By Teresa Nguyen
RCHS History Teller
Contributions by Dan Fredricks
The word “Our” in the title implies we’re all Irish. From what I know, without a DNA test, I haven’t a wee bit o’ Irish in me. The closest I get is my great, great grandmother who was a Scottish twin. Still, we all should be able to feel Irish for a day, right?
Rock County is a beautiful quilt of descendants of immigrants from an array of countries. We are made up of Irish and German families, Norwegians, Dutch and Italians, of African Americans, Asians and Latinos.
With this month’s Story Squad theme of “heritage” on my mind, I traveled our lovely county down winding highways, past farm fields ready for planting, and over swift flowing rivers and streams full of fresh snow melt. As History Teller on a mission, I was out to collect interesting stories of the ‘old country’, traditions and customs. My traveling took me to lively local events such as the Evansville Pop-Up Market, the Beloit International Film Festival, and the Girls’ Night Out fundraiser at the Armory in Janesville as well as our Rock County Historical Society event, “The Irish Experience.”
With St. Patrick’s Day approaching, I was in hot pursuit of tales of Irish heritage. Our great community was established and grew by leaps and bounds with the hard work of many local Irish families – Cullen, Ryan, Roherty, Sheridan, Riley, O’Leary and Gray, to name a few. Today, we have grown into a more diverse community, whose ancestors all settled along the beautiful Rock River. Yet, in spite of our cultural differences, there is one thing we all have in common, regardless of origin: a deep rooted pride in our heritage.
On any given weekend, and especially around St. Patrick’s Day, O’Riley & Conway’s Irish Pub in downtown Janesville is filled with patrons enjoying live music, delicious treats and tasty craft beer. In an interview with owner, Joe Quaerna, he shared a bit about his heritage and the origins of the pubs’ name: “My Irish
side came from my great grandmother, Mary, who was 100% Irish, and my grandfather, Bill Riley, who was also 100% Irish. We added the ‘O’ because they took it off when they came across as immigrants. There’s also a Conway side, and that came from my great grandmother, Mary Conway, hence the name O’Riley and Conway’s.”
In Evansville, at the Pop-Up Market, Kathy Woods shared her story: “My grandfather was 100% Irish. He was a Keyes and he grew up in South Dakota. He had a 60-acre farm up there. He married and then they made their way here. One of my daughters has the Irish red hair and freckles, like me. Every year on St. Patrick’s Day we like to eat Reubens, corned beef and cabbage. I also like to wear green. Someday, I would love to travel to Ireland because it’s really so green.”
Janesville native, Carrie Finucan Kulinski, recently shared her interesting Irish heritage:
“My family emigrated from County Clare in the west of Ireland about 1900, long after the Irish Potato Famine that brought so many to America. My great, great grandfather, John Finucan, settled on farmland in Monroe County. The Finucan Farm in Kendall, Wisconsin is still in our family.
“I remember my grandmother saying that the Finucan family became known as high-spirited and pranksters, but they also worked hard on the farm. Other Finucan family members chose a life in the priesthood or politics. One of our family members even became Governor of Wisconsin!
“The Finucan family enjoyed traditional Irish music and seemed to have a talent for music. My Brother John is a gifted pianist who learned to play at a very young age. My grandmother would say, ‘Music is in our blood.’ The extended family sings a little Irish ditty that our grandfather taught us called, “The Little Brown Mouse”. All of the cousins sing the song, and we continue to teach it to our children to carry on the tradition.
“I grew up down the street from St. Patrick’s School in Janesville. I attended the school, and my mother was a teacher there. Every year, my mother organized a big St. Patrick’s Day celebration for the parish. I had a traditional Irish dress and my mom taught me how to do the Irish jig. I performed that Irish jig at the celebration almost every year! I rarely jig anymore but still enjoy listening to Irish music. Each year, I try to attend Irish Fest in Milwaukee and you may see me jig there.
“When Janesville had our own Irish Fest, I served on the planning committee and volunteered during the fun, three-day event.”
Janesville’s Untold Story
Janesville community man and Irish descendant, Dan Fredricks, shared with me a unique and amazing story. It is one he and his friend, David Haldiman, local author of “High Our Hopes and Stout Our Hearts; The Irish in Janesville,” researched extensively. How extraordinary to discover this unknown story about a British diplomat who gave countless, young Irish men and women a new chance at life in America, and right here in Janesville, Wisconsin!
Fredricks and Haldiman obtained information from Paul McArdle of the County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society in Ireland. Paul is involved in researching this very story and in restoring the home of Vere Foster, the philanthropist and selfless hero who brought a group of desperate young Irish to their new home in America. The story takes place mid-19th century Ireland …
In 1847, at the height of the Great Famine in Ireland, English nobleman, Vere Foster, was sent over to County Louth in Ireland to oversee a family estate and the emigration of a farming family there. The Potato Famine was raging, one of Ireland’s darkest chapters in history, bringing starvation and death to the population, tragically affecting communities across the Emerald Isle.
In 1850, Foster traveled to the United States looking for places to help settle the children of destitute Irish families. He visited various cities and towns and made a connection here in Janesville with the Reverend Michael McFaul of what was then St. Cuthburt’s, a brick church in the Fourth Ward that had replaced the first Catholic log chapel in Janesville. It wasn’t until 1864 that the first bricklaying began on what is now St. Patrick’s Church on Cherry Street.
Vere trusted Rev. McFaul with the plan and in 1857, Foster gathered a group of young Irish men and women, who were chosen with the help of clergy and community leaders in Ireland. They were selected based on the poverty of their families as well as moral character. Foster accompanied these 38 immigrants across the wide blue ocean and over the rolling, wooded lands of eastern America to the small town of Janesville, Wisconsin.
After settling here, we can assume that these young people joined the Catholic congregation. Like many early Irish settlers in America, they found new opportunities in the area. Being used to hard work, many new immigrants took back-breaking labor and, sadly, often faced discrimination in the new country.
But, with that resilient Irish spirit and the good values of perseverance, ambition and a healthy dose of humor, many were able to rise above the socioeconomic status of their forefathers to realize the American dream. Their descendants have become an integral weave in the fabric of our Rock County history, all due to the kind generosity of Vere Foster.
Vere Foster had been born into an aristocratic family, where money was never an obstacle. Yet, he died penniless in a Belfast attic boarding room, having spent his own wealth on helping others find a better life.
The Irish immigrants who came here embodied the founding ideals of the United States. And this great promise of the American dream is still vital to the immigrants of today.
“Bunko” for a Bite
In reading Haldiman’s book, one beautiful story warmed my heart. Generous in spirit, that’s the Irish way, and so the early immigrants, with little in their pockets, filled their hearts and homes with family and faith.
One fine man, by the name of Bunk Riley, worked on the railroad in Janesville, Wisconsin. In those years, numerous homeless men would walk along the rails looking for work. Bunk told the men how to find his home, and that if they came to the back door using the code word, “Bunko”, they could get a bite to eat. This went on for some time until, as the story goes, his wife, Rachel, became none too happy about it.
Meanwhile, Rachel extended that same giving spirit with countless hours in her charitable work through the Milwaukee Railroad Women’s Club. Their son would also take vegetables to the tracks so the homeless would have something for their stew.
Eventually, their grandson, Dan Fredricks, though not one to say, continues to give humbly and generously from his heart in that same Irish Catholic tradition of his family. Dan has shared abundant time, energy and many talents in organizing numerous fundraisers to help the less fortunate in Rock County. Those fine Irish values live on, and I believe Grandpa Bunk would be proud.
New to America
As our Statue of Liberty holds her torch high, a variety of immigrants continue to arrive on these shores from sea to shining sea, including the Irish! At “The Irish Experience” event on our RCHS campus, I interviewed an Irish couple, PJ (short for Patrick Joseph) and Helena Francis, who currently live in northern Illinois.
PJ had originally come from Ireland in the 1990’s, from County Clare. In describing County Clare, he said it’s a place “where there aren’t enough trees to hang a man, water to drown a man, and not enough clay to bury a man.” PJ and his wife came here because he had always wanted to live in America.
They often travel back to Ireland to see their family since “it’s only eight hours, and all you need is the price of a ticket.” PJ said that he hasn’t tried finding an Irish community in the area, since the reason he came here was to experience the American culture.
A Fine Thing for Irish Fest
Although my ancestry is English, French and German, the musician in me is drawn like a magnet to the driving rhythms, playful melodies and unique instrumentation of traditional Irish music. Naturally, when I was asked to perform a song for Janesville’s Irish Fest in 2014, I gladly accepted the opportunity and thought it only fitting to write an original song in the spirit and genre of the Irish culture.
My son’s godparents are from County Cork, and when they lived in our neighborhood in Janesville, I recall being quite amused by the funny little Irish phrases his godmother, Mags, would say. When I wrote the lyrics to my Irish song, I researched a variety of expressions we don’t normally hear in America, like “wet the tea” and “throwing shapes” to give the song a kind of Irish authenticity, if you will.
The song was recorded and ended up the first track on a commemorative Irish Fest CD, a compilation of tunes by area musicians.
Before the gig at the Janesville Performing Arts Center, I reached out to some talented area musicians and formed a band called Clover Lane Shenanigans. I really do live on Clover Lane. With flute, violin, guitar, another vocalist and a borrowed Bodhran, we were all set!
It was perhaps a bit of borrowed Irish luck when I had several young Dance Attitudes students willing to perform an Irish step dance routine on the JPAC stage as my band and I cheerfully played my song titled, “A Fine Thing”. The dancers were adorable and completely stole the show!
The song’s story is about a handsome young man who drops into the local drinking establishment, Pub O’Grady’s, catching the eyes of admiring lasses. What happens next…well, you’ll have to take a listen! The following is the recorded version put to beautiful photos of the Emerald Isle.
Ceol Cairde at RCHS
The tin whistle and fiddle were perfectly in sync on a lilting Celtic melody in 6/8 time, a toe-tapping jig. We were taught by Sue Van Dyke, the tin whistle player for the Irish band Ceol Cairde (pronounced key-OLE KAR-juh), how to tell the difference between a jig and a reel.
Jigs are always in 3/4 or 6/8 time signatures. In a reel, unlike a jig, the tune is in 4/4 time. I realize, after writing, that this language would only make sense to the trained musicians out there. Still, both the jig and the reel are very enjoyable to the ear, whether you can tell the difference or not!
This talented group performed a series of uplifting Irish tunes in our newly remodeled Carriage Barn for the RCHS March 10 event, “The Irish Experience”. According to Ed Miller, Bodhran (Irish drum) player for the band, the acoustics are “phenomenal” in the Carriage Barn, that stately brick building nestled on the RCHS campus behind the Lincoln-Tallman House, overlooking the Rock River valley.
After a rousing performance of traditional Irish music, it was my pleasure to briefly interview the band members on their own heritage and their musical involvement in the group.
“I’m actually Irish-German. My mother was Irish, father was German. I took fiddle playing lessons when I was forty years old! I’d always loved the sound of the fiddle and used to listen to a lot of bluegrass music.”
~ Alan Leibsch, fiddle player for Ceol Cairde
“My ancestry is Scottish and it may go back to France. The name Sinclaire had been St. Claire. I had worked with a man from Scotland who said I should go to Irish Fest in Milwaukee, the largest Irish festival in the world. So, we went and I was so deeply moved, I realized I just had to learn to play the Bodhran!”
~ Ed Miller, Bodhran/drummer for Ceol Cairde
“I had my ancestry done and the DNA says I’m more Scandinavian and Eastern European, British and Irish/Scottish/Welch. Our band has played every Irish Fest since 1989!”
~ Sue Van Dyke, tin whistle and concertina player for Ceol Cairde
“My ancestry is from Northern Germany, the Pomeranian region. We played our first gig because someone heard us practicing through an open window. She knocked on the door and booked us for her wedding!”
~ Harry Seaman, fiddle and mandolin player for Ceol Cairde
Our Irish Traditions
It is interesting, the cultural evolution of traditions. My son’s godparents, the McCarthys, told us that in Ireland St. Patrick’s Day is simply a holy day. The children wear only a small green ribbon on their clothing, and families attend mass.
Over here, adorning ourselves in as much green as possible, parading through the streets, eating delicious corned beef and cabbage and downing the green beer are really American rituals for St. Patrick’s Day. And yet now, in Ireland, it is said that they are selling green beer, accommodating the American tourists with their customs. Funny how one culture can influence another and then vice-versa.
In any case, no matter your heritage, go ahead and get your Irish on this St. Patrick’s Day! After all, as Haldiman stated in his book, “Every American ought to have the opportunity to feel Irish, at least for a day.”
May your thoughts be as glad as the shamrocks,
May your heart be as light as a song,
May each day bring you bright, happy hours,
That stay with you all the year long.
Let RCHS help you learn about Irish Heritage
The book, “High Our Hopes and Stout Our Hearts; The Irish in Janesville,” by David Haldiman can be found in the RCHS gift shop, located inside the Helen Jeffris Wood Museum Center at 426 N. Jackson St. in Janesville.
If you are interested in researching your own Rock County heritage or genealogy, email Kristin Arnold, RCHS Archives Manager, or call her at 608-756-4509.