Throughout the nation’s history, millions of Irish men and women – in an effort to escape poverty, famine, joblessness and English oppression at home – made the journey across the Atlantic seeking fresh starts in the “land of opportunity.”
Students practice soft-shoe at the Inis Acla School of Irish Dance in Cordova. Founder Mary McGinty named the school after Achill Island of County Mayo in Ireland.
(Photos by Lance Murphey)
Among earlier immigrants, men worked as laborers, building America’s canals and railroads, as well as taking jobs in mills, factories and construction, while Irish women worked largely as domestic servants. They later became law enforcement officers, politicians, teachers and nurses, but despite their transition into the middle class, pervasive negative stereotypes – often perpetuated through newspaper illustrations by cartoonists such as Thomas Nash in the 1870s – meant Irish immigrants did not escape bigotry in their adopted homeland.
Although they had some visibility in Southern cities such as Savannah, Ga., and New Orleans, Irish immigrants largely settled in northern metropolises such as Boston, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.
Irish immigration to the U.S. slowed in the mid-1990s, when the Celtic Tiger – a period of rapid, robust economic growth – swept Ireland. Those who did come to the U.S. were a far cry from the poverty-stricken immigrants of previous generations. They were more likely to work in information technology or financial services than in factories and construction.
“The Irish are one of the best-educated populations in the world, and one of the youngest in terms of demographics,” said Aidan Cronin, Consul General of Ireland based in Chicago, who serves a 20-states region that includes Tennessee. “They’re young, well-educated and looking for different types of jobs when they do move overseas.”
Like the U.S. economy, the Irish economy in recent years has experiences a serious downturn. Despite that, Cronin says, the Consulate has not noticed a marked increase in the numbers of new arrivals. Cronin said most of the immigrants coming now are here for a specific reason – usually a job.
“For the most part, people who are coming over are students coming on summer visas, sponsored visas, business visas – this kind of thing,” Cronin said. “I think the days of huge numbers of Irish people immigrating to the States are gone essentially. It’s much more difficult to move here than it was in the middle of the last century, or even in the eighties during the last great influx of Irish people moving to the U.S.”
Cronin said there tend to be some Irish natives – whether they’re recent arrivals or long-term residents – in most major U.S. cities nowadays.
“People tend to move on more than they did in previous decades,” he said. “They’re still arriving first in the major urban centers, but I think it’s fair to say that they’re spreading out about a bit more.”
Memphis at one time was home to a sizeable Irish immigrant community, most of whom settled in the Pinch District. However, the yellow fever epidemics of the 1870s took a heavy toll on the city’s Irish population. Memphis today continues to attract small numbers of native Irish people, and work is what typically brings them to the Bluff City.
Here are the stories of four Irish citizens who make their home in Memphis.
The SCIENTIST: Louise Treanor, Hematologist, St. Jude
After matriculating from Trinity College Dublin and earning her doctoral degree from the University of Edinburgh, Louise Treanor five years ago relocated to the U.S. to work at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital as a hematologist, specializing in leukemia research.
“We’re testing mutations to see what sort of leukemia they form,” said Treanor, a Dublin native. “It’s a particularly aggressive form of leukemia that we’re looking into to see if we can find novel pathways and through that maybe eventually find something therapeutic.”
Treanor said working at a world-renowned pediatric hospital and research center, whose diverse staff includes researchers and clinicians from around the world, helped her acclimate to life in the U.S.
“There’s a really good community here at St. Jude,” she said. “It’s like a big family. It really helped me to settle in much more easily in Memphis.”
As a scientist, Treanor said St. Jude’s model, which enables scientists to more readily see the translational side of their research, helps foster unity.
“Our work here is very much focused on making sure we’re working towards our goal of therapies,” she said. “That’s really fantastic for scientists to see. You always feel like you’re part of a bigger team.”
Treanor has found Memphians to be among the warmest, most hospitable people she’s met in the U.S.
“I think it’s a Southern thing,” she said. “The hospitality, people are very friendly and welcoming – it’s similar to home. A lot of people will go to New York and Chicago, but Memphis is cool because it’s got a lot of history associated with it and it’s small, but there’s a lot going on. You feel like part of the community.”
The COACH: Richie Grant, Men’s soccer coach, University of Memphis
A soccer scholarship brought Dubliner Richie Grant to Vermont’s Green Mountain College in 1989, and his coaching career began six years later at Lambuth University in Jackson, Tenn. In 1999, Grant took the helm coaching the men’s soccer team at the University of Memphis.
“I love working with 17- to 22-year-olds in that university setting,” said Grant, now 42 and a naturalized U.S. citizen. “To have an impact on shaping their lives is a pretty special environment to be in.”
Off the field, Grant and his Canadian wife, Jodi, an assistant coach for the women’s soccer team, keep busy raising their two young, Memphis-born children.
“Now we’re very settled,” Grant said. “We don’t know where our jobs take us in this profession, but we’ve been here 13 years – quite a long time in coaching – and Memphis has really grown on us. I like the people. There’s a blue-collarness to this city that I love, having grown up in Dublin, and there’s a tremendous sense of humility in Memphis. People are grounded and they have good family values.”
Recruiting players to Memphis isn’t always an easy sell considering most young men, especially those from abroad, dream of scoring goals in bigger cities like Boston, New York or Chicago. But Grant emphasizes the opportunities for growth Memphis offers by requiring foreigners to step outside their comfort zones.
“Even though I miss home I never wanted to live in a mini-Ireland,” Grant said. “There are Irish communities in the Northeast, and I’m not knocking them at all, but it’s like you’ve never left home because everyone around you is Irish.”
Grant said diversity is a large part of what attracted him to the American melting pot in the first place, and he enjoys the cultural exchanges that result from bringing together players from a wide array of backgrounds.
Grant said Americans don’t receive enough credit for their genuine sense of hospitality toward immigrants.
“I was always just floored by the hospitality of Americans,” he said. “You can sense genuineness in people wanting you to do well and support you. That wasn’t what I had heard about America before I came here. I think the real advantage of being Irish in America is how well-received you are. It’s flattering.”
The RESTAURATEUR: Patrick Reilly, Chef and owner, The Majestic Grille
When the Irish economy boomed in the 1990s, young, upwardly mobile Irish men and women began introducing culinary concepts to the island from abroad. But prior to the so-called Celtic Tiger years, Ireland historically lacked a sizable middle class, limiting career options for an aspiring high-end chef like Patrick Reilly.
“When I was growing up In Ireland, there were no restaurants,” he said. “You’d just go to the pub and have a few pints after dinner, but you never went out for a meal.”
The spark of the Kildare native’s passion for quality food was ignited during holidays in his mother’s native Mayo on Ireland’s salty West coast, where he sampled fresh country and coastal fare.
After a culinary education at Dublin School of Catering and Hotel Management, Reilly in the early 1980s moved to London, where he further honed his skills. In the late 1980s, Reilly crossed the pond to the U.S, working at corporate restaurants such as Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Café in cities such as Boston, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
In 2001, Reilly headed to the Home of the Blues, opening the Gibson Beale Street Showcase Guitar Lounge, and later the now-defunct Swig Martini Bar.
The grit, soul and historical poverty of Memphis reminded him of the land he’d left behind.
“Memphis and Ireland are very similar in a lot of ways, with the music scene – it’s like an art incubator – and the food culture. Old Southern food was a lot like old Irish food – pigs’ feet and fried chicken – cheap, peasant food.”
After marrying his Irish-American wife, Deni, the couple remained in Memphis, opening their own restaurant, The Majestic Grille, in 2006.
“In Ireland, businessmen are looked at with suspicion and loathing … but here business people by and large are looked at as having done well,” Reilly said. “People are just genuinely glad that we’re here and we’re doing well.”
Reilly said that from a small-business owner’s perspective, Memphis has a commerce-supportive local government that lacks the rigid regulations imposed on entrepreneurs in many other cities.
But the best thing about Memphis, said Reilly, who recently celebrated becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, is that “you’re not lost in the shuffle. You can really make an impact here, which is nice.”
The CULTURIST: Dr. Mary McGinty, Pediatrician, Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital; Owner/teacher, Inis Acla School of Irish Dance
Growing up in an immigrant household in Cleveland, Ohio, first-generation American Mary McGinty was just like everyone else in her neighborhood.
“Where I grew up, you were Irish-American or Italian-American or Yugoslavian-American; everyone had an immigrant connection,” said McGinty, whose mother hails from remote, Gaelic-speaking Achill Island off the coast of County Mayo.
Extended summer visits with family in Ireland – which Irish-Americans commonly refer to among themselves as “going home” – marching in St. Patrick’s Day parades, playing traditional music, and attending folk dancing socials called céilí dances were all regular occurrences in McGinty’s childhood.
When a fellowship in pediatric emergency medicine brought McGinty to Memphis in 1992, she was somewhat surprised by the South’s lack of a vibrant Irish cultural scene often seen in Northern cities.
“Here everyone’s a Southerner; that’s their identifier,” she said.
In addition to her day job as an emergency room physician at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, the former Irish dance champion and certified step-dancing instructor found a niche teaching the art form to children – at first flying monthly to Georgia to teach a group of about 60 kids.
She began receiving calls from transplanted Irish-American Northerners whose jobs had carried them to Memphis, and who wanted their children to continue their competitive Irish dancing.
In 1993, McGinty began offering classes to a handful of students at Germantown Community Center. And a year later “Riverdance” – starring her dance contemporary and fellow Irish-American Midwesterner Michael Flatley – took the world by storm, increasing local demand for McGinty’s skills.
In 2000, she opened an official studio in Cordova to house the 70 students of her Inis Acla School of Irish Dance. She also founded the Memphis Fèis – an Irish cultural and arts festival featuring step-dance competitions – as well as the Memphis Irish Arts Foundation, a nonprofit with the goal of supporting the fèis.
Like many Irish-Americans, McGinty views green beer, donning leprechaun suits and other commonplace St. Paddy’s Day debauchery as a cultural insult.
She attempted to start an annual Emerald Ball – like those held in other U.S. cities around St. Patrick’s Day, complete with dancing, traditional live music, and poetry recitation – in Memphis, but it proved to be unsustainable due to a lack of community support.
A mother of two, McGinty does her best to keep the traditions alive through her students and her two children – a daughter who dances competitively and a son with an interest in Irish history – who benefit from the care of their native Irish grandmother, who lives with the family. But McGinty said she’d like to see that cultural interest reach far beyond the walls of her home and studio.
“I think there’s no place for us to connect in Memphis,” she said. “I don’t know that there are enough Irish people to have our own club or our own center. I don’t know that there’s anybody who would teach language or tin whistle. I don’t know if there’s enough interest.”