Many Lawrence Countians claim the #039;Luck of the Irish#039;

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 17, 2003

They say that on St. Patrick's Day, every American is Irish, regardless of what your surname is.

Be it Schultz, or Chin or Giuliani, one day out of the year, you can don the green.

For many Lawrence Countians, there's no need for pretense on St. Patrick's Day. Their roots run back to the Emerald Isle. Irish immigrants and their descendants were one of the principle groups that settled in early Ironton, and Irish influence can be found in many corners of the county.

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Hunger sparked journey to the new world

Many Irish immigrants and descendants of Irish immigrants who settled in Lawrence County came to the new world to escape the potato famine.

"There was a big influx of Irish immigrants in the mid 1800s," Ironton resident Pat Whaley said. "The Irish potato famine was in the 1850s. Most of the Irish who came here were from Southern Ireland, and they were poor, laboring types from what I understand. They were hard-working people who wanted a chance to make a living."

Whaley, 50, said much of his information about Ironton's Irish roots came from the late Josephine Rooney Scherer, who died a week ago at the age of 89. Scherer grew up in Ironton, and was a wealth of information when church members began compiling information about St. Lawrence O'Toole Church in honor of its 150th birthday last year. Whaley was involved with that effort.

To a poor immigrant, Lawrence County in the mid 1800s offered a chance at a new life. The iron furnaces offered employment, and Ironton in particular offered a growing population of Irish natives and their descendants with which to live, socialize and marry.

The first place they settled was Pine Grove," Native Irontonian James Mains said. "They came down river from Pittsburgh."

One part of Ironton was actually known as "Irish Town." The 85-year-old Mains said Irish Town started at Center Street and included the area of Fifth, Mill and Seventh streets.

The neighborhood was very much an intact ethnic neighborhood up until probably the '40's, Whaley said.

Most of the Irish people were Catholic," Mains said. "But Catholic or Protestant, if you were Irish you lived there."

A jewel in the community

As in many neighborhoods, church was a focal point, functioning not only as a house of worship but a source of pride and a hub for social gatherings. St. Lawrence O'Toole Church was founded by Irish settlers, and was named for the Bishop of Dublin.

Built in 1895, its Irish heritage is prominently displayed on the grand St. Patrick's window that depicts the patron saint of Ireland surrounded by shamrocks.

"St. Lawrence was the church you went to if you were Irish," Mains said. "If you were Irish you didn't go to St. Joseph to church."

"I can remember the ladies in the area walking to church every day," Whaley agreed."Life revolved around the church."

The church was so much a part of the community that those early parishioners were willing to give up their hard earned money to make it a place of grandeur.

"Most of the people were common laborers," Whaley said. "Some were merchants, but most were not. But they made sacrifices. Money didn't come easily. But they made the church a priority."

The St. Lawrence parish also provided an education to elementary school-aged children in the form of St. Lawrence School.

Many of the pastors of St. Lawrence attained social and academic prominence not only among their flock but the larger community as well. The Rev. Richard Gilmore, who was pastor of St. Lawrence in the early days of the church, later became Bishop of Cleveland.

Another, Monsignor James Cotter, was both a priest and a writer.

"He was schooled in the fine arts, as were other members of his family," Whaley said. "He was from Tipperary, Ireland, and later on other members of his family came here. They're all buried in the Sacred Heart Cemetery out on Coryville Road." Cotter was pastor of the church for from 1889-1947.

Cotter is remembered in the book "Ames, Gannon, Sutter and other Henry-Hunter families" written by Lucille Murray Durkin. Burkin described Cotter as a "central figure" in the community, and an "ardent Irish patriot."

"He was an Irish scholar and a poet, a Shakespearean-like orator. He was loving and indulgent and not a very businesslike pastor," Durkin wrote in her book. "He was over 90 when he died, having served 50 years baptizing, marrying and burying several generations at St. Lawrence."

Irish make mark on county

Leaving behind the hardship of the old world, many Irish settlers found success in one line of work or another. Many attained prominence in government; others in business.

"The Clorans had a grocery store; it was a family business," Mains said. "The Ironton Tribune had a lot of Irish people working there: Kenny Barron, Malone Gorman, a guy named McCarthy, I forget his first name. A municipal court judge at one time was John Gallagher. Louis Sheridan was another municipal court judge. Dennis Callihan was police chief for a long time."

In her book, Durkin write of her father, Ralph Murray, an architect whose family firm was responsible for the design and construction of many of the area's school buildings, government facilities and houses.

"I remember well my father's office in the Masonic Temple Building at Third and Center streets in Ironton and what a great treat it was for me to go to his office and make myself at home at his drafting boards with a wonderful assortment of pencils to experiment with and watch Dad and a succession of assistants at work," Durkin wrote. "His last big project was the Lawrence County General Hospital at Ironton. He also planned and built many dwellings in Ironton until the Depression of the '30s when that sort of building went into decline."

Celebrating heritage

Irish immigrants brought to the New World a love of music, art and literature. Although it evolved over the years, much of the music that we consider today to be regional in nature is actually Irish in nature.

"Our Appalachian music comes from Irish music," said Rebekah Buffington of Chesapeake. Buffington is a member of the Celtic Society of the Tri-State, a group dedicated to preserving and promoting the area's Irish, Welsh, English and Scottish heritage. "They're very similar: the dulcimer, the fiddle, the use of these in Appalachian folk music is a result of Irish influence."

Buffington said her love of everything Irish stems from her love of her grandfather, Frank O'Neill Caldwell. This Irish heritage is something she treasures. In honor of her Irish heritage, Buffington is writing book on faeries and hopes to have it published.

The Tri-State society has two special dinners every year, one to honor St. Patrick, and one in December to honor St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland. The group meets every Monday at First United Methodist Church in Ashland, Ky.

Buffington said the Celtic Society is open to anyone who is interested in honoring and preserving their heritage.

"God knows just about everyone has some Celtic blood in them," Buffington said. "I'm proud of the rich culture. I'm proud to be Irish."