Each year, folks celebrate the coming of spring with a festive, beer-drinking, green-wearing day in which “everyone is Irish.”
This weekend, though, the actual Irish of Omaha — some of whose ancestors helped build the city from its start — commemorate a more somber event. It’s the centennial of the 1916 “Easter Rising” insurrection that was crushed at first but eventually led to the Republic of Ireland’s independence from British rule.
Rather than another St. Patrick’s Day, said Douglas County Commissioner James Cavanaugh, it will be more like an Irish “Fourth of July.”
“No fireworks,” he said, “but lots of music, poetry and drama, and a great movie.”
Ceremony, too. After a noon Mass on Saturday at St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church, 19th and Dodge Streets, celebrated by Monsignor James Gilg, attendees will walk three blocks to the Douglas County Courthouse Plaza.
Among the speakers will be Larry Bradley, president of the local Father Flanagan Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Last month he attended the centennial celebration in Dublin.
“That was historic, magical and exciting,” said Bradley, an adjunct professor of geography and geology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “It sent chills down my spine.”
Ireland decided to mark the centennial on Easter because the “rising” happened on that holiday. But the actual date was April 24, 1916, and in many U.S. cities, people of Irish ancestry will celebrate this weekend.
In the American melting pot, Bradley is like a lot of us — a mixture. He carries an Irish surname, but his ancestry is half-Mexican.
Cavanaugh, of full-blooded Irish ancestry, said the Irish diaspora in America had a huge impact on the Republic of Ireland’s independence, which was won in 1922.
“The war of independence,” he said, “was largely aided, abetted, supported and financed by the Irish in America.”
The founding of Omaha on July 4, 1854, after the Kansas-Nebraska Act opened the west to development, came on the heels of the Irish famine, when many starved and others left the island.
The infamous New York signs “Irish need not apply” didn’t occur in Omaha, which needed workers. Many of the Union Pacific laborers who built the railroad westward from Omaha were Irish.
Because there was little housing, said Cavanaugh, a presenter on Irish history for the Nebraska Humanities Council, some dug holes in the hillside downtown. The area became known as “Irish Hill” or “Mole Hill.”
Before that, the ferry that had brought people across the Missouri to Omaha City was owned by a man named — Ferry. His daughter, Margaret, became the first baby of European ancestry born in Omaha. (She is buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.)
Omaha developed through the efforts of many ethnicities and nationalities. As the 2000 book “E Pluribus Omaha” says, new arrivals enriched the city as a whole.
Says the book by Harry Otis and Donald Erickson: “The newcomer, usually with nothing other than his language, religion, physical brawn and a desire to be free somehow adds a new tint to the social fabric — an indefinable hue that enhances, however slightly, the portrait of the city.”
For immigrants from the Emerald Isle, the hue was green — and that included the ability to make money and prosper.
Some of Irish ancestry who did so had been born in America, such as the Creighton brothers, who came to Omaha from Ohio. Active in lumber, banking, railroading and the stringing of telegraph lines, they left a legacy that includes a posthumous donation that started Creighton University.
Another early Omahan was Irish immigrant James Boyd, who built the Boyd Opera House and a packinghouse and served as mayor of Omaha in the 1880s. He was elected governor in controversy and didn’t take office until a dispute was resolved in 1891 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Boyd’s predecessor as governor refused to turn over the office on the grounds that Boyd was not legally qualified because he was not a U.S. citizen. The Nebraska Supreme Court agreed, but the nation’s highest court overturned the ruling — front-page news in the New York Times.
The Irish of the early 20th century in Omaha included Father Edward Flanagan, who founded Boys Town, and “Boss” Tom Dennison, a racketeer who controlled the city’s prostitution, gambling and bootlegging.
Later years have included Mayors Leahy, Fahey and Boyle and other local elected officials, judges and civic leaders with such names as Green, Howell, Lynch, Fogarty, Mulligan, Murphy, Mahoney, Moylan and Cavanaugh.
President Harry Truman named Francis P. Matthews of Omaha as secretary of the Navy and then U.S. ambassador to Ireland. After his death, his groundskeeper, John Mulhall, immigrated to Omaha and founded what became the iconic landscaping and gardening company Mulhall’s.
After the ceremony in the plaza Saturday between the courthouse and the City-County Building, the public is invited to Castle Barrett at 43rd and Leavenworth Street with “traditional Irish music” by the group Dicey Riley until 5 p.m.
At 11:30 a.m. Sunday at the Joslyn Art Museum, a centennial program will be presented by the Irish American Cultural Institute, the Omaha Irish Cultural Center, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Nebraska Humanities Council and the Brigit St. Brigit Theater.
The program will include the theater’s one-act presentation of “Rising” and a reading of the proclamation of independence at four minutes past noon, matching the time it occurred in Dublin a century earlier.
At 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Ruth Sokolof Theater at Film Streams, 14th and Mike Fahey Streets, Jill Anderson will sing Irish ballads, followed by a 6:30 p.m. screening of a film about the fight for Irish independence, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.”
That will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Lisabeth Buchelt, associate professor of medieval British and Irish literature and culture at the University of Nebraska at Omaha; Barry Murphy, professor emeritus at Creighton University; and Cavanaugh.
On an island smaller than Nebraska, Ireland today includes the 26 counties of the Republic (4.6 million people) and the six counties of Northern Ireland (1.8 million), part of the United Kingdom.
Despite its natural beauty, music, literature and other culture, much of Ireland’s history has been unhappy. But the 1998 “Good Friday Agreement” for peace has mostly held after decades of violence in Northern Ireland, a time known as “The Troubles.”
Five years ago, Queen Elizabeth was welcomed to the Republic of Ireland, where she spoke about improved relations. It was the first time a British monarch had visited in 100 years.
This weekend, Omahans and other Americans of Irish descent will observe another centennial.
Said the Hibernians’ Bradley: “It’s a time of solemnity, commemoration and celebration.”
Michael Kelly is a columnist at the Omaha World-Herald.
He told IrishCentral “My great-grandfather, Franics George Kelly, left Ireland during the famine and arrived in the U.S. about 1849, settling in the hills of northern Kentucky.
“I grew up in nearby Cincinnati, and have spent four-plus decades as a reporter, editor and columnist for the Omaha World-Herald. Barb and I have four children and nine grandchildren.”
You can contact Kelly at [email protected]