Staten Island Irish
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Shortly after Thomas Dongan arrived in 1683 to take up his position as Governor of the English colony of New York, he acquired more than five thousand acres of land along the Kill Van Kull on Staten Island's North Shore. The estate became known as "the Lordship or Manor of Cassiltowne" and took its name from the family seat of the Dongans at Castletown, Co. Kildare. A manor house was built at what is today West New Brighton and stood until destroyed by fire in 1878. Although Governor Dongan returned to Ireland following his replacement in 1688 by an appointee of King William of the House of Orange, three nephews (Thomas, John and Walter) continued to live on Staten Island. Dongan descendants of Walter remained on the islandup to early in this century although most of the family scattered across the country.' The legacy of the Dongans has drawn Irish settlers to the island from the beginning. A Daniel Kelly in 1685 and a Thomas Largy (or Largie) in 1686 were two early landowners. In 1745 Philip Donley and John Quinn in 1753 were mentioned in the old county records when they filed to record distinctive marks for their cattle. In 1758 the names of Bartholomew McGuire and Thomas Dougherty were entered in the census of that year. The militia company of 1776 had several individuals of probable Irish origin: Patrick Doyle, Patrick Curry, William Curren, Ralph Conner, Captain Richard Conner, James Kelly and Patrick O'Grady. One of the most famous Irishmen of the day was Darby Doyle who operated a ferry beginning about 1780 between Stapleton and New York.? While Staten Island had its Irish in colonial and post-colonial times, large numbers did not begin to arrive until the early nineteenth century. The first attempts to organize a Roman Catholic Church were underway in 1815 in New Brighton, but its formation still had to await the arrival of additional numbers of Irish. New factories on the north shore began to attract immigrants by 1825. When a silk factory at New Brighton failed, its workers were permitted to build just to the east of a dye factory, on a swampy patch of ground close to the settlement known as Factoryville. The little huts, situated in West New Brighton at what is today North Burgher Avenue, became known as "Corktown" and it was here that the story of the Irish on Staten Island really begins.
The first permanent Roman Catholic congregation began following a meeting at : gun factory. The first parish, called St. Peter's, began in 1839 and for the next ten years was the sole Roman Catholic Church on the island. The early churches mark the expansion of the Irish community on the island and appropriately enough a church dedicated to St. Patrick was founded at Richmond Village in 1861. The Staten Island Irish were to be found in activities outside of factory work, such as in construction and public works and labor of various types along the waterfront. Not few started out as farm laborers and eventually acquired small farms.3 In 1830 at Graniteville Patrick O'Rourke, graduate it was said of "Dublin University," operated a grocery, tavern and meeting hall. Joseph Feeney,: native of Sligo and graduate of the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Trinity College in Dublin, practiced medicine and operated drug store at Stapleton in 1849. More famous was the Civil War master photographer Matthew Brady who maintained his residence at Grymes Hill. His almost-as-famous assistant, Timothy O'Sullivan, was also a resident of the island and his grave can be found in St. Peter's Cemetery.
One of the early demonstrations of Irish activity on the island came in 1853. Thomas Francis Meagher, the acclaimed leader of the 1848 nationalist movement in Ireland and future commander of the Irish Brigade in the American Civil War, brought his newly formed independent military company, the Republican Rifles, over from Manhattan for their first public parade in honor of St. Patrick. The unit was composed exclusively of Co. Waterford men, like Meagher himself, and marched out to "Old Fort Diamond" for a formal review by their commander. Perhaps this demonstration sparked the New York Centennial Staten Island NYIHR member and former president John T. Ridge is the author of numerous articles induding "Irish County Societies in New York, 1880- 1914" in Ronald H. Bayor & Timothy J. Meagher, eds., The New York Irish (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). Vol.12, 1998 PAGE 66 NEW YORK 1R15H HISTORY "..for thousands of Irish immigrants their first glimpse of Americaand of New Yorkwas at the Quarantine Station on Staten Island. interest of so many of the Irish on Staten Island for the military.
During the Civil War many Irish flocked to the colors, especially to units like the Corcoran Legion, where they enjoyed a particularly good reputation. Some of the older stock native Staten Islanders reneged on their military service after the draft was instituted. They paid large bounties, as high as $750, for substitutes-usually Irish-willing to take their place.
Very few of the Irish were able to afford substitutes and only a handful of them did so. This caused some friction and resentment between the two communities in the post-Civil War years.- A native Staten Islander of Irish descent, General Richard A. Donnelly, born at Green Ridge in 1843, served in the Civil War as volunteer just as his father had volunteered to serve with General Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. Richard Donnelly went on to serve two terms as Mayor of Trenton, N.J. An Irish-born commander of one of the State Island-raised companies was John G. Vaughan. He succeeded in getting control of the Democratic Party on Staten Island for a ten-year period after the war. It was in 1864 that Michael P. O'Brien, one of the first Irishmen to rise to countywide office, was elected County Clerk.
Armed with the self-assurance gained from their service in the Civil War, the Irish no longer shrank from public demonstrations of their social and fraternal associations. The largest St. Patrick's Day celebrationever seen up to that time was held in 1871 along a parade route which stretched along the shore for six miles, from Port Richmond to the Narrows where General Brannan, commandant of Fort Wadsworth, reviewed them.
Returning to Stapleton another general, General Burke ("The Exile"), made a fiery speech recounting England's misdeeds to Ireland over the years. That evening the members of the Knights of St. Patrick enjoyed a sumptuous meal in comfortable surroundings at local banquet hall.
Two divisions of the Ancient Order of Hibernians were organized on the island by 1873. Division No. 1 A.O.H. was located at New Brighton-Tompkinsville while Division No. 2 was situated in Port Richmond. These two divisions remained active in their respective neighborhoods at least to the 1920s. The A.OH. on Staten Island reached a peak membership of about 400 in 1909, but by 1916 had dropped to 169 members in its two divisions. A Ladies division was organized after the turn of the century.
Other Irish societies were also active. Branches of the Clan na Gael, the secret Irish nationalist society, and two branches of the Irish Land League, the Parnell Club and the Emerald Club existed on Staten Island in 1882. This was at the height of American support for the campaign to end Ireland's semi-feudal system of land tenure. The branches of the Father Mathew Total Abstinence and Benevolent Society also aided in the struggle. They were nicknamed "the Tabbies" by the locals. Delia Illustration: Design for a statue of Fr. John Drumgoole. Irish World, 6 January 1894. Courtesy of J.T. Ridge.
Stewart Parnell, the mother of the Irish Parliamentary leader, and her daughters, Fanny and Annie, lived for a time in West New Brighton at the peak of the Irish land struggle." A major development in Staten Island was the re-location of Father John Drumgoole's Mission of the Immaculate Virgin from Lafayette Street in Manhattan to the 250-acre complex which he called Mount Lorretto near the southern tip of the island. Fr. Drumgoole was a native of Abbeylara in Co. Longford. His lifelong mission was to care for thousands of the Vol. 12, 1998 real NEW YORK 1R1SH HISTORY PAGE 67 City's homeless orphans there were as many as 40,000 in 1868-and provide both shelter and education for them. What began with the care of few newsboys and bootblacks mushroomed into a great institution which was, at one time, the largest child-care institution of its kind in the United States. Father Drumgoole's success effectively stopped the mass deportation of orphans to the west by the Children's Aid Society where they were separated from their relatives, religion and Irish cultural heritage. Over 60,000 had been placed on the orphan trains by 1882, the year Mount Loretto opened.? It is a curious fact of history that for thousands of Irish immigrants their first real glimpse of America-and of New York-_was at the Quarantine Station on Staten Island.
Established in the first decade of the nineteenth century at Stapleton, not far south of the present Borough Hall, the station saw more than its share of poor, sick Irish immigrants especially during the catastrophic years of the "Great Hunger" when hundreds at time were detained there until free from contagious disease. The wandering of recovering patients was never popular with the natives. The station was finally burned down by a mob in 1863 after 55 years of service.
Street and place names that note Irish origins can be found scattered all over the island, but most of the more colorful nineteenth century ones have vanished. In addition to Corktown, there was Cork Hill, Shannon's Hole, Shea's Lane, Brogan's Rock, Vinegar Hill (after the battle of the same name in Co. Wexford) and Connor's Pond. Old names for Egbertville (Richmond and Rockland Avenues) included Tipperary Corners, New Dublin and Young Ireland.8 Up until the 1920s Staten Island was often the site for summer excursions of Irish societies from the City. A typical event was the annual field exercises of the Irish American Military Union which were held for a three-day period at the fourth of July. In 1891 they camped at Oceanville Park at South Beach where a 32-gun salute to Company A, 1st Regiment Irish American Light Artillery, was fired to open the activities. The encampment was dubbed 'Camp Wolfe Tone" by the organizers to honor one of the major leaders of the 1798 Rising. It attractsouth as Washington, as far west as Pittsburgh, and as far east as Massachusetts. A highlight of the day was the unveiling of a new thirty-two star Irish flag representing each of the Irish The Irish World described one of the best of the early Staten Island St. Patrick's Day Parades in 1874: the command of Capt. Blake; three Father Mathew societies (temperance) of Rossville, Richmond, and Graniteville, Capt. John Mahan; the Manning Guards, Capt. John Monagan; the Irish Legion, Capt. Frank McTaisney; the Hibernian Society, No. 1, Capt. John Cox; the Hibernian Society, No. 2, Capt. John Reise; the Knights of St. Patrick, Capt. Garvey; President and Orator of the Day, Father Barry; and Deputy Grand Marshals and Aides in carriages.
Mr. C. Harte was the Grand Marshal, and Messrs. James Dempsey, John J. Vaughan, and Michael Walsh acted as special aides on horseback. The line of march was from Port Richmond along the North Shore Road, through Factoryville, along the Snug Harbor, through New Brighton and Jersey Street on the turnpike to Tompkinsville, through the Shore Road, [and back] through Factoryville.5 counties. In all, over one thousand fullyequipped soldiers went through drill and shootin competitions and participated in lively sham battles. Staten Island had its own unit of the Hibernian Rifles for many years, but in the 1891 encampment it was represented by unit of the Irish Volunteers.' Second only to Governor Thomas Dongan was another Irishman who entered into Staten Island's history in a big way. Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa (Rossa denotes his particular branch of the O'Donovans), one of the most untiring nationalists Ireland has ever produced, moved to Mariner's Harbor, Staten Island from ed military companies of Irishmen from as far Brooklyn in 1893 following the death of son.
T he rain-storm did not prevent hearty demonstration on Staten Island. All the Irish societies of Richmond County, twelve in number, assembled at 12 o'clock at Port Richmond, in the following order: Guide band; Irish dragoons, mounted, Capt. Thomas Doran; two platoons of the Richmond County Police, under Vol.12, 1998 PAGE 68 NEW YORK 1R1SH HISTORY Photo: The O'Donovan Rossa home at 194 Richmond Terrace, Staten Island. Reproduced from Sean O Luing's biography, courtesy of J.T. Ridge tion was then made at the Cork meetings to his brother members, most of whom knew him personally. His most welcome visitors were speakers of his first language, Irish, many of whom were from his own native county.
Vol. 12, 1998 In theory there should have been many Cork people in that neighborhood (Staten Island's north shore's largest Irish contingent was from Cork as was neighboring Bayonne directly across the Kill Van Kull), but the big house on Captain's Row was somewhat isolated. Mary Jane (nee Irwin), Rossa's wife, a gifted Irish poetess, found the house lonely and terribly cold in the wintertime. But the big rambling house was ideal for their kids and they fell in love with it. For a time, Rossa published his own weekly newspaper, United Ireland, a publication prepared in his Manhattan offices which advocated fiery retribution against England. In 1898 he brought out his autobiographical Rossa's Recollections from his 194 Richmond Terrace home.10 As a consequence of his harsh imprisonment in English jails, Rossa's health was never strong and he was, in the years before the beginning of World War I, confined to his home. Members of the Cork Men's Association often would make the crossing by ferry from Manhattan to visit him. A report of his condi-In late June, 1915, O' Donovan Rossa passed away. The old Fenian united in death the conflicting Irish nationalist factions as he was never able to do in life. Marching behind the band of the First Regiment Irish Volunteers escorting his remains were the publishers of the arch-rival newspapers the Irish World and the Gaelic American, Robert Ford and John Devoy respectively. Also in the solemn procession which followed a route from his house to St. Peter's Church and then on to St. Peter's Cemetery-was the Irish labor leader James Larkin, Captain John McClure, one of the few American-born Irish to have participated in the 1867 Rising, Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet, and the celebrant of his Requiem mass, the beloved Irish language orator Father Peter Cunniffe. A memorial window was later dedicated in O' Donovan Rossa's memory at St. Peter's." One of the most memorable characters in a very different sense was the State Island-born storyteller David Carlin. The bachelor Carlin was born just before the start of the American Civil War and by the end of the century he was fascinating young and old alike with tales of his humorous creations: Granny Goozenheimer, Santa's grandmother and a host of witches and Easter bunnies. It was the "Irish cowfrog" that lived on Britton's Pond that captured the most attention, however. It could bellow and be heard two miles away, but only good children could see it and if they were really good they could get a ride on the two-hundred-pound cowfrog's back across Staten Island. The Irish cowfrog yearned for the old country however and began to do poorly. It was finally rescued by an Irish road contractor who took him home to Limerick where he bounced back to his old self. 12 The Irish-born population of Staten Island remained fairly constant down to World War I and even managed to show an increase owing to the resumption of heavy immigration from Ireland in the 1920s. By 1930 it reached an alltime high of 4,233 Irish-born. The county furnished a large contingent to the New York St. Patrick's Day Parade after giving up on its own distinctive borough procession. The Staten Islanders marched in one division each of the men's and ladies' Hibernians, two branches of the Clan na Gael, three branches of the Friends of Irish Freedom and two independent Irish societies. NEW YORK 1R1SH HISTORY PAGE 69 After World War II many newcomers came to Staten Island and a wave of house building opened up many areas which until then had been almost rural. This process was accelerated by the opening of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in 1964, an event not always greeted with enthusiasm by many island natives. The bridge also lured thousands of Irish Americans to Staten Island who scattered all over the southern half of the borough. This resulted in the formation of new Hibernian divisions among the Irish in freshly developed areas on the south shore while the older existing divisions carried on in the traditional Irish areas on the north shore. The total number of State Island A.O.H. divisions rose above two for the first time. Today other Irish societies, like Irish Northern Aid and the Irish National Caucus, concentrate on the Northern Ireland situation. Social and charitable societies like the St. Patrick Society, together with the other Irish societies of Staten Island, continue the cultural program initiated more than a century earlier by their predecessors.
Notes 1 In 1995 Dr. John R. Dungan of Hastings, Nebraska, a direct descendent of Thomas Dongan, contacted the New York Irish History Roundtable. He told us, along with much genealogical information, that Governor Dongan "did address meetings of Irish in New York in the Irish language." See letter, John R. Dungan, M.D. to M.R. Casey, March 4, 1995. 2 Ira K. Morris, Morris Memorial History of Staten Island (NY: Memorial Pub. Co., 1898), p. 99-101 3 Richard K. Bayles, ed., History of Richmond County, (Staten Island), New York (NY: Preston, 1887), p. 329 4 Ibid., p. 328 5 Irish World (New York), March 19, 1874 6 Bayles, op. cit., p. 639 7 Irish World (New York), January 6, 1894 8 Morris, op. cit., p. 414 9 Irish World (New York), July 6, 1891 10 Sean O Luing, O Donnabhain Rosa (Baile Atha Cliath: Sairseal agus Gill, 1979), pp. 236-40 11 Gaelic American (New York), July 10, 1915 12 Charles Gilbert Hine and William T. Davis, Legends, Stories and Folklore of Old Staten Island (NY: Staten Island Historical Society, 1925), p. 100 Photo: Martin Wynne, Brian Conway and student at the Irish Arts Center's Irish Traditional Music Festival on the grounds of Snug Harbor, 1988. Courtesy of PJ. Mullins, from the documentary From Shore to Shore: Irish Traditional Music in New York City (VHS, 1993). ? 1998. Published with the permission of John T. Ridge.