The life story of Archbishop John J. Hughes is every bit as impressive as the most enduring legacy he left us with, America’s most iconic cathedral, St. Patrick’s on Fifth Avenue.

Born near Aughnacloy in Co. Tyrone in 1797, Hughes was what most Catholic children of the era had by then become — impoverished, discriminated against through the penal laws and generally stamped for export.

Life was rough for Ulster Catholics. At the age of 15 Hughes was chased by Orangemen out to attack him. At home there was no money to educate him properly and his studies were cut short. Eventually his family took what little control they could of their futures by emigrating to America in 1816.

It’s important to know how troubled Hughes’ early life was by religious and political sectarianism to make sense of what he did with his later life.  Intellectually gifted, Hughes was nonetheless passed over early on because he lacked the social status and the cash.

Men in Hughes’ particular predicament can often meet harsh fates, but he got lucky. Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton was impressed enough by him to personally recommend that he be enrolled in Mount St. Mary’s College in Maryland in 1820.

Six years later Hughes was ordained to the priesthood, and his life achieved a new and unexpected trajectory that would see him rise to become one of the most important Irish figures of the 19th century.

The timing was almost miraculous. In time Hughes would keep faith with the Great Hunger Irish immigrants flooding into New York from their famine-ravaged homeland in the 1840s, just at the midway point of his own life in the church, and his work to help them and to build a lasting legacy based on their numbers would make an immediate and indelible impact on their adopted country.  

Within a generation St. Patrick’s Cathedral rose above Fifth Avenue as a living monument to the new Irish ascendance in America. The cathedral quickly became a New York City landmark, but politically it was also a mission statement and a particularly impressive calling card.

Turlough McConnell is curator, producer and creative director of the new exhibition on Hughes, and his legacy and original research brought together the primary sources that illustrate the new exhibition.
The exhibition has been organized to raise awareness of the restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral as a New York City landmark, since it long ago become a symbol of Irish American history and Catholicism in America.

To begin the project McConnell first approached Florida-based Brian P. Burns, grandson of an Irish immigrant, a business executive and philanthropist whose collection of Irish art is now the largest of its kind owned by a private collector.

“Brian told Cardinal Dolan, who is overseeing the restoration of the cathedral, that he was welcome to use any of his paintings in the new exhibit to help bring attention to the wider restoration campaign,” McConnell told the Irish Voice.

“They don’t have space for that in the cathedral so I thought we could try to convince the consulate to let us stage it here. I have every expectation that this show will later transfer to a museum because Hughes is simply that important.”

McConnell, a native of Co. Donegal, thought that if he could combine the story the paintings tell (which is the story of the Ireland the immigrants came from) with Hughes' own personal history he’d be on to something major.

That led Éimear O’Connor, art historian and sister to rock singer Sinead, and McConnell to travel down to Palm Beach to meet with Burns. “Éimear said we’d just need about 10 paintings from Burns’ collection of hundreds to communicate the story,” McConnell recalled.

They have certainly succeeded. The first painting they picked, which starts the current exhibition, is titled "State Ball, Dublin Castle." It depicts a lavish ball attended by the Protestant ascendency class.

As people were starving to death across Ireland the Anglo Irish and the nation’s British administrators were wining and dining in high style and wearing the latest fashions inside Dublin Castle. The potent image reminds us exactly what Hughes had to contend with in his own life and in the life of the wider nation.

Remarkably, within a generation of the Great Hunger, St. Patrick’s Cathedral rose. “Hughes considered the cathedral a necessary sanctuary for his people, the Irish people. The exhibition tells the story of his life and the story of his achievements in the 150th anniversary of his death,” says McConnell.

Historians Terry Golway, Christine Kinealy, Peter Quinn and Maureen Murphy advised McConnell on every aspect of the new exhibition, and their expertise illuminates every corner of it. “They all helped with my original idea and guided the entire project,” offers McConnell.

What do the Irish know how to do? They know how to endure and rebuild. From the Great Hunger-era majesty of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City to the post 9/11 One World Trade Center building now rising downtown, no matter how hard they’re hit it seems they come back again stronger than before.

The Hughes exhibition seamlessly and brilliantly weaves together the linked stands of Hughes' own personal experience as a dispossessed and impoverished Catholic whose life and potential were stymied by sectarian prejudice, with the larger experience of the Irish themselves who became a quarter of the city’s population after three disastrous years of the Great Hunger.

“Hughes was inspired by Daniel O’Connell and stood against the nativists here in New York to ensure Catholics were properly educated. He would not tolerate discrimination in the new world, having had enough of it himself in the old one,” McConnell said.

Hughes’ childhood home (indeed all of his former homes) still stand. The original Irish cottage has been preserved and moved to the Ulster American Folk Park in Northern Ireland, where it’s possible to trace his humble beginnings all the way to the cathedral on Fifth Avenue.

It’s a New York story. It’s a classic Irish American story. Every painting in the exhibition speaks to an experience that Hughes either had or witnessed.

“It’s a display of Irish culture through the paintings and Irish history through Archbishop Hughes. Because it’s based at the consulate it’s being presented first to the Irish people for free, by appointment,” says McConnell.

The exhibition was formally opened by Timothy Cardinal Dolan, archbishop of New York (who wore Hughes’ cross at the ceremony) and Consul General Noel Kilkenny during a reception at the Irish Consulate last week. The exhibit runs through July 31.

Having struggled for most of his early life, Hughes maintained a lifelong interest in the wider struggle of his own people, and the exhibition tells one of the most important and consequential chapters in Irish American history.

Hughes’ remains were eventually transferred to their final resting place under the sanctuary in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He did not live to see it completed, but he had lived to make it happen. The new exhibition tells us how.