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Irish in Early New Mexico


Erin go Bragh! Ireland Foriver!
Erin go Bragh! Forget her I’ll niver!
Lang as the sun gives light,
Lang as the moon shines bright,
Lang as there’s day and night,
Erin go Bragh!

Erin go Bragh! Aye for the Emerald
Erin go Bragh! ‘Tis there they can
make you smile,
Faith and Oi’d love to be
Back in the Auld Countree,
Ireland’s the land for me.
Erin go Bragh!

-- By Annie C. Murphy
Published by Albuquerque Morning Journal, March 19, 1916 as part of their Tribute to Irish Americans following St. Patrick’s Day.

Following the American Revolution, Irish Americans began to migrate to western parts of the United States. In 1802, the Irish immigrant Catherine O’Hare gave birth to the first child of Irish descent born west of the Rocky Mountains. However, those who migrated to the west followed in the footsteps of famous Irish men and women who shaped the western frontier as early as the eighteenth century.

The earliest known appearance of Irish immigrants in the desert territories of the southwestern United States was in the late eighteenth century. Commandant Colonel Hugo O’Conor fought under the Spanish crown, and managed to maintain fifteen forts from the Gulf of Mexico to California. Around the same time a priest from Limerick, Don Pedro Alonsa O’Crouley y O’Donnell, who was raised and educated in Spain, came to the “New World” as a missionary. He traveled all around the southwest and kept a journal of his experiences, in which he lamented on the horrible treatment of Native Americans by foreigners. His journal provides historians with an important account of daily life in the southwestern territories.

Religion also brought many Irish immigrants and people of Irish descent to the New Mexico territory in the mid-1800s. Irish Catholics could practice their religion freely because of the Spanish presence in the territory. Priests and nuns from Ireland came to the southwest to establish missions, and provide education and much needed social services to children in the region. The most famous of these missionaries was Sister Catherine Mallon, who traveled with the Sisters of Charity to Santa Fe in the 1860s. These women served as nurses for the Irish railroad workers, who were working in dangerous and deplorable conditions. The Irish migrated throughout the southwest and the New Mexico territory, and in the 1850 census several Irish families were reported living in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

As the Territory of New Mexico headed toward statehood, Irish Americans held a number of influential posts. In 1846, an Irish-American General named Stephen Watts Kearney led an expedition into New Mexico. He entered Santa Fe in August of the same year and officially declared New Mexico an American possession. When New Mexico was officially declared a state in 1912, the first inaugurated governor was William G. McDonald, a rancher from White Oaks.

Soldiers, Miners, Railroad Workers

Irish Americans also served as soldiers, and made up a large portion of the American troops fighting in the Mexican-American War. Fort Union was one of the most dangerous forts in the region, and the vast majority of soldiers stationed there were Irish Americans.

The railroad was an important source of work for Irish immigrants, and as it spread throughout the United States, so did the Irish. Between 1869 and 1900, the vast majority of railroads in the expanding United States were being built by the Irish. The Santa Fe Railroad brought many young Irish-American men to New Mexico, who would go on serve as rodmen, chainmen, and firemen once they left work on the railroad.

Other than work on the railroad, mining was another source of labor for the Irish and many were driven to the western United States by gold. From 1850-1860, the largest group of immigrants coming to the southwest were Irish, motivated by employment opportunities and the promise of wealth. After the California Gold Rush of 1849 Irish Americans moved to other parts of the Southwest, including New Mexico. In 1859, when gold was discovered at Pinos Altos in New Mexico, many Irish Americans traveled there and settled in the nearby town of Silver City, rumored to be rich in silver. Irish Americans also settled in the mining town of Kelly, New Mexico (named after an Irish American) and in Madrid to work in the coal mines.

Influential Irish in New Mexico

The Irish have played an important role in the shaping of New Mexico. Throughout the state’s history some of the most influential New Mexicans are of Irish descent. In the 2000 Census nearly 134,000 people, or 7.4 per cent of the population of New Mexico claimed Irish heritage. The presence of the Emerald Isle is alive and well in Albuquerque and throughout New Mexico.

Billy the Kid
The historic “Old West” produced a number of outlaws and bandits whose names live on in infamy, including Jesse James and Butch Cassidy, both of whom were of Irish descent. The most famous of these, Billy the Kid or William Bonney, was a first generation Irish-American. His mother Catherine McCarty fled Ireland in 1845 during the Irish Potato Famine, and settled in New Mexico. This outlaw would become a legend for his ability to make daring escapes, such as in 1878 when he managed to escape prosecution for the murder of Sheriff William Brady, and his role in the Lincoln County War. He was killed at the age of twenty-one by Sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner. The focus of multiple books, movies, stories and much controversy, Billy the Kid remains one of the most notorious and legendary characters of New Mexico.

Brother Matthias
On January 19, 1951, Brother Matthias Barrett arrived in Albuquerque from Waterford, Ireland and established a “New Order of Brothers” on the corner of West Iron Avenue and Third Street. Essentially a shack, this location that was scheduled for demolition would be the start of one of the most vital institutions in the city of Albuquerque. Brother Matthias served homeless and transient men, or “Knights of the Road,” as he called them, in the Albuquerque area and the Little Brothers of the Good Shepard continue to provide this important service today. Brother Matthias became a world-renowned figure for his humanitarian work in Albuquerque. He offered men who had nothing a warm bed, warm food, and other social services. It did not take long for others to follow in his example, and soon houses of the Little Brothers of the Good Shepard appeared all over the United States, Canada, Ireland, England, and Haiti.

Brother Matthias passed away in 1990 in Albuquerque. Because his birthday, March 15, is so close to St. Patrick’s Day, a dinner is hosted every year in his honor. The Annual Brother Matthias Dinner attracts hundreds of people, who enjoy a traditional Irish meal of corned beef and cabbage.

Dave Cargo
Former New Mexico Governor Dave Cargo is a very well-known figure in the state. He was a prominent Albuquerque Attorney and a Representative in the New Mexico House of Representatives before he was elected Governor in 1966. He remains one of the youngest men to ever serve as a Governor in the United States. While serving as Governor, Cargo started the State Film Commission, which has generated millions of dollars for the state, and Cargo was even asked to appear in several Hollywood films. He is active in the Irish-American community in Albuquerque and has traveled to Ireland on several occasions.

James A. Menaul
James A. Menaul arrived in Albuquerque from Ireland in 1896. He was a Presbyterian Minister and received funding to establish a Boarding School that would serve young Spanish speaking boys in the region. Both Menaul School and the street Menaul in Albuquerque are named after him.

H.P. Mera (or O’Mera)
Harry Percival Mera was a well-known anthropologist and archaeologist in New Mexico. He began his career as a physician, and in 1929 he left medicine and became the first curator of Archaeology at the Laboratory of Anthropology. He published several books on the Native American cultures in New Mexico, including Pueblo Designs: “The Rain Bird” and Pueblo Indian Embroidery. In 1925, Irish-American Mera won a twenty-five dollar reward for designing a yellow flag with the Zia symbol in the center, what would later become the official State Flag of New Mexico. The original New Mexican state flag was sewn by his wife, Reba Mera.

The Keleher Family
For over a century the Keleher family has made a lasting impact on the city of Albuquerque. Mary Ann Gorry arrived in the United States from Kildare, Ireland. She married David Keleher, and in 1889 they moved their children from Kansas to Albuquerque. Mrs. Keleher was loved throughout Albuquerque and known for her involvement in the community. Upon her death in 1922 she was described as:

“A woman with a magnetic personality and gifted in making and keeping friends, Mrs. Keleher had hosts of friends, whose friendship she retained until her death. Patient, gentle and generous, Mrs. Keleher was a noble mother and a wonderful friend.”
--From the Albuquerque Journal, March 3, 1922

The Keleher children also grew up to be successful figures in Albuquerque. Her eldest son, William A. Keleher is a well-known figure in New Mexico. He began his career early as a journalist for the Albuquerque Journal and Albuquerque Evening Herald. After completing law school in Washington and Virginia, Keleher returned to Albuquerque and founded a practice with attorney A. Howell McLeod. This successful law firm still exists today. William Keleher’s sons have continued the proud tradition their father began.

In addition to practicing law, William A. Keleher is very distinguished among New Mexican historians for his writings. He published several books, including Maxwell Land Grant, Turmoil in New Mexico, Violence in Lincoln County, and more. William Keleher passed away in 1972 in Albuquerque. The Keleher family donated their family archives to the Center for Southwest Research at Zimmerman Library and this family continues to play an important role in the shaping of New Mexican history.

Michael McGarrity
The distinguished author Michael McGarrity was a highly respected trained psychotherapist before he became one of the state’s most respected authors. He was recognized as the New Mexico Social Worker of the Year in 1980. In 1996, the success of his novel Tularosa encouraged him to turn his attention to writing full time. McGarrity’s books have won a number of awards, and Tularosa was nominated for an Anthony Award, a Dilys Award, and he has twice been nominated by the Western Writers of America for a Spur Award. In 2004, he was the recipient of the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts: Literature. He is very well known for his mystery series, Kevin Kerney, which has won the attention of audiences across the United States, and is loved by New Mexicans for its vivid descriptions of New Mexico scenery and customs. McGarrity now lives in Santa Fe.

William McGuiness
William McGuiness came to Albuquerque in the 1860s as a soldier in the United States Army. He married a woman named Encarnación Romero, and in 1870 they published The Republican Review, the only newspaper in print in Albuquerque for the next ten years. It was also the only newspaper to publish all articles in both English and Spanish. McGuiness loved his adopted town, and was devoted to ensuring its economic growth. He was a major advocate for bringing the railroad to Albuquerque, and in 1880 his newspaper celebrated at its arrival.

Bernard S. Rodey
Bernard S. Rodey was a very active member of New Mexican law and politics for nearly fifty years. Born in County Mayo, Ireland in 1856, he immigrated with his parents to the United States in 1862. He arrived in Albuquerque in 1881 after studying law in Boston. He was an Albuquerque City Attorney, and founded the Rodey Law Firm in 1883. He was also a territorial representative in the United States Congress for four years. He steered the legislation that led to the creation of the University of New Mexico, and Rodey Theater in the Center for the Arts carries his name.

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