February 3, 2021
Written by 
Maureen Bracken and Luke McCusker

Well Beyond the Usual Suspects: Our Irish Community, Revisited

Our exploration of Irish history in Baltimore and beyond has taken this writer pretty far afield during these last ten months of Covid-19 seclusion, but perhaps the most dramatic learning experience has been within my own preconceptions of what it means to be Irish, and how to define the Irish community at large. Growing up Catholic and having a rather muffled understanding of my own Irish heritage, these issues of the Big Pivot series have brought a dramatic expansion to my understanding. I was certainly guilty of buying into a lazy history of my people, and want to share some of the bigger elements of my expansion of thinking…and encourage you to expand yours as well.

What about that tri-color Irish flag itself (pictured above)? Are you trying to tell me that the Orange field actually belongs on it, after 700 long years of Catholic subjugation? Actually, yes. People smarter than us saw the considerable contribution of Irish Protestants to the flourishing of the Irish people both in Ireland and subsequently in America. Our recent issue that focused on the Irish Relief Fund should have been enough to convince us that many Protestants contributed generously to the very survival of a starving, mostly Catholic people.

Do you recall the stories about how Baltimore received famine ships in Black ’47, at the Lazaretto Lighthouse and Quarantine Station (Pictured....Fort McHenry in the background)? A mix of Catholic and Protestant Irish risked it all as they offered care at the quarantine station in nearby Canton. These included doctors and a former Mayor who gave their lives for others, regardless of denomination.

We might have heard the stories about the Plantation period in Ireland, where Catholics were removed from their ancestral lands. English and Scottish settlers moved in and paid rent to begin new lives in the Ulster region, but something else happened. These settlers became Irish themselves, culturally speaking. English government didn’t realize that was part of the bargain.

Perhaps you have also heard it said that these folks weren’t “really Irish”, even after their families lived on the land for 200 years in some instances. However, many who came to live in the Ulster region during the Plantation period intermarried with native Irish, learned the native tongue, established their own denominations within Protestantism and became literate…and prepared for success in America.

Baltimore was a place where these successes were on full display, as the city welcomed many Irish Protestant merchants who worked with a measure of Catholic leaders to create and maintain businesses that employed thousands of Catholic Irish as they arrived. Among the most important employers was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Here’s a few stories about some of its founders with an Irish heritage.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton

Carroll was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, and considered the laying of the cornerstone of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad as the second most important act of his life, “if it be second to that”. He was a descendant of an important landowning family from County Offaly who lost it all. They regained it in Maryland, and he was considered the richest man in America by many, with considerable holdings in land and slaves.

Carroll and his descendants were considerably generous towards Baltimore’s Catholic community. He was the only Catholic among the many founders of the B & O, but one of several with an Irish heritage.

William Patterson

William Patterson was a merchant and banker, born in County Donegal. He was considered the second wealthiest Marylander, and raised a large family that included daughter Betsy...quite a handful. Being Protestant himself, he didn’t appreciate it much when she married Jerome Bonaparte at the Catholic Cathedral, officiated by Bishop John Carroll. (I guess we all know how that turned out…).

Robert Oliver

Robert Oliver (Oliver Viaduct, pictured; named after him) was a native of Belfast and a very important and successful merchant. His business acumen played a vital role in the expansion of the Railroad, and he was one of its founders. Oliver owned considerable land in Western Maryland and shipped coal eastward via rail.

George Brown

George Brown was the son of Alexander Brown, and an Ulster native. He was a financier, and his work was vital to the development of the railroad. He served as the first treasurer for the B & O, and was a board member.

Of course, these are just a few examples from one large business in Baltimore. More articles about the extensive Irish presence in the merchant business and among clergy of many denominations are in our future. Undoubtedly we will enjoy these discoveries together and expand our understanding of what it means to be Irish in Baltimore, and beyond.  

Special thanks to these sources that contributed to this Issue:
  • Baltimore Sun
  • Dilts, James. The Great Road: The Building of the Baltimore and Ohio, the Nation's First Railroad, 1828-1853. Stanford University Press, 1993.
  • Library of Congress
No items found.
Receive your Baltimore Irish History fix directly to your inbox

Get more ideas on what to do on the
Baltimore Travel Guide.