BLOOMINGTON -- If today's McLean County Irish are indeed lucky, as the saying goes, they may have their very unlucky ancestors to thank.
Today is St. Patrick's Day, an excuse for many to drink 'til they see green. For others, it's a time to look back on McLean County's Irish history, largely written by early immigrant laborers and business leaders whose life's works are still visible in Central Illinois.
Fleeing a potato famine that first hit Ireland in the 1840s, the Irish and other immigrants came for work, many on the Illinois Central Railroad, then the largest private construction project in U.S. history. The rail line reached Bloomington in 1853, with laborers paid $1.25 per day.
The brutal conditions would be almost unrecognizable to many of today's workers. Common were 14-hour days without overtime, poor sanitary conditions and threat of cholera, said Twin City labor leader Mike Matejka, who has studied labor history.
"If you get hurt on the job, they said, 'Tough luck, we'll go find somebody else,'" Matejka said, adding that the Irish carried with them a long tradition of organizing resistance to British rule.
Their hardship is visible today at Funks Grove Cemetery, where about 50 Irish workers who apparently died of cholera in the 1850s are buried in a mass grave marked by a Celtic cross.
By 1880, the 6,300 or so Irish immigrants and their children were about 13 percent of McLean County's 50,000 residents, said Greg Koos, executive director of the county's Museum of History.
Though the notion of immigrant ethnicity faded as a stronger national culture took hold after World War I, Koos said, a familiar Irish stereotype -- drinking -- traces some of its origins back to this time.
"The social destruction these people experienced as a result of famine, seeing their culture and families totally torn apart - it creates a tremendous grief," Koos said. "Alcohol becomes a means of drinking away that pain."
Generations later, the mark of the Irish is still on the Twin Cities, namely Holy Trinity Catholic Church, or the Constitution Trail (on the old Illinois Central rail line).
As of 2008, the Census Bureau estimates about 25,690 McLean County residents, or 16 percent, have Irish ancestry (not including Scot-Irish) -- the second most common ancestry behind German (about 32 percent).
The oldest continually operating funeral home in Bloomington-Normal, Carmody-Flynn Williamsburg, is now in its fourth generation of Irish-blooded ownership.
Founded in 1872 by C.C. Deneen, it was bought around 1910 by George R. Flynn, who was joined in business by his son, John, whose son, Tim, joined in 1979 and is now owner. (George Flynn's father, J.C., ran a local grocery store and served Irish railroad workers.)
Today the funeral home serves all faiths, but it grew in its early years in large part to its Irish customers.
"It was a building block in our business for several decades, and it's still a part of our business today," said Tim Flynn.
The Irish-immigrant experience was even the impetus for the fictional lore behind Maggie Miley's, named for the real-life great-grandmother of one of the uptown Normal Irish pub's founders who may (or may not have) departed Ireland with dreams of running a pub.
Still, the pub's interior is authentic Irish, and general manager Peter Connolly is a Dublin native, said owner Tyler Holloway. "(Customers) want to feel like they've gone out of the country for an hour or two," he said.
For a less-boozy way to honor St. Patrick, Matejka said it's a good time to consider the harsh conditions today's immigrants experience. The anti-immigrant "Know-Nothing" movement that challenged Irish laborers is similar to what today's Mexican laborers experience, added Koos.
"Let's think about what it's like to be an immigrant, not just of the 1850s, but for the immigrants of 2010," Matejka said.
A quick look at important Irish-blooded figures in McLean County history:
Andrew Biggs: Thought to be the first Irishman to settle in McLean County, in 1826. He was a teacher.
Luke Nevin: Became the first Irishman to start a business (a store) in Bloomington in 1860.
Patrick Morrissey: Bloomington-born son of Irish immigrants, credited with rebuilding the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen after the 1894 Pullman strike.
Daniel Tracy: West-side Bloomington native led the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers for much of 1933-54, leaving for several years for a labor post in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration.
E.J. Carmody: Son of an Irish father, Carmody was likely born in the Merna area and became an early adviser to his old friend, State Farm Insurance Cos. founder George J. Mecherle. Carmody later headed up State Farm's claims department from 1925 to 1933.
SOURCES: "Irish Immigrants in McLean County," (2000) edited by Greg Koos; State Farm archivist Dan Barringer; labor leader Mike Matejka
Got a story?
The McLean County Museum of History in downtown Bloomington and the local Irish Heritage Society are looking for oral histories about the county's Irish -- including Scot-Irish, the first wave of Irish immigrants -- for an exhibit set to open in 2012.
To share your family's story, contact the museum at 309-827-0428.