Most folks look to the East Coast, Boston, New York, Washington D.C., when they think of the Irish in America and their contributions historically. However, it was the Irish who were among the first Settlers in what was then Spanish-ruled Texas.
Hugo O’Conor, Roscommon born & Dublin raised, was the Governor of Texas in 1767. Under his watch, San Antonio was built up and fortified to withstand the attacks launched by the Apache.
James Hewetson, of Thomastown, Co KIlkenny, and James Power, of Ballygarrett, Co Wexford, along with John McMullen and James McGloin, of Castlegal, Co Sligo, were the first Irishmen to receive empresario contracts from Mexico. They traveled to New York to recruit countrymen and their families as they landed in America. They settled the areas now comprising Refugio and San Patricio counties. James Powers went one step further, returning to his own village to recruit families.
James Power used his influence to seat Sam Houston at the Convention of 1836. Eleven Irishmen died at the battle of the Alamo and fourteen were among those with James W. Fannin, Jr., at the Goliad Massacre. Appropriately, Refugio and San Patricio counties were among the first established in Texas after the revolution; the date was March 17, 1836, Saint Patrick's Day.
On the Goliad Declaration of Independence, you will find the signatures of twenty-seven Irishmen:
Morgan Bryan, John Dunn, James Elder, E.B. W. Fitzgerald,
Spirce Dooley, Peter Hines, Timothy Hart, Thomas Hansom,
J.B. Kirkpatrick, Michael Kelly, Walter Lambert, Charles Malone,
Edward McDonald, Hugh McMinn, Thomas O’Connor, C.J O’Conner,
Patrick O’Leary, James O’Connor, John Pollan, Michael O’Donnell,
William Quinn, Edward Quirk, John Shelley, James W. Welsh,
Edward St.John, James St.John, and Dr. Alexander Lynch
On the Texas Declaration of Independence, you will find that four of the signatures were Irish:
Edward Conrad, James Power, David Thomas, and John Turner
After the Civil war, many Irish men came to Texas to work on the building of the Southern Pacific rail line, which was the second transcontinental rail link. They also came to establish themselves as storekeepers, farmers, ranchers and cowhands.
In the canyons and grasslands of Palo Duro, southeast of Amarillo, Texas, you will find the JA Ranch. The JA was established by John George Adair, of Queens County (today, Co Laois), and Charles Goodnight. It is still in operation today. It is the oldest privately owned cattle ranch in the Palo Duro area of the Texas Panhandle and is on the National Historic Register.
Left: Belgrove House, ©2006 Sperwest Photography ~ Chris Sperling
I was one of two photographers selected to photographs his residence, Belgrove House, outside of Ballybrittas, Co Laois, for an exhibit at the Panhandle Plains museum in 2006. In the area where the ruin of his home still stands, he is spoken of in hushed tones and you almost expect him to walk through the door. He was a tyrant and it is said that a great Party was held by all his tenants when he left for America. In 1885, upon his death, in ST Louis, Missouri, his body was brought back to Ireland and interred in Lea Church, Killenard, Co Laois, near Belgrove house. The locals will tell you that the night before he was buried a dead dog was thrown into his open grave by disgruntled locals. In Glenveagh, his wife had the face of a large rock inscribed with his name and the inscription "Brave, Just and Generous". However, lightning in a thunderstorm broke the rock into many pieces which fell into a nearby lake. Two years after his death, Adair's Belgrove House, also a very large, country mansion was reduced to ruins in a fire, and remains in that state, called locally the burnt house.
The Irish contribution in Texas wasn’t just as laborers and soldiers. Harry McArdle, Belfast born, was an artist who painted the murals that depicted the battles at San Jacinto and the Alamo, which still hang in the Capitol building. He also painted Portraits of Jefferson Davis and Sam Houston.
As they did everywhere that they settled, the Irish also brought with them their music. The songs that we associate with Texas, the most well-known being “The Streets of Laredo” were adaptations of Irish & Scottish songs. “Down in the Valley” was an adaptation of “Connemara Cradle”. The Scottish whaling ballad, 'Fareweel tae Tarwathie’, became The Railroad Corral. In many songs, the only thing remaining of the original songs is the melody.
The North Texas Irish Festival is now in its 32nd year. The Austin Celtic Festival, in its 17th year, is a who’s who of Celtic musicians.In the spirit of those adaptations, one of my performance partners and I adapted “Jamie Raeburn” a Scottish Ballad about a Baker who was transported to the Colonies in Australia for petty theft. We went with the premise that his ship was blown off course and arrived in Texas instead and “Texas Jamie” was born.
There were 1,403 Irish listed in the offical 1850 census of Texas; ten years later the number was 3,480.
Irish-born Texans of note in the nineteenth century included:
William Kennedy - author of "The Rise, Progress and Prospects of Texas" (1841) encouraging immigration to the new republic
Richard W. Dowling - leader of the company of all-Irish Confederates who repulsed the Union fleet at Sabine Pass
Peter Gallagher - Texas Ranger and later an organizer of Pecos County
Samuel McKinney - President of Austin College
John William Mallet - first cChairman of the University of Texas faculty.
Today, you will find a strong Irish influence across the width and breadth of Texas. There are numerous organizations which serve to preserve and protect the unique Irish heritage of Texas. They are as diverse in nature as the Irish who make up their membership. There is a Texas Irish Cycling team, now in its Eighth year. The Harp & Shamrock Society has been in existence since 1966. The Celtic Cultural Center of Texas, created in 2002, is still focused on bringing to fruition a brick & mortar facility in Austin. In the meantime, they are event centered, responsible for the Annual ST. Patrick’s festival, the Celtic Christmas at St Mary’s Cathedral, amongst a host of other great events throughout Austin.
I have always said, with the many Irish and Celtic folk that populate Texas, it could just as easily have been the “Lone Shamrock” state.
Dia Beannaigh Texas!