Kentucky Irish American Publisher William M. Higgins served on the official committee that Oct. 10, 1919, welcomed Irish President Eamon de Valera to Louisville.1 The city’s enthusiastic reception for the rebel leader demonstrated the “feelings of the American people who know and appreciate the blessings of freedom with the people of Ireland who are striving to obtain the same boon,” his newspaper editorialized a week later.2
Higgins and de Valera shared more than their desire for an independent Ireland. By coincidence, the 67-year-old host and the 37-year-old guest were both natives of New York State, some 700 miles away. In later years, de Valera’s American birth to an Irish mother and Spanish father prompted hostile challenges about his Irishness. Higgins, the son of Great Famine immigrants, easily balanced both sides of his hyphenated heritage.
He was a devout Catholic, active in the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and “an ardent advocate of freedom for Ireland,”3 He also was president of printers’ union local and “one of the sponsors and chief boosters of the Amateur Baseball Federation.”4
Higgins was a husband and the father of eight children. He attended the weddings of two of his three daughters; and the funerals of two of his five sons; one who died by drowning; the other by self-inflicted gunshot, whether intentional or accidental is unclear.5
Higgins dropped dead in his newsroom, age 72, in 1925. It was shortly after creation of the Irish Free State, partition of the island, and end of Ireland’s civil war. The Irish American had turned more of its coverage to local issues.
“Louisville lost a real citizen, a man who always stood up for what he thought was right,” one rival newspaper said of Higgins. “While he was not a native, he practically grew up with the town,” another local columnist said. 6
Hugh Higgins, William’s father, emigrated to America from Rivertown, County Sligo in 1848.7 His mother, Mary, departed from Drumlace, County Leitrim, in 1849, “the year when the tide of immigration from Ireland brought thousands of her good, Christian kind to build up this country,” the Syracuse Catholic Sun said in an obituary re-published on the front page of her son’s then year-old newspaper.8
From 1848 to 1855, over 5,000 Irish immigrants settled in Upstate New York’s Onondaga County; about 40 percent in Syracuse.9 William’s parents married in Auburn, New York, about 25 miles east of Syracuse, where they settled.10 He grew up hearing first-hand accounts of the Famine, and the stories of earlier Irish immigrants who dug the nearby Erie Canal, opened in 1825 and enlarged during his boyhood.
Nine of 50 people listed on the 1870 census page showing the Higgins family were born in Ireland, and many of those born in America had immigrant parents.11 The census form indicates only whether each person’s mother and father was foreign born, but not the country, as recorded in later editions of the decennial count.
By 1880, 28-year-old Higgins lived at 289 Seventh St. in Louisville. He was married to Mary; with then 2-year-old, and 2-month old, sons, the children he later buried.12 It is unclear why he moved south; perhaps he or his New York-born wife had family in Louisville.
Higgins also might have relocated to further his career as a printer, which began in Syracuse. In Louisville, he worked in the composing room of The Courier-Journal and the Louisville Times. He also became president of the Typographical Union No. 10.13
Louisville experienced a “second wave” of Irish immigration during the 1880s.14 As a newspaperman, Higgins would have been aware of Charles Stewart Parnell’s Feb. 19, 1880, visit to Louisville. The Irish MP lectured at Liederkranz Hall “for the benefit of the Irish relief fund.”15 Perhaps Higgins joined the local branch of the American Land League.16
Parnell arrived the day after visiting the capitol at Frankfort, where it was said “Kentucky is the Ireland of America”; not for being oppressed, but because of the “genial, hearty good nature, the hospitality, the love of fair-play, the pluck and courage” of its people. He was welcomed to Louisville as “a city that always greets with open arms, without regards to politics or opinions, every honest man who loves and serves as country.” 17
Thirty-eight years later, the example probably influenced the welcome that Higgins and other Irish Americans in Louisville extended to Eamon de Valera. By then, he was the established publisher of the Kentucky Irish American for 20 years.
More on Louisville’s Irish community and the Kentucky Irish American’s coverage of the Irish War of Independence in a future post. Project home page.