The Irish in Camden County



 Joseph John Kelly

 Camden County Historical Society



Joseph John Kelly

Camden County Historical Society

Camden 1984

Partially funded by a local history grant
from the New Jersey Historical Commission,
Department of State



The story of the Irish in Camden County is a topic for a volume, not a booklet. In a full social history of southern New Jersey, it would make up a substantial part, informing discussions of the region's economic, political, religious, educational, and recreational life for the past three centuries.

The following essay is a modest attempt to record the Irish contribution to the county, at least in outline, and to recount the assimilation of a major ethnic group into American life--after a period of intense opposition. In doing so, the essay may also correct popular misunderstandings about the Irish--and American life in general--by detailing their historic role in all its diversity. In addition, it may exemplify the ways in which minorities, past and present, enter the mainstream.

In the Camden County Historical Society's overall plan for studying and interpreting the social and cultural life of the county and region, this essay takes its place, possibly as an exemplary project for other ethnic and social groups.

 The Seventeenth Century

 The first English-speaking people to settle permanently in the area now known as Camden County, New Jersey, were a group of Quakers from Ireland. After Robert Zane, a Dubliner, had come to the territory in 1677, and served as their agent, more than 100 settlers arrived at Salem in 1681, wintered there, and then settled the land between the Pennsauken and Timber Creeks. Their land soon became known as "The Irish Tenth," the name deriving from the ten-part division of the Province of West Jersey. Later, when a road was built to link Gloucester to the Salem-Burlington road, it was called "The Irish Road."  

From their settlements along Newton Creek, in an area now West Collingswood, and from the town of Gloucester, which they estab­lished as their center, these Quakers from the Newton Meeting shaped the life of the region. The major figure in the group was Thomas Sharp, the son of a Dublin merchant. According to Prowell, his name is mentioned more frequently in the records of Burlington, Salem, and Woodbury than any other contemporary. He was the first teacher in the Irish Tenth, a writer, a constable, sheriff, and judge, and the surveyor who laid out the town of Gloucester. He also helped Elizabeth Haddon select the site for the meetinghouse in Haddonfield, surveyed the lot, and wrote the deed.  

An Irish coin popularly known as "St. Patrick's Pence" became the first official currency of West Jersey. This was due to the efforts of Mark Newbie, an Englishman who had lived in Ireland briefly before emigrating. Newbie brought the coins to America with him, and succeeded in getting the Burlington assembly to approve their use. Other important settlers, some of whose names became well known through their descendants, included William Bates, Thomas Thackara, George Goldsmith, Archibald Mickle, and John Hugg. (Robert Turner, a friend of William Penn, also was a proprietor, but he never settled in West Jersey.)  

The Newton Quakers undoubtedly were shaped by their Irish experience--which was shared, incidentally by Penn, who was converted at Cork while living on one of his father's estates, and James Logan, whose Scots Quaker father had emigrated to County Antrim. The roots of Irish Quakerism lay in the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. William Edmundson, one of Cromwell's soldier~, founded the first Quaker meeting at Lurgan, County Armagh in 1654, by the end of the century, there were about sixty meetings in the country, serving the English planters.  

The Newton Quakers showed the marks of their Irish experience in two ways. First, as non-conformists, they had, by the 1680's, experienced the oppressiveness of the British Anglican establishment in Ireland, which, while crushing the native Catholic population, had also affected dissenters. (780 Friends were imprisoned in Ireland between the Restoration in 1660 and 1685.) Consequently, they devel­oped in America the limited religious toleration and suspicion of royal policies that characterized the next century of American life.

Secondly, the Quakers continued a tradition that extended from the days of Sir Walter Raleigh: that of English colonists settling in Ireland and then going on to America, drawing on their Irish experi­ence in shaping their American one. The comparison between the Gaelic Irish and the American Indians was a commonplace in seventeenth-century English thought", and the Newton Quakers, like William Penn on his father's Irish estates (confiscated from the Irish during the Cromwel­lian wars), settled in good conscience land that for many centuries had belonged to someone else. They saw it as their task to plant it, and to make it profitable and righteous.

 The Eighteenth Century 

The Presbyterians

Eighteenth-century Irish emigration to America was dominated by the Ulster Presbyterians, whose contribution to the developing nation was of crucial importance. Between 1717 and 1776 a quarter-­million Ulstermen emigrated to the colonies, most of them settling in Pennsylvania, and, in New Jersey, along the Millstone, Raritan, and Passaic Rivers. Those who settled in South Jersey, including present-day Camden County, made their influence felt in three particu­lar (and characteristic) areas: religion, education, and politics. 

First of all, Ulstermen, with the Scots, made New Jersey a Presbyterian stronghold. Francis Makemie, from Ulster, established the first presbytery in America at Philadelphia in 1706, and this group governed New Jersey Presbyterians in the early decades of the century. Later, William Tennent from County Armagh, operating from his "Log College" in Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, sent missionaries throughout New Jersey during the religious revival known as "The Great Awakening" of the 1730's and '40's. Tennent, his son Gilbert, and the members of his college laid the groundwork for the College of New Jersey, later Princeton University. (Ulsterman Samuel Finley became the second president of the College of New Jersey in 1761, and John Blair was the first theology professor.) In the area of present Camden County, the important Ulster Presbyterian center from around 1750 was Blackwood.

There was a clear and close connection between Presbyterianism and education in New Jersey, and it was common in the eighteenth century to have Irish schoolmasters. (Yet, not all of these teachers were Presbyterians; some were Roman Catholics.) In 1744 Timothy Kenny was a schoolmaster in Gloucester City, John Reilly, John Lynch, and a man named Geoghegan were schoolmasters in other parts of South Jersey. At the end of the century and in the first decades of the next, the schoolmasters of note in Camden County continued to be Irish.

John Dunleavy, who taught at Blackwood and other districts until 1830, was "a man of culture," according to Prowell. His contemporary, described by Prowell as a good teacher and writer, was John Connor of Chews Landing.

Besides their contributions to the growth of Presbyterianism in the state, and the spread of education, the Ulstermen made a crucial contribution to the political life of South Jersey, the state, and the nation as the dominant force in the American Revolution in New Jersey. Whereas much of the state, perhaps half of its population, was overtly or covertly Loyalist, the Presbyterians were the leaders of the Revolution. While Anglicans and Methodists largely supported the Crown, and the Quakers were ambivalent because of their pacifism, Ulster Presbyterians supplied more than half of the 9000 troops from New Jersey serving under Washington. Though only a minority in the state, New Jersey Ulstermen achieved political prominence during the Revolution, giving credibility to those British observers who described the struggle for independence as a Presbyterian movement.

The causes of the Ulstermen's prominent role are rooted in their Irish experience. In Ireland they had experienced British colonial misrule at a level far beyond the experience of American colonists. Restrictions on manufacturing and trade, rack-renting landlords, Penal Laws designed to punish nonconformists as well as the Catholic majority--these fostered a hatred of the British monarchy and the Anglican establishment that fueled the revolution in America. Prowell's list of the Revolutionary war veterans from old Gloucester County contains many recognizably Irish names. While their religions are unknown, one can infer that Presbyterians and Catholics predominate. A few of the names are: Major Samuel Flanagan, Sergeant Patrick McCollum, and Privates Edward Dougherty, Michael McCleary, Daniel McGee, James McFadden, Patrick Kelly, and Patrick Riley. 

Other Protestant Groups 

While the Irish role in the spread of both American Presbyterian­ism and Catholicism is generally known', less known is their role in the growth of other Christian denominations. However, in early South Jersey history, "Irish" Baptists settled at Cohansey in 1683, and the first known Methodist in the state was John Early, who emigrated to Gloucester City in 1764. Other emigrants who belonged to the Church of Ireland at home joined the Anglican Church here. All of these people, later referred to mistakenly as "Scotch-Irish" because of their Protestantism, were predominantly of English extraction. 

Roman Catholics  

While there may have been Irish Catholics in the Camden County area earlier than records show, particularly in the role of indentured servants, the first record of a sizeable group of them in South Jersey dates from 1740, when an Anglican rector reported that sixty to eighty Irish Catholics had moved to his parish at Alloway's Creek, Salem County. Significantly, these people began a tradition that would last for more than two centuries: Irish Catholic labor used for the industrial development of South Jersey. Along with German immigrants, these Irishmen went to work at the Wistar glassworks at Alloway's Creek, and then later at the iron works at Atsion (now in Camden County) and Batsto (Burlington County). The first mass in South Jersey was celebrated at Wistar's glassworks in October 1743, and the first mass in old Gloucester County (now Camden County) was cele­brated around 1760 at "Shane’s Castle," the house of the German Woos brothers, near Waterford, and named for the Irish hometown of a son­in-law. The ironworkers, laboring under an arrangement Boyer called "feudal," and sometimes amounting to slavery, produced the weapons for the Revolutionary army. Their work was instrumental in the defeat of the British, their traditional enemy. From this group, or from the many others that Michael O'Brien has discovered in the New Jersey probate records, may have come, too, the Catholic soldiers in Prowell's list.

After the war, the Irish continued to work in the pinelands forges. By 1827 they had established the first Catholic Church in old Gloucester County at Pleasant Mills (now in Atlantic County): St. Mary's of the Assumption.

The Nineteenth Century

 1800 to l860

 As Irish immigration increased in the nineteenth century, most of it composed of Catholics, the Irish played an increasing role in the development and industrialization of South Jersey. While Irish labor continued to man the iron forges in the pines, Irish workers also were instrumental in building the state's canal system in the 1820's and '30's, building the Camden and Amboy Railroad in 1832 and building the Camden and Atlantic Railroad in 1854, serving under Patrick O'Reilly, the Philadelphia engineer who planned and constructed the route from Camden to Absecon. With more immigrants arriving during and after the "Famine" of the late '40's, the Irish also became a ready labor force for the developing factories of Camden and Gloucester, including Starr's iron works and David Brown's Washington Mills.

 While playing an important role in the development of the area through their labor, the Irish also were primarily responsible for the growth of the Catholic Church in Camden County, which was to have important effects on the religious and social life of the area. By 1849 the Irish population had increased to the extent that it was necessary to build churches in the county. Previously, Catholics heard mass said by missionary priests from Philadelphia, who would conduct services in homes, stores, or halls, or they would cross the river themselves to hear mass in a church. The first Catholic Church in the county, St. Mary's in Gloucester, was built in 1849, under the direction of Father Edmund Waldron, who was succeeded in the next twenty years by Fathers Donoghue, Finnegan, Hannigan, and Daly. Next, in 1859, St. Mary's Church in Camden, founded by Father James Moran, was built at Fifth and Taylor Streets. His successor, Father Patrick Byrne, moved the parish to the site of the present Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in 1864. The building of these churches, in the era which marked the transfer of South Jersey from the Philadelphia to the Newark Diocese (in 1853), meant that the Catholic Church was here to stay in Camden County, and began in the county that Irish dominance in the clergy typical of the American church in general with the arrival of large groups of Irish Catholics as laborers, and the growth of the Catholic Church as an institution, the county faced for the first time a culture shock, and a forced redefinition of the nature of America. The Irish presence began the process by which the county (and the nation at large) changed from an Anglo­Saxon Protestant world to a pluralistic one.

The process was not easy. The most striking fact of the mid-nineteenth century in Camden County is the anti-Irish and anti-Catholic bigotry of the native Americans. In their attitudes they were in part following a traditional belief that America was meant to be a Protestant country. This belief was enshrined in the New Jersey Constitution of 1776, which forbad Catholics from holding state office. (The new constitution of 1844 ended this prohibition.) But they were also caught up in the new "Protestant Crusade" con­ducted by the evangelical ministers in the American Protestant Associ­ation and the new nativist American Republican Party, which, while strong throughout New Jersey, was particularly strong in the southern counties. Isaac Mickle, who opposed the bigots, recounts the excitement in Camden over the nativists' burning down of two Catholic churches and the attempted burning of a third, in the Philadelphia riots of 1844. In the county itself, the Know-Nothings manifested themselves in a variety of ways. Preachers like the Presbyterian William McCalla stirred up religious hatred, and publications like Intrigues of Jesuitism in the U.S.A. (Camden, 1846), fueled nativist paranoia.

 In Gloucester, the hall where mass was said before the construction of St. Mary's was defiled with manure the night before services were to begin, and the first two cornerstones of the church were stolen.

In Camden, Starr's Hall, where mass was said before the erection of churches, was burned down by nativists in 1852. In politics, Know-Nothing strength was manifested by the election of six nativist mayors in Camden from 1848 to 1874, and by the county's vote for American Party presidential candidate Millard Fillmore in 1856.

The nativists were operating in a statewide environment in which Governor Haines in 1857 presided over a crowd of several thousand people who were told of Rome's hostility to Scripture, and in which, ten years after the Philadelphia riots, a mob could attack St. Mary's Church in Newark and cause the deaths of two people.

Against the powerful nativist sentiment were important business families like the Coopers and Starrs, whose opposition came both from Quaker tolerance and their need for Irish labor, and liberals like Isaac Mickle, who opposed the nativists in speeches and newspaper articles. However, as the country headed toward Civil War, tolerance for Irish-Catholics was a long way off.


Throughout the nation, the Civil War period marked an increasing acceptance of the Irish because of their service in the Union Army. While their loyalty was at first questioned, even in general pro­Southern New Jersey, 8,800 Irishmen joined the state's regiments in a ratio higher than that of the native whites. While the Irish were overwhelmingly Democratic, and fearful of the threat that freed slaves would pose to their precarious economic status, they rallied to the Union cause. For their service they earned the title of "The Fighting Irish." In Camden County, the most notable name was General William Joyce Sewell, who was born in Cast1ebar, County Mayo, in 1835. Sewell, who served in almost all the battles of the Army of the Potomac, won a Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism at Chancellorsvi11e, where he led the charge of the Second New Jersey Brigade.

After the war, with industria1ization rapidly increasing every­where throughout America, more Irish came to meet the demand for labor, taking their places in the burgeoning manufacturing plants in the cities of Camden and Gloucester. A rural people who became an urban people in America, the Irish were indispensable workers in the industrialization of South Jersey. At the same time, however, they became associated with all the ills of working-class life in the nineteenth century: poverty, crime, violence, and racial strife.

In overwhelmingly rural South Jersey, the new industrial cities, with their work force of Irish Catholics and other immigrants, were strange new' creations, bringing with them economic growth but a host of social problems.

A life of labor was the life of most Irish people in Camden County and the nation in the nineteenth century. However, by the end of the century, one group of Irish had established themselves in the industrial leadership in the county, and from that, in the political leadership as well. Sewell, building on his distinguished war record, rose to become President of the West Jersey and Seashore Railroad Company, chief lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Railroad's interests in the state, and boss of the Republican Party in New Jersey, serving as U.S. Senator from 1881 to 1887, and from 1895 to his death in 1901. In his circle, which was principally responsible for South Jersey's development in the Gilded Age, were David Baird, from County Derry, who ran the General's county organization while controlling utilities and banking interests, Edward Ambler Armstrong, an Irish ­American Baptist who was Director of Camden Heating and Lighting and other companies and John J. Burleigh, who controlled utilities and railroad companies, and supervised the laying of the first cable under the Delaware River connecting South Jersey with the Philadelphia telephone exchange. This circle of Irishmen, all Protestant except for Burleigh (whose father was an Ulster Protestant who married an Irish Catholic), achieved respectability because of their industrial and business power, Republican politics, and belief in "progress."

 In one way these men followed in the footsteps of an earlier Irish leader, Philip James Gray (1798-1875), an Episcopalian whose father Martin had fled with his family from Dublin after the failure of the rebellion of 1798. Following initial help from Mathew Carey in Philadelphia, Philip Gray became a notable newspaper editor in South Jersey from 1819 to the 1850's, a prominent Whig politician and judge, and, later, a founder of the Republican Party. According to Prowell, the first meeting of the county's Republican Party took place in Gray's house at 709 Market Street, Camden. From Gray to Sewell, there is a line of middle-class Irish Protestant success and respectability.

Respectability was not so easily attained, however, for the Irish working class in Camden and Gloucester. Nativist bigotry re­mained strong through the century, with John H. Jones, editor of The American Banner and co-leader of the state's American Party in the 1850's, becoming mayor of Camden as late as 1874, and. the rise of groups like the Junior Order of United American Mechanics, the Patriotic Order Sons of America, and, in the 1890's, the American Protective Association. In 1895 State Senator Maurice Rogers of Camden, a leader of the A.P.A., introduced a bill to prevent the public appearance of nuns in their habits.

A principal cause of nativist fear was the growth of the Catholic Church, for which the Irish were primarily responsible. Throughout New Jersey from the 1870's on there was sporadic conflict between Protestants and Catholics over the issue of education. Protestants saw the public schools as "American," as just what the immigrant children needed to wean them from the ignorance of their parents (that is, their Catholicism), Catholics, however, valued the schools for the free education they offered, but feared them as an instrument for Protestant proselytizing. The Catholic clergy in particular opposed Catholic attendance at public schools. The conflict, which began its post-Civil War phase when the State Reform School refused to allow a Catholic chaplain, and mandated attendance at Protestant services, continued throughout the century, especially increasing in heat whenever the issue of state aid to parochial schools was broached. The Irish Catholics in Camden County shared in these conflicts with their fellow state residents in the north, in heavily Irish Hudson and Essex counties, and with their compatriots across the river in Philadelphia.

 Besides their Catholicism, another unrespectable habit of the Irish was their unionism. From the days of the canal workers' "riots" in the 1820's and '30's, the railroad strikes of the 1850's and '60's, and the Batsto strike of 1867, Irish workers had been leaders in militant actions against employers. By the mid-1870’s the Knights of Labor had established several locals in and around Camden City. Later, Camden resident Peter McGuire, a socialist co-founder of the A. F. of L., epitomized the role of Camden workers by becoming the founder of Labor Day in 1894. McGuire, a contemporary of Trenton's John McCormick and Paterson's Joseph P. McDonnell, represented the general tendency of Irish labor toward simple trade unionism, away from revolutionary change. Such moderation, however, meant relatively little in the Gilded Age, when to respectable opinion trade unionism and revolutionary activism were practically synonymous. In Prowell's list of associations, for example, one finds "The Sons of St. George," a group founded to combat "Molly Maguires" in Camden.

 By the 1890's the Irish had established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the county. They had established the Catholic Church, which guaranteed more Catholic immigration from Ireland and other countries (such as Italy and Poland) would follow in the future.

They had also founded labor unions, which guaranteed conflict between workers and employers if grievances were not rectified. In addition, the Irish had participated in the nationalistic fervor of the 1880's, the period of the Land League, Parnell, and the militant Clan na Gael. Camden and Gloucester residents went back and forth to Phila­delphia, considered by the British spy Le Caron in the 1880's to be the strongest center of Irish revolutionary activity in the country. In all their actions, the Irish posed a challenge to the existing social order, which was definitely not Catholic, pro-industrial labor, or Anglophobe. However, the focus of the conflict between the Irish and the rest of the county was not in the above areas but in another, in which Irish social life contrasted greatly with the natives'.

The issue was temperance--or "morality."

 The temperance issue is best exemplified in the conflict between the Sewell faction and its only serious rival in the 1890's: the Democratic machine of William Thompson of Gloucester City. Billy Thompson, "The Duke of Gloucester," had emigrated from County Derry in 1861, established himself in the hotel and restaurant business, and became a powerful force in city, county, and state politics. He modernized Gloucester City and promoted its reputation as the county's entertainment center, epitomized by his Washington Park, an amusement park built in 1895 and lasting to 1913. For a brief period, from 1893 to 1894, Thompson ran what might have been the most powerful political machine in South Jersey history. However, Thompson overreached himself. Having opened a successful racetrack at Gloucester in 1890, Thompson and his associates tried to pass bills favorable to open track gambling in the state legislature. Thompson had Tom Flynn from Passaic, a starter at his track, made Speaker of the House. What ensued was a battle between Thompson's machine and the strong temperance forces in the county and state, who knew, for example, that Philadelphians were congregating at the Gloucester track on Sundays to drink beer and avoid the blue laws, and who were appalled at Camden's 200 bars and Gloucester's 98 bars, casinos, and bawdy houses. The result was a defeat for Thompson and a victory for the temperance forces--characterized as old women and "dominies" by Tom Flynn.

 Thompson's defeat illustrates the place of the two Irish political machines and traditions at the end of the century. Sewell's Republican machine, allied with the railroads and business, was securely established. Though Camden-based and run by "new men," not the old Quaker establishment, it had, allies with the suburban towns whose Republican loyalty also had anti-urban, anti-Irish, and anti-Catholic dimensions with many temperance groups and even with the nativist fringe. Thompson's Democratic machine, however, drawing on immigrant labor, represented the urban population, the feared hosts of "Rum and Romanism" which would not achieve power until much later. In 1900 the polarity remained: most of the Irish were urban, Democratic, Catholic, and "wet" - the natives were rural, Republican, Protestant, and "dry."

Given subsequent political and social history, it is not surprising that "Billy Thompson" remains a name still heard among Irish-­Americans in South Jersey. Sewell, buried under his Celtic cross in Harleigh Cemetery, is almost unknown. Such was the force of the polar conflict. Both political bosses were guilty of the political corruption endemic in New Jersey politics since the seventeenth century, but one has transcended his guilt by the strength of his personality and vitality, and his alliance with the working man. Sewell, who might have had an enduring name for his heroism, in the long Irish martial tradition, also rode against the strikers at Phillipsburg in 1877, calling them "rabble," and represented the party of the bosses. Despite Sewell's love for Ireland, his fellow Senators, in their eulogies, were uncertain whether he was Irish, Anglo-Irish, or, in the words of Senator Depew of New York, of that Scotch-Irish race which governs "where the population is nearer to barbarism and savagery." The uncertainty has been fatal to Sewell's reputation.

The Twentieth Century


The first half of the twentieth century marked the assimilation of the Irish into American life in the county. The immigrants who came in increasing numbers after 1880, until the immigration restric­tions of the late 1920's, and the Irish and Irish-American newcomers from surrounding areas, passed with greater ease into the community as the county itself changed under its greatest period of industrialization and enormous population growth. In 1900 the Irish were, by and large, the urban industrial working class by 1960 they were Americans entering the middle-class, suburban world arising from the decline of the cities they helped build.

The oral history of Josephine Blake gives a glimpse of the Irish at the turn of the century. She reports Irishmen in the 1900's working on the railroads, on the street crews, in the mills, in the building trade, and at "the Victor"--the Victor Talking Machine Company. Irishwomen were domestics, with the second generation going to work in factories like Esterbrook's pen factory. In this world new immi­grants boarded with residents until they could find work, and the social bonds were such that Irish workers would often take a ha1f-day off, at a loss of pay, to attend funerals of their countrymen in Philadelphia. 

As the county experienced its greatest period of industrialization, led by Victor and the New York Shipbuilding Company, the Irish, involved in South Jersey industry since the 1700's, played an important role. And, as the nation's economy grew, and as they prospered, many of them gradually left behind the old world of North Camden and Gloucester City. In making their passage, they had predictable effects on the life of the county.  

As their economic fortunes rose, the Irish increasingly appeared as owners of businesses. In the early part of the century, for example, names like Hagan, Quigley, and Barrett were found among the shipbuilders in North Camden, and William L. Hurley, Thomas Boyle, and Patrick Jordan were selling clothing and furniture on the installment plan. 

In the '20's, William L. Hurley, with a partner named Lorigan, was active in the construction business, erecting fifty homes on Westfield Avenue. With Irish people entering business, and many others following the more familiar Irish pattern of choosing power and security over money, people became used to seeing Irish merchants, Irish police and firemen, Irish civil servants, and more Irish politicians. They also began to see Irish Catholic lawyers, like Patrick Harding, of the Greater Camden movement of the 1920's, and John Kelly. As else­where in the country, the Irish in Camden County were on the verge of middle-class status when the Depression postponed their progress to after World War II.

Throughout this period, Irish workers continued their strong, role in labor unions, taking part in the Gloucester City trolley action in 1919, the shipyard strike of 1934, led by John Green, and many other strikes. Typically, in Corotis and O'Neill's centennial volume of 1944, Joseph McComb and John Farrell are listed as vice-­presidents, respectively, of the local AFL and CIO.

In politics, Irishman David Baird, inheriting Sewell's mantle, was the embodiment of Republican machine tactics in the early decades of the century, and eventually rose to the position of U.S. Senator in 1918. (According to Josephine Blake, Elizabeth Crotty Verga, one of the many Irish-American women in local politics, was a power behind the scenes in the Baird organization.) However, representing most of the Irish population, and opposing the Baird machine was Democratic politician Edward J. Kelleher, who made an alliance between Democratic ethnics and reformist Republicans. Later, in the '30's, with Mayor Brunner, Kelleher led the FDR coalition in the county. In the decades that followed, the Irish-Americans were a bulwark of the Democratic vote in the county, at a time when Irish influence in state politics was dominant under Boss Hague of Jersey City and his successors, and when, from FDR on, Irish politicians were active on the national scene. Finally, in 1960 they shared in the triumph of John F. Kennedy's election to the presidency, which showed that Irish Catholics had achieved full acceptance in America. (In June 1960 Kennedy had visited Camden during his campaign, attending a benefit for Freeholder John A. Healey.)

The full assimilation of the Irish into American life, symbolized by Kennedy's election but really effected during the whole half-century, owed much to the Catholic Church, the main institution in Irish-American life. From its beginnings the Church had devoted its energy into making a peasant people respectable by applying a strict moral code and a demand for obedience and conformity. Very much a Victorian institution, the nineteenth-century Church had allied itself with the temperance movement of the day whi1e opposing the demand for prohibition as unrealistic and hypocritical. As the Church grew, first after it became part of the Trenton diocese in 1881, and especially after it became the Diocese of Camden in 1937, it exerted its assimilating power on the Irish and other ethnic groups, even while it developed its separate institutions. Like Irish politicians, clergymen served the familiar Irish role as middlemen between new immigrants and Anglo-Saxon culture, insisting, even as it set aside national churches for Italians and Poles, that the Church be an American one. Paradoxically, while the Church was a locus of much Irish activity-- for example, Ancient Order of Hibernians meetings at the Cathedral's Lyceum, and "The Fighting Irish" of Camden Catholic High Schoo1--the importance of the Church in the Irish community inevitably made Irish-Americans less and less Irish and more and more Catholic. Especially after the establishment of the Irish Free State in the 1920's, when Irish nationalism subsided, Irish-Americans' ties to Ireland have been marginal, and their ties to Rome predominant.

While the movement from "Irish" in 1900 to mainstream American by 1960 was a steady one, it was not at all effortless. Besides the economic and social trials the whole nation faced during this period, the Irish faced continuing prejudice in South Jersey, directed both at their religion and at the social mores they shared with other urban immigrants. The evangelical campaigns of the 1910's, the forces of prohibition, and later the sabbatarian laws and women's moral crusades of the '20's were all directed against characteristic amuse­ments of the working class: drinking, gambling, sports, and dancing. Typically, the effort to repeal Prohibition involved notable Irishmen, even resulting in an alliance between Kelleher, the Democratic chair, and David Baird Jr. William L. Hurley organized Camden's businessmen against the liquor laws. Kelleher also led the movement to remove the ban on Sunday sports--against Mayor King and Arthur Armitage of the YMCA.

While the moral crusades also received some Catholic support, it is also clear that the moralists' crusade also coincided with prejudice against the Irish, Germans, and other immigrants. At the extreme, a resurgent Ku Klux Klan conducted several cross burnings in the interests of morality and anti-Catholicism, singling out convents in Camden and Gloucester City for targets, and attempting an assault on a priest at St. Rose of Lima in Haddon Heights before parishioners drove the attackers away. Of course, the Klan also mobilized in 1928 against the campaign of Al Smith, the first Irish Catholic candidate for president.

As decades passed and the population grew more urban and more heterogeneous, the prohibitionist mentality faded, and the county's mores moved closer to those of the immigrants, and away from those of the Methodist and Quaker establishment of the nineteenth century. In this change the Irish and other immigrant groups were instrumental. By 1960 the vast majority of Camden County residents could relax with a drink at Kenney's Restaurant, which began as a Camden saloon around 1900, and never think for a moment that there was anything disreputable about it.

In a less controversial part of the county's social life, the Irish also played a role. The national mania for sports received a strong infusion from the start from the Irish, who brought with them an emphasis on sports from their homeland. Besides lobbying for sports on Sunday against a rooted Sabbatarianism, the Irish have provided a number of figures in South Jersey's well known sports history, from before the time 4,000 people watched Muldoon defeat Sullivan in a Gloucester wrestling bout in 1889. William Conroy and Bill Gleason were local baseball players in the big leagues in the 1910's, and from then on Irish-Americans have been active in amateur and professional sports, most visibly as members of both Catholic and public high school teams. In this they continued an Irish tradition and were part of an American trend, reflecting at once social influences from both American Catholicism and mainstream society which de-emphasized the intellectual in favor of the athletic. 

One other trait of Irish-Americans in the period of 1900 to 1960 which helped in their assimilation was their ardent nationalism. This was most evident in their willingness to bear arms for the country--a trait remarkable from the Revolutionary War on. Even in World War I, when Irish sentiment was not pro-British, they fought when America entered the war. After World War II, during the Cold War, the fervent patriotism of the Irish meshed with the anti-communism of the period, as fear of international communism replaced the fear of international Catholicism in American life. In this movement Bishop Eustace of the Camden Diocese was in accord with the noted Cold Warrior Charles Wolverton. (Earlier, in the 1930's, the controversial Father Coughlin had visited RCA in Camden.)

As a representative of pure patriotism, however, one might cite Francis X. McGraw of Camden, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously in World War II. After graduating from St. Joan of Arc School in Fairview and working at Campbell Soup, McGraw served in the army from 1942 to November 19, 1944, when he was killed in action at Schevenhutte, Germany, while holding off an enemy assault with a machine gun. The McGraw public school at Fremont and Dudley Streets in Camden is named in his honor, and the McGraw Kaserne in Munich is dedicated to his heroism. 


 The election of John F. Kennedy certainly was a high mark in the history of Irish-Americans. However, it was less of a triumph for their Irishness than their  "Americanness." It actually marked the end of the long process of Irish assimilation into American life.

Irish-American residents of Camden County shared in the national pattern of ever accelerated assimilated in the '60's, which was symbolized by Kennedy's election and caused in part by two factors: the decline of the industrial cities and the Ecumenical Council in Rome. First, as cities like Camden declined in the '60's, more and more Irish-Americans left their old neighborhoods for the new, relatively isolated life of the suburbs. Second, with Vatican II, the traditional feelings of "us" and "them" between Catholics and Protestants gave way to an ecumenical spirit of mutual understanding and respect. Also, as Americans of all faiths faced the renewed racial conflict of the 1960's and the trauma of the Vietnam War, sectarian differences seemed to matter less and less. Anti-Catholic prejudice, common in South Jersey in the past, and the accompanying Catholic insularity, have largely disappeared a1though the recent rebirth of fundamentalism may revive old conflicts. The only notable example of anti-Irish Catholic bigotry in recent memory has been the Reverend Carl McIntyre's sponsorship of the Reverend Ian Paisley's visits from Northern Ireland to the U. S.

The signs of Irish-American assimilation and achievement in the last few decades are many, but they are epitomized by the election of William J. Cahill as Republican Governor of New Jersey in 1970. Cahill, a graduate of Camden Catholic, had followed brief service in the F.B.I. with a career in law before entering politics. His election, besides exemplifying the breakdown of party loyalties in state politics, typifies the diversity of Irish-American opinion as their economic status increases. Interestingly, Cahill, a liberal Republican, succeeded another Irish-American from South Jersey, Richard Joseph Hughes, of Florence, Burlington County, whose father had been the Democratic Chairman in Burlington County early in the century. After leaving the Governor's office, Hughes went on to become the state's Chief Justice. Cahill and Hughes exemplify South Jersey's part in "the Irish domination of New Jersey politics" since the Civil War which Veco1i describes in his ethnic history.

 The elections of Cahill and Hughes also reveal the fact that, while Irish-Americans have been assimilated, they have continued to enter areas of life where they forged strong channels in the past. In 1984, for example, the State Democratic Party Chairman is James Maloney, an attorney from Cherry Hill. Joseph F. Carroll, from Pennsauken, exemplifies two of the main channels: politics and education. Carroll is both a Democratic county freeholder and Chair of the Department of Foundations, Research, and Public Policy at Trenton State University. Joan McKenna, a Democratic politician and founder of Women Against Rape (WAR), continues the long tradition of activist Irish-American women in county politics, some of whom are listed

In Josephine Blake's oral history and by Dorwalt and Mackey: Emma Hyland, head of the Democratic League in Camden in the early decades of this century, Marie Kelly, Elizabeth Crotty Verga, Isabelle Kelly, Mary Kobus (nee Walsh), and Elizabeth Hawks. (One might also note here that the first female doctor in Camden County was Sophia Presley of County Fermanagh.)

In addition to politics and education, other fields where Irish-­Americans continue longstanding traditions are journalism and law.

To cite only the most familiar name, there was Stephen O'Keefe, who was a reporter and editor at the Courier-Post and its predecessors from 1917 to 1974, and a historian of the county. (Frank Ryan, an editor at the Courier in the late '40's, served on the county civil rights committee which addressed the problem of racial segregation in the schools.) Today, continuing a tradition which began with Philip Gray, who started the county's first daily paper, and was continued, for example, by editors of the 1880's like Christopher Magrath of the Camden Democrat, John H. McMurray of the Gloucester City Reporter and Gloucester Weekly Tribune, and James Fitzgerald of the Evening Telegram, the Courier-Post predictably has a number

Of Irish-American writers, including Tony Muldoon, Kevin Riordan, Kathleen Rowley, Bob Kenney, and Pete Finley. Also, in Gloucester City, the Camden County Record and Gloucester City News are published and edited by Hugh McCaughey and William E. Cleary.

 In law, a prestigious "Irish" profession since the days of Daniel O'Connell, Irish-Americans in the county continue a tradition while also showing the increasing social status of the group. For example, Joseph Kenney and Dennis Blake, whose parents ran, respectively, Kenney's Restaurant and Blake's Funeral Home, are lawyers. Law, like politics, education, and journalism, offers an occasion for the effective use of words--a traditionally valued occupation of both Irish and Irish-Americans. In some cases, the Irish link to law is explicit, as exemplified by Joseph Boyce of Blackwood, who with others from the county is a member of the Brehon Society, a Philadelphia-based association of Irish-American lawyers which takes its name from the ancient Gaelic laws.

The most obvious sign of continuity with the past, however, is the Irish-American involvement in the Catholic Church. In 1984, as in the beginning of the diocese, Irish-Americans predominate in the clergy, form a sizeable percentage of parishioners, and play key roles in the Church's educational system. Predictably, the staff of the Catholic Star Herald includes two Irish-American journalists, Frank Spellman and John McBride.

Perhaps the strongest link between the "Irish" of today and those of 1900 is their faith. For many residents of the county, the most resonant passage in Josephine Blake's oral history would be her account of her father's saying the "Our Father" in Gaelic every day before he left the house. The persistence of loyalty to the Church, even through a period of enormous change both in American Catholicism and the socio-economic status of Irish Americans, is manifested every day. For example, Irish-American activism tends to be directed into organizations like the Camden County Right to Life Committee, which is directed by John C. Corne1y of Waterford.

Also, significantly, when the South Jersey Chapter of the Irish National Caucus was founded in the 1970's, it chose for its meeting place Camden Catholic High School. Most importantly, the most active "Irish" community in the county today is centered at Father Michael Doyle's Sacred Heart Parish in Camden.

With the mention of the Caucus and Sacred Heart, one enters upon the most recent, and perhaps most surprising, chapter in the history of the Irish in Camden County. Whereas after 1960 the Irish Americans have been considered the most assimilated ethnic group in America, in recent years an ethnic revival, affecting a significant minority, has renewed the "Irish" component in their identity. This revival has a number of roots, both in Ireland and America, from the turbulent '60's.

From Ireland, the most important influence has been the re­opening of the nationalist issue with the conflict in Northern Ireland. Irish-American nationalism, largely dormant since the "solution" of partition in the 1920's, has revived, and brought with it a renewed sense of Irish identity among Irish-Americans. At the same time, from Ireland came a revival of traditional Irish music, which has achieved worldwide fame and popularity, and a new Irish historiography, which has had an impact on Irish-America in the last few decades.

American influences on the ethnic revival are varied. In part, it stems from the general ethnic revival in America initiated by the Blacks in the '60's and epitomized by Alex Haley's Roots. Another factor might be the reaction to the crises of the '60's and '70's, in which Irish-Americans lost both the security of the ethnic neighbor­hoods and the pre-Vatican II Church, and then their faith in America in the era of Vietnam and Watergate. Some Irish-Americans seem to be seeking in their Irish roots some sense of value and community in an age when, for many, the old institutions do not satisfy those needs. In addition, by the late '60's, Irish-American academics, who before had dealt largely with Catholic subjects, began to explore their ethnic heritage and publish books on the Irish-American experi­ence. Furthermore, as more Irish-Americans entered the middle class, more gained the leisure for self-development--time for reflection on their roots that their parents did not have. There was also a whole generation of college students discovering the rich Irish literary tradition in this century--Shaw, Yeats, Joyce, O'Casey, and others-- and finding in these writers sources both for self-knowledge and ethnic pride.

From all the various causes, an Irish revival certainly is evident today in 1984. At Michael Doyle's Sacred Heart Parish, programs on Northern Ireland and Irish culture coexist with programs on the Black and Puerto-Rican residents of the area, whose lives resemble in part the Camden Irish of generations ago and the lives of Irish today in Derry and Belfast. Exclusive concern with Northern Irish issues is expressed by members of Irish Northern Aid, which supports Provisional Sinn Fein, and by the Irish National Caucus, a lobbyist group which works to inform American legislators and the public about the conflict and to enlist their help in solving it. The South Jersey Caucus, led by Patrick Walsh of Haddonfield, is presently considering merging with the new Irish American unity Conference, supporting cultural programs, a new Irish club has begun at Rutgers-Camden, and a new Irish-American Cultural society, located in Absecon, has county residents in its membership. Also, in a lighter vein, the South Jersey Irish society holds socials in nearby Palmyra, Burlington County; Compton's Log Cabin in Haddon Township has Irish nights monthly and a folk group performing Irish music, "McDermott's Handy," tours through the area. In addition, late in 1983 the Ballyhugh Irish shop opened in Audubon.

Among individuals, an outstanding name is Joseph Montgomery of Pennsauken, who was chosen man of the year in 1984 by the Federation of United Irish Societies of the Delaware Valley. Montgomery, who has been involved in Irish groups for twenty-five years, exemplifies the long tradition of strong South Jersey representation in the many Irish organizations in Philadelphia. Also, there is Charles Coyle of Cherry Hill, who is involved in much Irish activity in the area, social, cultural, and political and Joseph Lang of Washington Township, who heads the Philadelphia Ceili Group. A well-known name from sports, Don Casey, former head coach of Bishop Eustace High School and Temple University and now assistant coach for the NBA's San Diego Clippers, has recently become involved in a plan to set up basketball leagues in Ireland, with assistance from the many other Irish-American coaches in the NBA.

At a time when most Irish-Americans know very little about Ireland or the Irish, all of the individuals named above, and many others unnamed, have, in a sense, "chosen" to be Irish. It is a choice they do not have to make. Unlike their ancestors, they do not receive their Irishness as an accusation by a hostile society, unlike their parents, they do not embrace it defensively as an hyphenated identity. Instead, they are consciously asserting their Irishness as they become the latest representatives of a vital American tradition--a tradition which has been the subject of this essay, and of which it is meant to be a part.

If you have found this booklet useful, or not, please inform the Camden County Historical Society. Your response will help us evaluate the kind of local history programs we are undertaking.

The address:

Camden County Historical Society
Park Boulevard and Euclid Avenue
Camden, New Jersey 08103
(609) 964-3333


Selected List of Sources

The preceding essay is based primarily on printed sources, a selected list of which follows. Of course, a full study of the topic would have to make extensive use of primary sources, public records, and oral history--the full resources of historical research.


Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century

Boyer, Charles S. Early Forces and Furnaces in New Jersey. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1931.

Clement, John Sketches of the First Emigrant Settlers of Newton Township. Camden: Sinnickson Chew, 1877.

Dorwalt, Jeffery M. and Philip English Mackey. Camden County, New Jersey 1616-1976: A Narrative History. Camden: Camden County Cultural and Heritage Commission, 1976, pp. 8-9.

Fleming, Thomas. New Jersey: A Bicentennial History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977, pp. 15, 22-25, 30, 35, 37, 57, 62, 65-87.

Jamison, Wallace N. Religion in New Jersey: A Brief History. Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1964, pp. 35-43, 57-69.

Roedel, R. Craig. God's Vine in This Wilderness: Religion in South Jersey to 1800. Woodbury: Gloucester County Historical Society, 1980.

Roedel, R. Craig. South Jersey Heritage: A Social, Economic, and Cultural History. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1979, pp. 18-19, 35, 38, 68, 70, 124.

Meally, Victor, ed. Encyclopedia of Ireland. Dublin: Allen Figgis, 1968, pp. 139-40.

Mickle, Isaac. Reminiscences of Old Gloucester. 1845, rpt.

Woodbury: Gloucester County Historical Society, 1968, p. 43.

Muldoon, James. "The Indian as Irishman," Essex Institute Historical Collections, Vol. III, No.4 (1975), 267-89. [Available from Dr. Muldoon of Rutgers University-Camden, History Department.]

Myers, Albert Cook. Immigration of the Irish Quakers into Pennsylvania, 1682-1750. 1902, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1969, pp. 12, 25, 27, 32, 36-37, 43.

 Spellman, Francis. "Gloucester City of Yesteryear Boasted Its Own Resident 'Duke'", "Thompson Home Becomes $20,000 Mansion in Gloucester", "Attraction at Washington Park Drew Thousands." Articles in the Woodbury Daily Times, February 17-20, 1971.

Stellhorn, Paul A. and Michael J. Birkner, ed. The Governors of New Jersey, 1664-1974. Trenton: New Jersey Historical Commission, 1982, pp. 149-160.

Vecoli, pp. 78-87, 108-111, 135, 140, 141-44, 147-48, 151, 162-63.

Waldron, Father Edmund. "A Short History of the Condition of the Catholic Church in the Southern Half of New Jersey in 1848." Archives of the New Jersey Catholic Historical Records Commission.

Twentieth Century

Blake, Josephine Agnes McGovern. Transcription of Oral History Tape of Josephine Agnes McGovern Blake, Interviewed on January 24, ~. Archives of Camden County Historical Society.

Clark, The Irish in Philadelphia, passim. Clark, The Irish Relations, passim.

Corotis, A. Charles and James M. O'Neill. Camden County Centennial. Camden, 1944, pp. 6, 22, 80-81, 96, 103, 109.

Cranston, Paul F. Camden County 1681-1931. Camden Camden County Chamber of Commerce, 1931, pp. 8, 36-37.

D'Alessandro, John T. Collingswood, New Jersey Bicentennial. Collingswood, 1976, pp. 29-30.

Dorwalt and Mackey, pp. 163, 166, 168, 172, 179, 180, 195, 208, 210, 221, 230, 236-43, 255, 259, 265-66, 288, 292, 295-96, 304, 307, 321-23.

Fleming, pp. 149, 173, 176, 184, 187-91, 193, 199.

Jamison, pp. 120, 137, 160.

Roedel, R. Craig. South Jersey Heritage, pp. 150-57.

Levy, Mark R. and Michael S. Kramer. The Ethnic Factor: How America's Minorities Decide Elections. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972, pp. 15, 19, 122-39.

McCormick, pp. 11-25.

New Jersey Catholic Historical Records Commission. The Bishops of Newark, pp. 75, 82, 88, 90-1, 103, 110.

Stellhorn, pp. 223-33.

Vecoli, pp. 172, 273.

General Studies of Irish-Americans

Duff, John B. The Irish in the United States. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1971.

Greeley, Andrew M. That Most Distressful Nation: The Taming of the American Irish. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1972.

McCaffrey, Lawrence J. The Irish Diaspora in America. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1976.

Griffin, William D. A Portrait of the Irish in America. New York: Scribner's, 1981.

Shannon, William V. The American Irish. 1963, New York: Collier Books, 1974. 

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