Did you know that an Irishman was among the earliest settlers in Youngstown, and has good credentials to be designated the first permanent resident? Daniel Shehy was born in Tipperary, Ireland in 1756, fled to America during the Revolution, and was part of the team with John Young that surveyed Youngstown in 1796. Young only lived in the town that bears his name temporarily. Shehy acquired land and stayed. The first Catholic services in Youngstown took place in his home, celebrated by Reverend Thomas Martin in 1826. And so began the Irish involvement in Catholic affairs in Youngstown.
Many Irish immigrants came to the Youngstown area with the construction of the Pennsylvania-Ohio Canal in 1839. More came with the construction of railroads in the 1850’s, many fleeing the Potato Famine in Ireland in the late 1840’s. They settled in clusters around the city in Vinegar Hill (around Shehy Street) Bottle Hill (off Albert Street) and in Smoky Hollow and North Walnut Streets, and in the Kilkenny area along Poland Avenue, south of the Mahoning. Further immigrations after 1860 swelled the Irish population in Youngstown to over 5400 by the 1900 census.
The Irish rapidly established a presence in business and safety services, including a number of police and firemen. E. M. McGillen’s department store was the first with electric lighting (later purchased by G. M. McKelvey). James O’Neil opened a dry goods store on the south side of Federal between Hazel and Phelps. James, John, and Patrick Kennedy arrived in Youngstown in 1855 from Tipperary, Ireland and started a prosperous construction business. Patrick M. Kennedy, from this family played an instrumental part in the founding of what became Home Savings and Loan. John V. McNicholas II came to Youngstown around 1860. His son, J.V. McNicholas III started a moving and transfer company in 1905 that became J.V. McNicholas Transfer Company. When I delivered the Vindicator, J. V. McNicholas had the contract to deliver our papers. The company continues to serve the Mahoning Valley and beyond as Carney-McNicholas.
The Irish, as the earliest group of Catholic immigrants, played a key role in the rise of the Catholic community in Youngstown. Irish Catholics formed the St. Columba’s congregation in 1847, building what would eventually be the cathedral for the Diocese of Youngstown. The Ursuline Sisters led parochial education in the city. The first bishop of the Diocese of Youngstown, James McFadden, was an Irish-American, as were James Malone and Thomas Tobin. Many sons of Irish families served as priests.
Many Irish worked in the coal, iron, and steel industries of Youngstown. One of the most interesting stories I came across was one written by Todd Franko, Vindicator editor on Michael McGovern, known as the “Puddler Poet” (puddlers turned pig iron into wrought iron). Franko dubs him the “Bruce Springsteen of his era” for the labor poetry that he wrote. There is an effort underfoot in Williamstown, Ireland to research his life and work, led by Jim Fahy (there is a .pdf on McGovern’s life written by Fahy available in the Vindicator article). McGovern’s last poetic words are inscribed on the monument where he is buried at Calvary Cemetary:
“Just place a rock right over me,
And chisel there that all may know it.
‘Here lies the bones of M. McG.,
Whom people called the Puddler Poet.’”
I can only scratch the surface of the Irish contribution to Youngstown history. The Mahoning Valley Gaelic Society and The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) and Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians are organized to keep Irish heritage alive. The AOH group in Youngstown may be the first formed in Ohio, in 1865 by John Gallagher, according to this national history. Tom Welsh has written a collection of biographies of the Hogan family and collected a series of oral histories of a number of Irish-Americans from Youngstown at the Steel Valley Archive. There is a valuable published history titled Irish in Youngstown and the Greater Mahoning Valley authored by The Irish American Archival Society and published by Arcadia Press.
As we celebrate another St. Patrick’s Day, it seems fit to celebrate the contribution of Irish-Americans to Youngstown’s history. They are a significant part of the rich ethnic heritage of Youngstown. Éirinn go Brách!
Sources for this article:
Irish in Youngstown and the Greater Mahoning Valley, The Irish American Archival Society.
A Heritage to Share, Howard C. Aley, p. 44.
Seeking Youngstown’s Special Irishman, Todd Franko. Vindicator, March 11, 2018.