Sunday, May 26, 2024

Story of patriot priest in Cork told in book on U.S emigration

The American Irish Experience, edited by Frank McGinity

AN American author, whose great-grandfather came from Cork, has compiled a new book which brings together speeches and articles exploring the lives of famous Irish emigrants throughout history.

The American Irish Experience, by Frank McGinity, President of the California Branch of the American Irish Historical Society, is a compendium that highlights the renowned and lesser-known Irish men and women who who went to the U.S over the last few centuries.

Among the articles is a piece on a fascinating Capuchin priest who served and was buried in Cork, Fr Albert Bibby.

Born in 1877 in Carlow, he started attending College at the Capuchin friary in Rochestown aged 13, and later attended the Irish college in Ballingeary, where fellow students included Thomas MacDonagh and Tomás MacCurtain.

A hundred years ago, in June, 1924, Fr Bibby was transferred to California, where he did great work in restoring Mission Santa Inés, a Spanish Catholic mission founded more than 100 years earlier.

However, he was in failing health and died in 1925. Fr Bibby was buried outside the chapel of Mission Santa Inés, but decades later an extraordinary event took place, recounts The American Irish Experience.

Bibby was a hero in Ireland, where he was known as the ‘Patriot Priest’ for his involvement in the country’s fight for freedom against the British. So, in 1958, Bibby’s body was exhumed and taken back ceremoniously to Cork.

The book hears from an elderly Irish priest, Fr Gerald Barron, who witnessed the re-burial in Rochestown in 1958 first-hand and was one of the young priests “who led the procession from the city of Cork up a rural road to the Capuchin monastery, where Bibby was interred”.

The book adds: “Though his body went home, Bibby’s gravestone was left intact at Mission Santa Inés out of deference to his brief, but strong, influence. It still sits there gathering moss and is visited often by mission-goers.”

The chapters in The American Irish Experience are based on talks given to the California Branch of the American Irish Historical Society down the decades. One, entitled ‘How Irish Convicts Help Found Australia’, tells the story of the transportation system used in England in the 1700s. Convicts were originally sent to America but more than 162,000 would be sent to Australia.

Another story which McGinity is proud of, is about Nicholas Den, who was studying medicine at Dublin’s Trinity College until his parents ran out of money supporting him.

He set sail to Santa Barbara, California and early on, became the town’s doctor. Eventually he would become a successful cattle farmer.

Den also became Santa Barbara first mayor and help lead the transition to peaceful times after the Mexican American War. His finest achievement was saving the Santa Barbara Mission from take over and sale by the Mexican government.

The American Irish Historical Society was founded in Boston in 1897, and Teddy Roosevelt was among its founders. The Society owns a historical building on Fifth Avenue in New York, containing an extensive library of old books and manuscripts. One of its prized possessions is a flag which hung during the Easter Rising.

The Irish government has supported the Society over the years, contributing to the maintenance and improvements to the building.

The Society’s purpose originally was to keep the record straight regarding the Irish accomplishments in America.

As President of the California branch, McGinity - whose Cork great-grandfather was either Eugene or Frank Hurley - says the Society’s aim is to demonstrate “that the reality of early Irish immigrants proved far more complex than the prevailing stereotype of drunken, illiterate brawlers”.

As the fourth generation son of a Cork immigrant, McGinity bristles at phrases like ‘the luck of the Irish’, believing it could only have been coined by the English. 

“It’s their way of saying that the Irish couldn’t do it their own way - that they needed luck,” he writes.

Another successful immigrant to California, John Mackay, had a huge impact on the development of the American West, particularly San Francisco and Virginia City.

Born in Dublin in 1831, he moved with his family to the Five Points neighbourhood, a slum in New York, when the famine was raging.

After hearing incredible stories of big discoveries of gold in California and Nevada, he migrated there in 1851 and was part of major discovery of gold. Mackay would rise to become one of the most formidable and richest people of the U.S west.

When he died died in 1902, his fortune was estimated to be as high as $40 billion.

The ‘draft riots’ in New York in 1863 are also recalled.

The Irish, rebelling against conscription into the Union army, targeted an even more outcast group - blacks, mostly refugees from southern slavery, whom immigrants viewed as competition for low wage jobs. The convulsion left 119 dead and thousands injured.

Another excerpt tells the story of a group of immigrant soldiers, mostly Irish, who deserted from the U.S. Army in 1846 because of religious and ethic persecution and to seek a better life. There is a plaque commemorating them in Mexico City.