyrs of Liberty, The Unity and Perpetuity of our Glorious Republic, The President of the United States, The Ladies, and… Illinois!”

--song, “St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning” ----

Thanks to Patrick Foster for helping voice this story.