More Than Just Chicago -- New Book Explores History Of Irish Immigration in the Prairie State

Mar 17, 2021

A new book aims to shine a greater light on the history of Irish immigrants to Illinois. 

The work is a product of two people, Northern Illinois University history professor Sean Farrell, and his former doctoral student Mathieu Billings, who now works at the University of Indianapolis. Farrell said a key motivation behind the book, and its title, was to broaden the scope by which people see “The Irish in Illinois.” 

“The time seemed right to put it together in terms of the first statewide history of the Irish in Illinois," he said. "There’s been a lot of great stuff on the Irish in Chicago and a lot of good things on the Irish in various communities, but there hasn’t been anything that kind of brought that all together.” 

Farrell said the biggest contributor to Irish immigration in the public consciousness is the Great Famine,  which took place in the mid-1840s.

“In terms of numbers, that’s true," Farrell said, "but if we look further back, Irish settlers and soldiers came to the Illinois country as early as the 1750s, were part of the French Imperial Army, the British Imperial Army, were soldiers in the American Revolutionary War on the patriot side as well.” 

The soldiers and settlers were also diverse when it came to religion. Farrell said in the 1780s and 90s, groups of Irish Protestants settled Illinois, coming up from areas such as Kentucky and Tennessee. Beyond that point, immigration picked up. 

“The real jumps in Irish settlement in Illinois come from the 1830s onward," Farrell said, "and they’re connected to laborers on the canal projects and then obviously with the Famine immigration, more and more Irish people come to Illinois, to Chicago in particular, in search of work.” 

And while the Irish have many ties to large cities such as Chicago, from labor to politics, Farrell said that was far from the only destination.

“A fairly decent percentage of mid-19th century farmers are Irish immigrants," he said. "Matt [Billings] highlights some in LaSalle County for example in his work. The Irish experience in Illinois wasn’t simply an urban laboring one.”

Such a book wouldn’t be complete without profiles of several Irish Illinoisans. One is Jennie Hodgers, an immigrant to Belvidere. She disguised herself as a man, changed her name to Albert Cashier, and fought for the Union in the Civil War. Farrell said another figure is Sister Mary William Sullivan. She was an Irish-American Catholic sister who worked on civil rights in Chicago with contemporaries such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

“She described herself," Farrell said, "as a large loud Irish nun sitting on the corner of Jackson and California. A remarkable individual who worked for 70 years in service to people who needed it.” 

Farrell said the timing of the book’s release right around St. Patrick’s Day  – quote -- “may not be an accident.”  He says there’s already been positive reception from media outlets and academics on both sides of the pond. He also suggests it could be interesting to those with Irish ancestry.

“A lot of people in Illinois, an estimated one million, still consider themselves Irish," he said, "and not just on St. Patrick’s day. Our book really is aimed to let them explore the range and diversity of the Irish experience here.” 

“The Irish in Illinois” is now out through Southern Illinois University Press.