Irish vs. the KKK: the Irish won…
St. Patrick’s Day is nigh upon us. For many, St. Patrick’s Day is a fun day, a time to wear green, drink green beer, and eat corned beef and cabbage. But it’s actually a serious holiday. St. Patrick’s Day celebrates Ireland’s patron saint and national apostle, St. Patrick, who brought Christianity to Ireland. The Irish have observed March 17, the anniversary of Patrick’s death, as a religious holiday for over 1,000 years. It is now a national holiday, with secular features such as parades. Localities throughout the U.S. – including my hometown of Tucson, AZ – have St. Patrick’s Day parades. These are a long-standing tradition: Boston’s first St. Patrick’s parade was in 1737, New York City’s was in 1762.
Let’s not forget the San Patricios…
St. Patrick’s Day is also celebrated in Mexico, to commemorate “Los San Patricios,” the battalion of about 200 Irish Catholics who fought on the Mexican side in the Mexican-American War. Because Mexico, like Ireland, was a poor, predominantly Catholic nation, the Irish soldiers felt a great kinship with the Mexicans. We’ll read and hear much about the San Patricios during this period.
The Irish beat back the KKK…
What we won’t hear or read much – if anything – about is how the Irish beat back the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), an evil organization that has the blood of many innocents on its hands.
Founded in the late 1860s, the KKK pursued vigorously – including through murder—its racist belief in the supremacy of the White race. It also persecuted – often violently – people it considered “foreigners,” i.e., immigrants. Never mind that the KKK members were immigrants themselves and/or children or grandchildren of immigrants.
Although usually associated with the South and its persecution of Blacks, the KKK also targeted Catholics and Jews and was very active in various parts of the country, including my home state of Arizona – a while back I wrote about KKK cross burnings in Arizona mining towns in the 1950s. And, as we’ll see below, the KKK was also active in the northern and mid-western states.
In the KKK’s halcyon days, elected officials at all levels – from congressmen and governors to mayors and sheriffs – were among its members and supporters. Regular folk supported the KKK because it blamed immigrants and non-Protestants for stealing jobs from ‘true’ Americans.
As the following examples show – and they are only examples … there are many more similar instances – Irish immigrants didn’t suffer discrimination in their new country passively.
The Irish repel the KKK in Carnegie, PA…
Once almost exclusively Protestant, Carnegie, Pennsylvania – just outside of Pittsburgh – was by the early 1920s split nearly evenly among Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. The steel and other industries had attracted many Irish Catholic workers to the area. This rankled the KKK, who in 1923 planned a rally in Carnegie to intimidate the town’s Irish Catholics.
So that participants could more easily hide their identities, the Klan usually rallied at night. On an August evening, several thousand Klan members descended upon Carnegie, and, in preparation of their march into the town, burned a huge cross on a hill overlooking the town.
When the Klansmen reached Carnegie, an Irish Catholic borough burgess (town/city council member) met them and told them they didn’t have permission to enter the town. The marchers ignored him and continued their march. The Irish Catholics blocked the bridge leading into the town with a truck. As the marchers moved the truck out of the way, they were met by a crowd determined to stop the march. As the Klansmen pushed through the crowd, several thousand club-bearing townspeople began to arrive, and bricks and stones began to fly at the Klansmen. Soon, there were gunshots.
Many Klansmen and Carnegie residents were injured, and one Klansman was killed. The Klansmen retreated and left the area, portraying themselves as victims of “The Mob of Carnegie.” The Irish Catholics had driven the KKK out.
Many local citizens were arrested for inciting a riot. One of those was Paddy McDermott, who was charged with the killing of the Klansman. A Coroner’s inquest jury did not find reason to continue formal homicide charges against McDermott, and he was released. The Klan put up a $2,500 reward for evidence connecting McDermott to the killing of the Klansman. The reward went unclaimed.
The “Fighting Irish” send the KKK packing…
In May of 1924, members of the Ku Klux Klan planned a parade in South Bend, Indiana, the home of the Catholic Notre Dame University. The call went out for Klansmen to converge on South Bend. Notre Dame was targeted by the KKK because it was a symbol of rising Catholic power in America.
Founded in 1842, Notre Dame was not widely known until the 1920s when its football team became a football powerhouse, beating the schools that symbolized the Protestant power structure in America — Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Army. By means of radio broadcasts, Catholics across the country followed Notre Dame.
On May 17, 1924, hundreds of Notre Dame students gathered at the South Bend train station, and when the first Klansmen stepped off their train, the students descended upon them, beating them and shredding their white robes and KKK regalia and forcing them back on the train. South Bend police arrived and allowed the trainloads of Klansmen to detrain.
Throughout the weekend there were clashes between Notre Dame students and Klansmen. The students threw potatoes through the windows of the local KKK headquarters, and with potatoes they knocked out all the red light bulbs in a glowing red cross the KKK had put up at their headquarters. Thwarted in their effort to intimidate the Notre Dame students, the Klansmen left South Bend.
It is said that Notre Dame’s motto, “The fighting Irish,” and its logo, a leprechaun with fists raised, hat askew and bearing a fighting stance and countenance, derives from the time the Notre Dame students drove the KKK out of town.
Individuals get into the act…
There were also individual acts of courage of Irish Catholics taking on the KKK. A couple of examples:
- Father James Coyle, an Irish priest who defied the KKK in Birmingham, Alabama in 1921, paid the ultimate price.
Towards the end of the 1800s, industries established around Birmingham brought many workers, including Irish Catholics, into the area. But the Civil War was still fresh in southerners’ minds, and prejudice and sectarianism permeated the South. Anti-Catholic sentiment was so great that several states passed “convent inspection laws,” allowing warrantless inspections of Catholic churches, schools, and hospitals. The rationale was that kidnapped Protestant women and weapons that might be used in an armed insurrection would be kept in such places.
Fr. Coyle became Birmingham’s most prominent defender of the Catholic faith. He wrote letters to the editor vigorously refuting the rantings of bigots. As a result, Fr. Coyle received many death threats, and plans to raze his Church to the ground were uncovered.
Making a mockery of the teachings of Christ, many Protestant church officials were members of the KKK. One of these was Edwin Stephenson, an ordained Methodist deacon. Stephenson’s daughter Ruth was fascinated by Catholicism and would regularly visit with Fr. Coyle, for which she was beaten with a razor strop by her father. When she turned 18, Ruth converted to Catholicism, sending her father into a rage.
Under Alabama law, were she to wed before her 21st birthday, she would be free of her father’s control. Years before, she had met Pedro Gussman, a Puerto Rican wallpaper hanger, when he had worked on their house. Gussman had told her he would like to marry her. Ruth contacted Gussman and accepted his “proposal” of years before.
On August 11, 1921, they were married by Fr. Coyle. That evening, as Fr. Coyle prayed on a porch swing in front of the rectory, Deacon Stephenson walked up the steps of the rectory porch and shot Fr. Coyle three times, killing him. He then surrendered to police. The KKK hired and paid for his lawyer – future U.S. Senator and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. Maintaining that the news of his daughter’s marriage to a Catholic had driven him insane, Stephenson pleaded “not guilty by reason of insanity.” Both the judge and jury foreman were Klan members and Stephenson was acquitted.
To this day, Fr Coyle is fondly remembered and considered a hero and martyr within the Catholic community in Alabama.
- In 1924, celebrated Irish American playwright Eugene O’Neill beat back the KKK with a simple expletive.
O’Neill wrote a play, “All God’s Chillun Got Wings,” about a marriage between a white woman and an African American man. Simply writing such a play in those times was a singular act of courage. Predictably, the KKK was incensed.
One New York KKK chapter threatened to plant a bomb in the theater on opening night. A Texas Klan member called for the immediate assassination of O’Neill for – in addition to being Catholic – agitating “Negroes” to arm themselves, march on Washington and burn down the White House. A Klansman from Georgia sent a letter threatening O’Neill’s son.
O’Neill eventually had enough, and he sent a letter to the KKK people who were threatening him and his family. It was a simple letter: “Go f*** yourself,” he said, and signed it Gene Tyrone O’Neill. O’Neill’s actual middle name was Gladstone. By using “Tyrone,” the name of the county in Ireland from which the O’Neill clan emanated, O’Neill purposely and defiantly taunted the KKK by identifying himself as Irish Catholic. The KKK harassment stopped.
So, on St. Patrick’s Day, as part of your celebration, send out a good thought to those Irish folks who stood up to the KKK. And while you’re at it, send one out to Los San Patricios. c/s
Copyright 2022 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: email@example.com San Patricio Battalion image courtesy of Sergio Hernández. All other images in the public domain.