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The Irish in Newark and New Jersey: Their History, Culture and Political Role on Display at the Newark Public Library
Press Release February 22, 2007
Media only, please contact:
Brad Small
(973) 733-7775 OR
Pam Goldstein
(973) 228-4559

Tradition has it that everybody is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. But if that’s so, then who are the Irish every other day of the year? And how have they shaped New Jersey?

That is the question the Newark Public Library hopes to answer with its latest exhibit The Irish in Newark and New Jersey, opening Thursday, March 15 at 6 p.m. with a gala evening of music, merriment, and scholarship. Co-curators Seton Hall University professor Dr. Dermot A. Quinn, author of The Irish in New Jersey: Four Centuries of American Life, and Brad Small of the Library’s Charles F. Cummings New Jersey Information Center will introduce the exhibit.

And there will be music and dancing: the McGlone Family bagpipers; the Ceili Country band with Richard Stillman, Craig Babcock and Paul Byrne; and the Schade Academy of Irish Dance.

The exhibit is co-sponsored by the Charles F. Cummings New Jersey Information Center, The Newark Public Library and Msgr. William Noé Field Archives & Special Collections Center, Seton Hall University.

Photographs, family histories, corporate studies, other memorabilia, and ephemera fill two levels of the Main Library’s public galleries at 5 Washington Street, in Newark. Material for the display was culled from many sources; the Library’s own collections, donations from sponsors and Friends of the Library, and from the Seton Hall University archives. Some of the images from Quinn’s book are being displayed for the first time. The exhibit is free and open to the public during regular library hours through May 11.

"We have invited Professor Quinn to help us curate this massive exhibit which explores the contributions of the Irish to the development, growth and history of the state," said Library Director Wilma J. Grey. "It is fascinating to see history unfold in our display cases and to follow the fortunes of some of the state’s most prominent and political families through the years."

Assemblyman Thomas P. Giblin, D-34, former Essex County and New Jersey State Democratic Chairman, chairman of Newark’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade a dozen times and its Grand Marshall in 1975, serves as honorary chairman of the exhibit.

"The city is a mosaic of different people and cultures, and the Irish are an important part of that picture," said Giblin whose father emigrated from County Roscommon in 1927. "Newark has been good to many racial and ethnic groups; it’s given them the ability to move forward."

He has contributed many parade books and photographs from his private collection to the exhibit, as well as helping Small with the personalities of the city’s Irish mayors.

The exhibit illustrates how the three waves of Irish immigrants to New Jersey, both the Scots-Irish, also called the Presbyterian Irish, as well as the Catholic Irish, built and shaped the state. The first wave, mostly Scots-Irish, immigrated in the hundreds during the initial European settlement of the Colonies and through the early 1800s. With the potato famine of the middle 1800s, millions of Irish left their homeland to settle in the United States. Even after some economic recovery, the Irish continued to immigrate to the United States, many settling in established communities in New Jersey.

The Irish were the first great wave of humanity seeking refuge in the United States, followed by the Germans and at the end of the 1800s by the Italians, Polish, Hungarians and Slavic people.

It was the Irish who physically built the state’s roadways, its canals, its railroads, and its churches. It was the Irish who formed the backbone of the Democratic Party and the Catholic Church. They became the ward leaders and party bosses in the cities. They were its police and firefighters, clerks and teachers. They were the priests and nuns.

The Irish became the state’s lawyers, its judges and leaders of great political machines such as Frank Hague in Jersey City. Vincent J. Murphy and Charles P. Gillen served as mayor of New Jersey’s largest city, Newark. Others, including Franklin Murphy, William T. Cahill, Richard J. Hughes and Brendan T. Byrne, were elected New Jersey governor.

"They are a gregarious and sharp-witted people," Quinn said of the Irish in analyzing their success in New Jersey.

Theirs is the quintessential immigrant success story: Forced from their homelands by religious or political persecution, by poverty and famine, the Irish, especially the massive waves of immigrants who flooded New Jersey in the second half of the 1800s, were initially rebuffed in their new home.

But, Quinn contends, it is that initial rejection that ultimately ensured their success.

"When doors closed to the Irish, they were forced to rely on themselves; exclusion brings self reliance," Quinn said. It was for them that the signs "No Irish Need Apply," were penned.

But once they found a way to get a foot in that door, they not only walked through, but held it open for their relatives, friends and neighbors, ensured that all found work, homes and acceptance in their new community. The arriving Irish had several advantages; that they passed for white, that they spoke English, and they had an established community in the Catholic Church, said Quinn.

Charles Cummings explored the rise, and sometimes decline, of New Jersey’s most prominent Irish dynasties in his three-part series of articles that ran in the Star-Ledger during the fall of 2000. While many Irish arrived in what he described as "crushing poverty," others were already heading up the social ladder to middle-class status. They were craftsmen, skilled hatters, wheelwrights, jewelers, tanners and carriage makers, all burgeoning industries in 19th century Newark.

"The first generation of the Shanley family included two young boys, Michael and John, who as teenagers were shipped off to America in the 1840s, arriving in crushing poverty and without friends or family to greet or protect them," wrote Cummings. "They found themselves, like so many other Irish immigrants, in a strange land and a hostile environment, and it must have been frightening."

But the Shanleys were highly successful over five generations. They entered the construction and the hatting trades, Newark’s big industries at the time. The Shanley family built the railroad that connected Newark to New York and Philadelphia. The Shanleys opened a jewelry store for the carriage trade.

Later generations entered the legal profession, founding Shanley and Fisher, one of New Jersey’s leading law firms. Bernard Shanley, born in 1903, attended Columbia where he roomed with Lou Gehrig and graduated from Fordham Law School. He was a Republican, known as "Mr. Republican from New Jersey," and was a confidant of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Many of the displays featuring the Irish in Newark will highlight the family histories of New Jersey’s leading political figures. Many Irish entered politics: "They were good organizers, good talkers, and good at giving each other jobs," Quinn said.

Quinn finds that the Irish were singularly well-equipped for politics in New Jersey.

"The skills they had acquired in rural Ireland, translated well to urban America," Quinn said, explaining that the Irish Catholic in Ireland were an underground people in their own country. "They were accustomed to organizing in secret and to protecting each other from an outside authority."

The exhibition was made possible by a grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, a state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the New Jersey Council for the Humanities.

For more information about the exhibit, or to schedule a tour, please call Brad Small at 973-733-7775 or log on to


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