The Irish in San Francisco
by Mary McCloy
I am the granddaughter of four Irish immigrants. They all came to the United States in the early 1900s, part of the wave of Irish immigrants who came to the United States because of the political unrest in Ireland during her struggle for independence from England.
My mother’s parents first settled in Oakland and later in San Francisco, and my father’s parents lived in Los Angeles. They all came to California by way of the transcontinental railroad. They were sponsored by relatives who were already living here, and when they were able, they themselves sponsored other relatives from Ireland. I grew up in San Francisco very conscious of my Irish roots. We would celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and attend the parade down Market Street. The Archdiocese of San Francisco would suspend Lent restrictions on March 17th each year. I attended St. Rose Academy, and we actually had annual Irish/Italian Games in which the Red and the Green would compete in volleyball and basketball. At that time people wore their nationalities proudly.
From the mid to late 1800s, more than two-and-a-half million Irish citizens immigrated to North America. Some early Irish arrivals were attracted to the Mexican West by their desire to own land. There was no resistance by the Mexican Government in California to these new immigrants. The Irish and Mexicans shared the same religion and the Irish soon learned to speak Spanish.
Early Irish immigrants gained land grants from the Mexican Government, especially in Marin County, which was nicknamed Little Ireland. Among these early settlers were John Connors with Rancho Punta de Quentin, Timothy Murphy with Rancho Santa Margarita y Los Galinas San Pedro (Marinwood and San Rafael), John Reed with Rancho Corte Madera del Presidio (Corte Madera and Tiburon), John Berry with Rancho Punta de los Reyes, and John Murphy with Rancho Corte Madera de Novato.
With the Gold Rush, San Francisco’s Irish population grew to 4,200 in 1852; by 1880 this number had reached more than 30,000, thirty-seven percent of San Francisco’s population. They formed cultural organizations like the Hibernia Association (1852), The Irish Festival (1863), and The Knights of the Red Branch (in the Mission). In 1964 they combined their organizations to form the United Irish Cultural Society. They also built and supported Catholic churches and schools all over the City.
Many of the early Irish settlers became prominent politicians in the City and the State of California. These included General Bennett Riley, military and civilian Governor of the Territory of California who was responsible for drafting the Constitution of the State of California (1849); John Geary, first Mayor of San Francisco (1850); James Broderick, US Senator (1857); Frank McCoppin, Mayor of San Francisco and the first Irish-born Mayor in the US (1867); and H. H. Haight, Governor of California (1878).
The Irish were also prominent in business. Samuel Brannan printed San Francisco’s first newspaper in 1846. John Sullivan founded Hibernia Savings and Loan and the Hibernia Housing Society, which helped immigrants with loans to buy land and homes. Sullivan bought two lots near Dupont Square and donated them to the Catholic Church for the building of the Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. James Fair and James Flood, both sons of Dubliners, made their fortunes in the Comstock Silver Lode. James Phelan (whose son James would become Mayor of San Francisco and US Senator) established the First National Bank of San Francisco.
John Daly had a large dairy and rock quarry south of San Francisco that he subdivided to build Daly City. He had left Ireland in the 1870s with his mother, who died while they were crossing Panama to reach San Francisco. John continued on alone, found work at the City’s dairies, and saved his money to buy the land that still bears his name.
Irish owned mortuaries like Duggans, McAvoy and O’Hara, and Molloy’s Road House at Holy Cross Cemetery. For a fee, they would include a pouch of Irish soil for funeral services so the deceased Irish person could rest in peace.
The Irish helped to establish San Francisco’s infrastructure and transportation. In 1847 Jasper O’Farrell drew up the survey extending the area of San Francisco and making Market Street a wide thoroughfare cutting diagonally through the City. The iron works established by the three Donahue Brothers in 1849 helped build up the waterfront and its ship repair business. In 1871 Frank McCoppin developed the Market Street Railroad Company, the City’s first mechanical public transportation. Thomas Crowley incorporated his Launch and Tugboat Company in 1906. City Engineer Michael O’Shaughnessy was responsible for the West Portal and Judah Street Tunnels as well as the Hetch Hetchy Dam and the Crystal Springs reservoir that supply the City’s water.
Today, although the Irish are spread over the City and out to the suburbs, there are still Irish football games and the newspaper the Irish Herald. The United Irish Cultural Center sponsors many social events, including Irish dancing and music. San Francisco certainly has Irish green in her roots.
City Guide Mary McCloy, Class of 1996, leads the Haight Ashbury and Mission Dolores Neighborhood Tours and is a Certified Guide in the San Francisco Tour Guide Guild.
Photos reprinted with permission, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.