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The Fascinating Characters of Irish Chicago

Daniel Hautzinger
A photograph of St. Patrick's Church in the 1860s by J. Carbutt.
A photograph of St. Patrick's Church in the 1860s by J. Carbutt.

Chicago takes St. Patrick’s Day seriously. The green river, green beer, three official parades, neon outfits and beards everywhere: Chicago is definitely an Irish town. Here are some of our favorite tidbits about Irish Chicago, from the police chief who helped preserve Irish music to the octogenarians who continue to play those tunes.

Francis O’Neill – An Irish immigrant who served as Chicago’s chief of police from 1901 to 1905, O’Neill was also a musician who helped save traditional Irish music. His O’Neill’s Music of Ireland from 1903 is a compilation of 1,850 tunes and is still a standard reference work in both Ireland and America today. He collected many of the pieces from fellow musicians on the police force, and after he retired from the force, he published three more books of music and two books about Irish music and musicians. His name (and Irish music) lives on in the beloved Northside pub Chief O’Neill’s, on Elston Avenue.

Irish Music Elders – Two people carrying on the tradition of Irish music in Chicago established by Chief O’Neill are Malachy Towey and Kevin Henry. Jay Shefsky profiled them in 2016.

Thomas A. O’Shaughnessy – Old St. Patrick’s Church, an iconic emblem of Irish Chicago, was built in 1856. Much of its beauty comes from the stained glass windows and interlace stencils of O’Shaughnessy, who was inspired by a ninth century illuminated manuscript called the Book of Kells. The windows and stencils were installed between 1912 and 1922 and restored in 1996. They are “the best-known example of Celtic Revival Art in America,” according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago.

A postcard of St. Patrick's Church in Chicago from circa 1916.St. Patrick's Church, c. 1916.

Irish Sisters – Irish women in religious orders were a crucial part of the city, teaching in Catholic schools, working in hospitals, and helping other Irish women. Agatha O’Brien and the Sisters of Mercy taught, ran an employment agency for Irish women as well as Chicago’s first orphanage, and took over the city’s first hospital two years after it was established.

Politicians – Chicago has had twelve Irish mayors, who have governed for more than 80 years in aggregate. Many of those years were under the two Daleys: Richard J. served for twenty-one years, while his son Richard M. served for twenty-two. But the Democratic machine also produced some other Irish politicians (with memorable names) who were not mayors: “Honest John” Comiskey, “Hinky Dink” Kenna, “Bathhouse John” Coughlin, “Foxy Ed” Cullerton. The Encyclopedia of Chicago attributes the success of Irish politicians compared to other immigrant groups to their knowledge of English and experience with the British system of government.