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The faces of the Irish
Green blood runs deep in Springfield
By Kathleen O'Strander

Settle back and read a tale of the Irish. It may include a wee bit of blarney, but then what tale doesn't? If it seems like the list of Irish names in the Springfield phone book is quite long, it's because early census information indicates a high incidence of Irish heads of household here.

There is irony in the fact that in those days, some didn't want to be Irish and now, every March, everyone is Irish. Although some in the past may have dropped the "O'" and the "Mc" from their names, the Irish, along with the city's other ethnic groups, are proud of their roots. The heritage of this city and this land is tied to many lands and, indeed, it was land that started it all.

In the mid-1800s, land could be had for less than a dollar an acre. Land equaled wealth and status and in a vast array of cultures, the eldest son was deeded the family land. When the number of eldest born started exceeding the land available, immigrants began moving to America, the land of opportunity where there was still land.

That first immigrants were middle to upper class, and they settled in circles around areas where there was a population to be served - Springfield was one of those areas. The influx of German, Swedish and Irish immigrants, according to a master's thesis by Christopher Elliott Wallace, preserved in the Sangamon Valley Collection, began in the 1830s.

These early immigrants operated dry goods stores, inns and sawmills. They were doctors, pharmacists, lawyers and, yes, politicians. According to Wallace's review of census information, David Spear was the richest Irish immigrant. In 1835, he offered a sawmill, ferry and 225 acres of land around Springfield for sale. In 1837, he put up another 500 acres for sale.

But the greatest influx of immigrants from Ireland came in the mid-1840s after blight killed off the potato crop. The mother land that had sheltered and nurtured the hopes and dreams of generations of  Moodys, Kellys, Devlins, O'Briens, Murphys, O'Sheas and Gradys turned bitter and sullen. It cast the middle and younger sons and daughters of Erin to meet their fate far from her emerald green shores.

The wave of immigrants in the late 1840s and '50s came to America as laborers. John Patrick "Pat" Kelly's father came to work in the coal mines. "My mother came later with one child through New York, and she said it was the hardest thing she ever had to do.

"They made you buy your own pick and shovel to work in the mines," he said. "My mother had seven daughters, and then up jumped the devil and a boy was born," Kelly said. The family lived two blocks from where Abe Lincoln grew up, and Pat Kelly narrowly escaped being named Francis. "My quiet father put his foot down and said he didn't want a son named Frank or Francis," Kelly said.

The sons and the daughters of miners and construction workers lived the American dream and moved slowly into the white-collar ranks.

"The idea was," Kelly explained, "that the parent came over and worked in the mines. The next generation learned a trade (Kelly is a plumber by trade), and the next generation goes to college and goes into business (his daughter and son-in-law bought a bar and named it J.P. Kelly's after him.)"

Kelly and John "Jack" Fitzgerald O'Brien are of the "quiet" Irish generation.

"We were quiet about being Irish when we were younger," O'Brien said. "It wasn't until I was older and my parents retired that they started celebrating St. Patrick's Day."

"There were secrets then," Kelly said. "People were quiet and kept to themselves. I just learned a short time ago that I had a brother that died when he was a year and a half old. I found his grave and put a marker there. It just seemed natural for the Irish to stick together, to socialize and stay in the same neighborhood and go to the same churches."

"We were told (by our parents) that they came here for a better life," O'Brien said. "There was not a lot of talk about where they came from."

"My father worked hard, ate and drank. There wasn't a lot of time and energy for much else then," Kelly said.

The generations who came after the miners and construction workers toiled to make the area better and to take their place in history in the new country.

O'Brien is the brother of Norene Davlin, Mayor Tim Davlin's mother. Norene Davlin and Jack O'Brien's father was Ed "Red" O'Brien. Their great-grandfather, Larry O'Brien, was the engineer on the train that brought Abraham Lincoln's body back to Springfield. Larry O'Brien was also the engineer on the train that hauled construction materials into the State Capitol building. The train track ran down the center of First Street and into the basement of the Capitol.

Paul O'Shea and Tim Davlin are several generations removed from the old sod, but they go back to Ireland frequently. Davlin's brother, Kevin, was the impetus behind Springfield becoming a twin city to Killarney in Ireland.

Tim Davlin said the city of Killarney is sort of the base of operations for the Springfield contingents that go to Ireland every year. There may be 50 or 150 people on a trip. O'Shea honeymooned with 100 or so of his closest friends in Ireland.

"We just love it there," Tim Davlin said. "We've been back and forth so many times that the little kids who I met back there years ago have come here with their soccer teams, and they are big kids now."

Norene Davlin said some of the children they've met in Ireland have come to visit in America and stayed with the Davlins.

Kelly, O'Shea and O'Brien all said the same thing about Ireland. "You cannot even begin to imagine the shades of green there," O'Shea said. O'Brien's been back three times.

"The plane came in early in the morning one time, and the shades of green over the hills are just wonderful," O'Brien said.

Norene and Tim Davlin have been grand marshals of the St. Patrick's Day parade in Killarney, and this year Davlin is going back to Ireland to be the grand marshal there again.

It is tougher than people would think to find family history in Ireland, Kelly said and O'Shea agreed. "It's like our names are the same as 'Smith' there - you go back and say you are an O'Shea and they go 'oh' and just continue on."

Kelly said part of the problem can be attributed to the harsh realities of work in the mines. The mine was a harsh mistress. She gave up her coal but claimed many a miner in return. "Girls were widowed young and they remarried," Kelly said. "And another miner died, and they married again. Between the half brothers and the half sisters here, it's hard to trace the relations back in Ireland."

Springfield is renowned for its St. Patrick's Day festivities, and the parties that go on into the wee hours of the morn, actually started in the kitchen of Norene Davlin and Jack O'Brien's parents' house.

"Jim Moody would come over on St. Patrick's Day, and they would sit in the living room and drink Irish Eyes," said O'Brien. Norene Davlin corrects his recollection and says the celebrations actually were in the kitchen because that's where the blender was.

"You have to credit the O'Briens and the Moodys with really getting St. Patrick's Day going," said Jack O'Brien.

Irish Eyes are potent concoctions made of Irish whiskey and crème de menthe - to make it a little smoother, throw in some vanilla ice cream and whir in the blender.

The parties got bigger and gradually, cities started throwing in a parade, some green dye into the rivers, green streets if water isn't nearby, and then it went from great to be of Irish heritage to everyone is Irish on St. Patrick's Day.

"Other cities may celebrate St. Patrick's Day," Kelly said, "But in Springfield, it's a knock-down, drag-out celebration."

"Nowadays," Norene Davlin said, "its Kelly Green starting in the womb. It's good to be Irish. Everyone celebrates St. Patrick's Day, but our people celebrate harder."

O'Shea, who has every bauble, bangle and Irish-themed accoutrement available, said St. Patrick's Day lasts for a week. Tim Davlin goes a bit further and says St. Patrick's Day actually lasts for a month.

While Kelly and O'Brien don't remember celebrating St. Patrick's Day as children, Davlin and O'Shea do. The generation before them now is happy to celebrate, too. J.P. Kelly's opened on St. Patrick's Day.

"It was so crowded in here, you couldn't fall down and hit the floor," he said. And he adds, without a trace of kidding, "We didn't have room for the bagpipers. We had to get the bartenders out from back behind the bar so there was room for the bagpipers to come in. But we couldn't fit the Irish dancers in. We were going to let them dance on the bar, but we were afraid they would fall on the bagpipers."

For more than 50 years, the Sons of Erin has existed in Springfield to promote Irish heritage and recognize the contributions of the Irish to the community. The Peter Rossiter Chapter of the Sons of Erin was started with much help from Robert Davlin, Norene Davlin's husband, and Jim Moody. A couple of years ago, according to Tim Davlin, the organization became a little more politically correct, and it became the Sons and Daughters of Erin.

Norene Davlin was the Irish person of the year last year. This year, the Sons and Daughters of Erin will pick an Irishman and an Irishwoman of the year. A comedian will entertain again at this year's gathering. In past years, they had the actor Pat O'Brien in, and there have been other prominent emcees.

Tim Davlin looks forward to more trips to Ireland. Norene Davlin may go back another time or two and so might O'Shea. Kelly will make his third trip to Ireland in June with his children and grandchildren. "We'll try to look some more into our background," he said.

While there is history in Ireland, Kelly, the Davlins and the O'Sheas, as their parents and grandparents did, work for the future in Springfield. One dull, dry study on immigration notes: "While the Irish have never forgotten their heritage, of the many immigrants who came to the shores here, they were one of the few groups who immediately embraced the United States as their own."


St. Patrick's Day parade 2009

The 24th annual Springfield St. Patrick's Day Marching Band Parade kicks off at the crack O'noon Saturday, March 14, in downtown Springfield.

The streets will be painted green and filled with fire trucks, marching bands, floats, motorcycles and scooters, old cars and animals of all shapes and sizes. More than 1,500 people are expected to join the parade as participants and spectators in past years have numbered nearly 10,000.

The parade includes competing high school bands and four non-competing grammar school bands with more than 1,200 student musicians. In addition to bands, floats and other parade entries, free helium balloons will again be handed out to children along the parade route.

Check www.springfieldirish.org for more information.


Irishman of the Year Award

The Irishman of the Year Award was created by the Peter F. Rossister Chapter of the Sons and Daughters of Erin as a tribute to those of Irish heritage who made important contributions to their community. Winners are selected by the Sons and Daughters of Erin Board of Directors.

1973    Father James Casey

1974    Sr. Mary Patrick O'Brien

1975    Dr. James Graham

1976    Bishop Joseph A. McNicholas

1977    Judge William D. Conway

1978    Msgr. John J. McGrath

1979    Dr. Thomas McDermott

1980    Eddie Ryan

1981    James T. Londrigan

1982    John F. O'Brien

1983    Dr. Paul F. Mahon

1984    Bishop Daniel Leo Ryan

1985    Pinky McHenry

1986    Dan Cadigan

1987    Father Hugh P. Cassidy

1988    Robert E. Davlin

1989    James J. Moody

1990    Edward J. Mahoney

1991    Jack and Jerry Butler

1992    C. Joseph Cavanagh

1993    Thomas M. Conway

1994    Patrick Grady

1995    Fr. Charles Mulcrone    

1996    Patrick L. Davlin

1997    Dwight H. "Cap" O'Keefe

1998    Thomas Flattery

1999    George Ryan

2000    James Clancy

2001    Marvin Farmer

2002    Paul W. O'Shea

2003    Bill O'Rourke

2004    Kevin Davlin

2005    Jim Burke

2006    Don Cadigan

2007    Tom Londrigan Sr.

2008    Norene Davlin


Story published Friday, March 6, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 2 )

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