Last updated: March 16. 2013 11:50PM - 3841 Views
By - smocarsky@timesleader.com - (570) 991-6386

John McKeown of Wilkes-Barre, holds a statue of a 19th-century Irish immigrant and siblings as he discusses Irish history.
John McKeown of Wilkes-Barre, holds a statue of a 19th-century Irish immigrant and siblings as he discusses Irish history.
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As Northeast Pennsylvanians celebrate the feast of St. Patrick with parades, spirits, traditional foods and dance, one might wonder if it was the luck of the Irish that brought the traditions to Luzerne County.

That depends on how you look at it, according to John McKeown, one of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick and an area expert on Irish history.

The 92-year-old resident of the East End of Wilkes-Barre – a traditionally Irish section of the city – became interested in his heritage as a young man and has been studying Irish history most of his life. He and his wife have visited Ireland about a dozen times, he said, and he was involved in running an Irish studies program at King’s College for 30 years.

Like many European immigrants, residents from the northern part of Ireland began coming to the United States in the early 1800s with hopes of making their fortunes and leaving behind English rule, McKeown said.

But it was famine associated with the widespread failure of the potato crop in the mid 1840s that led to the deaths of about a million Irish and led another million to emigrate, seeking work and a better life in Europe and America.

“The Irish who came to this area of Northeastern Pennsylvania really came because of the coal mines and the fact that there were jobs, even though the jobs were totally different than the ones in their culture (farming),” McKeown said.

Most Irish who settled in this area came through the port of Philadelphia because Ellis Island in New York wasn’t open until 1893, McKeown said.

First wave accepted

The first substantial influx of Irish immigrants came to this area in the 1870s and 1880s, he said, and they were warmly accepted by employers, unlike those who settled in big cities such as New York and Boston, where they were infamously greeted by signs in shop windows stating, “Irish need not apply.”

Unfortunately, work in the anthracite mines of Northeastern Pennsylvania was hard and dangerous, and unlike the Welsh immigrants who were skilled miners, the Irish were given the less favorable labor jobs.

As Eastern Europeans began arriving, the Irish began to climb the social and professional ladders.

“When other immigrants started coming, the Irish moved up a notch. They got jobs as firemen, policemen, mail carriers,” McKeown said, noting entry into politics soon followed.

And then it was Lithuanians, Slovaks, Polish and Italians who were the least favored. They did not assimilate as easily because they didn’t speak English, as the Irish did.

Still, all of the ethnic groups had a shared experience in their suppression by the coal barons, and it was an Irish priest – Father John Curran – who helped them organize unions and eventually fight for the rights of workers.

Curran became good friends with President Theodore Roosevelt, and the two worked to help the miners negotiate with the mine owners to gain better working conditions and a little better pay.

Curran was pastor at Holy Saviour Church in the East End. A famous photograph of Curran, Roosevelt and Bishop Michael Hoban outside the church is a common inclusion in historical books about coal mining in the Northeast.

McKeown proudly pointed out a historical marker outside the church, which is across the street from his house.

The reason Wilkes-Barre and many other communities had Irish and ethnic sections was because immigrants from particular countries came together in waves and settled near people who spoke their language, McKeown said.

Irish pride apparent

And now — with St. Patrick’s parades in Scranton and Jim Thorpe one weekend and Wilkes-Barre the next, Irish beer and food specials in taverns, and Irish flags and green clothing sported just about everywhere — it’s easy to see that pride in Irish heritage and a celebration of the culture is still alive and strong in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

The grandson of three Irish immigrants (his mother’s mother was German), McKeown said that pride in Irish heritage is most evident today in music and dance, as step dancing is not an easily acquired skill, yet there are no less than four step dancing groups in the area.

And the heritage is promoted by several groups. In addition to the Friendly Sons, there is the Donegal Society, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Ladies AOH as well, McKeown said.

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