To be Irish in Augusta

The Irish called it the American Wake. They nicknamed the boats that carried their sons and daughters “coffin ships.” Life in Ireland meant poverty, disease and English oppression, so they turned to the fabled land of milk and honey for opportunity.

So did Augusta resident Dan O’Connell, who left Ireland to work at a factory in England in 1963.

“When I grew up, you either farmed or… there weren’t a lot of jobs, you know?” O’Connell said. His family kept a small farm, milking cows in the morning and raising their own vegetables. They slaughtered their own pigs and hung the cured meat from the rafters in the kitchen.

O’Connell grew up in what he called a “ramblin’ house” in Listowel, County Kerry, Ireland. The door was always open and no one ever knocked. His mother cooked over an open fireplace, and they didn’t have television or radio.

“I grew up in Ireland when it was different, like old times,” said O’Connell, who is part of the local Irish music band The Skelligs. “You had to entertain yourself.”

They did it with cards, dancing and, of course, music. But the only reason he picked up an instrument, the button accordion that he calls simply “my box,” was to play for the dancers.

Button accordion players were few and far between then, so he was primarily a self-taught musician. His father was a step dancer, and they hosted parties in the house frequently.

“We had this big kitchen, and there were always people sitting around the open fire,” he said.

But when he saved enough to cover his fare to New York City in 1964, sponsored by an aunt who lived in the city, the traditional Irish music he played was all but gone. Cinema and radio had hacked away at the music’s popularity since the 1930s.

And when he came to New York, he found a city in the midst of a summer heat wave and bustling with thousands of his fellow countrymen.

“It was so much fun,” he laughed. “It was like an adventure.”

The nightlife was fantastic, with five Irish dance halls to visit. He met his wife, Patricia, in the city. She was from Scotland. And they had their first son.

While he worked as a carpenter building cabinets, he so impressed a design firm that they offered him a job drafting and building scale models of their architectural and engineering projects.

When the Irish first began to immigrate to America, they seemed to leave their luck in Ireland. Employment signs posted in business windows read “No Irish Need Apply.” Estimates put the infant mortality rate among Irish immigrants at 80 percent. Tensions resulted in riots, murders and the burning of Catholic churches. But the Irish arrived at a time when the Industrial Revolution required more men than the country itself had to offer to do the heavy, dangerous work of building bridges and railroads.

Like many Americans, Marguerite Welch can trace her family heritage back to the green fields of Ireland. She doesn’t have to go far: her grandfather, Matthew Daniel Lyons, settled in Augusta on 8th Street, where her father, Williams Aloysius Lyons, was born.

The elder immigrant Lyons was a policeman, like so many of his fellow countrymen, who took jobs that were dangerous. One Census figure from the turn of the century estimated that 20 percent of the protective service employees in the country, like policemen, firemen and public workers, were of Irish descent. In New York City, the number was closer to 50 percent.

But Welch never met her grandfather, and her father, the younger Lyons, didn’t talk much about his father’s experiences. Besides, he had seven children to deal with — three girls and four boys.

Welch was named Irish Lady of the Year by the Irish American Heritage Society of Augusta.
“Oh, I was thrilled. I felt it was an honor,” she said.

Welch was raised in Augusta and married a nice Catholic boy that she met at the Knights of Columbus when he was transferred to the area by Dupont. Together, they raised 10 children at their neat, two-story home on Raymond Ave.

Most Irish immigrants settled in the Northeast, but about two percent settled in the South — like Welch’s grandfather, who settled in Augusta. The larger Irish settlements developed primarily in Charleston, New Orleans and Savannah, which hosts the second-largest St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the country. Their smaller numbers meant they found greater acceptance here, since they overwhelmed the population neither with their language nor their religion. They also took potentially fatal jobs that spared valuable property, like expensive slaves.

John and Margaret Douglas are proud of their Irish heritage.

The couple met in first grade at Sacred Heart School in Savannah. But they were cruelly parted — he went on to Benedictine School, the boys’ school, and she to St. Vincent’s Academy for girls. Later, of course, they married.

John passed away in March of 2006, leaving Margaret as matriarch. But she’s hardly alone.

The couple had seven children together — Daniel, John, Michael, Patrick, Brian, Terence and Deborah — and it’s easy to see the bond in this band, named Irish Family of the Year by the Irish-American Heritage Society. More essential than a common country of origin is, as 27-year-old granddaughter Maura McLaughlin Powell said, “Faith and family.”

Being Irish in America now, the members of this large family seem to agree, has more to do with pride and heritage than nationality or even religion. Douglas said that when she was in school it was practically part of the curriculum.

“That was the important thing that we have such pride in our ancestry because they had to struggle so,” she said. “When they got here, like in New York and Boston, especially, they’d have signs, ‘no Irish need apply.’ So they were still peasants.”

Irish immigrants did not come or go quietly. There is a reason, as it turns out, that the nickname “The Fighting Irish,” when tossed up against them, stuck like glue. They tried to invade British-controlled Canada twice, desiring to trade Canadian land for Ireland’s freedom. They rioted against the Civil War draft lottery in New York City when most of the names drawn were Irish. They formed a secret organization in Pennsylvania called the Molly Maguires to fight brutal business owners who took advantage of employees and their families. They fought fire with fire, and killing with more killing. But they stayed. They organized. And they fought for equality in the country they had lovingly adopted.

Jason Killeen was just 16 years old when he left Limerick City, Ireland, for Virginia.

Like many in the history of the country, he left Eire for the prospect of future employment opportunities. But it was not for low-paying manual labor.

“I just wanted to see how far I could get in basketball until I had to stop. When I was at home I played on the under-16 national team,” Killeen explained after finishing practice with his team at Augusta State University.

Basketball in Ireland is like soccer in America. It has its fervent supporters, but it’s behind other sports in popularity. Limerick is, after all, the rugby capital of the country that invented the game.

Basketball is growing in the country, but Killeen estimates it might be fifth in popularity, behind rugby, soccer and Irish competitions like hurling and Gaelic football.

And even though basketball is his passion and his talent, his parents were understandably torn for him to make the voyage that plenty of his fellow countrymen had made for centuries.

“They were obviously for and against it. Like I said, I was only 16. But I think they had the same mentality as me. They wanted to make sure there weren’t any regrets,” Killeen said.

So they let him go.

Times changed. America changed with it. Eventually, Irish immigrants won acceptance — or simply reproduced themselves into the majority. It is said that more Irish live in America now than ever lived in Ireland. Twelve percent of the country — 36 million Americans — reported Irish ancestry in 2006, according to the U.S. Census — and Scots-Irish ancestry is not included in that number. In comparison, the population of Ireland today stands at just over 4 million. In Augusta, the general percentage is closer to 5 percent Irish, with another 1.2 percent reporting Scotch-Irish ancestry. It’s below the national average of 12 percent, but immigrants left their indelible mark.

Ninety percent of Irish immigrants were Catholic, and they formed tight-knit communities to protect their faith — and, at times, to protect each other.

America was overwhelmingly Protestant in the 1800s — still is — and discrimination and even violence were more common than people might imagine. But in times of strife, they turned to each other. Through this were they able to maintain their culture.

Out of John and Margaret Douglas’ seven children, they had six sons. When those sons married, their wives converted to Catholicism, and that is the religion in which they raise their children. They send them to St. Mary on the Hill Catholic School and then on to Aquinas.

The one grandchild to rebel, Maura, now regrets choosing to attend public school.

“If I had it to do over again I would have gone to Aquinas. I think I would have been more focused on academics than…” she flutters her hands in the air, and the family laughs and calls suggestions with which to fill in the blank she has left.

Maura will send her little 4-year-old daughter, Kate, to the schools she and her family cherish.

Of course, Ireland still experiences religious conflict, but the family doesn’t recall any such conflicts here. And if they did, they’d still have each other to turn to.

But it’s not a situation that escapes them entirely. Douglas mentions that the flag outside her door represents the whole of the island nation — including the British-controlled and largely Protestant commonwealth of Northern Ireland — not just the Southern independent, mostly Catholic Republic of Ireland.

When O’Connell returns to Ireland next year to visit his three brothers, he’ll find the country he left is a different animal now, a “Celtic Tiger,” they call it, due to its roaring economy. Tourists are frequently warned away from Dublin, which is more a cosmopolitan city than they imagine, like Atlanta with 400-year-old architecture. Of course, young basketball standout Killeen grew up with the Ireland that exists today, but left to pursue a passion that isn’t specifically Irish. He reflects the continuing globalization of the country.

Ireland may be more “Irish” now than it has been in half a century. The country didn’t leave the British Commonwealth until 1949, so the Republic of Ireland has only existed for just over 60 years as a free state.

Yet despite its young status, it’s an old country with a deep connection to its roots.

So when The Clancy Brothers made it big in America in the 1950s, the nation rediscovered its own form of expression. The Clancys were followed over the years by the Dubliners, the Chieftains, Clannad, Enya and more, all of whom recorded or heavily sampled traditional Irish music.

“It’s totally different, now. When you go to Ireland, all the kids are playing it,” O’Connell said, and gestured to his computer, on which he had just turned down the volume for an online Celtic music radio show broadcast from Ireland.

“It has a lot of life in it, especially the jigs and reels and hornpipes, and of course the songs are awesome,” he said.

He’s retired from design engineering now, which gives him more time for music.

The Skelligs played a regular gig at Red Hughes Irish Pub before it closed, and can now be found at Rose Hill Plantation in Beech Island, S.C., and Murphy’s Irish Pub in Johnston, S.C.
With Kenny Scott and Gavin Winship, O’Connell helps keep Irish music alive in Augusta.

Everyone wants to be Irish now, if only for one day a year. But many fail to understand what all the green beer swilling is about. St. Patrick’s Day is a religious holiday that celebrates this patron saint of Ireland, who is said to have done more in 30 years to convert pagans to Catholicism than anyone before or since. He is also said to have given a sermon that drove all the snakes from Ireland, but no snakes have ever been found to be native to the land. Some believe it is a metaphor for his conversion. And the shamrock is the symbol he used to explain how the God as father, son and Holy Spirit could all exist as separate elements of the same entity.

But if all you want is to find the party on St. Patrick’s Day, follow the Douglas family.

There’s always someone laughing in this bunch that numbers 31 members and counting.
From the Irish flag fluttering beside the American flag on the front porch of their home on Highland Avenue to the Aquinas logo emblazoned across a grandchild’s T-shirt, it’s clear: They are serious about their heritage.

Margaret was one of the first organizers of the Irish American Heritage Society, helping send letters in 1978 to families they thought might be interested. They kept the enrollment to a minimum, for convenience. But over time, the society has grown to more than 300 members.

You don’t have to be Catholic to get in, said parade organizer Jason Scherer, but it can’t hurt. Mass at Holy Trinity is a traditional part of the society’s celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.

As much an affinity as Americans feel with Ireland, the countries are actually quite different. While changing, Ireland is more conservative than Americans primarily aware of the Guinness family fortunes might realize. Abortion is illegal as a national law. Divorce was only legalized five years ago. The country is largely Catholic and white, and the diversity of American society is a shock to many.

“When I first moved over here, I moved in with a black family. I really enjoyed that, but it was really different,” Killeen said. “You move over here and there’s so many different religions and races and ethnicities. I’ve really enjoyed it.”

When he’s at home, he said that his furthest family member lives about five miles away.

One grandmother lives two blocks in one direction, and his other grandmother lives two blocks in the other direction. The country, geographically speaking, is smaller than Americans often imagine, just under three hours from the East coast to the West, Killeen estimates.

Americans’ willingness to drive an hour somewhere took some getting used to.

When he’s home, Killeen plays on Ireland’s senior men’s national team.

“I end one season and another is right behind it,” he laughed.

And although he’s been successful, it wasn’t without a struggle.

“The culture is so much different. When I first came here nobody could understand what I was saying. I had to write stuff down on a piece of paper sometimes,” he laughed, because there was no language barrier — English is the primary language spoken in Ireland — but his accent was very strong.

“After a while, people who I was around the most, they really picked up on what I was saying. That made it easier. It was like I had translators walking around with me.”

There was that one time when a girl asked him if he knew how to shag, which is slang for something entirely different in Ireland… if you know what he’s saying.

“I wasn’t sure quite what to say. Of course I do!” he laughed.

His accent seems fairly easy to understand these days, and he thinks it’s because he’s slowed down after exposure to English as it’s spoken in the South. The Limerick manner of speaking is so fast, he says, that while on the telephone with his brother, his teammates cannot understand him.

And then there are the conveniences he misses, like nationalized health care.

“If you break your arm at home, you go to the doctor there… you might get a bill under the door for 30 Euros [less than $50 American],” he said. When he needed knee surgery in high school, he and his family seriously considered having him fly home for it.

“It would have been cheaper to buy a plane ticket and go home for the surgery than to stay here.”

And despite the modernization of the country, many people still get the wrong idea about the Irish. His classmates asked him if he’d ever seen a computer or ridden in a taxi. Of course he has. But he’s more concerned with people being unschooled about larger issues, like “the troubles” in Northern Ireland.

“A lot of time people will ask me questions about it, and I think that they think they’re irritating me,” he said. “But I’d rather they ask me and I tell them than they just had the wrong idea about it.”

It may be that even the Irish need to brush up on their queries, because being Irish in America now represents a dual identity, Margaret Douglas said. It is both a love and connection to the country of their ancestors, and a love and life in the country that took them in — even if it didn’t make it very easy to begin with.

And even that may change. The family of local veterinarian David Tribby, part of St. Francis Animal Hospital, was named Irish Family of the Year in 2006. His wife is from Mexico. When Maura called last year to tell them that they had been won, she replied gleefully, “Oh, I am so happy to be Irish!”

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