The spring and church in Donegal, PA, photographed in about 1727.

In the great state of Pennsylvania there is a town and three other townships all called Donegal. While there seems little obvious evidence as to how the areas got the name, Damian Shiels' amazingly detailed study below shows the great influence the Irish immigrants from Donegal had on the area.

The thousands of American Civil War pension files relating to Irishmen represent one of the greatest available resources for uncovering the social history of the 19th century emigrant experience. It is a resource that is almost completely unrecognized in Ireland, a scholarly neglect that is symptomatic of the lack of awareness of the scale of Irish involvement in the American Civil War. I have come across few files that are more illustrative of this than the papers relating to Private Charles O’Donnell of the United States Marine Corps. His death during the American Civil War created a documentary record that allows us to explore not only his life, but also the connections between Donegal families from the parish of Donaghmore and Philadelphia’s textile industry.

It is clear that Irish emigrants to 19th century America often joined clusters of families from their own Irish region or locality when they arrived in the United States. This is a theme that is described time and again in Civil War pension files, which are almost unique in how often they detail a family’s life on both sides of the Atlantic – before and after emigration.

Where one family or group had blazed a trail in a particular American region, word filtered back to Ireland, and more people followed in their footsteps. This is a theme that continues in modern emigration patterns – Ireland’s best known example is the immigrant population from Anápolis, Brazil who now live in the town of Gort, Co. Galway, a relocation connected with the meat-packing industry.

Charles O’Donnell’s service in the United States Marine Corps allows us to explore similar familial webs of interconnectivity among Irish emigrants to 19th century Philadelphia, based on the statements and evidence provided in support of the pension application.

Charles O’Donnell was born in the rural townland of Tievebrack, Donaghmore, Co. Donegal around 1844. He was described as 5 feet 7 1/2 inches in height, with dark eyes, dark hair and a dark complexion. His pension file allows us to determine the sequence of events which led to the 19-year-old’s enlistment in the United States Marine Corps in 1862. They were events that were set in train long before his birth; indeed they had started over five decades earlier. Charles O’Donnell would likely not have been in Philadelphia were it not for the emigration of another Donegal native in 1806 – when a different young man arrived in America. That man’s name was Dennis Kelly, who had been born in Donaghmore parish, Co. Donegal in 1779.

Dennis Kelly lost his father in Donegal at a young age, leading him to seek employment in the linen trade, a major industry in his part of Ireland. Despite humble beginnings, he appears to have been a natural businessman.

By the time he reached his late 20s Kelly had saved enough money to take his wife and child to a new life in America. Arriving in Philadelphia on June 18, 1806 he soon had his family loaded on a Conestoga wagon and heading west towards the frontier.

They were only a few miles into their journey when Dennis made what would prove a momentous decision. One of their traveling companions seems to have been somewhat foul-mouthed – indeed his profanity was so extreme that it outraged the Irishman, who promptly hauled his family off the wagon and returned to Philadelphia in disgust.

Having decided to abandon the idea of settling on the frontier, he instead got work on a nearby milldam. By 1808 he was back in the linen industry, making his own ‘bagging’ cloth. He soon began to accumulate substantial wealth, buying up mills and entering into horse and cattle breeding.

The community that grew up around one of his businesses – Clinton Mills on Darby Creek – would become known as Kellyville. By the 1860s, Dennis was a major contractor for the Union war effort, owned 800 acres in Philadelphia, Montgomery and Delaware counties, and operated no less than six mills. His success would have a lasting impact on his home parish in Donegal.

Dennis Kelly employed a large number of Irish emigrants in his linen and other industries, and was also keen to look after other family members from Co. Donegal. Most notable among these was his nephew Charles Kelly, born in Ardnagannagh townland, Donaghmore in 1808.

Charles emigrated to Philadelphia and joined his uncle in 1821 and further cemented his relationship by marrying Dennis’s daughter. Charles became Dennis’s protégé and soon proved an adept businessman in his own right. By the American Civil War he was also a major textile manufacturer and supplier to the Union army, success which in turn created more opportunities for Donegal emigrants.

What then does the story of Dennis and Charles Kelly have to do with Charles O’Donnell in 1862? The answer is that the O’Donnell family were only in Pennsylvania because of the Kellys – as were many other Irish from Donaghmore in Co. Donegal. In fact, the O’Donnells were related to the textile magnates, as were a number of other families who left the parish for Pennsylvania, families such as the Sharkeys. The 1826 Tithe Applotment Book for Donaghmore parish records the names of families such as the Kellys, O’Donnells and Sharkeys living side by side in Ireland. The pension file relating to Charles O’Donnell adds detail to this picture, revealing the close associations which continued even after emigration.

Before exploring these connections it is first necessary to outline the fate of Private Charles O’Donnell, the young man whose service caused these detailed ties of emigration to be recorded. Charles enlisted in the United States Marines Corps in Philadelphia on July 22, 1862. He had been a Marine for only a few weeks when he wrote the following letter to his mother:

agust the 7 1862
my dear mother i receved your leter on the [illegible] and was very glad to hear that you are al well as i am at preasen and i hop this will find you the same _ you want to now if i want of i dont want of i light [like] this plase wil i expect to get to philadelphia before i gow on sea_ i listed on the 22 of July and come to washington on the 23 of July i get plenty to eat i am listed for 4 years_ every one hase a bed to himself i get to Chursh on every Sonday i dident se[illegible] at Church yet_ give my love to my father and brothers and sisters_ in the next leter you send let me now wich stret that Kate lives in and i will gow to se her_ i dont want anything the cantean opens twicst [twice] a day and i kin get any thing i want_ i reseved a doler [dollar] in your letter you ned not send any thing more_no more at preasand from your effectiond son Charles O Donnell
right son and dond forget.

Charles was stationed in the Marine Barracks in Washington D.C. while waiting to see where he would be posted. Two weeks after he wrote this letter, on the 23rd of August, he began to suffer with a pain in his head. For several days he ‘complained of little else,’ before his symptoms suddenly worsened and it became clear he had Typhoid Fever. He was moved to the Marine Hospital while his mother rushed to get to his bed side from Philadelphia. She arrived in time to spend the last 36 hours of his life with him – Charles passed away on September 9, 1862.

Charles’s parents were John and Jane O’Donnell. The family had emigrated from Tievebrack, Donaghmore to Philadelphia in the late 1840s. It was a decision that may well have been driven by the Famine, but their destination was based firmly upon family ties – Jane’s maiden name was Kelly; her father Edward, who appears on the 1826 Tithes records, was Dennis Kelly’s brother. Both John and Jane had a number of relatives from Tievebrack waiting for them in Philadelphia, and they were soon fully incorporated into the expatriate Donegal community. The 1860 Census found the family in Precinct 3 of Philadelphia’s 24th Ward, where their reliance on the Kelly textile empire was apparent.

In the census John and Jane O’Donnell and their family were living with a ‘D. O’Donnell’ – this is almost certainly Dominick O’Donnell, probably another relative. Dominick and Edward O’Donnell were leasing a Cotton and Woollen Mill in the 24th Ward, the mill in which all the O’Donnell family worked – including the later U.S. Marine Charles, who in 1860 was a 16-year-old Wool Carder.

The only member of the family not employed by the mill was the patriarch John, who was recorded as a laborer. However, in reality by 1860 John was unable to work. He had been struck by a violent sickness the previous year, which affected him in both mind and body. It so devastated him that he was admitted to the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane on May 6, 1859. Although he was released from that institution on the August 10, he was never able to undertake physical labor again. It was this disability that ultimately led him to seek support based upon his son’s military service.

By the 1870s John O’Donnell, now living at 2026 Christian Street, was struggling to make ends meet. His wife Jane had died on April 27, 1874 and he had to turn to his son’s United States Marine Corps record in search of a pension. Extended family members living in Philadelphia – all of whom were also from Donaghmore parish – rallied around John to help him secure a pension. Along the way they revealed the extent of the ties between rural Donegal and some of Pennsylvania’s major textile production industries.

One of them was John O’Donnell’s 1st cousin, Mary O’Donnell. Her father Neil had been John’s uncle. On June 16, 1879 Mary gave a statement in which she recorded that she was then 70 years of age and had immigrated to Philadelphia about thirty years before.

She related how ‘the said John O’Donnell and the said Jane Kelly and myself were reared in the same townland Teevebrack [Tievebrack],I knew them well, I remember when the said John and the said Jane were married, they were living in the said townland at the time, their marriage was known to all their friends and neigbors. I know they lived and cohabited there as man and wife and several children were born to them.

John’s daughters Maggie and Catharine also gave statements. Catharine told how she only had partial use of her limbs as a result of an accident in her youth, which impacted her ability to help support her father. They also described how John had not been able to earn above $15 per year since his 1859 illness.

Another Donaghmore family in Philadelphia who sought to help John O’Donnell were the Sharkeys. One of that family – ‘R. Sharkey’ – noted that he was also from the same townland of Tievebrack in Co. Donegal. He related the O’Donnell family’s close ties to the Kelly textile trade, and for good measure also highlighted the Kelly’s political connections, particularly with Philadelphia Congressmen.

He described how the Sharkeys were also related to both the Kellys and the O’Donnells; Dennis Kelly’s mother and Sharkey’s grandmother had been sisters. More than that, he also laid out the sacrifices the Donegal Sharkeys had laid at the feet of Union – one brother had died in the 1870s as a result of a disease contracted in the Union army; a second had fought as a draft substitute, while a third had been serving on the USS Hatteras when she was sunk by the CSS Alabama off Texas in 1863 – captured, he was afterwards deposited in Kingston, Jamaica.

The efforts of Philadelphia’s Donegal emigrants from Donaghmore helped to secure John O’Donnell a U.S. pension based on his unfortunate son Charles’s brief war service. He was awarded a payment of $8 per month backdated to the date of death of his wife on April 27, 1874.

The level of documentation he had to provide in order to receive that pension opens a window into the stream of emigration from Tievebrack, Co. Donegal to Philadelphia, emigration which was largely due to the achievements of one man – Dennis Kelly. Kelly’s success story opened the door for generations of his 19th century relatives and friends to gain work upon their arrival in America, and it also ultimately led to the service of a number of these Donegal men in the Union military during the American Civil War.

The Charles O’Donnell pension file is but one example of tens of thousands that exist relating to Irish service in Northern armies which are held in the National Archives of Washington D.C.. There is surely no comparable body of documentation which offers such detailed social perspectives on the 19th century emigrant experience, often encompassing decades of a family’s experiences both in Ireland and America.

Ireland’s failure to recognize the American Civil War as one of our largest conflicts has meant that this resource has lain largely unrecognized by Irish scholars. Hopefully this is something that Irish students of the 19th century will rectify in the future, along the way revealing more of these quite extraordinary emigrant stories.

* Damian Shiels is an archaeologist and historian who runs the website, where this article first appeared. His book 'The Irish in the American Civil War' was published by The History Press in 2013 and is available here.

*Originally published in 2015