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  • "An Unfortunate Son of Erin":The Irish in Civil War Kentucky
  • David T. Gleeson (bio)

In late December 1860, Daniel Roulhac, a prominent lawyer from Hickman, Kentucky, wrote Governor Beriah Magoffin seeking some clemency for his client, Michael McGinney, a thirty-year-old day labourer from the same town, but now in the state penitentiary in Frankfort. McGinney apparently had taken the fall, so to speak, for his wife, Rose, also from Ireland, on a charge of larceny. Roulhac spoke of the case to the governor as if it was a typical one in that he described McGinney as "an unfortunate son of Erin." Thus, he sought the governor's "favour" for a commutation of the Irishman's sentence. Why did he mention McGinney's national origin in his appeal? Well, it was something that would resonate with Magoffin, because he added, "[McGinney's] birth is in such prosecutions, as you must know, his misfortune. The expression" Roulhac continued, "'he is nothing but an Irishman' is too frequent."1 [End Page 197]

Roulhac was stating the commonly held view among the nativeborn that the Irish in America were an inherently criminal class. The tone, however, was sympathetic, as you would expect in a request for clemency. Despite the essentialist racialization of the Irish, Roulhac's request would have been welcome to many Irish in Kentucky. Only five years previously, the state's largest city, Louisville, had seen the worst atrocity of the nativist Know-Nothing era. On August 6, 1855, known infamously since as "Bloody Monday," at least twenty-two people died (though there were probably a lot more), in an election day of violence between immigrants and Know-Nothings. There were casualties on both sides, but the skirmish at "Quinn's Row," a tenement between 10th and 11th Streets, close to Main Street, owned by Irish immigrant Patrick Quinn, was the bloodiest. To flush some of the Irish out of the tenement, nativists set fire to it and shot anyone who tried to escape the flames. According to one newspaper account, at least "five men were roasted to death, having been so badly wounded by gun-shot wounds that they could not escape from the burning buildings."2

Irish attitudes to slavery could also be seen as suspect. While living on a Georgia plantation in the 1830s, the British actress Fanny Kemble thought that the Irish, or "pestilent sympathisers" as she described, would side with the oppressed African Americans to overthrow the whole slave system.3 Kentucky experienced an example of that when in the summer of 1848 one E. J. Doyle tried to lead a sizeable group of enslaved to freedom in Ohio. Pretending to be their owner, he took them from Bourbon County but was eventually apprehended in Bracken County, just ten miles or so from the Ohio River. Doyle pretended not to know the runaways personally, only "admitting" that they had robbed him but they all seem to know him by name. Upon recapture, they told the authorities that they had paid [End Page 198] Doyle to guide them north to freedom. Thus, he became known as the "Doyle, the Negro abductor." Some claimed that he had only did it for personal gain and he was no "martyr" to the anti-slavery cause. Whatever his motivation the public image of this immigrant in Kentucky was one of a dangerous abolitionist or criminal "negro stealer."4 Avid Irish abolitionists in the South were rare, but the Irish had a reputation for breaking the rules around slavery; fraternising with the enslaved, selling them illicit goods, usually alcohol, and, on occasion, like Doyle, helping them undermine their enslavement.5

With these negative views of the Irish common in the antebellum era, Roulhac's opinion of the Irish was certainly better than most, but he still used negative connotations of them. The foreign-born, and especially the Irish, were indeed overrepresented among the poor houses, prisons, and insane asylums in Kentucky, but a lot less so than, say, similar states such as Missouri. In addition, the Irish presence in the state was not as large as others, with the 22,000 or so Irish-born less than 2 percent of...


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