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Monday, May 17, 2021

A Delaware Family Story About the American Irish

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Kevin McGonegal
Kevin McGonegal worked in the Maloney, McLaughlin and Frawley Administrations. Today he is vice president of Bellevue Realty Commercial Division in Wilmington.

The author’s great-grandfather, Philip J. Cohan (1827-1882)

We were not the best and the brightest.

If we had been rich or successful or popular with a bright future ahead of us we would have stayed where we were. Why would we leave? For the most part we were poor, uneducated, unfamiliar with the new place, with no immediate prospects to be anything other than a burden.

If we were lucky we had family waiting to take us in. But there were always too many of us. Our numbers and our strangeness made us a threat. What we brought with us, our customs, our speech, our religion made us targets. We could not possibly become a proper part of our new place, they said. We would, instead, destroy the very paradise that had attracted us. Slowly, inevitably over the decades, the distinctions between the “we” and the “they” became blurred. We assimilated because that’s what we wanted all along.

That is the story of my Irish immigrant family, and the story of every ethnic group that came to the United States. It was hardly a pleasant transition from the “ould sod” to a welcoming new land, but with time we forget. We forget what we were escaping and what kind of reception we received in our new country.


In Timothy Egan’s book, The Immortal Irishman, about the life of Thomas Meagher[1], he describes life for the Irish in their own country.

“For the better part of seven centuries, to be Irish in Ireland was to live in a land not your own. You called a lake next to your family home by one name, and the occupiers gave it another…. You could not enter a court of law as anything but a criminal or a snitch. You could not worship your God, in a church open to the public, without risking prison or public flogging. You could not attend school, at any level, even at home. And if your parents sent you out of the country to be educated, you could not return. You could not marry, conduct trade or go into business with a Christian Protestant. You could not have a foster child. If orphaned, you were forced into a home full of people who rejected your faith. You could not play your sports – Hurling was specifically prohibited. You could not own land in more than 80 percent of your country; the bogs, barrens and highlands were your haunts. You could not own a horse worth more than 5 pounds sterling. If you married an Englishman, you would lose everything upon his death. You could not speak your language, outside your home. You would not think in Irish, so the logic went, if you were not allowed to speak in Irish.

“Your ancient verses were forbidden from being uttered in select company. Your songs could not be sung, your music not played, your Celtic crosses not displayed. You could be thrown in prison for expressing your folklore or native art….You could not vote. You could not hold office. You were nothing.”


The above passage reflects the devastating consequences of the Penal Laws, enacted in 1695 to punish the Irish Catholics for supporting the Stuarts in opposition to the Protestant William of Orange, who ascended to the English throne in 1688. Though revoked in 1829, the Penal Laws ongoing effects meant practically no Catholic had any trade or skill or possession other than a rented plot of land to grow potatoes to feed his family.

My investigation of my family’s immigrant story originated with an assignment in college. My freshman year World History professor loved dynastic family trees and assigned us the task of constructing our own. I knew some things, mainly from the stories my father loved to tell about his father and growing up in Wilmington. My mother’s mother had died the year before I entered college but her brogue was unforgettable. I later discovered the work of researching my roots would be a lifetime project.

The author’s great-aunt Jane A. McGonegal (Sr. Mary Gertrude) (1891-1981)

America’s immigrant stories should be familiar to all of us because we are all immigrants. My family’s story may be different in details and perhaps places of origin but with experiences shared by so many.  I have seven Irish great-grandparents, with one Scottish great-grandmother thrown in for a bit of diversity. My earliest family immigrants, the Cogans, came over as part of the wave fleeing the Great Famine or, An Gorta Mor (The Great Hunger), arriving in New York harbor in 1849.

Starvation and disease were rampant in Ireland after the repeated failure of the potato crops in 1845 through 1849, and for many emigration seemed like the only option. Ireland was one of the most densely populated and poorest countries in Europe at the time. Successive waves of crop failures, epidemics and evictions caused the deaths of over 1 million Irish and the emigration to America of another 1.25 million out of a population in Ireland of 8 million in just one decade. Was this just the result of a natural disaster? As one Irish nationalist of the time put it, “The Almighty sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.”


I don’t know the exact nature of their emigration, but four Cogan siblings aged 18 to 24, including my great great grandfather Philip Cogan, disembarked into New York City during the height of the Famine, leaving their family behind to an unknown fate in County Cavan. Their parents may have died, or perhaps the family may have been evicted from their farm and their passage to America paid by their landlord. Local landlords were required by England’s “Poor Laws” to pay into a fund to help with the welfare of the poor on their land, and many landlords found it cheaper to evict their tenants and pay for their passage to America instead.

Not that America was welcoming to them.  In his book, The Great Hunger, Cecil Woodham-Smith outlines some of that reception.

“In the eighteen-forties the United States was still predominantly Yankee, hard and shrewd, Protestant and anti-Catholic – anti-British it is true, but also anti-Irish.

States on the Atlantic seaboard were not content to rely solely on higher fares to prevent entry of unprofitable persons, and between 1837 and 1840 Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New York passed statutes forbidding passengers to land until an official had examined them, to discover if any had been ‘paupers in another country’ or were ‘lunatic, idiot, maimed, aged, or infirm persons.’ For such persons a bond of $1,000 was required, against the possibility that they become a charge on any town, city or State, and in addition all passengers were required to pay two dollars ‘head money’ on landing, and this was remitted to the State Treasury and used for the support of alien paupers. The majority of destitute and helpless whom the statutes were designed to keep out were Irish, who arrived with less means than any other emigrants. However, examination and payment of ‘head money’ were both avoided by walking over the border from Canada or landing in small coves on the coast of Massachusetts and going on by foot.”


The Irish were desperate to get into this country by any means, legal or illegal. Whether landing in Boston or New York, smuggled into illegal landing spots or coming through Canada and walking across the border, Irish immigrants came pouring in.

With a population of only 17 million itself in 1840, the United States found itself inundated by the million plus Irish immigrants escaping famine. The federal government was spurred into action by accusations that The United States was being made the “poor house of Europe.” Two new Passenger Acts were passed in 1847 that reduced by one-third the number of passengers a ship from the British Isles could carry and increased the cost of passage. Even these measures could not break the wave of Irish immigrants crashing onto America’s shores.

The author’s grandparents John J. Desmond (1886-1958) and Mary Twomey Desmond (1884-1968)

The Irish that emigrated during this period were for the most part desperately poor, unskilled in any trade or use of any implement other than a spade for a potato crop, and in many cases suffering from fever and disease. As Woodam-Smith described it, “The state of the emigrants when they landed was frightful. Arriving vessels ‘had not one healthy person on board.’ Passengers ‘tottered’ on shore…’spectre-like wretches’, ‘emaciated’, ‘cadaverous’, and ‘feeble’.” Treacherous passage brokers in Ireland signed on desperate, unsuspecting clients to sail in unfit ships with unscrupulous owners. “Twice as many passengers as the ship could hold were ‘huddled together between decks’; there was too little food and water, and conditions were ‘as bad as the slave trade’.” Death rates for the passage over were as high as 50%. These were the infamous “coffin ships” that brought so many Irish to America.

The Irish immigrants of the 1840’s and beyond were fleeing persecution in their own country but found prejudice respected no borders. Again, from Timothy Egan’s book: The fastest growing political party in the United States at that time was the Know-Nothings[2] – “To them, the former colonies were losing their Englishness, too fast, to the Irish, to the Germans, to the Jews, to all foreigners clamoring for rights. The Know-Nothings vowed to close the gates and keep the newly arrived from becoming citizens….


The ranks of the Know-Nothings swelled. What was happening to the United States was a conquest, they claimed, indirect and unplanned, by foreign hordes, unknowing of our ways, with foreign values…. America was not by design a haven for the world’s rejects. It was a Protestant nation, Anglo-Saxon, and would descend into Babylon if it allowed itself to be mixed with ‘mongrel races’ and ‘Papists’, the Know-Nothings charged.” The Know-Nothings spoke for a broad swath of Americans who did not like the upheaval in their world caused by all these immigrants. We threatened their way of life, brought crime and moral decay to their neighborhoods, and had to be stopped.

Abraham Lincoln noted in 1855 that, if the Know-Nothings ever took power, the Declaration of Independence would have to be amended to say that all men were created equal “except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” The Know-Nothings, officially named the American Party, peaked in its influence in 1854 and 5 governors and 75 Congressmen were elected under its anti-immigrant banner.


In July 1844 riots broke out in Philadelphia. Nativists battled Irish immigrants and two Catholic churches and a Catholic school were burned by mobs.  In New York City Archbishop John Hughes called upon the Irish to defend the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral from the anti-immigrant mobs parading in the city. This anti-Irish and anti-Catholic bias, was fueled by several newspapers and protestant clergymen, “warning the influx would take jobs, spread disease and crime and plot a coup to install the Pope in power.”[3]

Amid this anti-Irish and anti-immigrant upheaval my Cogan relatives settled in New York City and worked construction or any other job they could find. The next generation of Cogans ran their own construction companies and helped build the New York’s subway system and railway systems throughout the Mid-Atlantic States. A building at Mount Saint Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland bears the Cogan name in recognition of the support they gave to that school.

My great grandfather John McGonegal may have been the first in his family to come over around 1863, but the origin story is clouded. His parents were tenant farmers in Maheramayo, just west of the town of Castlewellan in County Down in the north of Ireland. For reasons unknown they sent their 8 year old youngest son to America during the American Civil War, in what seems like an act of desperation. I’ve found no record of who he came with or met here, if anyone, or what he did until his marriage to Philip Cogan’s daughter Catherine Cogan 22 years later in Jersey City, New Jersey.  He and his bride moved immediately to the Bear area of Delaware and by the end of the year had twin boys, one of whom was my grandfather. 


A move to Wawaset Street in Wilmington followed and  John McGonegal’s  job in the quarries along the Brandywine supported the growing family. At age 37 my great grandfather died from pneumonia, leaving a pregnant wife and 6 children. By their early teens the oldest children, the twin boys, Michael and Philip, were working in the Wilmington morocco shops, the leather tanneries whose toxic chemicals still leach through our soils to this day. My grandfather Michael had found his way out of the tanneries by way of the numbers racket, running a bookmaking operation on Wilmington’s West side while managing sports teams for St. Ann’s  in the 40 Acres.


While my grandfather’s occupation may have made him to some an undesirable offspring of an immigrant, his sister Jane became a Bon Secours nun, a nursing order that ministered to the needy of the community. She tended to the victims of the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 before helping found the Bon Secours Hospital in Grosse Point, Michigan, where she served as hospital administrator for 20 years.

My mother and her 3 sisters were anchor babies born to immigrant parents. My mother’s parents hailed from around Macroom in County Cork in the south of Ireland. After the Famine the practice of dividing the family farm among the children was replaced by passing control to the eldest son. My grandfather John Desmond was the 5th son in his family so stood no chance of inheriting the farm. He came through Ellis Island in 1908 and headed to Delaware to join his Uncle Andy Casey, who ran a saloon on Front St. in Wilmington.  My grandmother Mary Twomey was from the same part of County Cork but never knew her future husband in Ireland.

After emigrating she worked as a housemaid for a well-to-do Wilmington family with an estate along Pennsylvania Avenue, then met and married John Desmond.  John Desmond worked in the stables for Bavarian Brewery on DuPont Street, drove a brewery truck until Prohibition and then worked on a dairy farm. Eventually he started his own dairy in his garage at 6th and Delamore Place in Wilmington, calling it Delamore Dairy. That business ran for 60 years on Lancaster Avenue and supported three generations of my family.


The Know-Nothing party, whose whole existence revolved around fear of immigrants, faded into oblivion by the time of the Civil War. The Ku Klux Klan, in addition to its primal racial hatred, also took up the anti-Irish and anti-Catholic banner and were still spreading stories about arms stockpiles in the basements of Catholic churches well in to the 1920’s. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924[4], the rejection of Jewish refugees before World War II, the fear of the Vietnamese boat people, the travel  ban on people from  Muslim countries, and the scare tactics about hordes of people coming across our southern border, all show the specter of Know-Nothingism is never far below the surface in the United States.

We all know from our school days these lines from the Emma Lazarus sonnet inscribed at the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless tempest tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

We also know this aspirational poem never represented the true experience of our most needy immigrant populations. Woodham-Smith summed up the Irish experience in this way:

“The Irish were the most unfortunate emigrants and the poorest, they took the longest to be accepted, longest to become genuinely assimilated…. The story of the Irish in the New World is not a romantic story of liberty and success, but a history of a bitter struggle.”


Then it was the Irish, followed by other, undesirable ethnic groups that each in turn were forced to overcome efforts to keep them out, persecuted by many of their American hosts, denied opportunities afforded “real” Americans, and accused of subverting the true American way of life. Yet it was the dearest wish of my Irish immigrant family and all the other immigrants not to subvert their new society but to become members of it. We assimilated, but we also changed our new country with our Irishness, just as every new immigrant group changes our country a bit.

The end of the story is always the same: the new immigrants become an integral part of our ever-changing society, our country is richer because of their inclusion, and as a people we are ashamed of the way so many of us behaved when the world needed our help. As a proud descendent of my Irish and Scottish forebears, I try to remember why they left their ancestral homes and what reception awaited them on these shores. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote “In politics what begins in fear usually ends up in folly.” The politics of anti-immigrant bias is the politics of fear, and we only seem to recognize the folly in retrospect. This is a story repeated again and again, with only the nations of origin changing.


[1] Thomas Meagher was convicted of rebellion in Ireland in the 1840’s, then transported to Australia from where he made an amazing escape to America. This escaped convict would become a general in the Union Army during the Civil War, leading New York’s famous “Meagher’s Brigade.”

[2] “An outgrowth of the strong anti-immigrant and especially anti-Roman Catholic sentiment that started to manifest itself during the 1840’s.” Initially a secret order that instructed its members to say they “knew nothing” when asked about the organization. Source – Britannica.com.

[3] Rory Carroll, The Guardian 09/15/2015

[4] The Immigration Act of 1924 set quotas for countries based on 2% of the U.S. population from that country as of 1890. Overall immigration dropped by over half while immigration from Italy and other southern European countries in particular dropped precipitously.


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