Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Irish of San Antonio's Colonial Period

Two men among the first Irish to come to San Antonio changed their citizenship and their names in order to adapt their lives to Spain. Their names Murphy and O’Connor, became Morfi and Oconor. One was the first historian to report in depth on the breadth of Texas, and the other was interim governor of Texas from 1767 to 1770.

In 1777, Father Juan Agustin Morfi, a missionary, historian and Irishman, accompanied Comandant General Teodoro de Croix on his inspection of New Spain, making keen observations and keeping detailed notes. He authored San Antonio’s earliest history , entitling his account History of Texas 1673-1779. A century and a half later, University of Texas Borderlands historian Carlos Castaneda translated the lengthy text and published it in two volumes in 1935.

The work of Morfi, a priest, intersected with soldier/statesman Governor Hugo Oconor at Mission San Jose. In his youth, Dublin-born Oconor fled the British in his homeland and joined the Spanish army, where his career prospered as he rose through successive ranks. Then, serving as the Interim Governor of the Province of Texas, he lived in San Antonio in 1768, and helped lay the first two stones in the church foundation at “The Queen of Texas Missions,” San Jose. On March 19, 1768, the governor joined with Father Gaspar Jose Solis to start building the new church for the mission, after a previous church, built before 1749, had been torn down to make room for the new structure.

As the Texas revolutions of the 19th century followed, Irishmen continued to play important roles in San Antonio history just the way Morfi and Oconor had in the 18th century. In fact, at the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, twelve of the Texas defenders were Irish-born, and David Crockett and 20 other American-born defenders traced their family heritage to Ireland.

--Frank W. Jennings, 1992
Full Article:

Friday, December 4, 2015

William B. Ward - Defender of the Alamo

Growing up in Texas, all of us are aware of the many legends of the Alamo; Davey Crockett killing enemy soldiers with the butt of his rifle. Jim Bowie brandishing his namesake knife and pistol in a last stand from his death bed, William Travis drawing a line in the sand and proclaiming, "I now want every man who is determined to stay here and die with me to come across this line.  Who will be first?” (Lindley).

We now have one additional legend to remember: William B. Ward. Ward was born in Ireland in 1806.  He arrived in Texas by way of New Orleans around 1835. Ward had a reputation for drunkenness, but at the siege of the Alamo, he (soberly) manned an artillery position at the Alamo’s Main Gate.  It is said that as Mexican Army descended upon the fortress, and his compatriots retreated inside the main building for one last stand, Sargent Ward stood at his artillery position, calm and sober, and fired. Ward died at his post on March 6, 1836, and is buried at Presidio la Bahia in Goliad, Texas. (Potter) 

Like it or not, the stereotype of the Irish Drunkard is cast. I am reminded of this every March, when retailers across the nation fill their shelves with a multitude of ironic t-shirts, featuring cheeky humor related to an Irishman’s fondness for alcohol. Many Irish are offended by the cast, and work to dispel it. In fact, many members of the society prefer not to be photographed with a drink in their hand. However, we Irish can celebrate an Irishman who was known around San Antonio for his affection for drink, and his heroism at the Battle of the Alamo. 


Daughters of the American Revolution. The Alamo Heroes and Their Revolutionary Ancestors (San Antonio, 1976).
Reuben M. Potter. "The Fall of the Alamo," Magazine of American History, January 1878; rpt., Hillsdale, New Jersey: Otterden, 1977).
Lindley, Thomas Ricks. Alamo Traces: New Evidence and New Conclusions. Lanham, Maryland: Republic of Texas Press, 2003.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Irish Organizations in San Antonio in the late 19th Century

As the Irish population grew in San Antonio, Irish settlements and neighborhoods like Avoca, The Irish Flats, and Government Hill were plotted and planned. Homes were built and families flourished. With a growing Irish population it was only natural that Irish organizations would be established to build kinship, establish traditions, and foster a sense of community among the Irish.

Recently, my friend Tim Draves stopped by my office with a photocopy of the City of San Antonio Directory from 1885. There, on pages 56 and 57, two Irish organizations were listed. The Irish American Association was organized in 1873, and chartered in 1877. At the time of the printing, Peter Shields was the president, and meetings were held at Meyer’s Hall on the last Saturday of each month. There were 150 members. The Irish Land League was established in 1881. This organization was also led by Peter Shields. Meetings were held at his office on the first Sunday of each month, and there were 100 members.

Interestingly, in 1870’s Ireland, the Irish Land League was established as a political organization which sought to assist Irish tenant farmers. Landlords, faced with a depression and a failed potato crop in the early 1870’s, began to extract higher rents from tenant farmers who could not afford them. The Land League was the answer to the tenant farmer’s plight.

Led by Charles Stewart Parnell, The Land League was founded in Castlebar, Co. Mayo to abolish landlordism and enable tenant farmers to own the land that they worked on. ( ) The ensuing struggle for Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure and Free Sale, (the “Three F’s”) launched the Land War of 1879 – 1882, which eventually (beginning in 1902) led to opportunities for Irish farmers to once again own land in Ireland.

For more information on the land wars, check out the Irish History Podcasts:

So now that I know the back story, I wonder why the Land League was established in San Antonio. Was it to support the movement in Ireland, or to establish fair rents for the Irish community in San Antonino?

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Halfway Hooley

Half way to St. Patrick’s Day Hooley and Irish Stew and Irish Soda Bread tasting contest will be held on September 19, 2015 starting at 4 pm at the “ O’Beethoven Garden Pub”.

Start working on your family’s favorite Irish Stew recipe for the 9th rematch of the Irish Stews.  You must register to participate in the cook-off in advance.  There is a $10 entrance fee and prizes will be awarded.  A select team of judges will judge the stew using The Irish Stew Appreciation Society International, Inc. guidelines.  For those interested in the Irish Soda Bread contest, similar guidelines will be used.  The application will be available on our website soon.

Like last year, you are invited to be a judge in the PEOPLES CHOICE AWARD.   For a $5 donation you will be given tasting bowls, spoons and a ballot form to complete for each Irish Stew and soda bread.  So come on out for an afternoon of great food, fellowship and a little ‘friendly’ competition.

Donations are requested for Irish Soda Bread to be sold with the Irish Stew.  If you would like your Soda bread to be entered into the tasting contest you must register in advance. 

Thank you to all previous stew and Irish soda bread contest participants who have so generously helped to support the society.  We look forward to seeing you at this years tasting and hope to see some new folks too.

Please contact Diana Jordan or go to “Sign-up Genius” if you are interested in volunteering at the Halfway Hooley.

Volunteers are needed to help serve during the tasting, assist the official judges and staff the Irish store.

For more information, visit our Halfway Hooley information page.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Siege of the Alamo February 23, - March 6, 1836.

Of the 188 defenders at the Alamo, twelve were Irish-born; many more were of Irish heritage.  As you enter the Alamo Shrine, you will see flags representing the countries of those who perished. Immediately to the left of the entrance door is the Tricolor Flag of Ireland. This flag is in first position to honor the Irish who died that fateful March day.

Below are your names.

Known Irish-Born Defenders who died at the Alamo:
Samuel E. Burns, Andrew Devalt, Robert Evans, Joseph M. Hawkins, William Daniel Jackson, Thomas Jackson, James McGee, Robert McKinney, James Nowlan, Jackson J Rusk, Burke Trammell, William B Ward.

Irish Americans from Texas:
James Brown, James Hannan, Samuel B. Blair, Edward McCafferty, Miles Andross, Jerry C. Day, John Joseph Valentine, and Robert Moore.

Irish Americans from Kentucky, Tennessee, and other states:
David Crockett, Peter James Bailey, Daniel William Cloud William H. Fontlenoy, George Butler, Charles Clark, Green B. Jamison, James Gerrand, Joseph Kerr, Issac Ryan, James Kenny, William Linn, William T. Malone, William P King, Charles S. Smith, Jonathan L. Lindley, and many other known patriots who valued feedom more than life itself at this shrine.

Dr. Sean Burke, Patrick J. Dowd, and Colonel Joseph B. McShane; the three founding members of the Harp and Shamrock Society of Texas, began the tradition of laying a wreath at the Alamo shrine on March 17, 1967. This was the first official function of the newly formed society. Since then, the Harp and Shamrock Society of Texas’ members have placed a wreath at the door of the Alamo each year on St. Patrick's Day to honor the Irish heroes who lost their lives in 1836.

Compiled by Patrick J. Dowd, Chairman Emeritus of the St. Patrick's Day Parade Commission, 1994.


The Irish Texans, by John Brendan Flannery
Alamo Defenders by Bill Groneman
Shamrock and Cactus by M.Ryan

Friday, April 10, 2015

Sister Columkille Colbert, CCVI

Margaret Colbert left her hometown of Cappoquin, Ireland in the early 20th century at age 16 to come to San Antonio to join the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word.  Here she received the name Columkille, a remarkable Irish saint and a man gifted with incredible talents. The name was a sign of things to come.

In short order she became a scholar-teacher of classical languages and became the first religious woman to earn a Ph.D. in Texas. The road was not easy for anyone less determined.  At that time The Catholic University of America was still for men although some women were admitted.  However, Sister was not allowed in the classroom with the men; she had to attend classes sitting in the hallway. 

After a two-month term as president of Incarnate Word College (IWC) by Rev. Mariano Simon Garcia, a former resident at the CCVI orphanage, Sister assumed the post of President and then Chairman of the Board for the next 40 years.  A woman of vision and drive, she moved Incarnate Word forward as a premier women’s college.  And she never heard the word “no”.  She assumed it meant “maybe”.

She focused that vision and drive on expanding the physical campus, and making sure the Sisters on the faculty earned the highest degrees possible.  Recognition and accreditation in the academic community guaranteed the value of degrees granted and she had her targets in sight like a sharpshooter with bottles on the wall.  And she was the religious equivalent of Annie Oakley.  Sister could be tough when needed, but she also had a gentler, giving side.

Accessibility for students meant everything to her, “no student will ever be turned away from Incarnate Word College because of her parent’s  inability to pay the costs of tuition," she insisted,  and throughout the 1930s,  she dismissed many unpaid bills.  Some parents living on farms or ranches outside the city paid the costs of tuition in fresh vegetables, fruit, eggs, and meat.  The supplies were always welcome and used to feed hungry students.  And that philosophy included all races and creeds.  She had financial aid and work-study long before Congress.  The contributed services of the Sisters kept the operating budget reasonable, but if she needed cash flows she knew how to do that, too.

In 1950, when Incarnate Word High School opened a new campus she had a dream for an  evening degree program for working adults.  Once again a "not now" was only a future "maybe".  In the 1960’s she opened the campus up to the wider community and revealed the value of her past friendships with the then young Dr. Raymond Roehl, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Jose Vives-Atsara.  Even before coeducation she allowed young men to finish a degree if we alone had their major. She just needed to change the pronoun her to him.

When she left the campus in 1969 for retirement, the record of her life was entered into the Congressional Record.  A medal of honor in print.

-Dick McCracken

Sunday, March 8, 2015

History of the Irish Flats

Just a block from the Alamo, is an area known as the Irish Flats. The residential community was home to both Irish and German immigrants who came to the area between 1830 and 1860. The area they choose to settle was flat bottomland, bounded on the south by the Alamo Plaza and Houston streets; on the north by 10th Street; on the west by Avenue C (Broadway); and on the east by the ancient Acequia Madre (IH37).

Irish Flat houses are considered unique, combining features of homes the immigrants left in Ireland, as well as German and Spanish influences, giving the neighborhood a quaint, old world  look. With narrow front porches, low rooflines and thatch roofs, the style identifies the Irish Flat house as the "only indigenous architectural style to have its origins in San Antonio.” (S. A. Express-News.2/3/99.)

Legend has it that home building was a community effort using what might be termed as soft stone, quarried near Mission Conception on the south end of San Antonio. The completion of the home called for a Cèilidh (kay-lee), a Gaelic celebration featuring music and dance.

In the 1850’s, faith communities grew in and around the neighborhood, as evidenced by St. Mary’s Catholic Church; St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, and First Presbyterian Church.

As the Irish prospered, in the late 19th century, families ventured north to the Government Hill neighborhood, north of Austin St. and west of the newly established Ft. Sam Houston (1870). Commercial expansion along Broadway, along with the departure of the residents led to the disappearance of many of the structures,  Only a few examples of Irish Flat houses remain today.