There’s one tradition that often gets misunderstood during this time of year, especially among us Americans: it’s using the phrase, “Happy Holidays.” Some folks think that using this term, instead of saying “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah,” or any other specific holiday, diminishes the importance of this time of year. They think the term is too recent, modern, and without a tradition of its own. However, when one does a little digging, you’ll soon find out that the phrase has a long and treasured history here in the United States and even in the Hoosier State.
One of the earliest newspaper references to Hoosiers celebrating Ireland and its patron saint appeared on April 1, 1837, in the Vincennes Western Sun. On March 17, a “large company” got together at “Mr. Jewel’s Ball Room” in Vincennes. A writer (probably not the paper’s publisher Elihu Stout, who was notoriously pro-slavery and anti-immigrant), wrote that “The utmost harmony and good feeling prevailed; Irishmen, descendants of Irishmen, persons from different nations and all parties, united to do honor to the Illustrious Bishop and Saint of the Emerald Isle.”
A list of toasts drunk in Ireland’s honor took up about half of the front page of the Western Sun that April 1. One toast reads touchingly: to “Ireland, the Land of Love and Beauty.”
In the spirit of republicanism, Patrick Doran, who had immigrated from Ireland to Boston in 1799 at age fifteen and moved to Vincennes in 1836, just a year before he served as toastmaster at Jewel’s Ball Room, offered a tribute to “The human family. No distinction on account of clime or soil.”
Though anti-Catholic feeling in America was strong, hostility was less in Vincennes, an old French town and the cradle of Catholicism in Indiana. The Vincennes group toasted Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell, father of Catholic Emancipation, which restored civil rights to Catholics in Britain and Ireland. “May his efforts to throw off the galling yoke of Britain be so crowned with success, that the sight of an English hireling may be as rare as that of the Snake or Toad in our favored land.”
For all their occasional hypocrisy regarding slavery in the U.S. itself, early Indiana papers almost always took the side of oppressed nations, especially if they were fighting against Great Britain. Ireland’s long struggle for independence, accomplished only in 1921, was one of the major subjects in American newspapers in the 1800s. Hoosier papers, such as the Indiana State Sentinel and the Evansville Daily Journal, enthusiastically supported the idealistic and underequipped Irish revolutionaries who launched rebellion after rebellion against Britain, including a major one in 1848.
When the Famine struck Ireland in the mid-1840s, and starvation and emigration halved its population, the U.S. began to teem with emigrants and exiled revolutionaries fleeing death and persecution in the Emerald Isle. Hoosier papers were naturally drawn into the hot political debates surrounding Ireland’s fate and the great Irish exodus to America.
Indiana was a top destination for the Irish in the 1830s and ’40s. One of the major engineering projects of the day, the construction of the Wabash & Erie Canal, which promised to link Evansville to Lake Erie, required an enormous amount of labor. Thousands of Irish workers dug miles of canal ditches through pestilential marshes and helped drain off ancient wetlands, drastically altering the Hoosier landscape. The Indiana Journal and other papers drew Irish workers here with advertisements of wages and cheap land.
Often paid in whiskey, Irish laborers frequently succumbed to alcoholism, yellow fever, and malaria along the disease-ridden canal. Scottish foremen called “jiggers” often dispensed whiskey in ladles from buckets — perhaps not an altogether bad health move, since whiskey, unlike water, was distilled and not so laden with bacteria. Its long-term effects, however, were of course deadly.
Irish laborers brought some Old World rivalries to America, leading to the little-known “Indiana Irish Wars” of the mid-1830s. Gangs that probably had their roots in longstanding disputes back in Ireland divided off into “Corkonians” and “Fardowns.” Fights erupted that threatened to destroy the canal. The Hoosier “Irish wars” took place mostly around Logansport and Lagro in northern Indiana.
Irish workers eventually saw the result of their backbreaking work abandoned after just a couple of decades, as railroads eclipsed the canal and turned it into a worthless ditch not long after the end of the Civil War.
In an 1890 lecture, Indiana State Geologist John Collett shared a fascinating anecdote from natural history that he had learned from the surveyor Perrin Kent. Kent helped lay out part of the Wabash & Erie Canal near Williamsport in Warren County in the 1830s. As he told Collett, during the heyday of canal construction he ran across some “Irishmen working in the swamp” along the Wabash River. The Irish had discovered the fossilized bones of a mastodon. The surveyor watched as they “extracted the marrow, which had changed to adipocere” — “grave wax” formed from fatty tissues — and used it as grease for their boots. Perhaps the Irish had been doing this for generations with bones found in the rural peat bogs of Ireland. (Before 1883, there used to be a cranberry marsh in Medina Township, Warren County, where settlers harvested cranberries before the swamp was drained. From 1957 to 1972, the Milburn Peat Company of Chicago harvested peat from what was left of the old cranberry bog.)
At a time when a major American political party, the “Know-Nothings,” thrived on anti-immigrant attitudes, some Hoosiers were openly against the Irish influx. Yet nativism was never as bad here as in the East Coast cities, where ethnic riots often broke out. (One of the worst was the bloody 1849 Astor Place Riot in New York City, sparked by a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.) Though the Know-Nothings were the most outspoken opponents of non-Anglo-Saxon immigration, the Whig Party, which disappeared from American politics during the 1860s, was often notoriously “nativist.”
Antebellum midwestern papers, frequently run by European political refugees, were huge supporters of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, which tried to topple the old monarchies. “Young Ireland” was a major revolutionary movement led in part by a man who later played a critical role in the American Civil War.
Thomas Francis Meagher, best known in the U.S. as the commander of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade (decimated at Antietam and Gettysburg), was one of the world’s most famous revolutionaries in 1848. Born in Waterford, Ireland, in 1823, Meagher came from the oppressed Catholic majority. Educated by Jesuits in England, where he learned to speak with an upperclass English accent that his supporters sometimes hated him for, Meagher almost entered the Austrian army but got involved in Irish politics during the dark days of the Famine. As one of the leaders of the failed 1848 rebellion, he was nearly sentenced to death by a judge, but received a mercy verdict and was deported for life to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), at that time a British penal colony at the far end of the world.
Papers in Indiana and Ohio avidly followed Meagher’s fate and were thrilled to report in early 1852 that he had escaped from Tasmania on an American whaling vessel and made a surprise appearance in New York City that May. On June 3, the Indiana Legislature gathered in a committee of “friends of Ireland” headed by James Henry Lane of Lawrenceburg. (Lane soon became the fiery U.S. Senator from Kansas and one of the major fighters in the guerrilla warfare that laid “Bleeding Kansas” waste from 1854 to 1861.) “Jim” Lane’s committee invited Meagher to Indiana and resolved to show solidarity with “the glorious cause for which he was branded and exiled as a felon.” A public letter from Hoosier legislators addressed to the Irish rebel in New York proclaimed “We love Ireland” and congratulates him on his “almost miraculous escape from the myrmidons of British oppression.”
Meagher came west in 1852, but didn’t make it to Indianapolis. He may have stopped in Evansville, since he was in Louisville on December 20 and left for St. Louis on the steamboat Pike the next day. Meagher made another trip to the Midwest in 1858. At 8 o’clock at night on February 19, he gave a speech at the Universalist Church in Terre Haute. His subject: “St. Patrick’s Day and National Anniversaries.” Admission to hear the famous Irish patriot was 25 cents. (The Universalist Church once sat at the corner of 4th & Ohio Streets near the old Vigo County Courthouse. ) Sadly, no transcript or any further mention of Meagher’s talk was published in Terre Haute papers.
Meagher became an American citizen and went on to become the editor of two anti-British newspapers in New York City: the weekly Irish News and (with fellow rebel John Mitchel, who supported the Confederacy) the Citizen. He went to Costa Rica just before the Civil War to explore the possibility of Irish immigration there. Though he had previously supported the South, in 1861 Meagher helped recruit the 69th New York Regiment, the core of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade, a fighting body made up mostly but not entirely of Irish volunteers. Under Brigadier General Meagher’s command, the Irish Brigade bore the brunt of fighting along Bloody Lane at Antietam and was almost entirely wiped out at Gettysburg. Today, a huge monument to Meagher and the Irish volunteers — most of whom were from New York but with many Hoosiers among them — stands next to the lookout tower on the Antietam Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland.
Meagher survived the war, went west as Territorial Governor of Montana, and drowned in the Missouri River near Fort Benton in 1867 when he fell off a steamboat.
One of the notable “Hoosier Irish” who served with distinction in the Civil War was Father William Corby (1833-1897), a Holy Cross priest from Notre Dame and an army chaplain attached to the Irish Brigade. Before the mostly Catholic Irish brigade went into battle on the second day of Gettysburg, Corby famously gave the unit absolution from their sins. Pictured here in 1862 with two other priests who served in the Union Army, Corby went on to become the president of the University of Notre Dame and wrote a bestselling memoir of his experiences in the war.
For all their occasional hostility to the Irish (who were frequently considered an “inferior race” in the nineteenth century), American papers often celebrated Irish wit and humor. In 1883, the Jasper Weekly Courier printed a tale about an elderly Irish woman who showed up at a railroad station just a few seconds too late. Trying to sprint down the platform to catch her train, “she of course came to a halt, when she began to abuse the unaccommodating engine, adding with a ‘nate’ brogue: ‘Faugh! The great black ugly lump! When she gets as old as me, she won’t run so quick!”
One more interesting story that made it into the papers is worth sharing. On St. Patrick’s “Eve”, 1892, sky watchers saw a strange event in several parts of the Midwest.
On March 18, the Indianapolis Journal reported the remarkable atmospheric occurrence. A white cross was hovering around the moon.
For two or three days, in parts of Illinois, the superstitious people have been brought almost to the verge of insanity by curious phenomenal displays that have found their way into the heavens without any apparent business there and without having, so it seems, been heralded by either the Weather Bureau or scientific gentlemen in general. The phenomena has assumed various forms and to the different classes of people who have been sightseers has spoken a various language.
During the past twenty-four hours the papers have contained dispatches from Bloomington and Springfield, Illinois, Fort Dodge, Iowa, and other cities, describing in hectic terms phantasmagoric spectacles seldom before seen except in “hyper-borean” regions. If these dispatches are to be believed, in some cases the empyreal display has been cut bias, in others diagonal, and at all times conveying a mundane idea that the sprites of the heavens, robed in regal costumes of variegated colors, were enjoying a ball masque on the “milky way.”
It remained for Luna, however, to confer her choicest favor upon Indianapolis and vicinity upon St. Patrick’s night. At 11:30 o’clock last night, when the moon was at her best, she appeared in the center of a perfectly formed and perfectly visible cross of milky whiteness. This wonderful display was visible for about thirty minutes, when it gradually merged into a sort of a hazy pale. Such a phenomenal display is attributed entirely to atmospheric conditions. Why the moon should appear in the center of a cross on St. Patrick’s day, however, is something that the atmosphere does not explain.
If the cross had been green, the “Sons of Erin” would have had extra cause to “jollify”:
Volunteers at a booth on Wabash Avenue in Terre Haute, Indiana, around 1922 support freeing Terre Haute native Eugene V. Debs from jail. Five-time Socialist candidate for the U.S. presidency, Debs was imprisoned by the Wilson administration during World War I for opposing the military draft. The sign reads “Ireland is Free — Why Not Debs? Help Bring Debs Home for Christmas.” (Martin Collection, Indiana Historical Society.)