The Builders of Our City
By Margaret Brennan
In a small Catholic cemetery in Triadelphia stands a cluster of old, weathered gravestones. Two, dated 1819, tell us of John Doyle, County Down, and a nameless 26 year old from County Tyrone. These hearken back to the building of the National Road to Wheeling in 1818 and the many Irish who performed the backbreaking work for $6.00 a month, some of whom settled in this area.
These were primarily the Gaelic Irish, poor, uneducated, emigrating from a densely populated island, held down by harsh British governance. This hard working, industrial army would wield the picks and shovels that built the canals, roads and railroads of this country, of western Virginia, of Wheeling.
In western Virginia, Wheeling became the center of Irish settlement. An industrial hub of Virginia situated on the Ohio River and terminus of the National Road and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Wheeling was a natural magnet for those seeking jobs and a better life.
The work camps of the B & O were filled with the Irish, one of whom, County Mayo native John Monahan was present at the closing of track at Roseby’s Rock, December 24, 1852. He eventually returned to this city to settle in South Wheeling, one of the primary neighborhoods for Irish families. The Church of the Immaculate Conception, St. Mary’s, became the hub of Irish Catholic life.
The Irish emigration to Wheeling was the result of one of the greatest tragedies of human history, “A Gorta Mo`r,” The Great Hunger. Of the 8.2 million Irish, one and one-half million died of starvation and disease between 1845 and1850, and by 1855, over two million had fled their homeland. Many of these desperate people made their way over the National Road to work in the mills and factories of Wheeling.
The Roman Catholic Church was inherently tied to Irish identity. The Irish and Germans supported the first (1823) church in Wheeling, served by Father Maguire of Pittsburgh. The founding bishop (1850-1874) of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and of Wheeling Hospital was a Baltimore Irishman, Richard Vincent Whelan.
Not everyone welcomed the Wheeling Irish. The anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party took root. In 1853, a papal envoy to the United States visited the city and the bishop, wishing to protect him from a reported mob, called on the Irish to ring the Cathedral block. The envoy’s safety was assured.
This ongoing need to protect the church led a group of New York Irishmen in 1836 to form the Ancient Order of Hibernians. A division was established in Wheeling (1874-1939) which organized “Irish Day” picnics, marched in parades and hosted state conventions.
The Irish Catholic families of Wheeling have left their mark. The O’Brien’s and the Riley’s were important not just to Wheeling but to the state of West Virginia. Both emigrating from County Cavan, Thomas O’Brien fought in the Civil War, became surveyor of the port of Wheeling and in 1880 was elected State Treasurer, probably the first Gaelic Irishman to hold such high office. Several of his children and grandchildren practiced law and Tim and Mollie O’Brien carried the name into the music world.
Thomas Riley became one of the finest lawyers in the State, and was elected Attorney General of West Virginia in 1892. In 1922, Thomas built the Riley Law Building and his descendants have carried on his rich legal tradition. Another prominent Irishman, Michael Owens of South Wheeling, revolutionized the American glass industry with his many inventions, including the Battle Blowing Machine.
The many Irish who settled in the neighborhoods of South Wheeling, East Wheeling, Centre Wheeling, North Wheeling and Warwood, with its Cork Town, came from the various counties of Ireland. The Duffy’s from Roscommon, the O’Leary’s from Cork, and the Fahey’s from Galway have contributed so much to the area. One remembers too, the many Irish priests and religious women who have devoted their lives to this city.
Today, a rich Irish heritage flourishes in our valley. In March, the sounds of Irish step dancers reverberate from the Wheeling Celtic Festival and the Irish road bowling tournament in September has grown to the largest in the state. Sean Duffy’s popular Lunch with Books often features Irish programs, especially near St. Patrick’s Day. And in 2006, the Ancient Order of Hibernians was reborn in Wheeling through the efforts of Jack Fahey. At Wheeling’s Heritage Port, a Celtic cross stands as a tribute to those Irish who walked this land and helped to build this historic city.