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Irish immigrants played a large part in early Texas history, largely because of a carrot-and-stick situation. The "stick" was the political and religious persecution they were suffering at home. The "carrot" was Texas itself: an area with enormous natural resources, but with a paucity of population – an area that was luring immigrants with cheap land in order to exploit those resources.
The Battle of Kinsale, Ireland, in 1602 began the Irish exodus from their homeland, for it ended with the English defeat of the Irish armies. For the next 320 years, the Irish were denied both education and political representation. The predominantly Catholic Irish were also persecuted for their religion by the Anglican English. After the passage of the Test Act in 1703, many of the same abuses were inflicted also upon the Presbyterian Irish.
Time after time the Irish attempted to overthrow English domination; time after time they were defeated. Each defeat generated a new wave of emigration – first to France, Spain and Austria, later to New Spain and Texas. The Potato Famine in the 1840s, when Irish livestock and grain were shipped to England while the Irish starved, created an even larger tide of Irish immigration to all parts of the United States.
Trinity Irish Dance Company at Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth. Photo by Kim Ritzenthaler.
One of the first sons of the Emerald Isle who played a part in early Texas history was Hugh O'Connor, born in Dublin in 1734. He was one of those who escaped to Spain, and later, as Hugo Oconór, he served as the Spanish governor of Texas from 1767 to 1770.
Many Irish-born Spanish subjects were counted in the censuses in Nacogdoches during the late 1700s. Stephen F. Austin's Old Three Hundred in the early 1820s included a number of Irish-born colonists.
Two pairs of Irish empresarios founded colonies in coastal Texas in 1828. John McMullen and James McGloin honored the Irish saint when they established the San Patricio Colony south of San Antonio; James Power and James Hewetson contracted to create the Refugio Colony on the Gulf Coast. The two colonies were settled mainly by Irish, but also by Mexicans and other nationalities.
At least 87 Irish-surnamed individuals settled in the Peters Colony, which included much of present-day north-central Texas, in the 1840s.
The Irish participated in all phases of Texas' war of independence against Mexico. Among those who died defending the Alamo in March 1836 were 12 who were Irish-born, while an additional 14 bore Irish surnames. About 100 Irish-born soldiers participated in the Battle of San Jacinto – about one-seventh of the total force of Texans in that conflict.
Some of the Irish came to Texas with the U.S. Army during the War with Mexico, many serving as sutlers and teamsters. So many settled near the Alamo in San Antonio, the area became known as Irish Flat. Some remained in the army, while others were artisans, merchants and politicians. Other Irish came to Texas later to work on the railroads.
The 1850 census in Texas listed 1,403 Irish; by 1860, there were 3,480. Is it any wonder that today there are Irish celebrations all over the state?
St. Patrick, the absent honoree, is a figure of controversy. In fact, there is so much conflicting information about the 4th century holy man that some scholars believe that there may have been two men named Patrick.
The St. Patrick legend states that he was born in Britain, perhaps Wales, in A.D. 390. He was captured by pirates at the age of 16 and was taken to Ireland, where he tended sheep for six years. He made his way back to his native land. Later he received religious training, was ordained a bishop and returned to Ireland about A.D. 435.
Some Irish records give the date of his death about A.D. 461, while others give it as about A.D. 492, at which time he would have been 102 years of age, if his date of birth is accurate. Thomas F. O'Rahilly, writing for the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, postulates that there were two saints with the same name: Palladius, ordained by Pope Celestine in 431 as the first bishop of Ireland, had a second name, Patricius, by which he was known to the Irish. He lived until 462 and was immediately succeeded by Patrick the Briton, who died in 492. This would account for the fact that the works attributed to the legendary saint were too immense to have been accomplished by a single person.
Another scholar, James Carney, hypothesizes that after Palladius failed in his mission, one Patrick was ordained the first bishop of Ireland in 432. The "real" Patrick came to Ireland in 457, succeeded the first Patrick in 462, and worked until his death in 492. With sketchy documentation, later generations may have lumped the accomplishments of the two men together into one Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.
The Texans who celebrate St. Patrick's Day – or simply their Irish heritage, real or adopted – don't quibble over the details of the legend. They're too busy having parades, dinners, musical celebrations and dances. The following is a partial list of Irish-flavored celebrations around the state, which are held the weekend nearest March 17, unless otherwise noted.
Included are all those whose sponsors responded to our request for information:
Abilene – St. Patrick's Day Parade, the Painting of the Shamrock ceremony and a St. Patrick's Day dance, sponsored by the Erin Go Bragh division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America and the Abilene Preservation League.
Clifton – St. Patrick's Day Luncheon and table games on March 17, at the Bosque County Conservatory of Fine Arts.
Dallas – North Texas Irish Festival, sponsored by the Southwest Celtic Music Association, is usually held the first weekend in March. The emphasis is the music of Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, Wales, Cornwall and the Isle of Man, plus dancing, arts and crafts and special activities for children. From its modest beginning in 1983, the North Texas Irish Festival has grown to the point that it attracts internationally known musicians and a crowd of about 20,000. Dallas also has two St. Patrick's Day parades: one downtown and one on Greenville Avenue.
Fort Davis – A low-key but sincere St. Patrick's Day Dinner is served at Indian Lodge in Davis Mountains State Park on The Day.
Fort Worth – Cowtown Goes Green is held in the Stockyards National Historic District, giving a definite Texas twist to the Irish celebration.
San Antonio – The Harp and Shamrock Society of Texas sponsors a St. Patrick's Day Parade in downtown San Antonio, plus a 5K run and dyeing the San Antonio River green.
Shamrock – First celebrated in 1938, the Shamrock St. Patrick's celebration combines Irish and Texas traditions: parade, chili cook-off, Miss Irish Rose Pageant, beard contest, sheep-dog trials, bull buck-out and other activities.
— written for the Texas Almanac 1994–1995.
The Handbook of Texas, Vol. III; Branda, Eldon Stephen, ed.; Texas State Historical Association, Austin, 1976.
Encyclopedia Americana, International Edition, Vol. 21; Grolier Inc., Danbury, Conn., 1992.
The Oxford Dictionary of Saints; Farmer, David Hugh, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1978.
The Irish Texans; Flannery, John Brendan, The University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures, San Antonio, 1980.