August 12, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

They Danced for Erin: Irish Life with Large and Small Themes

Family photo of the "McSweeney" family, showing grandmother Honora (upper right), son Denis Brian Sweeney (mustache), his wife Sabina Doyle Sweeney (upper left) and children John J. (left), Rose H. (bottom left) and Bernard D. (bottom right), circa 1904-1905.

Denis Bryan Sweeney was one of thousands who populated the modest houses of Baltimore a century ago. Like so many, his simple home and work life was not without its struggles, and yet he reached out to be part of important themes and efforts beyond his station. Denis led his local community in political life, Irish Catholic social life and promoted the support of the home of his ancestors. He began life in 1872, the son of Irish natives Bryan McSweeney (County Cork) and Honora Dougherty (County Limerick). They were married at West Baltimore's St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church on April 22, 1866 and lived just a few blocks away, at W. Saratoga and N. Poppleton St. Bryan worked as a laborer, and his son Denis took on work in a printing shop once he became of age. He married Sabina Doyle in 1897, and they began raising a family.

Sabina used her influence to make a big change in the family. She thought that McSweeney name was "over the top", and a bit TOO Irish. Sweeney it would be, from then on. I believe Denis said "yes, dear".

A son named John J. arrived in 1898 and was quickly followed by three siblings: Edward L., Rose H. and Bernard D. The family had moved a few blocks further west, at 1621 McHenry St., and made St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church and School (pictured) at W. Fayette and Fulton Ave. their spiritual home.

Their house was a simple two-story structure, while their church was the largest Irish Catholic Parish in West Baltimore. John J. Sweeney Sr. was a pupil at St. Martin’s School…here he is, holding the sign (pictured).

Most families lost children in those days, and Edward died in his first year. Denis’ father passed away in 1875, and his mother remarried. They lived with her son Denis until Honora died in 1917. Denis’ wife Sabina passed away on May 27, 1925, at the age of 44 years old. Their son John J. married, while his siblings Rose and Bernard remained home and stayed single for many years. Denis continued a long career as a compositor for a printing company.

Denis became part of many important facets of Baltimore’s Irish community. Irish Catholic life for men often included membership in the Ancient Order of Hibernians (pictured below; Denis at bottom right), Div. 7 that gathered in the neighborhood. He served as the Catholic fraternal organization's Division Treasurer, and represented the charitable group at city-wide gatherings.

Democratic politics were part and parcel of his life as well, and Denis served as an Officer of Elections in the 19th Ward in 1912 and 1913.

Irish Americans saw the need to provide "seed money" for an Irish nation yet to be formed, and an “Irish Liberty Loan” program was begun at a time that was seen by many as one of inevitable change. Nations were being formed and developed all over Europe in the post-war era, and Americans sought to aid their ancestral home as they formed a government, developed trade and invigorated ports for shipping. It was decided that the selling of bonds across America was a method to help that happen, and a goal of $10,000,000 was established.

Baltimore set a goal of $100,000 in bond sales to finance a nation that did not yet exist, and the city swelled with enthusiasm for the project. Buyers were promised a 5% dividend on their investment, although there was no nation to back that up. And yet the people of Baltimore gave, thinking that it was no particular loss if their investment turned into a charitable donation for their homeland.

The bond drive had its dramatic opening event on February 13, 1920 when all Irish Baltimore gathered at the Lyric Theatre, where they “danced for Ireland’s freedom”. These well-heeled Irish raised the first $10,000 of the cities’ goal through tickets, boutonnières and candy sales by particularly fine-looking colleens. Women were the first to purchase bonds, while some others were purchased by the people of Ireland itself, who sent money to America to aid in the freedom of their own country.

This bond drive was completed without the uncomfortable charge of treason by English authorities.

Denis B. Sweeney played his role in gathering bond funds that would most likely pressure the English towards establishing a treaty with the Irish people. He was one of 50 men who served as ward captains in Baltimore, with 15 men working under him as they solicited funds from the local men of the city neighborhoods. They gathered at Calvert Hall College on February 1, 1920 (pictured), where Irish Catholic priests spoke to the needs of their home country. Once properly inspired, these men began their efforts towards meeting the city goal of raising $100,000.

Research has not yet shown how this bond fund was completed, or those funds put in place to help establish an Irish nation per se. While a Republic of Ireland was still in the future, the Irish Free State was established as a result of the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed on December 6, 1921.‌

Denis lived a full life in the old neighborhood, in the company of his children. Son John J. and his wife Edna moved out to the 10th Ward of Baltimore, another massive Irish parish, and set up housekeeping on Valley Street, where they raised seven grandchildren for Denis. The Sweeney family flourished in future years, with several taking up the law as a profession, while John J. Sweeney Jr. was thoroughly committed to his active membership in the Ancient Order of Hibernians. He even led the St. Patrick’s parade in 1956 (see photo below), teaming up with William J. Guerin, head of another 10th Ward family.

The descendants of laborer Bryan McSweeney include several judges throughout Maryland, and the Robert F. Sweeney District Court Building in Annapolis is named for the first chief judge of the Maryland Courts System.

The stories are fascinating...such simple lives, being well lived have led to important accomplishments for many Irish families. We thank the descendants of laborer Bryan McSweeney for their contributions to this story, our fair city and nation.

We also thank others who contributed to this article:

Ancient Order of Hibernians

Archdiocese of Baltimore

Baltimore St. Patrick Parade

Baltimore Sun

Kay King

Henry Wolfe and Family

Sweeney Family

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