August 10, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Baltimore's Early Irish: Dissenters, Educators and Lifesavers

Baltimore’s modern Irish community does enjoy looking back towards their immigrant ancestors, but their reminiscences tend to go only so far, and down familiar paths. Careful research can really enrich our understanding of Baltimore’s vibrant manifestation as a lover of the tricolor flag (pictured, above our dear Tom Ward) first flown by Thomas Francis Meagher in support of the United Irishmen.

They loved Ireland and its people, regardless of religious denomination. How about you? Do you welcome the orange on the Irish flag? Read on…

We just might think back and consider the Catholic parishes of Baltimore when we remember the centers of Irish community life, and rightly so, as these were huge and intense gathering places for those who arrived in Baltimore from Ireland during the 19th century. Today we will remember that first major Irish wave into our fair city: that of the Protestant Irish of Ulster, and the North in general.

Baltimore’s early Irish tended to be Presbyterian Ulstermen who were ambitious and education minded. They saw their Irish heritage as a rallying point for fellowship with others of different faiths. These men continue in that role to this day, and many in the Baltimore area gather not as Irish Catholic organizations, but as people who rally around various aspects or emphases of Irish life. These ties that bind can be their professions, a particular charity, or activities such as dance and music.

We have written about several Catholic Churches that were Irish centers, and wanted to share some other stories of those that thought of Ireland as their ancestral home. We might wonder what that could mean, as it would seem to many that Catholics were the persecuted class that fled to Baltimore. Protestants were their persecutors, right?

The Protestant Church of England (Anglicans) and English government were essentially one and the same, and thought that removing Catholics from their Ulster lands once and for all was the solution to their Irish problem. They went about that by beginning the Plantation period (1607), when Catholic Irish were removed from their lands and a different category of Protestants, known as Dissenters were welcomed to occupy them at a low rental rate. These tended to be simple Scottish men whose ambitions were on the economic side, rather than evangelical. They became known as the Scots-Irish, and the group had considerable success in developing the land in the north of Ireland.

Education and religious passion joined hard work as important elements of Ulster life (Ulster pictured), and Presbyterians were joined by Baptists, Quakers and Methodists. Their many successes were noticed by the crown, as was their independent spirit, and rents rose.

Anglican/Puritan strictures were imposed on the dissenting Protestant population as well, and many who enjoyed remarkable success in the 1600’s faced persecution of their own in the next century, when even their religious sacraments such as marriage were deemed illegitimate by the established church.

250,000 frustrated Ulstermen immigrated to America during the 1700’s, and brought with them important characteristics developed during the Plantation period. They brought their religious faith with them, with various levels of intensity, and the companion skill of literacy that had been developed while doing personal Bible essential part of their religion.

They also brought their work ethic…an important motivator for their initial arrival in Ireland. These immigrant families had usually lived in Ireland for over a century, and done their share of intermarrying. Some did farm when they arrived in America, as they had in Ireland, but the traditional work of weaving also arrived with them, and flourished.

They also brought a spirit of Irish patriotism, and used their success to aid other Irish who also sought to begin again in America. A shared persecution by the Church of England became the tie that bound expatriates together in an organization that saved many lives during the dark days of the Great Hunger, when thousands arrived in Baltimore in a desperate state.

‌Some colonies were particularly open to an assortment of Christian denominations coming in and contributing to the development of the lands. Pennsylvania was especially attractive to these immigrants, as it did not have an Established Church (Anglican) as Maryland and Virginia did. Many had considerable success there, but a good number saw economic opportunity in Baltimore, a major shipping center.

They brought with them their Irish heritage, religious convictions and passion for educating their own. Many continued in the traditional Irish trade of weaving once they arrived, and 122 weavers were listed in Baltimore’s City Directory of 1831, living close to one another in West Baltimore.

The Hibernian Society of Baltimore (see logo) was established on August 17, 1803 to give relief to Irish immigrants arriving in Baltimore, regardless of denomination. The group included many Presbyterians that had sympathies for the United Irishmen, a group of Catholics and Dissenters (non-Anglican Protestants) that fought for the overthrow of English Rule (most notably in 1798). Their main efforts were in the area of education, and continues to be to this day. Their rosters have included both Catholic and Protestant chaplains.

They opened Oliver Hibernian Free School on April 5, 1824 and welcomed poor boys and girls of Irish descent to receive a free education. The school was paid for by the estate of Robert Oliver (pictured), a Belfast native and successful Baltimore merchant. The school provided a day education until 1891, and then moved to offering evening classes. It is estimated that 12,000 were educated there, including ancestors of this writer.

The City of Baltimore recognized the essential work of the society, and levied a $1.50 tax on each immigrant who arrived in Baltimore in 1832, payable by the ship captain. These funds were divided between the Hibernian Society, a similar German society and the city poor house. Each cared for the many desperate arrivals, helping them to find relatives and work, and send money back to Ireland and Germany when that opportunity came.

Early Irish were instrumental in the providing of medical care to famine arrivals. They were required to debark at Lazaretto Point Quarantine Station (pictured below) in lower Canton, and local doctors, clergy and Irish expatriates rushed to their aid.

Such was the case in May 1847 when the Rio Grande arrived with 220 passengers. Half were extremely ill, and the entire ship was quarantined until undergoing purification. Men of the Hibernian Society came to the assistance of their fellow Irish, providing material support such as blankets, food and cooking utensils.

A large wood structure was completed on May 8, 1847. This temporary hospital housed the sick, and care was given under the supervision of Dr. Lawrence and several others, including Drs. Chaisty, Frick, and O’Donovan. Dr. Charles Maguire gave aid as well, but eventually succumbed to illness carried by the passengers to America, as did James O. Law, a former mayor of the city. He was also a member of the Society, and was lost to ship’s fever while caring for many.

Religious life was also essential to these Irish Ulstermen. The anti-slavery Reformed Presbyterian Church was part of a denomination formed in Ireland itself, and is still active there today. Early records show that they had a church at modern-day Fayette and Aisquith St. in the early 1800’s, and eventually moved to Holliday and Saratoga Streets on July 13, 1829 (pictured above), leasing land from merchant Robert Oliver to build a church of their own.

These were particularly “conservative” Presbyterians, and their evangelical efforts included an active Sunday School program, in affiliation with other Protestant Churches in Baltimore. They educated 120 scholars in 1819, many of which received no education during the week. Other efforts included a Female and Juvenile Bible Societies.

The congregation moved to a new building at Aisquith and Harford Road in 1833, constructed in the style of their former structure: devoid of steeple, bell, organ and other finery, and holding services that included only vocal music with lyrics from the Book of Psalms.

Baltimore’s Second Presbyterian Church (see image) was another center for Irish dissenters, located at E Baltimore and Lloyd Streets.

Reverend John Glendy (1755-1832...pictured) was their pastor. He was born in Derry and fled to the U.S. due to religious persecution of the Presbyterian faith. He led a congregation that included many wealthy families from Baltimore’s Jonestown neighborhood. Rev. Glendy was a well-known orator, and a friend of President Thomas Jefferson. He also served as Chaplain of the Hibernian Society, and blessed the militia that was heading to the Battle of North Point, led by General Stricker, on September 12, 1814.

Pastor Glendy led a congregation that included Mrs. Thomas Kelso, William Pechin and Isaac McKim. He also served as Chaplain of the Hibernian Society, as did Rev.

James Dolan, the famous Catholic Pastor of St. Patrick’s, Fell’s Point.

Baltimore’s religious community included important Methodist expatriates as well. Thomas Kelso (1784-1878...pictured above) was born in Clones, County Monaghan and followed his brothers to Baltimore where they established a highly profitable butcher shop. He was an Old Defender, and was known throughout the city as a railroad man, city councilman, banker, school president, pious lay Methodist and benefactor to many charities, including the Centenary Biblical Institute.

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

Kelso and his brothers also sent aid to their native Clones during the Great Hunger.

Baltimore’s early Irish are remembered on the inner panels of the Washington Monument in D.C. The Hibernian Society of Baltimore placed this important plaque there (see image), as did many sponsoring organizations during its construction. The men listed there were both Protestant and Catholic, and did important civic and educational work that are worthy of remembrance by us modern Irish.

Be sure to thank the Hibernian Society when you next see them at one of our Maryland Irish Festivals…many famine era Irish Catholics literally owed their lives to the organization. The Society is Baltimore’s oldest Irish organization, and one of its most vital. They continue gathering together, and provide scholarships to descendants of the Irish people.

Among these who continue to benefit from the Hibernian Society's passion for education is Danielle Marie Commodari. She graduated from Institute of Notre Dame a few years ago and began her studies at Stevenson University, benefitting from a scholarship from the Society. She is a descendant of Irish such as William and Johanna Gaffney of West Baltimore, and Harry and Laura Meagher, of Tipperary.

It is with heartfelt thanks that we remember Baltimore's early Irish. They welcomed and cared for our descendants who arrived during the Great Hunger, educated our forebears freely and gave hope and a future to many thousands.

Many thanks to those who have given so generously to this ongoing series of articles, both financially and through offering treasured images for our use. This issue includes contributions by:

Keith Carney, photographer

Hibernian Society of Baltimore

Sandra Lee Harper

C.C. Knobeloch, photographer

Second Presbyterian Church, Baltimore

Laura Gaffney Slonim

Historical newspapers:

American and Commercial Daily Advertiser

Baltimore Patriot and Merchant Advertizer

Baltimore Republican

Maryland Journal


History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America, 79 (accessed 10/6/2020)

J. Thomas Scharf, History of Baltimore City and County (Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1881), 551

Matchett’s Baltimore Directory, 1831

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