March 31, 2021
Written by 
Martha Connolly, PH.D.

Our Shamrock Legacy Series Premiere Issue: Patrick and Julia A. Connolly

Introduction and Arrival

Patrick Connolly was born in County Offaly, Ireland in 1843.  The potato famine (The Great Hunger) raged between 1845-1848. Patrick would have been 2-5 years old during that time. Family lore says that he was the youngest of 17 children.

He emigrated to America in 1865 after the American Civil War had ended, at the age of 22. Patrick likely arrived in Manhattan and came through the Castle Garden immigration center.

Castle Garden was America's first official immigration center, from August 3, 1855 to April 18, 1890: a pioneering collaboration of New York State and New York City. The federal government determined in 1890 to control all ports of entry and take responsibility for receiving and processing all immigrants to the U.S.  Castle Garden operated until the U.S. Office of Immigration opened the newly built Ellis Island in 1892. ( Patrick would not have been welcomed by the Statue of Liberty; it did not arrive in New York Harbor until 1885.

Settling In

Patrick settled in Brooklyn, as many Irish immigrants did during that time. His neighborhood was a melting pot, and had immigrants from Bavaria, Prussia, Norway and Ireland.   He very likely encountered difficulty finding work. This was the era of “Irish need not apply,” “Irishmen need not apply,” or the simple, brutal “No Irish.”  Patrick’s occupation is listed as “laborer” on the 1870 census.  Patrick found work as a sandhog (pictured above, 1903; courtesy of the New York Public Library), one of New York’s legendary miners: digging the underground of New York City. It was dangerous work.

 Becoming Part of a Bigger Story: The Sandhogs

The Sandhogs, 1903: Courtesy of the New York Public Library

 The Sandhogs gained their name from working in soft ground close to the water before graduating to hard rock.  They were New York City’ urban miners.

“It was the kind of job where only the hungriest would go anywhere near it. The Irish made it their own. The Irish seemed to have an obsession with being the hardest workers, doing the most dangerous jobs.” – Thomas Kelly, author of The Sandhogs.

Sandhogs built all the water tunnels that still bring the city’s water – a billion and a half gallons a day - to New York from many miles away. They ensured the supply of adequate drinking water around the time of the American Civil War. The Sandhogs have worked on projects starting with the Brooklyn Bridge, Lincoln, Holland, Queens-Midtown, and Brooklyn-Battery Tunnels, along with most of New York City's subways, waterways, and sewers. The city above grew where the sandhogs ventured below.

Sandhogs formed a union in 1903 and went on strike, demanding safer conditions. The union used to have a saying, “A man a mile”; for every mile of tunnel dug, there would be a dead tunnel worker. The union is known as Local 147 and still operates today: still known as the Sandhogs, part of the Laborers' International Union of towards better wages, benefits, safer jobsites, and more opportunity. (LIUNA). They represent over 800,000 men and women.

The Family Story

The 1870 U.S. Census lists Patrick Connolly as living in Brooklyn, New York. He is 28 years of age, and is living with an older woman, listed as Kate Connolly. (We don’t know who she is, but likely they were saving on some rent by living together). He was illiterate at the time, but census records show that he eventually became literate, and a naturalized citizen.

Patrick married the former Julia A. O’Brien, a New York native, in 1871. She was the daughter of Irish-born parents John O’Brien and the former Mary Greene. Julia gave birth to nine children by 1900, when six were still living. The family lived in tenement housing, at several locations.

Patrick’s early work as a sandhog led to other water-focused professions. He became a plumber, and eventually ran his own plumbing supply business. He must have done well, as he and Julia had a domestic living in their home for 30 years.

The Brooklyn Eagle reported on December 11, 1886 that a gentleman named Patrick Connolly was part of a group that was recommended for expulsion from the Nineteenth Ward of the Democratic party. Seven were expelled at the meeting that night.  The charges against Patrick Connolly were later reported as “presented by mistake” and therefore were dismissed.

Julia A. Connolly passed away on September 3, 1918. Her death notice appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on September 5,1918. Julia’s funeral was held at St. Theresa Catholic Church the following day, and she was buried at Brooklyn’s Holy Cross Cemetery.

The Modern Connolly Family

Patrick and Julia’s son Joseph (pictured), born in 1881, became a fireman. He married Jane (Jennie) and led an active life, having two sons himself.

Joseph found his final resting place in Poughkeepsie, NY.

Joseph and Jane's son Robert (below) was part of the “greatest generation” : a teacher who served in the U.S. Coast Guard in World War II.  

Patrick’s great grandchildren became a physician, a civil engineer, a construction manager, an accountant, and a college professor. 

It’s an Irish immigrant’s story that starts with hardship and continues with the promise of finding a better life in America.

Current generations of the Connolly family continue to celebrate their Irish heritage, have visited the Irish Railroad Workers Museum and even have become Board members! Here is a recent photo of Board member Martha Connolly, her daughter Maggie Brunner and sister Patricia Connolly Callahan.


Many thanks to Martha Connolly and family who provided narrations and images for this premiere issue of our Shamrock Legacy Series!

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