Patricia McElligott's book traces Irish influence in Pittsburgh


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Just in time for St. Patrick's Day comes a new pictorial book about Pittsburgh's Irish history from author Patricia McElligott, a city native and writer who lives in Penn Hills and is active in the Gaelic Arts Society of Pittsburgh.

"Irish Pittsburgh," from Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series, features 175 vintage photos, some from the author's family collection but most from the Irish community at large. They feature former Gov. David L. Lawrence, dancer Gene Kelly and boxing champion Billy Conn, along with countless everyday people whose progeny rose from poverty to middle class, from shantytown to "lace curtain" respectability.

As the author notes, many of today's Irish residents can trace their roots to immigrants fleeing the great potato famine of the mid-1800s. They came to work in the iron and steel mills, mines and railroads, while the women toiled as domestic servants in such large numbers that "Bridget the Maid" became a staple on stage and film.

The newcomers settled in the Point, the Hill District, Homewood and the North Side. Combatting anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice, they paved the way for their children who went on to dominate politics and the Catholic Church, also rising to the heights of sports, entertainment and business.

Ms. McElligott, a retired health insurance manager, was born in Mercy Hospital, which was founded by the Dublin-based Sisters of Mercy; they came to the city in 1843 to tend to the new immigrants. As a young child, she lived in the Hill District with thousands of Irish immigrants, including her grandparents.

She gathered photos for the book through the region's Irish networks. Most helpful, she said, were the Sisters of Mercy at Carlow University, St. Patrick's Church in the Strip District and the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

In her research, she said, "I was surprised at how few women rose to any kind of public prominence in the early 20th century. It was because they were very much encouraged to take care of home and hearth. Except for religious women, there weren't many who made strides publicly until the 1940s."

Up to that point, she said, Mother Frances Wardewas probably the most prominent woman of public accomplishment. She was a founder of Mercy Hospital in 1847.

Ms. McElligott said her research also gave her "a tremendous appreciation of how much all the immigrants suffered. These particular ones were Irish, Catholic and poor, that was three strikes against them, and they were so badly treated.

"One labor historian I talked to described them as 'the industrial equivalent of cannon fodder' because so many died in the mill, mines and railroad."

Beyond the struggle, she said, the story of Irish Pittsburgh is one of triumph.

"Their children and grandchildren climbed the ladder to success and lived the American dream. I hope the book will honor their memory."

"Irish Pittsburgh" (128 pages, $21.99) is available at bookstores and online.

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Sally Kalson: skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.


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