While it’s a wee bit past St. Paddy’s Day, there’s still time to celebrate the Irish who emigrated to Northern California.
In the rainy season, for those of us who remember rain, Marin’s rolling green slopes could be mistaken for the hills of Ireland. Ireland’s tallest peak, the sharp and stony Carrauntoohil, raises its crest a mere 835 feet over Mount Tamalpais.
Perhaps it was the green that brought the Irish to San Francisco in the 1800s or the glitter of Sutter’s gold. Some answered the lure of farmland. Others came for the right to practice their religion in peace. When the potato crops failed between 1845-1852, the Great Hunger drove many from their blighted island.
The United States Archive can document only 410,000 arrivals from Ireland between 1845-1855, a fraction of 1.5 million Irish who came to America in that decade. Between 1820 and 1860, the Irish made up over one third of all United States immigrants, comprising nearly half of all American immigrants in the 1840s.
In California, the Spanish welcomed the Irish with their own version of the Gaelic céad míle fáilte (a hundred thousand welcomes). The newcomers shared the locals’ religion and the Irish soon learned to speak Spanish, albeit with a brogue. Many of the transplanted Sons of Erin settled in Marin, earning the county the nickname Little Ireland. Soon the list of Mexican land grantees read like the choir roster at Dublin’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral including John Connors, John Reed, John Berry, and John Murphy. You can imagine someone calling through a Marin saloon door, “Is John here?” and most of room responding “Aye.” Among the Johns towered the Irish giant Timothy Murphy, the subject of my work-in-progress.
Accommodations supported Irish culture. The Archdiocese of San Francisco cancelled Lent on Saint Patrick’s Day each year to allow for the enjoyment of corned beef and beer or two. Funeral homes such as McAvoy & O’Hara—opened in 1848 and still in business—would, for a small fee, include a pouch of Irish soil in the dearly departed’s casket so they might rest in peace on the auld sod of Erin.
In turn, the Irish contributed to the city’s banking infrastructure through The Hibernia Savings and Loan and the First National Bank of San Francisco. John Sullivan donated the land on which Saint Mary’s Cathedral now stands. John Daly built the eponymous city south of San Francisco on his dairy farm and rock quarry. Surveyor Jasper O’Farrell is to thank for the layout of San Francisco’s streets, including the one that bears his name. The list of Irish military officers and politicians is too long to enumerate.
While many nationalities contributed their colors to San Francisco’s crazy quilt, the Irish brought the green and, in this instance, the harp of Ireland.
I don’t normally sign my blog posts, but a full signature seemed appropriate today.
Jo Murphy Haraf, proud great-granddaughter of Patrick and Mary Ann Murphy of Ireland’s counties Carlow and Wexford.