Irish in Cleveland – One Jolly Man’s Journey

by | Mar 14, 2024 | EA Stories

The Irish arrived in Cleveland as laborers in 1825 when work began on the Ohio and Erie Canal and reached their greatest numbers when the Ireland potato famine brought immigrants to the US. They settled around the east and west banks of the Cuyahoga River, with many families living around the bend in the river known then as The Angle, and today is known as Irishtown Bend the site of the new park with its work in progress. Many families arrived from the poor and independent County Mayo, of which my Grandfather was one, and settled on the west side and in the parishes of St. Malachi’s and St. Coleman’s.

Below are excerpts from my Mom’s thesis written at Notre Dame College Cleveland (which is sadly closing its doors this spring) highlighting her father’s journey to and life in Cleveland. Pictured are Tom and Helen Kilbane and their first three, including my mom.

Tom and Helen and their first three, including my mom.

For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow – A Biography of Thomas J. Kilbane by Kathleen Kilbane 1953
It all started with the letter from Tommy’s great uncle, Tom Joyce, in America urging his family to follow him to the great country of America. His dad was enthusiastic for as much as his parents loved that wee bit of heaven called Ireland, it had not much to offer a growing family. Tommy, the oldest born in 1906, along with his two brothers, one-year-old sister and parents were aboard the westward transatlantic ship. The boat docked at New York City harbor on the evening of April 1911. They reached the long lines of customs but, unlike the rest the passengers, they were exempt from waiting as the customs official mistook them for relatives of the champion fighter, Johnny Kilbane. (whose statue resides in Battery Park)

They finally reached Cleveland where Tom Joyce, who had financed their journey over, awaited them. He was of invaluable help in settling them in a house in Cleveland’s Irish district called The Old Angle, and in securing a laborer’s position for Tommy’s father that paid fifteen dollars a week. In September a reluctant boy was escorted to school by his father and deposited unceremoniously at the door of St. Malachi’s parish school. Before the month ended, Tommy had decided school was bearable but certainly not enjoyable.

Tommy’s mother added to the family income by opening a small confectionary store, Kilbane’s Delicatessen. During his school years, Tommy and his W. 25th Street pals left school with one destination in mind. Pies would occasionally be placed on window ledges of a factory to cool. This opportunity was too much to resist for this group of hungry Irish lads, who seldom had sweets at home, so they took advantage of it. Once a month, his mother would give him fifteen cents for a haircut but he devised an ingenious plan for obtaining free ones by merely trudging downtown to the Barber’s College, offering his services as an experimental model and pocketing the money. Tommy’s favorite pastimes were the simple pleasures of an invigorating swim on Whiskey Island very near their home or a Saturday song fest at the Kilbane’s home which was the popular gathering place for the “greenhorns” or Irish immigrants.

At thirteen, Tom (dropping “Tommy” for “Tom”) graduated from St. Malachi’s school. His eighth-grade teacher, Sister Edna, interested Tom in borrowing books from the public library and to increase his reading list even if he did not wish to further his education. Sister Edna had wisely sown her seeds, for that summer Tom approached his father with the entreaty that he be allowed to attend high school. Although he now had six sons and a daughter to support, he agreed to allow his son this privilege. Tom’s father wanted him to go to Cathedral Latin, which was free, but Tom insisted on going to Ignatius. He held his ground and the following September entered Ignatius High School.

Tom was determined to have none of the financial burden rest on his father, so he applied for the job of lamplighter and was accepted. This meant a great deal of sacrifice on his part because he had to rise at 4 A.M. every morning to extinguish the candles around the city and light them every evening at 6 P.M. His determination and scholarship during the first year of high school merited him scholarship for the following three years. He became not only an excellent student, but a class officer, president of the debate club, active member of the Sodality, and a star performer on the track team. Tom really enjoyed his days at Ignatius and in his opinion, there wasn’t a better school nor better teachers to be found anywhere. And since he had a scholarship, he used his lamplighter earnings to finance his younger brother’s high school educations.

Graduating from Ignatius with high honors, Tom wished to continue his education at John Carroll University. His dream was made possible by a four-year scholarship. Tom’s college career was successful in all respects. In addition to being the Dean’s list, he was elected to a class office each of his four years, was a member of three prom committees, and chairman of Sodality debate and dramatic committees. He was an orator of note and a wrestling champion, a hardworking Irish fellow with the jolly laugh and willing hand. (END)

Senior year at JCU my Grandfather met his wife, Helen, their first date at the senior football dance. They went on to have six children, my Mom the oldest, and lived on Chatfield Drive in the West Park neighborhood of Cleveland. He had a lifelong career and achieved the highest position available as General Yardmaster at The Cleveland Branch of the Erie Railroad.

With the 175th Cleveland St. Patrick’s Day Parade upon us, my earliest memories are of piling into my Grandpa’s Buick sedan as he took his seven grandkids all under the age of 12yo to the parade all by himself. He somehow managed to never lose one of us! In his later years my Grandpa had the luxury of viewing the parade from The Union Club where his eldest son Tom was a member and of which the comfort and refreshments were of the adult kind. This viewing spot was well-earned as neither rain nor snow stopped Grandpa from taking us grandkids to the city for the annual parade.

Cleveland is home to many immigrant groups which makes our city and region rich in diversity of people, foods, dance, culture and much more. We enjoy sharing stories with your candidates and new hires, of how the city came to be who we are today, and of how no matter where they originate from they will find a place here and we will help them call it “home”. Give us a call and we will share more ways in which we for over 40 years are known to be the must-have talent attraction and retention partner in Greater Cleveland and Akron. 216.231.9311