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Irish Heritage in Utah

By Deseret News - Andrew Kirk

The role of the Irish and their descendants in building the nation gets an annual nod every March 17, but for Utah's Irish, this historically has been the only recognition they get.

Over the years, several books have been written on Utah's ethnic groups and almost none recognize the Irish as a distinct group.

The most famous, Helen Papanikolas' "The Peoples of Utah," includes the Irish with the British,

Welsh and Scots — an obvious mistake to anyone who knows the history.

There are many possible reasons for the snub, said Irish historian Gerald McDonough: The Irish immigrants were mostly Catholic in a predominantly LDS state, they didn't congregate to a single community as did the Swiss in Midway, Often, they were in the Army and in mining towns, both of which were disliked by LDS leaders. And because they were white and English-speaking, the Irish often were overlooked as a minority.

"Initially the Irish came as outsiders. They came with groups that were sent to put down the 'Mormon rebellion' or with mines and the railroad," McDonough said. "They've often been viewed as invaders ... much like the way people view Hispanics today."

That said, all one must do to recognize the tremendous contributions the Irish have made to the state is to walk around downtown Salt Lake City. The Keith O'Brien Building, Gallivan Plaza, Kearns Building, Judge and even Hogle (the family name was originally Gilmore). Many of the names on the oldest banks and law firms are Irish. More recently, Jack Dempsey, Ron McBride, Frank Layden and the Moran Eye Institute all prove that Irish names are still important in Utah.

"Just look at the phone book," McDonough said.

That large number of residents of Irish descent have made the Utah Hibernian Society's annual St. Patrick's Day Parade and other events successful for more than 30 years. Father Patrick Carley of St. Joseph the Worker Parrish in West Jordan helped organize the society and parade after he noticed that there was no umbrella organization to coordinate a major community event.

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"The first thing on our agenda was a parade. It was developed as a point of access for Irish culture, for those of Irish background," he said.

Father Carley, who is president of the Hibernian Society, said he has no idea why something like it wasn't started earlier, but from its inception, community response has been incredible in supporting Irish music, dance, language and poetry.

"For a very small number, we've achieved a great deal," he said.

Today, Irish heritage is alive and strong in Utah. Irish dancing has also become a popular hobby, supporting almost a dozen companies, including four that have been licensed by the official board in Dublin. Clare Duignan, 22, is an Open Championship dancer, the equivalent of a black belt in Irish dance. She said Irish dance performances can be found two or three times a month in the area — more during March. Her company, The Crawford School of Irish Dance, has been open since the 1980s, and its dancers are in high demand for meetings and festivals.

John Welch, society president-elect, said that he's lived all across the country and has found Utah to be as supportive and interested in Irish culture as anywhere else. But even though it was a long time ago, he believes the discrimination experienced by the Irish explains why so many descendants are interested in promoting the culture today.

"The Irish have a particular need because of all the antagonism and hard times they went through with leaving their homes because of the potato famine, and the poor treatment and abuse they experienced from the British, like having their language forbidden," he said.

Vincent Cheng, professor of English at the University of Utah, is an expert on Irish literature and said that the presidency of John F. Kennedy was the first time many Irish-Americans felt like equal citizens. Similar to discrimination because of skin color, many employers refused to hire Irish in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A few specious "scientific" arguments were even proposed as to why they weren't white racially and were closer to African-Americans than Europeans.

The first St. Patrick's Day Parade was held in Sandy in 1864, said McDonough, who has made a documentary about Utah's Irish for public television. They were held every year until the 1920s when they fell out of favor. The 1916 Easter Rebellion, Ireland's neutrality during World War I and the "Americanization" of Utah all made expressions of Irish pride less popular.

Whatever the reasons, when Utah's Irish are acknowledged in histories, it's often done stereotypically and in association with mining. But since mountain man days, Irish-Americans have been important in every aspect of the territory. Trapper Thomas Fitzpatrick was with Jim Bridger when he discovered the pass into the valley. Elizabeth Steel, the first white baby born in Utah, was Irish, as was the first white person to die (a member of the Donner-Reed Party). In fact, many in the Donner Party were Irish, including leader James Reed. Around 40 percent of the soldiers that won Utah from Mexico were Irish, and some of the most notable Mormon pioneers were as well.

Personal journals and gravestones indicate that much of Johnston's Army was Irish, as was the father of Utah mining, Col. Patrick Edward Connor, and most of his California Volunteers. Connor was sent to Utah during the Civil War to protect mail routes and establish Fort Douglas. He and his men also perpetrated the infamous Bear River Massacre against Utah American Indians. To keep his men from becoming idle, he encouraged them to prospect in the local hills. Many of the veins they mapped out became the famous silver and copper mines their countrymen dug later.

Contrary to popular belief, McDonough said, the Irish were part of the transcontinental railroad from both the east and the west. They laid track alongside the Chinese from California. Once railroad work was done, they moved to the mining towns, helping to establish Park City, Bingham and Silver Reef. Irish miners were also some of the first skiers in Park City.

Howard Egan set up some of the first post offices in the territory, including Pony Express stations. It is believed that he carried the first mail from the Pony Express into Salt Lake City. Irishmen also aided in the surveying and erection of the transcontinental telegraph lines that put the Pony Express out of business.

James Dwyer opened Utah's first bookstore in Salt Lake City, and the reading room has been called the first library west of the Missouri River.

The Irish were instrumental in establishing Utah's Catholic community. Many of the early clergy were Irish, and donations from Irish miners helped build St. Mary's of the Assumption in Park City, one of the oldest Catholic churches in Utah. Donations from wealthy Irish also made the Cathedral of the Madeleine possible, which, according to historian Frederick S. Buchanan, was a major architectural feat for such a numerically small diocese. Even today, several of the valley's clergy were born in Ireland, including Father Carley.

These stories are important to remember, Welch said, because their sacrifices created the life and faith that Irish Americans enjoy today. While many members of the Hibernian Society are Catholic, membership is open to everyone, and it was intentionally founded as a nonsectarian group, Father Carley said.


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