The fighting Irish3/12/2014
A peek into world history reveals a grave conclusion: Europeans were global bullies. Almost everyone knows the horror stories of the Holocaust — how religious prejudice brought widespread persecution of an entire race, which led to one of the grisliest wars in human history. Likewise, American history tells similar tales of the Native American tragedy and African slavery from which much of this country’s identity is now built. In hindsight, a hundred or more years later, such chaos and conflict can be seen as necessary evils to birth a greater good. For example, from the American Civil War morphed humankind’s first “United States” experiment. Such travesties were rooted in hate and ignorance with the side-effects of massive bloodshed, lost lives and ravenous wars. But perhaps it was necessary for the sake of foraging a more tolerant human race, not just for the U.S., but for the world.
The culture of this land and its people owes a great historic debt to its oppressed immigrants and natives. From that came democracy — a patriot’s mighty weapon against tyranny. But among the “Indians,” the Jewish and the Africans, is an all but forgotten fourth victim — the Irish.
Beguiled by the euphoria of St. Paddy’s celebrations, the Irish heritage is grossly reduced to green beers, orange beards and belly laughs; shamrock shades and parades; bagpipes, kilts and “Kiss Me” Ts; corned beef, cabbage and whiskey. Today, when we think of Irish, we think of St. Patrick’s Day, and while there is no shame in celebrating the culture with all of the above, those with deep Irish roots that branch back to the European motherland know it wasn’t always leprechauns and rainbows, and there were certainly no proverbial pots of gold. In fact, the pots were empty, and “the luck of the Irish” was more of a sarcastic irony than a magical phenomenon.
‘Ne’er a pot in which to pee’
Most families in Des Moines today know nothing of true poverty compared to those in Ireland in the 17th-19th centuries. When the British overtook the Catholics in the early 1600s, a wave of hate, oppression and tyranny befell the Irish. The consequences of which were centuries of war, famine and eventual exodus.
The fighting Irish went down swinging with a history of revolt, defiance, sacrifice and bloody battle after bloody damn battle against their English oppressors. By the mid-1650s, a third of the Irish population was dead or in exile. The fight, famine and poverty became Irish children’s only inheritance, as they set their eyes for escape.
Down, but not out
As if that wasn’t enough to make even the most convicted Catholic shake a fuming fist at the sky, the Irish were bludgeoned with another fatal blow that historians call the “Little Ice Age.” The frigid winters of 1740 and 1741 took 400,000 Irish lives and forced 150,000 to flee their homeland to avoid starvation.
“It was the potato famine that drove my family out, and we’ve been here ever since,” said Michael O’Malley of Des Moines, as is true with many local Irish descendants.
But the O’Malleys did more than simply “be here.” For example, James O’Malley moved his wife and a dozen or so of their offspring to Beaver Township in the 1860s to become “one of the most innovative farmers of Dallas County in those times,” Michael said. James’ youngest brother (of seven siblings total), Bernard, raised livestock nearby and created Rose Hill Farm near Bouton.
But their father, John “The Blacksmith” O’Malley, who fought his and his family’s way out of occupied Ireland to immigrate to Dallas County, wanted more than a farmer’s life for his children.
“The O’Malleys didn’t want their kids to be farmers,” Michael said. “They wanted their kids to go on to be professionals in business and law, and most of them did.”
Many O’Malleys were in banking in Perry. John The Blacksmith’s grandson Bernard did well by the old man’s wishes, raising three children: William, who became a bank examiner and George — Michael’s father — who was elected to the State Senate. Michael, 64, continues the legacy set by his ancestors working as an attorney at Lillis O’Malley Olson Manning Pose Templeman LLP, a law firm that was founded by his aunt’s husband John Connolly Jr. in downtown Des Moines in 1917.
“My daughter, Bridget (Kautzky) is an attorney here now, too,” Michael beamed.
Michael’s distant cousin, George W. O’Malley, also succeeded in fulfilling The Blacksmith’s wish, in part, simply by marrying a remarkably driven Catholic woman named Nora Garland.
Education staves off starvation
Nora O’Malley had a dream to build a school so all Irish Catholics had the chance at a good education.
“Mother was a spirited, outgoing person and had a plan, which stirred up furor within the congregation of our church,” wrote her son, Dr. George O’Malley. “She was instrumental in bringing a unit of The Catholic Daughters to Perry. As its President, a member of the St. Catherine’s Circle, and of the Altar Society, she pressured them to back her cause.
“Every week she invited nuns to come from different localities that had Catholic schools to obtain suggestions and advice. Our local priest, James Cleary, was not in favor of the project or mother’s nuisances at the time. She made several trips to Des Moines to seek the advice of Bishop Drum who gave her much encouragement. No matter where or what an organization meeting was about, she was there to get support for her school project.”
Finally, on Feb. 21, 1921, she witnessed her hard work come to fruition. St. Patrick’s Catholic School held its grand opening, followed by Nora’s death from cancer later that very day.
“On her deathbed she requested of our father that he see that all four sons graduate from St. Patrick’s,” her son wrote.
Her dream was recognized: George graduated in 1929; Martin in 1931; Charles in ’33; and Bernard in ’35.
“If Nora and George W. were alive today they would be very proud knowing that our mother’s persistent hard work together with their prayers and religious fervor brought about this beautiful educational project,” he concluded.
Today St. Patrick’s Catholic School offers a parochial primary curriculum with a current enrollment of 135 students and a 100-percent graduation rate, according to school officials. About 10 percent them continue their Catholic education at Dowling in West Des Moines.
Irish roots cut off at the stem
Irish citizens have recently become fascinated with their family history, according to Theresa Liewer, Iowa Genealogical Society president who moderates a monthly Irish Interest Group meeting. But, unfortunately, this is another battle left for the Irish to fight.
“Each month we examine resources that help us learn about our families in Ireland,” Liewer said. “We also spend time looking at resources here in America that assist in identifying where families came from in Ireland.
“I have to admit that a certain amount of our time is spent moaning that we’re not German or Norwegian or even British. The Society also has interest groups for those nationalities, and the Irish group envies them because their records go back so much further and are much more complete.
“But we console ourselves that the Irish have more fun.”
For years, Irish genealogy was coined “bottom-of-the-pile” research, she said, because “if you had any other research that you could possibly do, you slipped the Irish research to the bottom of your pile.” That changed when Heritage Centres opened in each Ireland county to help visiting descendants discover their lineage. Online resources have made it even more accessible.
But Irish genealogy is still a challenge due to the a civil war between the Free State supports and the Republicans in 1922, Liewer explained. The Public Record office was destroyed and much of the early Irish census documents along with it.
“The majority of the population was Catholic, and those church records generally don’t begin until the first part of the 19th century because of persecution by the English,” Liewer explained. “In addition, most of our ancestors were poor, meaning they didn’t own land or have wills — two basic building blocks of genealogical research.
“Sometimes we hit a brick wall and have to be content with just knowing that we’re Irish.”
Long live the Irish
That’s good enough for Lew Woolfrey Jr., a 35-year-old East Coast Irish man who moved to Iowa almost three years ago. Named after his father, Woolfrey is sort of a modern-day transplant version of an immigrant pioneer. Like the O’Malleys, he came to Iowa looking for a fresh start.
“Iowa has given me a chance to be the person I always knew I could be — not an asshole,” he chuckled. “I used to be drunken and destructive and had no regard for my future. I basically didn’t care about life.”
Woolfrey moved to Adel based on the recommendation of a friend who had moved there a few years earlier.
“He never said a bad thing about this place. He said Iowa was wonderful,” Woolfrey said with a noticeable Boston drawl. “Then I moved here, and it is. The people are great, jobs are plentiful, and I like the weather ’cause I’m from Boston, so it’s like home to me.”
In just two years, Woolfrey has found a steady job doing what he loves and a girl he loves. The fact that she’s Irish isn’t surprising, considering she’s from Dallas County, which was not planned on Woolfrey’s part.
“It helps give us something in common and something to maybe someday pass on to our kids,” he said. “I like the idea of continuing my heritage, because my heritage is really important to me. In a roundabout way, it’s the bedrock of my life, of me — my morals, my faith — and I’d like someone with similar experiences because of her heritage, our heritage.”
What is it about the Irish? Where do such humble people get this profound pride? Woolfrey says it’s the history of suffrage that is a big part of what makes the Irish a proud people despite it, because to be underestimated is a warrior’s most powerful weapon.
“We’re fighters, hard-workers but also, we’re loving. We love our families; we love our church; everything in the Irish culture,” he said. “I think that history is extremely important to our culture, to who we are as people. We’re more than just the St. Patrick’s Day festivities. We’re the Irish, dammit.” CV