When Irish Was Spoken in Pittsburgh
Irish language scholar Douglas Hyde described Pittsburgh as “the dirtiest and blackest city in America” during his January 1906 visit. “Hell uncovered,” he jotted in his journal, paraphrasing the Atlantic Monthly’s 1868 coinage. Hyde also complained “the wind would cut your nose off.”
But the 45-year-old Irishman hadn’t sailed across the Atlantic for mild weather or fine scenery. As with the other stops on an eight-month U.S. tour, Hyde came to raise awareness about the Gaelic League, the language revival organization he helped found in 1893 to nurture both cultural and political nationalism.
“The people only have to learn of the work of the Gaelic League to give it their heartiest support,” Hyde told 2,500 people at Pittsburgh’s Old City Hall, one newspaper reported. “Their object is not to preserve the language, but the national identity of Ireland. The Anglisation of Ireland is national extinction.”
Hyde’s journal remained private until 1937 when it was published—in Irish—the year before he became the first president of Ireland. Now, “My American Journey” has been reissued with a first-ever English translation. The 114-year-old passages, coupled with 1906 press accounts, recall a smoke-shrouded period of Pittsburgh’s history a half-century after the arrival of famine-starved, mostly Catholic immigrants, and a decade before their descendants supported an armed rebellion against British rule.
“There is simply no way to cover every major event in the long arc of Irish Pittsburgh’s history,” Gerald F. O’Neil wrote in “Pittsburgh Irish: Erin on the Three Rivers.” Hyde’s visit is one such overlooked episode, absent from 1949 stories about his death in the same city newspapers that reported his visit 43 years earlier.
He arrived just before the annexation of Allegheny City, today’s North Side, helped swell the city’s population to 534,000 by 1910, from 322,000 in 1900. “I do not know how many of them are Irish,” Hyde wrote in his journal. U.S. Census-crunching historians estimate Pittsburgh’s Irish-born population was declining to about 19,000 by 1910, from 24,000 in 1900, a 30 percent drop from the post-famine peak of nearly 27,000 in 1890.
Hyde noticed the city’s many eastern European immigrants. A Protestant, he wrote that Catholic Bishop J.F. Regis Canevin told him the Gospel was preached in 13 languages across the city. Gaelic was spoken at several churches, including St. Mary of Mercy near the Point, then being transformed from an Irish ghetto where poor immigrants once lived inside the Fort Pitt Blockhouse.
America’s 19th century Irish immigrants organized to preserve their native language soon after their arrival. Their efforts became “a form of social consciousness and political activism” and “lay the foundation for the Gaelic League” in Ireland, according to a 2019 article in Studi irelandesi, an Irish scholarly journal. The Gaelic League, in turn, reinforced and encouraged the language revival and support for Irish nationalism from America.
In November 1903, Jeremiah McCarthy and other members of the Hazelwood division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Irish Catholic fraternal organization, formed the O’Growney Gaelic Society, named after Rev. Eugene O’Growney, another of the Gaelic League founders. Within months, more than 50 students attended Tuesday and Thursday evening language classes, and Saturday night cultural and history lectures, according to a 1904 full-page feature in the Pittsburgh Gazette.
“I enjoyed McCarthy greatly,” Hyde wrote of the society’s president, a member of the reception committee that greeted him at Pittsburgh’s Union Station. Hyde was given a trolley tour of “significant city sights.” The group of about two dozen people stopped at the Pittsburgh Zoo, opened eight years earlier, and the Duquesne Gardens, then the world’s largest indoor ice skating rink. “As soon as I entered, the band struck up ‘The Wearing of the Green,’” Hyde recorded.
He mailed home a postcard image of Carnegie Library to their two daughters, playfully writing that they should tell “Polly,” the family’s pet cockatoo, the couple “saw a lot of her cousins in lovely houses,” an apparent reference to their zoo visit.
Hyde wrote, “I almost died in Pittsburgh” when the car he was riding in, “going far too fast, maybe 40 miles an hour,” nearly collided with a horse and buggy. He disliked “a new drink which they call ‘rock and rye,’ ” that gave him heartburn.
The city’s great iron and steel works made the greatest impression: “Smoke rises in great clouds and when the sun shines as it sets, it appears as if a flame. I never saw anything comparable. … This is where Carnegie made his money.”
Hyde opened his city hall speech in Gaelic, and many in the audience shouted back in Irish, according to the press reports: “It is doubtful if a more completely Irish assembly has ever been gathered together in Pittsburgh. Rich Gaelic permeated every corner of the building in song, speeches and short expressions. For a time the thousands of miles separating Ireland and Pittsburgh were bridged and genuine Irish sentiments were expressed by people who thought in English and expressed themselves in Irish.”
Of course, Hyde’s mission included raising money for his cause, used in Ireland to hire and train additional Irish language teachers and organizers. He noted in the journal that $350 of the $972.50 total (about $9,000 of $27,000 today) collected in Pittsburgh came from the meeting, the balance forwarded directly to Dublin by the local organizing committee.
A few days later, in Milwaukee, Hyde wrote in his journal that the local Catholic bishop “was far more generous” than Pittsburgh’s Canevin.