Immigration story shows how Irish helped build Janesville

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Anna Marie Lux
Wednesday, September 25, 2013

JANESVILLE--Terry Sheridan can only imagine the anguish his great-grandfather felt when leaving his home in the mid-1840s.

William Sheridan was 15 when he departed Ireland and set sail for New York City.

Alone, the teenager pulled up roots at the beginning of the great potato famine. Men, women and children were dying of starvation and disease because a relentless blight turned healthy potatoes—a staple in the Irish diet—into stinking balls of black rot.

Before the misery ended, more than 1 million Irish died.

Another million fled in rickety ships for new countries, including “Amerikay,” the fabled land across the sea.

Terry's wife, Judy, reflects on William's desperate parting.

“I think about how hard it must have been to say goodbye—forever,” Judy said. “But his parents were saving his life by sending him away.”

Judy has spent years researching her husband's family tree and piecing together William's dramatic story. She and Terry share the details with great pride.

They are one of many families in Janesville with rich tales of Irish immigration who will celebrate their heritage during the city's first Irish Fest on Oct. 3-6.

Dave Haldiman, filmmaker and writer, has just finished a book and documentary about the Irish in Janesville, which will debut during the festival. He interviewed about 20 Irish families, including the Cullens, Dooleys, Fitzpatricks, Kennedys, Reillys, Rohertys and Ryans.

His research reveals how vital Irish contributions were to the city's start. Today, descendants of Irish immigrants figure prominently in politics, business and public service in Janesville and beyond. Many can trace their roots to the mid-1800s, when Janesville sprung up at the edge of the frontier.

“One of the reasons the Irish were so important to the city is that the famine happened just as Janesville began to grow in the mid-19th century,” Haldiman said. “The new town needed lots of people to do the hard work.”

During the 1840s and 1850s, the Irish poured into the United States. Like many new immigrants, they faced discrimination. When eastern cities became saturated with poor Irish, many Americans turned against them. Signs, including “Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply,” began appearing in windows.

In response, Irish immigrants moved west to Wisconsin, where the land was fertile and reminded them of Ireland. Often, they were hired to do the toughest and dirtiest work, including putting down tons of railroad tracks. They responded to discrimination “by taking the hard-calloused, most hazardous, fall-asleep-at-the-dinner-table jobs no one else would do,” Haldiman said, “as if to spite the slur.”

And it wasn't just Irish men.

Many Irish women worked as domestics in wealthy homes on Courthouse Hill. Some labored over looms and sewing machines in the fabric mills along the Rock River. Others became dress and lace makers.

U.S. census numbers tell their story of growth.

In 1850, almost 250 Irish lived in Janesville and 900 in Rock County. A decade later, more than 1,200 Irish-born people called Janesville home and 3,300 lived in the county.

“There are not a lot of historical sites around here with Irish names on them,” Haldiman said. “Irish immigrants were mostly the ones who worked for the people whose names were on the buildings and the letterheads. But without the Irish, Janesville would never have developed the way it did—and as quickly as it did.”

Janesville's Irish heritage continues to show itself today, especially in the city's family-friendly nature.

“The Irish are very family-oriented people,” Haldiman said. “They've helped to create an urban atmosphere that values family togetherness and support.”

The Sheridans embrace tight family ties.

On St. Patrick's Day, all family members are expected to be at the Sheridan home to dress in green, sing special songs and pass on Irish traditions to the grandkids. Next year, the Sheridans, their four sons and families are planning a trip to Ireland to affirm their humble heritage.

“I'm so proud of being Irish,” Terry said. “A lot of it has to do with Judy, who researched much of the history and put together two books for our family.”

Judy discovered that great-grandfather William eventually married Anne, and they had nine children. In a stroke of luck, she found William's name on an 1860 census of New York City residents, which listed him as a ship's carpenter.

“The chances of finding him were like a needle in a haystack,” Judy said.

Eventually, William, Anne and the family moved from New York City to Johnstown in 1870, where William bought 56 acres and farmed. William died in 1904. On his death certificate, someone listed “Irish” under the category of race.

At one time, Sheridan family members owned three saloons in Janesville. They also ran a hotel, a livery and a coal company.

Terry grew up in a family of nine in the Fourth Ward.

“Our neighbors were Irish,” 65-year-old Terry said. “Our friends were Irish. They called our home at 303 S. Academy 'Sheridan's Corner' because it was a neighborhood gathering place.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, Terry attended St. Patrick's school and church. Organized in 1847, St. Patrick's is the first Catholic congregation in Janesville, organized to serve the mostly working-class Irish in the neighborhood.

From 1970 to 2000, Terry served with the Janesville Fire Department and retired as a lieutenant. The more he learns about his Irish heritage the more he embraces it.

“It makes me feel proud when I think about the sacrifices the Irish made to come here,” Terry said.

Judy searched her own family tree for Irish blood but came up short. She declares herself Irish through Terry and her sons Terrence Edward, Timothy Patrick, Christopher Shawn and Chad Michael.

Of the early Irish immigrants, who suffered so much and worked so hard, she said:

“I wish I could go back in time and hug them.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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