There is a well-known Irish saying: ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine that can be loosely translated as “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” Particularly during acts of migration, this adage becomes a critical component of immigrant success.
In New York and other parts of the United States, as Irish immigrants attempted to recreate a sense of home in their new environment, they created organizations based around location, especially counties of origin, which became instrumental in replacing familiar networks that had been severed when they left home.
Dances, dinners, communion breakfasts, memorial masses, picnics, excursions, field days, trips to Ireland, music, and protest marches were the mainstay of these societies. Young singles
gathered to dance, court, and to find a match. Older immigrants reunited with friends and extended family members. And young, first-generation Irish Americans were exposed to Irish culture and heritage through the gatherings that took place.
More than social activities, since the 1840s these county societies also provided a safe environment where more experienced immigrants could show the recently-arrived how the system worked, especially as many of the new immigrants grappled with the transition from rural to urban life. Most importantly, they could offer advice and point them in the right direction in terms of jobs and accommodation.
Hurling and Gaelic football were also a factor in establishing ties with other immigrants from home counties. The earliest recorded game of hurling in North America was of a match in Newfoundland in 1788. Even before the formation of the Gaelic Athletic Association of New York in 1914, a symbiotic relationship existed between Irish county societies and county teams that faced each other in fierce competition on the sport’s field.
Once the Gaelic Athletic Association (G.A.A.) became more formalized in North America at the dawn of the twentieth century, clubs sprang up in every major U.S. city with a large Irish population. In fact, the United Irish Counties Association in New York (UICANY), an early attempt to bring all the county societies under one umbrella, was originally founded as the Irish Counties Athletic Union in 1904.
The president of the new organization, a Kilkenny man named Luke Finn, remarked at the time: “At our last meeting we had men from nearly every county in Ireland and this alone is an encouraging feature of the new association. It is not only this, but you will hear the voice of Ireland concentrated in one little room.
“Men from the North will meet the South; men from the East will meet the West, a fact which will be set down in the history, reminding us of our glorious days when our gallant forefathers met in conference on the hills of Tara. In fact, the good that this association has before it to do, can only be anticipated at present; it is not organized merely for sporting purposes alone, but to bring more closely together the Irish people on this side of the Atlantic in order to defend and uphold that which we are too often denied.”
While the county societies were initially segregated by gender with auxiliary associations for women, from roughly the 1950s onwards, smaller Irish counties began to merge their Men’s and Ladies’ organizations, and women began to step into greater leadership roles.
One woman who emerged as a leader to be reckoned with was Maureen Mulcahy, who ran the Welfare and Employment Bureau (established by the United Irish Counties Association in 1941) until 1982.
Maureen was known to start her day by visiting major corporations, hospitals, hotels, and other businesses with the aim of identifying employment openings for her compatriots.
Many successful Irish men and women owe their start in New York to the tireless dedication of Maureen and she is fondly remembered in the community today.
While all the county groups, individually and under the umbrella of the UICA, sought to create and support programs that promoted education, and preserved Irish heritage and culture, benevolence was central to all the groups. Most notably, no society worth its salt failed to help with funeral arrangements, even when the deceased had no connection with the society; and in the days before safety nets like medical insurance, pensions, and social security were standard practices, these societies provided a lifeline for families and individuals in need.
The Mayo Society of New York was founded in 1879 specifically to help immigrants in need and their families back in Mayo. One of the hardest hit areas during the potato blight and subsequent Great Hunger, many thousands from this area had been forced to take the boat to America. The first Mayo Society Ball took place at Tammany Hall on December 9, 1890, and all the proceeds went back to the home county.
Between 1891 and 1942, the Cavan Men’s Patriotic and Benevolent Association alone paid out $170,500 in sick and death benefits – approximately $2.5 million in today’s terms. Consider the multiplier effect of thirty-two county societies.
The county associations and societies continue to contribute substantial sums of money to organizations and individuals in need. But what better way to promote the welfare of Irish immigrants and their families than by providing them with a means to secure employment? Networking was a key feature of county societies long before the term was coined in its most contemporary sense and long before the internet.
In an oral history now deposited in the Archives of Irish America at NYU, one immigrant explained that he knew about the Mayo society from the very first day he arrived in New York. “The word of mouth was, if you have any trouble getting a job, see somebody, because the people that were in the Mayo Patriotic and Benevolent [Assoc-iation] had influence.”
Many county associations had (and continue to have) strong links to unions in the city, which was a key factor in terms of new immigrants finding work, especially in the construction industry.
Jack McCarthy was an active member of the Cork Men’s Benevolent, Patriotic and Protective Association and was also a business agent for the Cement & Concrete Workers Union. He was known for his particular attention to the hiring of Cork men. His motto was “Cork men first, and all others after or will follow.”
The county societies, while reiterating a sense of being Irish, also taught immigrants about becoming American and taking pride in the Irish contribution to nation building.
New York’s County Wexford Association has played a central role in marking the life of Commodore John Barry, the “Father of the American Navy,” who was born in Tacumshane, Co. Wexford in 1745. And in the post-war era, an annual pilgrimage to Barry’s grave in Philadelphia became a high point for many New York county societies, not just Wexford’s.
Even today, the Commodore, who was himself one of the founding members of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, is the central image on the Wexford Association’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade banner.
The Irish county societies continued to thrive through to the mid-century. However, the drop in numbers of immigrants from Ireland after the 1965 Immigration Act (which abolished the ethnic quota system and significantly lowered the numbers of visas available for the Irish) had an adverse effect on Irish American organizations.
Mae O’Driscoll, a well-known community organizer and past-president of New York’s Cork Association, often refers to the break between the post-war influx and those who left Ireland for New York in the 1980s. The result was essentially the loss of a generation that might have bridged the two immigrant flows more seamlessly.
Although more recent immigrants have not been as reliant on joining county societies as the internet has made maintaining a sense of home and making new connections less problematic, in comparative terms, these associations have been remarkably active over a sustained period, particularly when viewed in the context of other ethnic groups.
Today’s Irish immigrants tend to organize along professional lines or to pursue sports activities. In this way, we have gone full circle in terms of the symbiotic relationship that existed between Irish county societies and the G.A.A. Sport was key to county societies in 1904 and over a century later we see evidence that the G.A.A. is still a significant rally-call to the Irish immigrant from New York to Boston, and from London to Perth and beyond. In fact, in late 2012, the Manhattan Gaels, the first G.A.A. Club to be based in New York City, was formed.
Spearheaded by Deputy Consul General Peter Ryan and an ambitious group of individuals, the organization’s mission, as stated on its website, is “to promote all the games of the G.A.A. for the benefit of both experienced players and complete newcomers. We take special pride in introducing football and the G.A.A. to Manhattanites who would never have experienced the game normally. This will be our focus as we continue to grow and develop a ladies football team, as well as an underage system, while also promoting the language and culture of home to as many people as possible.”
The new club’s charter is a reminder of Senator John F. Kennedy’s remarks at the Irish Institute in New York in January 1957, “Whether we live in Cork or in Boston, in New York or in Sydney, we are all members of a great family which is linked together by that strongest of chains, a common past.” For generations, immigrants to America, new and old have have found warmth and sustenance in the shelter of each other’s lives.
Postscript: In 2010, Dr. Marion R. Casey and Dr. Miriam Nyhan, historians based at New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House curated “The Fifth Province: County Societies in Irish America” exhibit. The evolution of this exhibit serves as an example of a synergy between various groups invested in documenting and preserving a community’s historical footprint. This initiative brought together the interests of, historians such as John Ridge, the United Irish Counties Association and New York’s Consul General of Ireland. By drawing attention to the role of county loyalty in Irish New York, the effort led to a major archival deposit for the Archives of Irish America at Bobst Library, New York University, now the largest repository in the world for materials pertaining to county societies.
“The Fifth Province” has run at the Irish Consulate New York, New York University, and the National Library of Ireland, Dublin. It is will open at Belfast’s Linen Hall Library in March.
For more information on “The Fifth Province” exhibition visit www.nyu.edu/as/irelandhouse/fifthprovince/index.php. For more on the United Irish Counties Association see www.uicany.org