Limerick’s American dream: The Treaty men and women who helped build the US

Limerick historian and author Sharon Slater. Photo: Don Moloney.

The connection between Limerick and the United States has always been robust, with ships once sailing from ports taking both cargo and passengers back and forth across the water. It’s hardly surprising then that Limerick migrants found themselves in every possible role in their new home across the pond, with some even ascending to governing positions.

The early years of Daniel O’Reilly’s life unfolded amidst dramatic changes in Ireland. Born in Limerick City in 1838 to Daniel and Bridget O’Reilly, he weathered the Great Famine in his infancy. Like countless others, his family emigrated in the wake of that catastrophe, arriving in New York in 1856 to settle in Brooklyn.

O’Reilly’s literacy set him apart from many of his contemporaries, securing him a role as a weights assistant and ultimately elevating him to foreman in the New York Custom House.

His foray into politics began locally, serving as an alderman to the Brooklyn Board (the equivalent of a town council) from 1873 to 1875 and 1878 to 1879. On more than one occasion he acted as Mayor of Brooklyn.

In 1879, O’Reilly clinched a position as an Independent Democrat to the Forty-sixth Congress, a position he held for two years. Before he even took his seat, there were discussions in Brooklyn as to whether he could hold the position of alderman and congressman at the same time.

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His start in Congress was marred with rumours that he had deserted his position in the Union army during the American War of Independence.

The question of his dual seats was resolved with his retirement from the Brooklyn Board, while the latter took a little more persuading with O’Reilly bringing forth witnesses that could attest to his good conduct. Although he was once held on suspicion of desertion, he was immediately released when the marshal discovered the accusation came from a disgruntled former employee at the New York Custom House. Just to add to the confusion, there was another unrelated Daniel O’Reilly who enlisted in New York in 1861 who deserted a year later in Virginia.

As his bid for a second congressional term fell short, O’Reilly pivoted to law, earning admission to the bar in 1888 and establishing a practice in Brooklyn. He died in 1911 and was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York, where sadly no headstone marks his grave.

While O’Reilly was making his first steps into politics, John Joseph McGrath was being born in Limerick in 1872. He left Ireland at 17, moving first to Chicago where he studied law but ultimately worked as a salesman.

His westward odyssey eventually led him to San Mateo, California, where he worked as the post master from 1916 to 1925. He became a justice of the peace in San Mateo County from 1928 to 1932.

In 1932, McGrath’s political ascent culminated in a congressional bid, which saw him elected as a Democrat in the 8th district of California. After serving three full terms from 1933 to 1939 in the Seventy-third, Seventy-fourth, and Seventy-fifth Congresses, he acted as commissioner for immigration and naturalisation in San Francisco until his retirement in 1940.

He died in 1951 and was buried in St John’s Cemetery, San Mateo.

Stepping back to the famine period again, seven-year-old Denis Michael Hurley was leaving Limerick with his parents for New York in 1850. As with Daniel O’Reilly, Hurley settled in Brooklyn, where he was educated in the public school system. After school he became a carpenter before becoming a building contractor.

He was elected as a Republican and served in the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth Congresses from 1895 until his death in 1899. Hurley died while in Virginia after a failed attempt to be re-elected. As with O’Reilly, he too was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn hosts other Limerick luminaries, including Ellen O’Grady, the first female Deputy Police Commissioner in New York, and Mary McCoy, a nurse during the American Civil War who offered water to President Abraham Lincoln as he visited wounded soldiers on the front lines.

Across the aisle from Denis Michael Hurley in the Fifty-fifth Congress was another Limerick man, James Cooney. Cooney was born in Limerick in 1848 but spent his childhood traversing the American heartland. He moved with his family first to New York in 1852, before travelling down to Missouri.

He was educated in public schools before attending the University of Missouri. He worked as a teacher for a few years before returning to education himself, when he eventually studied and practiced law. In 1880, he was elected as a probate judge and later a prosecuting attorney to Saline County.

He served as a Democratic representative for Missouri in the Fifty-fifth, Fifty-sixth, and Fifty-seventh Congresses from 1897 to 1903. He failed at his attempt at re-election in the Fifty-eighth Congress. He returned to practicing law and died in 1904. He was buried in Ridge Park Cemetery, Missouri.

Finally, Patrick Walsh was born in Ballingarry in 1840 but left Limerick 12 years later with his family to Charleston, South Carolina. He rose through the newspaper ranks starting as a travelling printer while attending school.

In 1862, he moved to Augusta, Georgia where he became editor of the Augusta Chronicle, a position he would hold for over 30 years. He also acted as the treasurer and general manager of the Southern Associated Press. The connections he created while in the newspaper trade gave him an advantage when running for politics.

Although he never entered Congress, he was an Augusta City Council member, a State House of Representatives member, and a member of the Democratic National Executive Committee. He reached his highest political achievement in 1894, when he was appointed as a Democrat to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Alfred H Colquitt. He remained in this position until 1895, when he failed to get re-elected.

Back in local politics, Walsh was elected as Mayor of Augusta in 1897 until his sudden death in 1899. He was buried in the City Cemetery in Augusta. He was not forgotten in his new city as in 1913 a large statue of him was raised in front of the Union Station, which served as the main passenger railroad station for Augusta from 1902/3 until 1966. It still stands there today, although in 2001, shortly after September 11, authorities erected a wrought-iron fence around the area that restricts casual access to the statue.