Baltimore’s earliest Irish Catholics were a persecuted people, as were their fellow Catholics in other major cities in America. Although their numbers were strong, as they had been in Ireland, the persecution of their faith followed them to America. That persecution took another form, though; it was not particularly from the government itself, or an established church. Opposition typically came from anti-Catholic political forces, such as the Know-Nothings and religious groups and clergy.
Irish families just might have been perplexed with what to do with daughters who had so many limitations set upon them during the days of the Penal Laws, and beyond. There were few options for those born into poor Catholic families in the West of Ireland. Marriage itself was a difficult challenge within a culture where a dowry was needed. Irish women thought of the custom as essential to entering the institution of marriage with proper standing. Having possessions and a bit of financial position assured her that she would be considered an equal in her marriage, and in important matters. This created a dilemma, however for her birth family; how many parents could afford to offer a dowry for one daughter, let alone two or more? Many families had to borrow the funds to place a daughter in a marriageable position, and younger daughters often became spinsters or nuns as a result. Little was available in the way of domestic service within their rural communities, and industrial work was rare. For many single Irish women, the best option seemed to be to emigrate to faraway lands.
Churches of Baltimore's ethnic communities were a reflection on the land they left, and the culture they built in their new home. Immigrants sought a measure of familiarity in their churches, with many seeking to hear their own native language spoken during their worship experience.
Perhaps you have spent years enjoying and participating in Baltimore’s Irish dance community, whether through the step dance form commonly seen among the many Irish dance groups of the region, or as part of a set dance group such as the Emerald Isle Club. That’s not the case with this writer, but there has been much to discover as I have interacted with dancers and musicians on the subject.
Difficult times call for creative methods and approaches, as we all have seen in these challenging days. Irish Catholic families that sought to educate their children had the laws of the land to contend with, as the Penal Laws imposed by British authorities made it a capital offense to educate children in the way a family thought best.
Today we remember two generations that endured hardship, sacrifice and loss, and yet they persevered. Generations that followed did not quite know about their sacrifices, and many saw no need to bring up the tough times.
Today's issue was inspired by several comments from those who enjoyed knowing about the role "Horse-and-Cart" men played in the care and feeding of our immigrant ancestors. Catholic Irish knew a few things about horses, or lack thereof.
A major goal of our Museum this Spring was to present the remarkable stories behind the stained glass windows of St. Peter's Church, the parish for many thousands of Famine Irish. Our present situation has precluded that, but we plan on having the event when possible. Sister Anne O'Donnell, a descendant of the family that purchased one of the windows in memory of her Great grandmother, will be with us.