They called it the “American Wake”—a time of mourning the loss of one’s native land. Irish immigrants fled famine and persecution in hopes of a new life of prosperity and freedom—and it was this hope that led many of them to Texas. By 1980, approximately 572,730 Texans described themselves as of Irish descent—more than one tenth of the population of Ireland itself. With such a large community in Texas, not only did this “New World” affect the lives of the Irish families that traveled here, but the Irish played a prominent role in the making of Texas.
It is widely believed that one of the first influential Irishmen in Texas was Hugo Oconór, who was the ad interim governor of Texas in 1767. Although the exact documentation of Oconór’s ethnicity eludes scholars. “With a name like Oconór (a Spanish version of O’Connor) there’s a presumption [that he was Irish], but there’s no telling,” says John Davis, a researcher at the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio. But to many, his ancestry seems fairly straightforward.
The ancestry of Philip Nolan, credited for being the first of many filibusters who eventually helped free Texas from Spanish and Mexican rule, is apparent. Nolan himself said he was born in Belfast. Some think Nolan was also the first Anglo American to map Texas, but his map has never been found.
In 1828 four Irishmen received permission from the Mexican government to begin the first true Irish colonies in Texas—San Patricio and Refugio. The first settlement was a humble collection of picket houses—trenches with upright tree trunks, mud-filled walls, and thatched roofs. Pioneering Irish-Catholics were recruited in New York to populate the new community, and they were shipped out to the frontier in late 1829. Some believe it was the shared Catholic faith that led the Mexican government to encourage the Irish to settle this pocket of Texas. Indeed, Catholicism was important to the Irish settlers, and Irish immigrants penetrated the Texas clergy. One of the best-known priests was Father Michael Muldoon, who, in 1831, became the priest for Stephen F. Austin’s colony. Muldoon walked the line between Mexico and Texas, befriending both Santa Anna and Austin. But when the Texas Revolution broke out in 1835, Muldoon, like many Irishmen, placed himself on the side of the Texas insurgents, later describing himself as “Vicar General of the Catholic Communities of the Free and Independent Republic of Texas.”
The idea of an independent Texas fit neatly with the ideals that had sent the Irish to America in the first place. Many Irish fought valiantly alongside Austin and Sam Houston. “In terms of revolution, the people of the San Patricio and Refugio colonies were very much involved with the revolution,” Davis says. “[They] tended to slow the Mexican army coming up the coast.” Throughout the fledgling state, the Irish became a valuable asset to the Texan cause. Twenty-five signed the early Goliad Declaration of Independence, 11 died at the Alamo, and 100 fought at San Jacinto—a seventh of Houston’s army. Some even believe that Austin himself was Irish.
Following the Revolution, the Irish continued to trickle into Texas, with their numbers rising from 1,403 to 3,480 from 1850–1860. The flow of Irish waned as the Civil War robbed America of the stability the immigrants desired, but by the late 1800’s, the potato famine and increased persecution by the English sent a renewed flood of the Irish to Texas.
Like many immigrants, the Irish found some of the same hardships and prejudices in Texas they had hoped to leave across the Atlantic. “When Ireland was suffering famine and English incursions, many [Irishmen in Texas] were seen as foreigners because they didn’t handle English to perfection and they were Catholic,” Davis says. “Of course, they had the worst jobs for a while, and that’s why they were stereotyped—a stigma for a long time that the Irish lived through.” Many worked on the Southern Pacific railway, the second transcontinental link in the U.S. (The first was completed in 1869 when the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads connected the East to the West.) But Davis is quick to point out that the Irish contribution to Texas was not limited to menial labor. “The Irish seem to have been able to fit in—whatever was going on—arriving over many decades in many different situations,” Davis says. “They were priests, governors, laborers—everything from good farmers to splitters of shingles.”
A number of Irish Texans excelled as scholars and artists. John William Mallet, a native of Dublin and a professor of analytical chemistry, was the faculty chairman for the first session of the University of Texas. Harry Arthur McArdle, of Belfast, painted famous portraits of Sam Houston and Jefferson Davis as well as epic battle scenes from the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto that now hang in the state capitol in Austin. Charles Franklin Reaugh, a descendent of the old country, was an accomplished painter of Southwest landscapes and was dubbed “Dean of Texas Artists” and “Longhorn Leonardo.” The Irish also had a strong influence on the music of Texas. They were instrumental in the formation of bluegrass, now a popular Texas genre. “Most of our Western music from that period was Irish,” says former Harp and Shamrock Society president Mae Kelly. “For instance, we all understand ‘The Streets of Laredo’—well, in Ireland it’s called ‘The Bard of Armagh.’”
Today, many groups bring Texans of Irish descent together to recognize the cultural and scholastic contributions of their people. The Harp and Shamrock Society mission statement proclaims the following goal: “To attain a fuller appreciation of cultural achievements of Ireland.” This sort of pride has become synonymous with what it means to be Irish. “The Irish spirit seems to be entrepreneurial as well as creative,” Davis says. “There is a great pride not only in heritage, but in the accomplishments of other Irish. Here is a group that not only takes pride in the past, but in the present.”