Akron Irish: Dublin Akron

Akron Irish: Dublin Akron
By Lisa O’Rourke

Recently, I received a phone call from a WKSU reporter who was researching “Old Dublin,” the Brigadoon of the early canal days of Akron history. I say Brigadoon, because I believe that people think it was a charming place and I seriously doubt that.

But, nonetheless, I was delighted to get that call. I was delighted because some fifteen years ago I was asked to do research on the where and when of early Irish immigration in this area. The goal of the research was to find a direct ancestral link between the immigrants who came here to dig the canal and later residents of the city.

That research never went anywhere but to dead ends. Finally, I was going to get to use what I had found out at least to satisfy another curious person.

My initial research failed, not because the Irish weren’t here, but because of historical attitudes regarding who was worth counting in the early 1800s. The people who did the counting of citizenry at that time did not believe that many of the workers were worth counting.

Land ownership was the means by which you achieved relevancy at that time. The Irish were seen as no more than working bodies. It is a relatively modern turn of thought to care about the men and women whose lives and labors built our cities. The Irish in Akron were as anonymous as slaves in that time.

The Irish landed here in the early 1800s, at what was then a densely wooded forest at the edge of civilization, called the Western Reserve, in order to build the Ohio & Erie Canal. The Akron section of the canal was finished in 1825, which marked the official start of the city itself.

The canal workers of the early 1800s were a migratory group. They primarily followed the dig en-mass. As they moved, they built and lived in shanty towns on the edges of the construction, their own little villages.

The canal started in New York and travelled to Ohio.The first documentation of the Irish in Akron is evidenced by the travels of the itinerant Catholic clergy.  There are documents describing the horseback comings and goings of priests to a makeshift church on what is now Green Street in Akron. The priests were called to do what priests do, in rough and tumble times, primarily baptize and bury.

In addition to the many mishaps that befall the poor who live and work in treacherous conditions, a type of virulent malaria, characterized by a darkened tongue and a high fever, swept through Old Dublin, taking many lives with it. Green Street, the home of the first known Masses said in Akron, is located just off of W. Market Street and leads onto St. Vincent-St. Mary’s football field. This fact cements the legacy of St. Vincent’s Church with the Irish immigrants that did opt to stay in Akron instead of following more canal digging.

While the location of St. Vincent’s has remained constant, the location of what was the mythical “Old Dublin” has not. The approximate location had to have been around what is now Elizabeth Park, under the Y Bridge and around Furnace Street. The Irish who did stay had to abandon the village when the railroad came through, if not before.

There were hotels and other businesses that offered easy employment around downtown Akron, and kept the Irish next to St. Vincent’s. There was a makeshift Irish cemetery on Bluff Street, where many of the unlucky canal workers were believed to have been buried. When the railroad came in, some of the bodies were excavated and I was told a few were moved to Glendale Cemetery in Akron.
But again, if you go there, don’t look for names. They were buried as anonymously as slaves were at that time.

The historians that I talked to years ago, said that all the workers followed the work. I don’t think that is true, I believe that some stayed here. They always do.

Growing cities attract the workers to build them and keep them going from places that are short on jobs. Some choose to follow the job of building or digging and keep following it, and some make a connection, see an opportunity and decide to stay on. The Irish did not stay on in the swollen numbers that were here when the dig was in process, but stay they did and they built a church, lived and died here and started a legacy of sorts, for generations to come.

The radio story ended with a question of placing an Ohio Historical Marker where “Old Dublin” once stood. Who wouldn’t be for that idea? Yet, during the course of the story, I mentioned that there is already a marker inside of Canal Park, the baseball stadium in downtown Akron. The plaque commemorates the Irish canal workers.

I have to wonder how many people know that it is there. Thinking about people and their places in society,  I thought about one of my favorite anecdotes about James Joyce. “Sylvia Beach, proprietor of Shakespeare and Co., said that Joyce “treated people invariably as his equals, whether they were writers, children, waiters, princesses, or charladies. What anybody had to say interested him; he told me that he had never met a bore. … If he arrived in a taxi, he wouldn’t get out until the driver had finished what he was saying. Joyce himself fascinated everybody; no one could resist his charm.”

Our culture is enamored with what we perceive as stars, yet this attitude of Joyce’s is profoundly Irish in its lack of that opinion and in its utter humility and generosity of spirit. Irishness is more than DNA. The cities that are storied in America have a firmer grasp on both their heritage and their diversity.

I would like Akron to begin to join those ranks, and move from a shy hillbilly stepchild city to one that looked at all of its roots equally and honored all of the immigrants that built this city in their respective decades. Of course, the Irish would be there, but so would the Germans, African Americans, Italians and now the people whose history is being written, the people from Nepal and Burma and all the other recent immigrants. Being Irish is great, but acting that way is even  better.

WKSU story:
*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She enjoys spending time with her dog,, cats and fish. Lisa can be contacted at [email protected].

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