Nine Irish Lives

The Thinkers, Fighters, and Artists Who Helped Build America


By Mark Bailey

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“These are not just nine Irish lives but nine extraordinary lives, their struggles universal, their causes never more important than today. As the saying goes, the best stories belong to those who can tell them. And these are well told, by some of our best storytellers.”

—Timothy Egan, New York Times bestselling author of The Immortal Irishman

In this entertaining and timely anthology, nine contemporary Irish Americans present the stories of nine inspiring Irish immigrants whose compassion, creativity, and indefatigable spirit helped shape America.

The authors here bring to bear their own life experiences as they reflect on their subjects, in each essay telling a unique and surprisingly intimate story. Rosie O’Donnell, an adoptive mother of five, writes about Margaret Haughery, the Mother of Orphans. Poet Jill McDonough recounts the story of a particularly brave Civil War soldier, and filmmaker and activist Michael Moore presents the original muckraking journalist, Samuel McClure. Novelist Kathleen Hill reflects on famed New Yorker writer Maeve Brennan, and historian Terry Golway examines the life of pivotal labor leader Mother Jones.

 In his final written work, activist and politician Tom Hayden explores his own namesake, Thomas Addis Emmet. Nonprofit executive Mark Shriver writes about the priest who founded Boys Town, and celebrated actor Pierce Brosnan—himself a painter in his spare time—writes about silent film director Rex Ingram, also a sculptor. And a pair of Pulitzer Prize–winning journalists, Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, take on the story of Niall O’Dowd, the news publisher who brokered peace in Northern Ireland.

Each of these remarkable stories serves as a reflection—and celebration—of our nation’s shared values, ever more meaningful as we debate the issue of immigration today. Through the battles they fought, the cases they argued, the words they wrote, and the lives they touched, the nine Irish men and women profiled in these pages left behind something greater than their individual accomplishments—our America.




The Thinkers, Fighters, & Artists Who Helped Build America

Edited by

Mark Bailey

Illustrations by Edward Hemingway


Also by Mark Bailey

Written by Mark Bailey

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Hemingway & Bailey's Bartending Guide to Great American Writers

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Tiny Pie

Edited by Mark Bailey

The Tibetans: A Struggle to Survive

The island it is silent now,

But the ghosts still haunt the waves,

And the torch lights up a famished man,

Who fortune could not save.

Did you work upon the railroad,

Did you rid the streets of crime,

Were your dollars from the White House,

Were they from the five and dime?

Did the old songs taunt or cheer you,

And did they still make you cry,

Did you count the months and years,

Or did your teardrops quickly dry?

—"Thousands Are Sailing," by Philip Chevron, The Pogues




Thomas Addis Emmet (1764–1827)


Margaret Haughery (1813–1882)


Mary "Mother" Jones (1837–1930)


Albert D. J. Cashier (1843–1915)


Samuel S. McClure (1857–1949)


Father Edward J. Flanagan (1886–1948)


Rex Ingram (1893–1950)


Maeve Brennan (1917–1993)


Niall O'Dowd (1953– )





About thirty years ago, I came across a brief essay titled "Nine Famous Irishmen." I'd be hard pressed to say exactly where I found it; those were the days before Google, before the Internet really. But somehow, that essay reached the shores of my consciousness and then proceeded to quickly beat a path down to my heart—where it has remained. The essay reads as follows:

In the Young Irish disorders, in Ireland in 1848, the following nine men were captured, tried, and convicted of treason against Her Majesty, the Queen, and were sentenced to death: John Mitchell, Morris Lyene, Pat Donahue, Thomas McGee, Charles Duffy, Thomas Meagher, Richard O'Gorman, Terrence McManus, Michael Ireland.

Before passing sentence, the judge asked if there was anything that anyone wished to say. Meagher, speaking for all, said: "My lord, this is our first offense but not our last. If you will be easy with us this once, we promise, on our word as gentlemen, to try to do better next time. And next time—sure we won't be fools to get caught."

Thereupon the indignant judge sentenced them all to be hanged by the neck until dead and drawn and quartered. Passionate protest from all the world forced Queen Victoria to commute the sentence to transportation for life to far wild Australia.

In 1874, word reached the astounded Queen Victoria that the Sir Charles Duffy who had been elected Prime Minister of Australia was the same Charles Duffy who had been transported 25 years before. On the Queen's demand, the records of the rest of the transported men were revealed and this is what was uncovered:

THOMAS FRANCIS MEAGHER, Governor of Montana.

TERRENCE MCMANUS, Brigadier General, United States Army.

PATRICK DONAHUE, Brigadier General, United States Army.

RICHARD O'GORMAN, Governor General of Newfoundland.

MORRIS LYENE, Attorney General of Australia, in which office

MICHAEL IRELAND succeeded him.

THOMAS D'ARCY MCGEE, Member of Parliament, Montreal, Minister of Agriculture and President of Council Dominion of Canada.

JOHN MITCHELL, prominent New York politician. This man was the father of John Purroy Mitchell, Mayor of New York, at the outbreak of World War I.

To this day, the author of this essay remains unknown. As does its veracity. Is the story true? Most of it is, and some of it likely is not. Though to me that was never so important. "Nine Famous Irishmen" has persisted, a little nugget of Irish mythology, the very kind of historical gem found on posters, placemats, the backs of pub menus, a sheet of paper left in a drawer to be read over corned beef and cabbage around the dinner table on St. Patrick's Day.

So ignore the details; push whatever inaccuracies there might be aside. Stories like this persist not because they are necessarily true, but because they speak to a larger truth. And this truth we can probably all agree on: a large number of men, women, and children left Ireland, the country of their birth, and went out into the world to do great things. Whether it was political violence that drove them, whether it was hunger, oppression, or just the dream of a better life, off they went—first in ships, later in planes—into the unknown. This was the Irish Diaspora.

What I found meaningful, what I still find meaningful—why I carried this essay with me, a photocopy in a shoebox of letters carted around for three decades—is the idea that nine young men could have died quite brutal deaths, but instead, they left and went on to lead extraordinary lives, to achieve so much. All the energy, the brightness and daring, in those nine young men, it could so easily have been snuffed out. But that didn't happen. Instead that energy was released, sent out on a boat across the seas, where it would touch so many lives, light up a new world.

THERE IS NOTHING much any of us can do about the circumstances into which we are born—our parents, our class, our country—but these are the factors that by and large determine our lives, that most often shape who we are and what we are able accomplish. Yet since time immemorial, humans have struggled against this: whether they were forced to flee their homes or left of their own volition, they have chosen to believe in the possibility of a different life, a better future. Roughly fifty thousand years ago, our Afro-Asian ancestors built crude boats and headed across the waters to Australia. About fifteen thousand years ago, foragers in Northern Siberia made their way to Alaska pursuing better game, and then later, once the ice sheets had receded, pressed south further into North America. In a way, the journey of those nine famous Irishmen, along with the millions of other Irish immigrants, mirrors that movement, the movement of mankind itself—the perhaps uniquely human drive that has settled the planet and brought about civilization as we know it.

Certainly, no country in modern history has benefited from this drive more than the United States. Not just because we have been the recipients of so many Irish but because we have been (and still are) the recipients of so many other peoples too—immigrants from elsewhere fleeing hardship, fleeing pain and want. I was born here because my great grandparents, who were Jewish, put their belongings in a bag and boarded a ship. If maybe that sounds easy, it wasn't. Once here, they became storekeepers, seamstresses, traveling salesmen. My grandfather owned the Westville movie theater in New Haven, Connecticut; my grandmother was a schoolteacher; my other grandparents were lawyers in Knoxville, Tennessee. And I am now a part of that continuum, just as my children—whom I've moved out west to California—will be.

THIS BOOK EXISTS for a fairly simple reason. I wanted to share the stories of nine Irish lives. Not the famous Irishmen from the essay above, but nine other men and women who left Ireland and came to America. Spanning generations, from the dawn of our republic to today, their lives paint a particular portrait of our nation's rise. Through the battles they fought, the cases they argued, the words they wrote, the people they helped, these nine Irish men and women not only became American but also helped make America great.

The essays that follow were written by nine contemporary Irish Americans—journalists, actors, poets, politicians, novelists—themselves all links in the chain connecting past to present. Tom Hayden, activist, politician, and icon of the sixties cultural revolution, writes about his namesake, Thomas Addis Emmet, famed revolutionary leader of the 1798 Irish Rebellion. Rosie O'Donnell, mother of five adopted children, chose Margaret Haughery, the Mother of Orphans, who in antebellum New Orleans built four orphanages. Political journalist and historian Terry Golway profiles the labor firebrand Mary "Mother" Jones. Poet and LGBT rights advocate Jill McDonough chronicles the life of transgender Civil War soldier Albert Cashier; celebrated documentary filmmaker Michael Moore looks at celebrated news journalist Samuel S. McClure, founder of McClure's Magazine; and Mark Shriver, nonprofit executive for Save the Children, writes about Father Edward Flanagan of Boys Town. Renowned Irish-born actor Pierce Brosnan explores the famed silent-era director Rex Ingram, novelist Kathleen Hill examines short story and New Yorker writer Maeve Brennan, and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalists Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan write about Niall O'Dowd, journalist and legendary founder of the Irish Voice newspaper. It is a wide variety of writers whose voices are as rich and diverse as their subjects.

IN JANUARY 1892, a young woman named Annie Moore arrived in New York City. Irish, she had been born in what was then called Queenstown (now Cobh) in County Cork. She was the first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island. By then, many others—not just Irish, but Chinese, Italian, German, Polish—had already made their way to our shores. Over the next 125 years, many millions more would come. Just as today, Mexicans, Koreans, Syrians turn their eyes toward our country. And if the past is prologue, if this book serves as any evidence, we will be lucky to have them, blessed. This is, after all, the story of how our nation was built—and how it continues to evolve.


Thomas Addis Emmet (1764–1827)

It was a bleak moment for Thomas Addis Emmet.

The year was 1803 and the thirty-nine-year-old Irish exile had just served a four-year prison sentence for his political activity. He was released only on the condition that he never return to his native Ireland—the nation for which he and fellow members of the United Irishmen had planned a rebellion against British rule. Emmet, living in France, learned that his brother Robert and another band of rebels had once more taken up arms for Ireland, and that, again, the rebels were unsuccessful. Now, young Robert languished in a Dublin prison facing the executioner.

Thomas knew all too well the fate facing an Irishman who dared to challenge the Crown. In the wake of the 1798 rebellion, many of Ireland's brightest, most ambitious young men were killed—either on the battlefield or after swift legal proceedings. In this sense, Thomas had been one of the lucky ones. He had been arrested prior to the actual armed insurrection. He could never return home, but at least he was alive.

For some time Thomas had hoped to immigrate to America and perhaps put the events of 1798 behind him. America could provide him and his extended family with a fresh start. To Thomas's dismay, however, British officials persuaded anti-Irish elements in the U.S. government to block any emigration efforts on the Emmets' behalf. And so, Thomas and his parents had to watch as another family member was hauled off to prison, another victim of the intractable Anglo-Irish conflict.

On the night before his execution, Robert penned an emotional letter to his older brother.

Dear Thomas. . . . I am just going to do my last duty to my country. It can be done as well on the scaffold as on the field. God bless you and the young hopes that are growing up about you. May they be more fortunate than their uncle; but may they preserve as pure an attachment to their country as he has done.

Thomas Addis Emmet never received this letter. British authorities confiscated it, scouring the words for intelligence as part of their centuries-old effort to suppress the forces of Irish liberation.

I ONCE ASKED my mother, just as my curiosity about my Irish heritage was peaking, why I was named Thomas Emmet Hayden "the fourth." Who were the other three that had come before me, and had the name originally been derived from Thomas Addis Emmet, when he was still a living legend? With a finger over her lips, as if to hide a family secret, the former Genevieve Garity said with a slight smile that it was because there was "the first, the second, and the third." My mother was a practicing Catholic assimilated into the suburbs of Michigan and Wisconsin and had no knowledge of who these other Thomas Emmets might have been. What she did know was the Irish tradition of passing the name Emmet down through the generations—she just did not know why. She had no knowledge of the actual Emmet brothers, the men whose exploits we Irish were so intent on honoring. I myself grew up an assimilated child of the Detroit suburbs who knew nothing about my Irish heritage. And then the sixties arrived—a decade that brought tumultuous civil rights movements not only in the United States but in Northern Ireland as well. It would be this upending of the established world view that plunged me into years of inquiry into my roots—and into my namesake.

Thomas Addis Emmet was a central nationalist figure between 1796 and 1803, a time of three attempted uprisings in Ireland. He would eventually immigrate to America and continue to advocate for Irish rights, becoming the "most respected Irish American of his generation," in the words of historian David Wilson

Just how much of this revolutionary legacy had I inherited? I do know that a Peter Hayden (in Irish, O Headon, O Eideain) of County Wicklow was "elected captain of the insurgents," only to be massacred along with thirty-five other United Irish prisoners during the failed uprising of 1798. Was he a distant blood relative? Unfortunately, meticulous as Irish researchers are, many family histories are incomplete, offering more questions than answers, stymied by the generations who died in famines or of typhoid fever, resting in mass graves covered in lime and mystery. Still, in my relationship to Thomas Addis Emmet, I tend to be less literal. I think this illustrates what the African scholar Clyde Forde was referring to when he wrote, "As long as the name of a departed ancestor can be called, that ancestor is not dead in some final sense of the word."

There are invisible ancestral influences we each inherit. And in my case, it was a powerful desire to question and challenge the status quo.

BY THE FINAL days of the sixties, my personal identity was in shambles. The Freedom Rides, the civil rights movement, and the Chicano Moratorium had me questioning my white racial identity; the women's liberation movement upended my male identity; the overall cascade of liberation movements left many of us wondering who we were, as individuals and as Americans. In short, as a certain Nobel laureate once put it, the times most definitely were a-changin'.

One of the deepest, most unexpected changes for me, at the time, was the uncovering of my Irish roots. After their assassinations, John and Robert Kennedy, who had previously symbolized the Irish dream of successful assimilation into the melting pot, now represented sudden martyrdom. Civil rights activists in Northern Ireland were marching from Belfast to Derry, singing "We Shall Overcome." Exhausted by a decade of imprisonment, beatings, tear-gassings, and fighting conscription for the war in Vietnam, I asked myself two simple questions: First, why had these Irish civil rights activists come to embrace an American anthem in their faraway struggle? And second, if they knew so much about us, why did I, as an Irish American, know so little about them? How had knowledge of them been excised so completely from my identity? True, there were millions of conscious Irish Americans, like the Kennedys themselves, who grew up knowing centuries of Irish history. But over time, as Jimmy Breslin wrote, "the blood lines were thinning." The past was being lost.

In the end, the sixties made me Irish—"Irish on the inside," as I titled my 2001 book. I sat on the sunny beaches of Venice, California, reading everything from Wolfe Tone and James Joyce to Republican histories of "the Troubles," a euphemism for the war that had inflamed the island. I listened to Irish ballads, drank at LA's Irish pubs, and eventually visited Dublin and Belfast in 1972. It was there I identified with the Irish cause then reemerging, at least partly inspired by the bubbling cauldron of the American protest movements of the time.

By 1992, when Bill Clinton allowed Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams to enter the United States, I had already made twenty trips to Ireland as a witness to what became the historic Irish peace process. At one point, I was detained at the airport because of my involvement in the antiwar movement at home. The Irish attorney general even ordered me to be extradited. However, thanks to Senator Edward Kennedy, as well as New York City Council President Paul O'Dwyer and many others, that did not happen.

For a time, I was a counselor to assistant secretary for International Economic Policy Charles "Chuck" Meissner, who died in a tragic plane crash in the midst of frenzied diplomacy. I met with President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. senator and master peace negotiator George Mitchell, and Northern Ireland's secretary of state Marjorie "Mo" Mowlam. I sat down with Irish Republican leaders as well as Loyalist paramilitaries as they both made the risky transition from war to peace. All the while, I kept trying to untangle the history of the island itself, a place that had suffered centuries of brutal military occupations, land seizures, religious persecution, and violent sectarian divisions.

One thing was clear—the past was always present, and it always would be.

GIVEN THE LONG shadow cast by Irish history, I could easily begin Thomas Addis Emmet's story a thousand years ago. But I will begin in 1760, when Thomas's father, Robert, married the former Elizabeth Mason, from Cork. He had pursued a career in medicine and become one of Ireland's top doctors, running a facility for those who were then called "the insane." Dr. Emmet was eventually appointed Ireland's state physician, a position for which he had had to be approved by the Irish prime minister. Their first child, Christopher Temple, was born in 1761. Two years later, on April 24, 1763, Thomas was born.

An Irish revolutionary dynasty had arrived.

The Emmets were affluent, respectable Protestants. But they also knew hardship and heartache. "Eight more pregnancies followed over the next nine years, but none of the children survived," writes Trinity College Dublin professor Dr. Patrick M. Geoghegan, also the biographer of Thomas's younger brother Robert who was born in March 1778.

By this time, the Emmet family had moved to Dublin's Molesworth Street, near St. Stephen's Green.

And the world was changing rapidly.

The American colonies had declared their independence from Britain in 1776. And though it would take seven more years before the Treaty of Paris officially established the United States of America, this revolt against British authority shed a particularly disturbing light on British rule in Ireland. Meanwhile, social and economic unrest in France erupted in July of 1789 with the storming of the Bastille and the subsequent French Revolution.

Though he held a government position, Dr. Robert Emmet sympathized with the American revolutionaries, as well as the Irish nationalists. Both were regular topics of discussion in the Emmet household. Indeed, Thomas would inherit many of his father's principles, with his brother-in-law Robert Holmes once commenting: "Those who came into contact with [Thomas] felt the presence of a man of . . . fixed, well considered opinions." True, Ireland did have its own parliament, but it mostly deferred to the British Parliament in London. And at the time, Catholics, as well as numerous non-Anglican Protestant denominations, were excluded from all of Ireland's political activity, including voting. The American colonists' war with Britain, challenging and preoccupying the empire, was seen as an opportunity by those seeking independence for Ireland. By the late 1770s, bands of militias—often with varying political agendas—took up arms: some to protest cruel landlords and high rents, others to defend Ireland from a possible French invasion, still others calling for greater Irish political power if not outright rebellion.

However, some nationalist reformers hoped to work with ballots rather than bullets. Henry Grattan was most prominent among them. A veteran of the Irish Volunteers movement, Grattan led the call for Catholic emancipation and the repeal of Poynings' Law, which subjugated Ireland's Parliament to London. "What was the case of Ireland, enslaved for a century, and withered and blasted with her Protestant ascendancy, like a shattered oak scathed on its hill by the fires of its own intolerance?" Grattan once proclaimed. "What lost England America, but such a policy, an attempt to bind men by a parliament wherein they are not represented, such an attempt as some would now continue to practice on the Catholics?"

Grattan and the forces of reform did win major concessions in 1782, though Catholics still could not vote, much less sit in Parliament. Still, it was a valuable lesson in protest and agitation for nationalist Irish reformers such as Thomas Addis Emmet.

DURING THE GRATTAN era, Thomas was finishing up his years as a student at Trinity College Dublin, where he was known for his sense of humor and sharp debating skills, not to mention a love of music. "I think those very lucky who can get through [life's] troubles by dancing and singing," he once said. After graduating in 1783, he moved to Edinburgh to follow in his father's footsteps and study medicine. Dr. Emmet, for his part, was proud of Thomas, as well as his eldest son, Christopher, known by his middle name, Temple. In the spring of 1785, Dr. Emmet noted that "few parents can look with the contented pride and satisfaction which I do on both my grown-up sons." His brother-in-law added that young Thomas "would not have committed a dishonourable act though secure of everlasting concealment."


  • “Readers interested in getting their Irish on will delight in this collection of essays detailing a variety of significant contributions by Irish immigrants to the history of the U.S.”

    “Yes indeed, we’re torturously poetic. Awkwardly comic. Willfully ambiguous. Not happy unless we're sad. But the world wouldn't have it any other way. And if anything captures this Irish spirit, it's Mark Bailey's wonderfully eclectic Nine Irish Lives. A marvelous symphony from a variety of well-known voices.”
    Colum McCann, New York Times bestselling author of Let the Great World Spin

    Nine Irish Lives reveals the fascinating stories of men and women who might otherwise be lost to history. Each perfect pairing of subject and author elevates this book from simple biography to a moving conversation between present and past. It’s a timely reminder of what is gained when immigrants come to America.”
    J. Courtney Sullivan, bestselling author of Saints for All Occasions

    “These are not just nine Irish lives, but nine extraordinary lives, their struggles universal, their causes never more important than today. As the saying goes, the best stories belong to those who can tell them. And these are well told, by some of our best storytellers.”
    —Timothy Egan, New York Times bestselling author of The Immortal Irishman

    Nine Irish Lives is an engrossing and inspiring book.  As the child of Irish immigrants, I was in awe of what these nine people achieved."
    Mary Higgins Clark, internationally bestselling suspense novelist

    “Today, when some in the United States are wishing away our diversity and openly inciting discrimination and even violence, Nine Irish Lives serves as a riveting, inspiring reminder of all that America stands to gain by opening our arms to the hungry, the persecuted, the proud, and the determined."
    —Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations
    “Mark Bailey's Nine Irish Lives is a string of illuminating prose meditations about an unsung club of sustainable heroes with St. Patrick on their side.  Much forgotten history is brought to life in this riveting narrative. Highly recommended!!"
    —Douglas Brinkley, CNN Presidential historian and New York Times-bestselling author of The Great Deluge

     “The stories of immigrants working to get the job done — following the dreams, heartbreak, successes, and their inextricable link to American history — are timely ones.”
    Brit + Co

    “What makes Nine Irish Lives so compelling is the sheer range of voices and personalities that comprise its endlessly digestible pages. What Bailey has done here is inspired.”
    Irish America

    “What makes these pieces work so well is the connection each writer feels with the chosen subject, with those not primarily known as writers revealing as much about themselves as their subject through their choice . . . Nine other writers might well have selected nine different subjects, which serves as a tribute to the indomitable Irish character and the transformational possibilities of America. This is a perfect St. Patrick’s Day anthology for the Irish book lover on your gift list.”
    Kirkus Reviews


On Sale
Mar 6, 2018
Page Count
272 pages
Algonquin Books

Mark Bailey

Mark Bailey

About the Author

Mark Bailey is an author and Emmy-nominated screenwriter. His previous books include American Hollow, Hemingway & Bailey's Bartending Guide to Great American Writers, Of All the Gin Joints, and the children's book Tiny Pie. His films have appeared on HBO, PBS, National Geographic, and Lifetime. Bailey lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three children. His website is

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