The Irish Experience of Living in
by Jennifer Di Lisi and Alice McCunn
"You're writing something about the Irish in Knox County? You mean all two of us?" Michael Curran, a native of Philadelphia who married into a Danville family eighteen years ago, says it best. Locating Irish Americans in Knox County is more difficult than it sounds. To put it simply, there are very few Irish in this area. In 1850 there were 331 people of Irish descent living in Knox County, which is a far greater number than people would estimate are living here today. As Martha Finan, a longtime Danville resident and Michael's wife, (both are of Irish ancestry), states: "Knox County is famous for not having very many Irish." Even as one flips through the parish directories of St. Luke's Catholic church in Danville and St. Vincent's Catholic church in Mount Vernon, it is surprising how few Irish surnames are listed. Yet, although the number of Irish Americans in Knox County may be small, their pride in their Irish heritage and homeland is very visible. It is illustrated through their involvement in Irish organizations outside the community and in the stories they tell about their ancestors.
In the past, what did it mean to grow up in Knox County as an Irish American? Religion, Catholicism in particular, provided a strong sense of identity for Irish Americans. Father Homer Blubaugh, a priest at St. Paul's church in Westerville, is Irish on the maternal side. He grew up in Danville in the 40s and 50s, where his mother, Ruth (Colopy) Blubaugh, still lives. He feels that: "For many Irish immigrants, the Catholic church was the center of community life. St. Luke's church has been established here since the 1820s. So to those people in the Danville area, the church was probably more important than anything else. For them, the church was where their children were baptized within a few days of birth and this was the only place they got married. I think their religion was probably more of a cohesive thing in the community than being Irish."
Though not all Irish are Catholics, which is a common belief, many Irish found identity through the Catholic church. Charlie Kilkenny, WMVO radio host and resident of Mount Vernon, attended St. Vincent's, the Catholic school operated by the church. There was a great deal of social gathering around the church in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. "They would hold bazaars occasionally, and St. Vincent's had quite a family get-together every year at the school," Charlie says. According to Martha Finan, "You were very much aware of being a minority, which really didn't matter because in my town, because being Catholic was as important as being Irish, and we had an unusually large parish for a small town. The Catholic identity helped. It helped us kids to know that many people shared our religion." The church also provided the opportunity to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, which celebrates the life of St. Patrick, an Irish missionary. This day is an opportunity to celebrate the Irish heritage and maintain a connection to traditions which may have been forgotten over the years. "We [the family] make a big deal about St. Patrick's Day," says Martha. "It occurs during Lent, and in the old days we kept Lent pretty seriously. Families welcomed a day off from fasting and abstinence." Lent lasts for forty days and is observed by Christians everywhere in preparation for Easter.
Martha expresses her perspective on being Irish: "I've always tried to explain to people who labeled me Irish Catholic that it has a very different meaning in the country than in the city. For one thing, we are diluted. Here, there is no such thing as Irish parish, an Irish ghetto, an ethnic section." Being Irish in small communities like the ones in Knox County is very different from being Irish in a large city. For urban Irish, there is a prominent community to identify with. In Knox County, however, it is common that many Irish have never met others of Irish descent outside of their own family.
In both the past and present, being Irish in Knox County is more a private realization rather than a public one. Living in small rural communities means a lack of others like you. "Being Irish was a secret growing up," says Martha Finan. "I realized as a young person that my family was different. Because you haven't had a Catholic school education, you haven't grown up in an ethnic ghetto, you don't know anybody else like you. You know you're different, a little bit different. It doesn't matter, but you are." Irish identity was acknowledged within the family and the church, but not by the larger community. "When it comes to being Irish, I resented then and I still resent jokes about the Irish paddy wagons and drunkenness, about St. Patrick's Day and green beer," said Martha. "I guess it goes with small towns, and other areas where there are not a lot of Irish who take their nationality seriously."
Farm life was of particular importance to Irish families. Ireland's great Potato Famine of the 1840s brought immigrants to this country in large numbers. Most were skilled farmers, or at least had farming skills of some sort. Father Homer speculates: "I think they dreamed of owning their own farm." Numerous Irish immigrated to the U.S. in search of fulfilling that dream. That, along with that already established Catholic Churches, attracted the Irish to small communities like those in Knox County. "The famine immigrants were poor, unskilled, unwanted in this country," says Martha, "The existence of a Catholic church in a small community emboldened them to settle among strangers." Irish immigrants found good land in central Ohio. Father Homer told the story of his great-great grandfather, who "walked 600 miles from Albany, New York to the middle of the Knox County/Coshocton County area. Can you imagine that?" It was from the Potato Famine in Ireland through the Civil War that Irish immigration peaked in the United States. For many Irish, the nature of the land reminded them of their native Ireland and was an added reason to settle here. A relative of Father Homer from Limerick County, Ireland, expresses this when he says: "The central area of Ohio was the most like Ireland that I've ever been in my life."
The lack of a larger community and the responsibilities of farming influenced how the Irish were educated. "We didn't go to Catholic school," said Martha Finan. "St. Vincent's was the Catholic school in Mount Vernon but it was too far from Danville. You had to be very committed to attend Catholic schools, especially in those days, because everyone had farms and kids, were required to stay on the farm a lot. So, we all went to public school and to Catechism on Saturday. When I attended a Catholic college I was shocked to hear other students call public schools Protestant schools. That is when I first realized that rural Irish Catholic is very different from urban Irish Catholic." While the education of Irish in small communities was not the same as in a large city, "it was not as bad as city people thought it was," says Martha, "the sisters and priests taught us religion through our senior year."
Although those who are of Irish descent have a strong sense of pride in their Irish heritage, it appears that family traditions and ethnic practices have become lost over time. According to Father Homer, "I just think somehow, with every succeeding decade, the Irish origins, I wouldn't say they were unimportant, but they didn't get celebrated. People just let those traditions slowly die out. I think the oldest generations back then were very keen about it. I don't think it was any plan to lose Irish heritage, but it just kind of happened more by default than by any active decision to do that. My family is real proud of our Irish background, but with the hectic schedules and raising families, it just kind of got lost." Generations are so far removed that their connection to their heritage is not strong, and it becomes their own decision whether to observe these traditions.
|The nine Finan children with parents James and Florence (Blubaugh) Finan. Taken summer 1978 at the celebration of James's 75th Birthday. Empty chair represents daughter Lucy, who died as a toddler.|
While most Irish still maintain their heritage, they admit that doing so in Knox County is difficult. Father Homer is unaware of any organizations existing for Irish in Knox County. A consequence of living in a small, rural town is that most Irish are not aware of events that take place elsewhere. Also, people living in rural areas are more geographically scattered and therefore do not unite to celebrate these events. Some, however, make it a point to travel to cities where there are many others celebrating Irish heritage. "They have a big St. Patrick's Day parade in Columbus, but most of the Knox County people were not aware of that. Bigger cities have formal organizations." says Father Homer. Charlie Kilkenny expresses the same sentiment. He is part of the Shamrock Club, a Columbus organization for people of Irish descent, that organizes events and trips. His enthusiasm for the St. Patrick's Day event in Columbus is evident: "Irish traditions are still alive, sure! It's always a big family event on St. Pat's Day. They have a big parade, and there's usually 1,500-2,000 people, with a number of Irish groups, food, and other things."
Traveling to Ireland to visit the land their ancestors came from is a desire of a number of Irish. For Martha, this experience connected her to other people who shared the Irish tradition. "I felt like this is where our people live, people like my father and his relatives. There is a different way of thinking, of acting. You are immediately a friend." For Charlie, visiting Ireland was a way to investigate a family connection. He traveled to Ireland several years ago, and visited a town called Kilkenny. "During our visit to Kilkenny Castle, I was able to find out something about my heritage. It was really interesting." He enjoyed the opportunity to see the town where his family may have originated, and looks forward to tracing his family back to their native town.
How are the many changes in Knox County affecting the Irish? Both Martha Finan and David Greer, a school teacher in Danville, regret that the family farm is slowly fading out with the influx of people from urban areas. Notes Martha: "As the family farms fall by the wayside, outsiders can afford land here that they couldn't afford close to Cleveland or Columbus, so we have a good many new names. In the parish directory, ten to twenty percent of the families listed were not here twenty years ago. In general it's an asset except that farms or other family run industries have mostly disappeared. It's a good place in terms of safety of quality of life, but there are not many jobs to support a family." David, who is a school teacher in Danville, is active in the effort to preserve farmland in Knox County. It is understandable that the Irish lost sight of their heritage because, "we were all farming, and that wasn't easy," explains David. Farming in this area was on a smaller scale, as it is today, and David says that: "Everyone was trying to make a living, it was a cooperative venture." The difficulties of farm life and the need to identify with other farming families facilitated the loss of Irish identity. Today, many people are moving into the area to retire and younger people are leaving to attend school and find jobs. Irish are both leaving the area and moving into it. Those that are moving in are not meeting others of Irish descent, and the connection to Irish identity is being lost. The changes in the area have been tremendous, says Charlie, and twenty years ago people would not have predicted the growth that Mount Vernon has experienced. This growth has brought in a large number of people, and Charlie says this is "only for the better. Knox County has always been a very good community to live in. It is a good place to grow up in, and a good family community."
In the past, when Irish left the community, they would stay connected to it. Ruth explains that up until World War II, many people were forced to move to places like Akron in order to find work. People who went to Akron to work in the rubber industry gathered to keep up on the news. "They had the Knox County Club. They would have a picnic. I had lots of family up there." Keeping connected with Knox County was very important to everyone, not just the Irish. "There was a lot of common news. These people would charter a train from Columbus once a year and they would have a festival out in the country. These people felt a strong affinity to dances, reunions, or church functions, this was their way of keeping connected," Father Homer explains.
For others, remaining connected to their Irish heritage means applying lessons which were learned from parents. Martha persistently refuses to accept something as fact without examining the source. She attributes this trait to her father, who taught her: "To question our sources, to not believe everything we heard in school. I was taught to examine the messenger before accepting the message." Having a sense of humor is important. Martha explains: "Laughing at oneself is an Irish trait."
One consequence of being in the area so long is that many Irish here have lost distinguishing ethnic characteristics. One can even say they have become blended, or assimilated into the larger community. "Irish traditions are lost over a period of time," says Father Homer, "I don't know if that is bad or good, I think it is just part of being Americanized." This sense by many of the Irish of being "Americanized" can be attributed to the amount of intermarriage that has taken place. The number of Irish was too small to allow marriage within the ethnic community. According to Father Homer's mother, Ruth, "people tried to stay within religions." Father Homer explains, "The main thing was not marrying too close. You always had family telling you, ‘You can't date him/her. They're too close.' One of my nephews wanted to date a cousin, and we said, ‘What do you want to date your cousin for?' And he didn't know she was a cousin." Even within a family this issue came up. The Irish, like many others, usually aren't aware of other people who share their heritage. Most intermarriages have occurred between people of Irish and German descent, or of Irish and English descent.
In most instances, unless a person told you they were Irish, their ethnicity would remain unknown. Because of this and the high rate of intermarriage, it was easy for the Irish to blend in. The Irish presence in daily life was evident through farm life and involvement in the Catholic Church, not necessarily through the observation of Irish traditions. Keeping Irish traditions alive in a rural area is challenging, but the pride in the Irish heritage persists. Charlie said: "Well, not that many families are left, but I love the Irish heritage. We enjoy it a lot."
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