March 11, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

A Tricolor Flag, and a Baltimore Transformation

We proudly fly the Irish tri-color flag at the Museum, but do you wonder? What's it mean, anyway? Most of us see it as a symbol of our ancestral land, but not much more. The Irish of Baltimore have benefitted immensely from the meaning behind those colors, and we're going to talk about that today as we continue our Big Pivot Series.

Baltimore's early wave of Irish immigration was predominantly Protestant, and usually Presbyterian. This denomination, and others were referred to as "dissenters", and had their own trouble with the Church of England. They populated the North of Ireland during the "plantation" era, and many came to America for a new beginning. They tended to live in colonies where the Church of England did not dominate, such as Pennsylvania and the Carolinas. Many, however, made their way to Baltimore, where remarkable business opportunities were available.

These Protestants are represented by the Orange in our modern flag, first flown by a Catholic named Thomas Francis Meagher, a leader in the Young Irelanders movement. He and others sought unity among the Irish people, with the Orange and Green (Catholics) flanking a white central panel. He said, "The white in the center signified a lasting truce between Orange and Green. I trust that beneath its fold the hands of the Irish Catholic and Irish Protestant may be clasped in generous and heroic brotherhood" (Meagher, April 13, 1848).

Meagher wasn't the first to express such sentiments. Many Irish arrivals in the first half of the nineteenth century saw their countrymen, of whatever denomination, as people that deserved their support.

The Irish of Baltimore were the beneficiaries of fellow countrymen who were part of an educated class, both Protestant and Catholic. Among these were leaders of religious and business life in Baltimore’s early years. Many took on the responsibility of educating and employing their own, who often had little in the way of schooling or experience in industry. Some men, such as pastors and religious educators, lived sacrificially to accomplish this, and as a result transformed a people from a mostly rural, uneducated and unskilled population to one that was a vibrant contributor to a growing urban center.

Initial casual research showed that most Catholic Irish who arrived in Baltimore were illiterate, due to a few circumstances. The oppressive Penal Laws had been in place since 1695. Among its many horrors were the criminalization of a Catholic education, and schoolmasters of that era were considered a treasonous lot by the established church. Many Irish Catholics would not send their children to Protestant schools due to the fear of proselytizing. Some established secret school gatherings, such as remote hedge and dune schools, where both academics and Catholic emphases could be taught out of plain view. These were sporadic and temporary, and generations of Irish depended on oral tradition, rather than the written word, to maintain their ethnic culture and religious life.

Protestants, however, saw personal Bible reading as an essential religious practice, and many taught their children to read as early as possible. These literate people were prepared for ambitious professions and positions once they arrived in Baltimore, and created or led workplaces for later arriving Irish.

Half of the Irish population was illiterate into the middle of the nineteenth century, with the western province of Connaught being dramatically so, with 2/3 unable to read and write.

Here's some examples of Protestant Irish who helped their fellow countrymen:

Thomas Kelso was a native of Clones, County Monaghan and had considerable success in Baltimore...who knew that butchers became rich in those days? Irish laborers were hired en masse at the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, where he served as director for 37 years.

He took his fortune and opened the Home for Orphans, a ministry affiliated with the Methodist Church. It was founded with a gift of $120,000.

Thomas and Jane Kelso were neighbors of the Orphanage, and lived at 1126 East Baltimore Street, just east of McKim Free School.

He identified himself as a “retired butcher” in the 1870 census, but was known throughout the city as a railroad man, city councilman, banker, school president, pious Methodist and benefactor to many charities, including the Centenary Biblical Institute.

Kelso held the first organizational meeting for the Institute in his home on Christmas Day, 1866. He became the first board president of this fledgling school for black Methodist ministers, which eventually became Morgan State University.

George Brown

The creation of railroads was a huge part of how Baltimore's Protestant Irish helped their countrymen, creating jobs and transforming men from rural to urban, and giving opportunities to establish careers and paths of advancement.

George Brown was the son of Alexander Brown, and was a native of Ulster. He was an entrepreneur and financier, and served as treasurer for the B & O Railroad. Men with those skills played the essential role of financing the expansion and development of railroads, and work opportunities abounded for Irish laborers as a result.

Charles Carroll, Barrister was a cousin of Charles Carroll (signer of the Declaration of Independence). His estate, Mount Clare still exists today, in Carroll Park.

Carroll owned a good bit of land in West Baltimore, and donated many acres for the establishment of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad's terminus at Mount Clare Station.

Carroll converted to Protestant faith and could practice law as a result; Catholics of his time could not be lawyers.

Charles Carroll, Barrister
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