Cleveland Irish: The Irish Vote

Cleveland Irish: The Irish Vote
By Francis McGarry

There was a time when it was the Irish vote that politicians courted.  There was a time when people actually called it the Irish vote.  Despite the shift to a more diversified Irish American voting bloc, we still get voted for in good numbers. 

My Aunt Irene would always vote for the Irish name if she was unsure in a particular race.  As this article is authored, an Irish Catholic has been named President-Elect. 

If that holds to be true, Joe Biden would be the second American President who is of Irish decent and a practicing Catholic.  His second great grandfather was Edward Blewitt, a brick worker who immigrated from Ballina, County Mayo in 1850 to Scranton, Pennsylvania.

On May 31, 1849, second great grandfather Owen Finnegan, the son of John Finnegan and Mary Kearney from the Cooley peninsula in County Lough, arrived in New York aboard the ship Brothers. He procured work in his trade as a shoemaker and sent for his family a year later.

Joe Biden
The Finnegan’s made their way to upstate New York to pick apples.  James, Biden’s great grandfather, didn’t like them apples and moved to Scranton.  It was there his son Ambrose met Edward Blewitt’s daughter.   

He would not be the first Irishman to hold the office.  Andrew Jackson was the first almost 200 years ago.  His father was born in Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, and his parents in Boneybefore, Co. Antrim as well. 

U.S. Presidents of Irish Descent
The Roosevelts, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley and Jimmy Carter all have family ties to Co. Antrim.  The majority of the twenty-two American presidents with Irish roots are from Ulster: James Buchanan and James Polk, Donegal; Ulysses Grant and Woodrow Wilson, Tyrone; Gerald Ford and the Bush family, Down; William Harrison and Harry Truman, Ulster. 

William Taft has roots in Co. Louth.  Richard Nixon has roots in Co. Kildare.  Lyndon B. Johnson has roots in Galway. Barack Obama has roots in Tipperary.  Irish Catholic roots are considerably less common.

Ronald Reagan’s Irish Catholic great grandfather Michael was from Ballyporeen, Co. Tipperary.  His son John, Reagan’s grandfather, was born in London, before the family emigrated to Illinois via Canada in 1857.

John Francis Fitzgerald, born in Boston in 1863 to Thomas, Co. Limerick, and Rose Anna (Cox) Fitzgerald, Co. Cavan. “Honey Fitz” became the first American-born Irish Catholic to serve as mayor of Boston.  He founded the Jefferson Club to organize the Irish Catholic voters of South Boston. 

Cleveland also had a Jefferson Club.  His grandson was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, this county’s first Irish Catholic president.  Kennedy and Biden are the only Catholic presidents. 

The City of Cleveland is not known for an Irish political machine like Boston, New York and Chicago.  The Irish in Cleveland were well represented on city council and in municipal positions.  The city has had four elected mayors of Irish heritage: Robert E. McKissom, John H. Farley, Ray T. Miller and Thomas A. Burke.

Robert McKissom, mayor from 1895-1898, was of Protestant Irish descent. His father was born in 1834 in Northfield, Ohio, the family arriving in northern Summit County in the early 1800s. His tenure as mayor is often referred to as Tammany Cleveland because he built a political machine based upon the tight-knit Irish immigrant community that had arrived in those waves. Under his leadership, the Cuyahoga River was widened and straightened and new bridges built to span it.

John Farley, known as “Honest John,” was mayor from 1883-1884 and again from 1899-1900. In the interim, he served a director of Internal Revenue under Grover Cleveland. His father Patrick Farley was born in Ireland, emigrating to Cleveland in 1833. He won the city commission for all mail and express freight arriving in Cleveland, making him a wealthy man.

Farley was very active in the Irish community and a Hibernian.  After John Farley was elected the second time, he had to call in the state militia to support Cleveland police in maintaining order during the streetcar strike in 1899. Farley suffered a stroke while riding a streetcar in downtown Cleveland in 1922 and died in an ambulance in route to Huron Road Hospital.

Raymond Miller, mayor from 1932-1933, was born into a traditional Irish Catholic family in Defiance, Ohio. He oversaw the completion of Municipal Stadium on the lakefront and was instrumental in the creation of the Cleveland Browns.  

He and his four brothers all played football for Notre Dame, Ray backing up Knute Rockne. They all earned their law degrees at Notre Dame and became Cleveland lawyers as well as Democratic Party stalwarts. After his tenure as mayor, Ray become chair of the Democratic Party in Cuyahoga County, building a potent coalition of local nationality groups and black citizens.

Burke Lakefront Airport
Thomas Burke was elected mayor in 1946 for the first of four terms. Thomas Burke’s grandfather, Thomas, was born in Ireland and emigrated in the 1850s. He became a captain of a Great Lakes schooner. His son, Thomas, was born in Cleveland in 1864 and became a doctor. Thomas’s son, Thomas, graduated from Holy Cross College, earned a law degree from Western Reserve University and was elected mayor.

Hibernian Rifles
He was active in the Hibernian Rifles, the friendly Sons of St. Patrick, and the Knights of Columbus. As mayor, Thomas Burke focused on capital improvements, including a landfill along the Cleveland waterfront that would become the Burke Lakefront Airport. All three Burkes are buried in St. John Cemetery.

Only two Catholics in forty-six presidents, yet five Supreme Court justices and another who was raised Catholic.  A nod to the Irish American influence in the legal field and a question as to why only two?

The Congressional Friends of the Irish National Caucus has over fifty members and is a nonpartisan organization for justice and peace in Ireland.  Sherrod Brown is a member.  They actually work together, across party lines, in support of Ireland.  That would make Aunt Irene happy to see her voting approach in practice.  The O’s and the Mc’s as she would say. 

*Francis McGarry holds undergraduate degrees from Indiana University in Anthropology, Education and History and a Masters in Social Science from the University of Chicago.  He is an assistant principal and history teacher.  Francis is a past president of the Irish American Club East Side.  He is the founder and past president of the Bluestone Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.   

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