Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, Northern Illinois University history professor Sean Farrell and his former doctoral student Mathieu Billings, now a faculty associate in history and political science at the University of Indianapolis, published their book “The Irish in Illinois.”
American history is not Farrell’s usual subject. He teaches world history and upper division classes in modern British and Irish history at NIU.
By doing research for the book, Farrell learned that Irish immigrants “played a central role in Illinois’ history,” even though Ireland is smaller than the state of Wisconsin.
Farrell spoke to MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton about the book and the Irish emigration to Illinois.
Milton: Is your heritage Irish?
Farrell: On my father’s side, my family is descended from Ireland. I didn’t grow up in a home that celebrated that heritage. I was never really surrounded by shamrocks, a love of Ireland or Irish identity. When I was in college, I took an Irish history class, and it spoke to me. It was interesting. I’ve loved the subject ever since.
Milton: How did the book writing process begin?
Farrell: The book began as [Mathieu Billings] was writing his dissertation on Irish workers, particularly canal workers in the early 19th century. An editor contacted him about writing a book, and then I came on board. I became enamored of the topic. It has an immense amount of Illinois history and American history.
Milton: Is Irish history something you know a lot about?
Farrell: I knew more about modern Irish history, particularly religion and violence in the 19th century, in what is now northern Ireland. This book on the Irish in Illinois is a continuation of longtime interest in Ireland. The American part was new for me.
Milton: What did you like about researching for the book?
Farrell: I know more about Irish history than Irish-American history, so working on the book was an exciting and creative journey for me. It was also a way to tell stories about people you might not know are part of Illinois’ history. Nine of Illinois’ governors and seven of Chicago’s mayors were from Ireland or were Irish-American.
Milton: What is something you learned while doing research?
Farrell: Most people associate immigration with the Irish famine in the middle of the 20th century and the rise to the political machine in Chicago. But there were earlier Irish immigrants in Illinois that served in the French and British armies and in the American Revolutionary War. There’s a larger trajectory of the Irish experience in Illinois, including mass Irish Catholic immigration to Chicago and Irish Protestants from Kentucky and Tennessee.
Milton: What are some of the stories told in the book?
Farrell: The book tells stories about people you might not know of who are part of Illinois’ history. One story is about Jennie Hodgers, who emigrated to Belvidere. During the American Civil War, she took on the identity of Albert Cashier. She enlisted in the 95th Illinois Infantry Regiment and served under Gen. Ulysses Grant. After the war, she continued living as a man, working, voting and collecting a soldier’s pension. Her transgender identity was only revealed after an automobile accident in 1911. The book is full of these types of stories, as well as the stories of the Madigans, Daleys and labor activists like Mother Jones.
Milton: Who is the book’s audience?
Farrell: The book is explicitly written for a popular and broad audience. It’s for those interested in Illinois history and the Irish experience. It’s not written necessarily for an academic audience, and it’s written in a narrative form. Most of my career I’ve written for an academic audience, so it’s interesting to write a book for anyone interested in Ireland and immigration to Illinois. There’s a surname index in the book, so people can use it as a starting point for genealogical research.
Milton: Why is learning about Irish emigration important?
Farrell: There was an emigration from Ireland, a global diaspora. There is an Irish global community because they spread around the world. It almost makes Irish history a global phenomenon, not just in Illinois, but around the world. … The book also underlines the fact that the United States is an immigrant country, a country made of immigrants. The Irish were just one of many nationalities that came to this country. There were also Italian, Polish, Norwegian, Swedish and German immigrants. There were immigrants from every country that made our country what it is today. I think the book stresses the importance of immigration and puts it into perspective, especially during the current political climate as well.