Irish immigrants had a strong influence in Columbus, Ohio

With St. Patrick’s Day arriving every March 17, large numbers of people, young and old, dress in green and note their allegiance – real or imagined – to the Emerald Isle of Ireland.

As is customary, a mayoral proclamation is complemented by the painting of large green shamrocks on street corners. Church services follow with a parade and the day ends with family gatherings of varying sizes and complexities. In short, it is a great celebration of the heritage of a proud people.

America is a place where people of diverse races, ethnicities, and cultures live. This helps explain our success as a nation. Many of us come with a background of European predecessors who spent many years disliking each other. Fortunately, some of them left Europe, came to America and made this place their own.

The Irish role in the history of Christopher Columbus is long and deserves to be remembered.

Following the American Revolution, the land north and west of the Ohio River passed into the hands of the newly formed United States. Before long, most of what is now Ohio was divided into land grants.

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One of them, the Military District of Virginia, consisted of land between the Miami and Scioto rivers. One of its surveyors, Lucas Sullivant, was the heir of recent Irish immigrants to colonial America.

In 1797 Sullivant established Franklinton at the fork of the Scioto River and Whetstone Creek (later called the Olentangy River). It was the first permanent settlement in central Ohio and quickly became a thriving commercial center in the region. Franklinton became a mobilization center for the armies of William Henry Harrison during the War of 1812. Sullivant also made a bid for Franklinton to become the site of a new capital.

Unsuccessful, Sullivant then lent his aid to the efforts of his brother-in-law, Lyne Starling, and three other “proprietors” to establish a capital across the Scioto on what was then called Wolf’s Ridge. This plan succeeded. One of the four owners, John Kerr, was an Irish immigrant and later became the second mayor of Columbus.

Over the next few years, several other Irish immigrants – or their immediate heirs – arrived in Columbus. Among the most notable was lawmaker Alfred Kelley. Later recognized as the father of the Ohio banking system, Kelley oversaw the construction of the Ohio canal system from his Greek Revival mansion on East Broad Street.

Many of the first Irish immigrants to Columbus were Scots-Irish Protestants from Northern Ireland. Between 1830 and 1860, and especially following a potato famine in the 1840s, several Irish Catholic families came to America as men found work building roads, bridges, and the canal system from Ohio.

In 1860, much of Columbus’ population was of Irish descent. An Irish Quarter has emerged in the area immediately north of the city limits at North Public Lane. This street was later renamed Naghten Street in honor of Irish politician Billy Naghten, and today it is Nationwide Boulevard.

With St. Patrick’s Church at the east end of the street since 1852, factories along the river and nearby railroads since 1850, Naghten Street has become home to saloons, shops and other legal and non-legal entertainment establishments. The street was called ‘Irish Broadway’ and was the central thoroughfare of a vibrant community.

As this community grew, a number of young Irish men became involved in local affairs. The old local government constituency system was prone to corruption, but it was also a corridor to local power for political followers. Among the experts, Jerry O’Shaughnessy demonstrated what a civil servant could do with the management of water resources. The O’Shaughnessy Dam bears his name.

So what happened to an “Irish village” comparable in size and diversity to the “German village” south of the city limits? The expansion of rail yards north of Naghten Street was accompanied by commercial expansion into a growing capital south of Irish Broadway. At the same time, many second- and third-generation residents left the old housing plot and moved to nearby newly created suburbs.

But even as the neighborhood changed, Columbus’ Irish community persisted. A chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians was founded in Columbus in 1876, lasted until the 1930s, and was reconstituted in the city in the 1970s. In 1936, the Shamrock Club was founded and continues today as the center of Irish culture and society in central Ohio.

Fleeing hunger, disease and political repression, many people came to America from Ireland in search of a safe, prosperous and free new home. Many of these people in Columbus have found just that and remember who they are every year on St. Patrick’s Day.

Erin will brag.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for Community news this week and the Columbus Dispatch.

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