The Irish in California | irish america (2023)

In 2005, when it became clear that the Ronald Reagan Pub in Ballyporeen, Tipperary, was no longer a viable novelty for locals or tourists, Irish-American businessman and Republican promoter Frederick Ryan Jr. Reagan Presidential Library website. This anecdote is funny and touching, and perhaps even a little satisfying for Reagan's Irish critics.

But it also captures several key themes related to the Irish experience in California. President Reagan's great-grandfather Michael was born in Ballyporeen and moved to London during the Famine. The Reagans, like so many Irish Californians, lived elsewhere in the United States before settling in California. Reagan's father, John, was a practicing Catholic who converted after marrying a Protestant.

The rise to prominence

Shortly before and during the early years of John Reagan's life, in the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s, the Irish rose to prominence in California. During this era, benevolent and fraternal groups such as the Old Order of Hibernians, the Hibernian Society, and the Children of the Emerald Isle formed.

More than a decade before New York or Boston elected an Irish mayor, San Francisco elected Frank McCoppin, born in Longford, in 1867. But McCoppin's election as mayor of California's largest city was just the latest in a string of victories. elections for Irish candidates. Seven years earlier, Roscommon native John G. Downey became the state's governor. John Conness, a native of Galway, was elected US Senator in 1862, while Eugene Casserly, a native of Westmeath, won election to the same body in 1868. Also in the 1860s came two Irishmen who would influence future state policy: the Chief Chris Buckley arrived in the area in 1862 at the age of 17 to immigrant parents, while perennial reformer James D. Phelan (also the son of immigrants) was born in San Francisco in 1861.

Ronald Reagan's father, of course, would not achieve the same level of fame. But their son, born in 1911, joined a trail of Irish-American talent that made its way to Hollywood.

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Reagan's second political career made him the most powerful leader in the world. Ballyporeen might not have been able to keep the Reagan Pub, but California certainly could.

Most Irish Americans
Home to the All-American Dream Factory Hollywood, as well as the sprawling polyglot metropolis of Los Angeles, California is rarely mentioned as an Irish state on a par with New York or Massachusetts.

But according to the 1990 census, California had the largest population of Irish-Americans, with nearly two million residents identifying as Irish.

Films like True Confessions (based on the novel by John Gregory Dunne) and L.A. Confidential explored Irish-American characters navigating the dark underbelly of urban life in California in the 1940s and 1950s. But the great Irish contribution to California dates back to the days of Spanish colonization and the Gold Rush of 1849. Jimmy Cagney, John Wayne and Grace Kelly were Irish Hollywood royalty, while politicians like Ronald Reagan and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan represented the opposition to Irish political influence in the United States.

To this day, New Irish traditions continue to thrive, with schools such as the New College of California in San Francisco establishing an Irish degree program. (How Irish Invented Slang author Daniel Cassidy is one of the directors.)

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Two of the most important Irishmen in early California history are the Earl of Lacy and Hugo Oconor (the spelling of his name varies). De Lacy came from "a distinguished Norman-Irish family of aristocratic stature long involved in moving events in Irish history", writes Thomas F. Prendergast in Forgotten Pioneers: Irish Leaders in Early California. De Lacy was one of the so-called Wild Geese, Irish military exiles who served in the armies of Spain and other nations of Europe and America.

De Lacy never set foot in the United States, but while stationed in St. Petersburg in the 1760s, he warned his Spanish superiors that the Russians might be trying to colonize the lands further west of what would become the United States.

The Spaniards began to colonize the region first, led by "Captain Colorado" as Hugh O'Conor (i.e. Hugo Oconor) was known. General Alexander (or Alejandro) O'Reilly also participated in the expedition. These three Irish Spaniards fought the Native Americans along the west coast and laid the groundwork for the European colonization of the state.

In the 1820s, John O'Donoghue, an Irishman, was instrumental in implementing the treaty under which Spain recognized Mexico's sovereignty, while Wexford native Timothy Murphy was appointed regional administrator while working on a farm of over of 20,000 acres.

the thunder party

One of the most famous episodes in western frontier history, involving several Irish families, occurred in 1846. Patrick Breen was one of those who traveled to California as part of the Donner Party. In his November 20 diary, the Irish immigrant wrote: “We went out, the snow was so deep we couldn't find the way, then we went back to the cabin by the lake. We've already slaughtered most of our cattle and should stay here until next spring. It snowed non-stop for eight days."
In the end, half of the 100 Donner Party travelers died. This dark episode could be said to mark the end of an era in California before the literal golden age began.

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The gold rush just before California became a state in 1850 boosted the region's population, and the Irish seem to have been particularly attracted. One estimate is that the goldfields were consistently 10 to 20 percent Irish, while nearly one in four miners in Camp Grass Valley, Ireland was born.

Sam Brannan (son of Irish immigrants from Maine) is considered the first millionaire after the gold rush. In the mid-1850s, Brannan owned about 20% of the land in San Francisco. Even those Irishmen who amassed more modest fortunes were able to show their newfound strength and elected the aforementioned politicians to public office in the 1860s. The roots of the Irish machine and San Francisco's democracy were taking shape.

San Francisco and Los Angeles

As early as the 1860s, San Francisco clearly had a strong Irish Catholic presence. The city's St. Patrick's Day parade began in the early 1850s. Over two decades, 6,000 people marched in the two-mile procession, which is said to have drawn over 50,000 spectators. There were sporadic anti-Irish and anti-Catholic organizations, but just as often the Irish exploited the discriminatory sentiment as if they were among those fighting to keep Chinese workers out of California.

In contrast, Los Angeles had a more consistent Anglo-Protestant tradition. A survey from the 1830s lists a single Irish resident of the town. Even in 1900, when nearly 70% of San Francisco parishioners were Catholic, Los Angeles Protestants far outnumbered Catholics.

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Still, the Irish played a key role in shaping modern Los Angeles. Edward Doheny (born to immigrant parents in Wisconsin) went west in search of gold, but found oil and became one of the richest oil magnates in the region. Daniel Day-Lewis plays a character based on Doheny in the upcoming film There Will Be Blood. Perhaps most important in the development of Los Angeles as a city was William Mulholland, born in Belfast. Once a lowly worker on the city's water supply, he rose through the ranks to become the Chief Engineer of the City of Los Angeles. It was Mulholland who developed the Los Angeles Aqueduct that brought water to this thirsty city. Later, John Joseph Cantwell, Bishop of L.A. Born in Limerick, he welcomed Hispanic immigrants with open arms in the first half of the 20th century.


California's most famous industry is, of course, the film industry. From Our Gang's Hal Roach to Joseph P. Kennedy (an RKO executive), Irish-Americans played a key role in the early days of Hollywood. The list of Irish-Americans who moved to Hollywood ranges from John Ford and Spencer Tracy in the early days to Roma Downey and Ed Burns today.

But, as is often the case, darker themes lurk beneath the glossy surface. Today, Irish Catholics in California face issues related to immigration and abuse. Cardinal Roger Mahony was the public face of the archdiocese of Los Angeles, which settled a multimillion-dollar sexual abuse lawsuit.

Finally, the debate arose over the clash of Irish and Hispanic Catholicism in California. Last year, The New York Times magazine ran a cover story by David Rieff entitled "New Catholics: The Hispanicization of American Catholicism."
The “last four decades have been a disaster for American Catholicism,” notes Rieff grimly, reciting a litany of now-familiar statistics about how few American Catholics enter the priesthood or care deeply about their religion. However, Rieff points out that America's growing Hispanic population (centered on Los Angeles, where Rieff did all of his reporting) could breathe new life into the American church, transforming it from an Irish institution to a Hispanic one.

But noted Irish-American priest and sociologist Andrew Greeley believes California Irish deserve credit for helping the church transition into the 21st century.

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Whether you tend to agree with Greeley or Rieff, one thing all this makes clear is how the Irish church stands today. Rieff speaks at length with a minister from Los Angeles named Jarlath Cunnane, who is from Sligo. Rieff also speaks with priests named O'Connell, Boyle and Carroll. It could be argued that the Catholic Church in the United States is so Irish that it will remain "Irish" even if these O'Connell and Boyle are replaced by Guzmán and López. That makes perfect sense. After all, it was the Irish and Spanish who created California as we know it.

The future

The technology sparked something of a new gold rush in California. Late last year, Irish Commerce Secretary Michael Martin visited Palo Alto to meet with founding members of the Irish Technology Leadership Group. Founded by the Senior Vice President of Palm Inc. John Hartnett, the group is comprised of Irish executives from Silicon Valley and includes current and former executives from Sling Media, Intuit, Apple, Intel, Cisco and Hewlett-Packard, and aims to: Assist Ireland in seizing emerging technology opportunities.


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