Tag Archives: pittsburgh

Irishmen registered for U.S. draft 100 years ago

One hundred years ago, on 5 June 1917, the United States conducted its first military draft to support the war in Europe it entered two months earlier. Many Irish-born or Irish-American men lined up to sign up, including my grandfather, Willie Diggin, and his future brother-in-law, John Ware, both emigrants of Kerry. Below is an edited chapter of my book, “His Last Trip: An Irish-American Story,” about draft day in Pittsburgh. MH

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The United States tried to isolate itself from the war that erupted in August 1914, but American industry was closely tied to events in Europe. Pittsburgh steel mills operated around the clock to meet the demands of the unprecedented military buildup on the continent. Carnegie Steel alone hired 8,000 additional workers in 1915 as Willie began his career as a streetcar motorman, two years after his arrival from Ireland.

When America finally entered the war in April 1917, Congress quickly authorized a draft to build the military. The first round of registration set for June 5 required men ages 21 to 31 to sign up, including non-citizens. This presented a conflict for Irish immigrants with strong nationalist views who had openly supported Germany against England, Ireland’s historical oppressor. Such a position now became treasonous.

Only a few people openly opposed the war in Pittsburgh. In the final days before the draft four men ages 19 to 21 were arrested and charged with treason for distributing fliers opposing the conscription. Churches asked the mayor to close bars so that “young men under the exhilaration or depression of the day may have removed from them the temptation of drink.” The president of the liquor retailers association promised his members would voluntarily go dry for the day because “it was the least we could do and patriotism demanded it from us.”

Willie Diggin, undated.

Willie registered at the Hazelwood Police and Patrol Station at the corner of Hazelwood Avenue and Lytle Street. The two-story brick building was located a half mile west of the streetcar car barn where he worked. Uniformed police officers bustled about the station, enhancing the military atmosphere. American flags snapped in the breeze as showers and thunderstorms raked across the city. News accounts reported that most registration lines were “orderly and cheerful.”

Nearly 3,200 men registered in Hazelwood between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., a pace of 228 per hour. Many of the men were workers from the nearby B & O Railroad switch yards and J&L steel mill. They shuffled through the lines with smudged faces, dirty hands and soiled clothing. Willie was joined in the line by other streetcar men in their Pittsburgh Railways uniforms.

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How an 1879 prisoner report won good press for the Irish

(This piece continues my exploration of Irish immigrants incarcerated in Pennsylvania prisons and workhouses in the 19th and early 20th century. Here’s the original post. MH)

Irish immigrants in 19th century America were often characterized in the press as shiftless and criminal. In states with heavy concentration of Irish, such as Pennsylvania, there was some basis for the perception, as noted in this later historical account:

Since colonial times they had been heavily over-represented in the prisons and alms-houses. Widow, orphans and dependent people abounded among them. Their distress spurred their achievement.

As the Irish made the long climb to respectability in the late 19th century, detailed prison records helped erode some of the negative stereotypes. An example can be found in the August 1880 issue of The Penn Monthly, a Philadelphia-based journal “Devoted to Literature, Art, Science and Politics.” There, an article focused on a landmark report of the Board of Commissioners of Public Charities, the agency created in 1869 to oversee Pennsylvania’s vast network of charitable and correctional institutions.

The Board’s tenth annual report to the state legislature in Harrisburg noted that of the 3,417 people convicted of crimes in 1879, just 4.53 percent were Irish immigrants, fewer than the 5.09 percent of German-born lawbreakers, and only slightly more than the 3.40 percent native English prisoners. This prompted Penn Monthly to observe:

There is a very common notion that the Irish in America contribute more than their share to our criminal class. But this expectation is contradicted by all the statistics of crime in their own country–which is more free from offences against person, property and chastity than any other country in the world–and also by these Pennsylvania tables. On the other hand the English, who form but a small percentage of our population, furnish nearly as many criminals as the Irish.

Of the nearly 10.2 million people who immigrated to America between 1820 and 1880, almost 28 percent were from Ireland. Irish immigrants were 15 percent of the populations of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, totaling more than 100,000 people. They gathered in northeastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region, and railroad hubs such as Altoona.

That the percentage of Irish behind bars was less than their countrymen outside the walls had “an importance far beyond any honor it may do to the Irish portion of our population,” Penn Monthly suggested. This fact also refuted “specious objections” to the “Irish system” penal reforms as Pennsylvania officials reconsidered their own correctional operations.

Sir Walter Crofton, the mid-19th century chairman of the Board of Directors of Convict Prisons for Ireland, devised a three-stage system of prisoner confinement. Convicts moved from solitary cells to communal work camps and finally, supervised, intermediate release into the community, a forerunner of parole.

Penn Monthly alleged that Pennsylvania prison officials:

… shake their heads and hint that our prisons are full of Irish convicts, who have escaped from such lax custody, to renew their depredations in a new world. The statistics of such escapes are easily accessible, being reported periodically to Parliament. But they are never alleged by the opponents of the Irish system. Neither do they tell us that the Irish convicts in Pennsylvania prisons form less than 5 percent of the whole number.

Image of Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh, set to close in June 2017, by Mugatu.

Popular perceptions of the Irish contributing more than their share of criminal behavior persisted for several reasons. Among the 83.24 percent of native-born convicts incarcerated in Pennsylvania in 1879, an unknown portion were first generation Irish Americans. Their Irish surnames would have stood out in police and court records, and in news accounts of notorious crimes, typically without any distinction of their place of birth.

It is also worth remembering that the Penn Monthly article appeared after seven years of headlines about murders, arson and other crimes alleged to have been committed by the Molly Maguires, a pro-worker, Irish secret society concentrated in the state’s coal region. Twenty Mollies were convicted of crimes and executed by 1878.

Back in Ireland, the Land War was well underway by 1880. The often violent struggle between Irish tenant farmers and absentee English landlords made frequent headlines in American newspapers. For example, a January 1879 story in the Pittsburgh Daily Post detailed Irish “agrarian crime,” including murder and intimidation.  A November 1879 report in the Post reported that “Irish-American Fenians are at the bottom of the trouble now prevailing in Ireland.” Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell toured America in early 1880, including stops in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, to raise attention and money for the cause.

So regardless of the prison statistics, it must have seemed to many Pennsylvanians and other Americans that the Irish were creating unrest on both sides of the Atlantic.

But the Catholic-focused Donahoe’s Magazine sought to amplify the Penn Monthly story, quoting the same passages as above in its December 1880 issue. Donahoe’s suggested that the 4.53 percent figure of Irish convicts in 1879 was probably unusually high, “inasmuch as the unfavorable circumstances and evil influences under which Irishmen were placed … during the past few years in the state of Pennsylvania.” It did not mention the Molly Maguires or any specifics.

The Boston-based magazine also referenced how a June 1880 Milwaukee newspaper column quoted a Wisconsin politician as saying the majority of criminals in the local House of Corrections were Irish.

“And it ended there, without giving facts to substantiate its insults to the most law-abiding citizens of that city,” Donahoe’s huffed. “…[We are] hoping that in the future, when local reporters of secular papers are desirous of placing upon the Irish of this country the false imputation that they ‘build and fill the jails,’ they will substantiate their assertions by statistics from official reports.”

NOTES:

Clark, Dennis, “The Irish in Pennsylvania: A People Share a Commonwealth“, Pennsylvania History Studies No. 22, The Pennsylvania Historical Association, University Park, Pa., 1991. “Over-represented” quote, page 16. Immigrant population tables, page 32. From Griffin, William D., “The Book of Irish Americans” Times Books, 1990.

Erie, Stephen, “Rainbow’s End: Irish-Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, 1840-1995”, University of California Press, 1988. 1870 city percentages, page 18.

“Ireland’s Woes”, Pittsburgh Daily Post, Nov. 22, 1879, page 1.

“Irish Agrarianism”, Pittsburgh Daily Post, Jan. 17, 1879, page 3.

Irish Criminals in America: How They Compare in Number With Those of Other Nationalities“, Donahoe’s Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 6, December 1880, pages 492-493.

Tenth Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Public Charities of the State of Pennsylvania“, Lane S. Hart, State Printer, Harrisburg, 1880.

The Watch Over Our Charities“, The Penn Monthly, August 1880, pages 649-658.

“His Last Trip” was 75 years ago

About half seven in the morning of 17 December 1941, my Kerry-born grandfather braked his streetcar to a stop in front of St. Mary of Mercy Catholic Church, the inbound terminus of a trip to Pittsburgh’s city center.

As he stood to tug a cord that flipped an exterior sign to show his outbound destination, a heart attack dropped him to the floor of the motorman’s cab. Someone summoned a priest from the church to administer the last rites.

Willie Diggin was 47, a husband and the father of six girls. After a home wake, he was buried five days before Christmas.

I researched and wrote His Last Trip as a 12-part blog serial to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Willie’s 1913 emigration from North Kerry. The linked section also contains information about the similarly-titled book I later developed about Willie.

And this weekend, he is remembered with a Mass intention at St. Mary of Mercy.

Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord …

William Diggin.jpeg

The Irish in Pittsburgh, circa 1930

In 1930, U.S. Census enumerators recorded for the first time whether Irish immigrants hailed from the Irish Free State or Northern Ireland. A decade had passed since the island’s partition during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War. In America, the Great Depression was barely two years old, and the Irish here were still transitioning from a mostly downtrodden people to among the most successful immigrant groups to ever reach these shores.

Many tens of thousands of these Irish immigrants populated the American cities of Boston, Chicago and Pittsburgh. In 1930, my grandparents and their four children (two more came later), plus other relatives from Kerry, were among those being counted in the Pennsylvania city.

In his excellent Townland of Origin website/blog, Joe Buggy recently posted about a set of maps from the National Historic Geographical Information System showing the 1930 distribution of first and second generation Irish immigrants in these three cities. As Buggy notes:

There can sometimes be ambiguity as to whether a first generation immigrant is the foreign-born person who immigrated or their native-born children. Social science researchers and demographers mostly refer to the first generation as those who are foreign-born and immigrated to the U.S.

The three NHGIS maps are below, and under that is a map of Pittsburgh neighborhoods. My grandparents settled in Hazelwood, shown in dark blue inside the deep bend of the Monongahela River (at bottom) from the area extending to the 5 position of a clock face. There, up to 30 percent of the residents were Irish, and the percentage reached up to 60 percent in the adjoining Greenfield section.

Map 1930 NHGIS

 

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Pittsburgh Ancient Order of Hibernians records available for review

A large trove of records from Pittsburgh area divisions of the Ancient Order of Hibernians are now available for viewing at the Senator John Heinz History Center. The Irish-Catholic fraternal organization was founded in 1836 to fight anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice.

During a recent visit to the Heinz Center I was able to find meeting minutes recording the 1914 acceptance and induction of my grandfather, Willie Diggins, into the AOH. He joined Division 15 in the city’s Hazelwood section nine months after his emigration from Kerry. The record states:

The application of Wm Diggins, age 20 years of 63 Almeda St. was reported favorable. The ballot being found favorable the candidate was duly elected.

I also read the group’s June 26, 1921, discussion about “the critical situation in Irish affairs.” Division 15 membership opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty “in which the leaders in Ireland were apparently being jockeyed into negotiations which could not end in anything more than a compromise and a sacrifice of the time-honored principals of a united and independent Ireland.”

AOH shield

There is a critical gap in the Division 15 meeting minutes from 1925 to 1935. This period would have included the group’s discussion of the 1928 candidacy of Al Smith, the nation’s first Irish-Catholic presidential nominee, as well as potential details about my grandfather’s February 1935 streetcar accident.

Separate membership dues ledgers show that Willie made his last $1 monthly payment to the organization about the time of the accident. He was “dropped” from the group on July 1, 1935, after 22 years of membership. He was $15 in arrears.

Willie’s failure to continue paying membership dues after his streetcar accident suggests he might not have received any support from the group, which helped members in times of hardship. Other ethnic associations provided similar benefits to their members. With a wife and six daughters to support on his streetcar motorman’s salary, Willie’s money was tight and his family ranked as a higher priority than the AOH.

As the Great Depression lingered, other AOH members nationwide also were drifting from the organization, according to Jay P. Dolan in his book, “The Irish Americans: A History.” By 1935, U.S. circulation of the National Hibernian magazine declined by nearly two thirds of its pre-Depression readership. The fervor of Irish nationalism waned more than a decade after the revolutionary period of 1913-1923.

By the mid-1930s the Irish community and the Catholic Church had recovered from the prejudice and indignities of Smith’s 1928 election defeat. As a demographic group and as individuals they asserted their place in America as the country trudged through the economic downturn and soon marched into World War II.

Willie died 10 days after the Pearl Harbor attack, a month before his 48th birthday. A few weeks later Division 15 of the AOH passed a motion endorsing President Roosevelt and agreeing to purchase defense bonds to support the war effort.

Old St. Patrick Church, Pittsburgh

I visited my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa., and was fortunate to have enough time to visit Old St. Patrick Church, my favorite Catholic shrine and place of prayer.

Here’s a previously published blog I wrote about this sacred space.

I don’t get to visit Old St. Patrick’s every trip to Pittsburgh. But I put myself there frequently during my meditative time. The church door and garden gate are never locked.

Below are three images from my latest visit. Note the green sanctuary lamp over the altar and green harp to the left of the tabernacle.

Willie’s emigration centennial: Day 7 of 12

AMERICA…

The Baltic arrived in New York Harbor on May 10, 1913, eight days after leaving Queenstown. Willie Diggin, his friend John Stack and the other third-class passengers from Ireland were transferred to barges and shuttled to the immigrant processing station at Ellis Island.

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An immigrant ship in New York Harbor, circa 1900-1920, with Statue of Liberty at left and Ellis Island at right. Library of Congress

There, the first stop was a medical examination to determine whether the immigrants had any physical ailments or mental illness. Those who passed were funneled into the registry room, a massive hall with a 56-foot-high vaulted ceiling and giant American flags hanging from the walls. Some 16,000 people were turned away in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 1913. Another 838,000 were allowed to enter America.

Willie and John packed into another barge for the trip back to Manhattan. On their way to the sprawling Pennsylvania Station they caught sight of the nearly 800-foot-tall Woolworth Building, which opened three weeks earlier as the world’s tallest office tower. Architect Cass Gilbert told the newspapers:

The building and the success of its owner shows that this is the land of equal opportunities, that a man may start with nothing and accomplish everything. It is not true that strife and unrest is the way to achieve, but that man prospers by the good old virtues – thrift, industry and honesty.

The Pennsylvania Railroad offered around-the-clock departures to Pittsburgh for about $8. The journey took 11 hours, allowing Willie and John to reach their destination the following day. 

The weather the Sunday of their arrival was fair and warm. It was Whitsunday, or Pentecost, the Christian feast of the Holy Spirit descending on the apostles as tongues of fire. It also marked the celebration of a new secular holiday: Mother’s Day.

Pittsburgh was a center of America’s growing industrial might. Nearly 558,000 people lived in the smoke-choked city, almost four times the population of County Kerry. The city’s skyline was modest compared to New York, its tallest buildings towering only about 300 feet above the crowded streets. But the scene was dramatically different than Ballybunion.

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Above, the “point” at Pittsburgh, circa 1910-1920. Below, the city skyline during the same period. Library of Congress.

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Willie settled in the city’s 15th Ward about six miles east of downtown Pittsburgh, a growing immigrant enclave on the north bank of the Monongahela River known by the names of its adjoining neighborhoods, Glenwood and Hazelwood. Willie boarded with his cousin, William Driscoll, at 65 Almeda Street. John Stack moved in with his brother, Bartholomew, a block away at 54 Almeda Street. 

In addition to his sister, uncle and cousins, Willie kept connected to other Kerry immigrants through informal Irish county associations, which reunited people from each of Ireland’s 32 counties. He also joined the Hazelwood division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a fraternal organization established in America in 1836 to protect immigrants from anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bigotry and violence.

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Exposition Hall, probably a few years before Willie’s arrival in 1913. Library of Congress.

Two weeks before Willie’s arrival the AOH initiated 1,100 new members inside Pittsburgh’s Exposition Hall. Another 2,000 enrolled at the same location on June 8, 1913, “an incentive to all other cities throughout the country,” suggested one of the many Irish-American newspapers of the period.

Willie had made the crossing. He connected with family and other Irish immigrants. His new life in America was just getting started.

Tomorrow: STREETCAR MOTORMAN and CITIZEN

Her emigration, 100 years ago

One hundred years ago, in mid-September 1912, Honorah Ware boarded the passenger ship S.S. Baltic at Queenstown, Ireland. The 20-year-old farm girl from rural Kilelton townland in northwest Kerry was bound for the American city of Pittsburgh.

Her journey began with a seven-mile trip to the railway station at Listowel. She probably was joined by an 18-year-old girl from nearby Ballylongford who also was bound for relatives in Pittsburgh. The 65-mile trip to Queenstown, now called Cobh, included stops in Tralee, Killarney, Mallow and Cork city.

The young women likely spent a night or two in a boarding house before taking a lighter out to the Baltic anchored in the harbor. Remember, this was five months after the Titanic sank in the icy waters of the north Atlantic. Imagine what must have going through their minds.

The crossing took eight days. Nora and the other passengers were processed at Ellis Island on Sept. 21, 1912. From there she took a 300-mile train trip to Pittsburgh.

Like many young Irish women of the period, Nora spent her early years in America working as a household servant, or domestic. She married a Kerry man in 1924, at age 33, and they had six children, including my mother. In 1959, I became the seventh of Nora’s 12 grandchildren.

Nora died in 1983, shortly after her 93rd birthday. She never lost her Kerry brogue, but she never got back to Ireland, either. I have had the pleasure of walking the north Kerry headlands and Shannon estuary of her birthplace.

At this centennial of her emigration, I honor her memory. God love her.

Kerry’s Lartigue monorail

The unique Lartigue monorail, shown above, operated between the market town of Listowel and the seaside village of Ballybunion from 1888 to 1924. The odd railway drew attention to north Kerry and became the focus of newspaper stories inside and outside of Ireland.

“It seems strange, but it is not less true that a remote village on the coast at Kerry should have been selected for the first experiment in a railway system which promises a revolution in the construction of our iron roads,” the Irish Times wrote at the line’s opening on Feb. 29, 1888, a leap year day. “The Lartigue system is about as different from all preconceived notions of railways as it is possible to imagine.”

The Lartigue figures prominently in a manuscript I have produced about late 19th and early 20th century Kerry, and some of its residents who immigrated to Pittsburgh, Pa.