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Book review: How the Irish won the West

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Ellis Island: Kenny’s tale of the O’Shaughnessy family’s success in America is much more alive than any faded photo in an Ellis Island picture book

Ellis Island: Kenny’s tale of the O’Shaughnessy family’s success in America is much more alive than any faded photo in an Ellis Island picture book

Ellis Island: Kenny’s tale of the O’Shaughnessy family’s success in America is much more alive than any faded photo in an Ellis Island picture book

There is no end of great stories about the migration of the Irish to the United States. Given the sheer numbers of the migration - almost two million between 1849 and 1899, alone - and the extraordinary opportunities which that vast and adventurous land offered, there was never going to be a shortage of stories of adventure, success and transformation.

Media lecturer and Sunday Independent columnist, Colum Kenny, has dug deep into his family's past to tell us the extraordinary story of the O'Shaughnessy brothers. These were the children of James Shaughnessy, an impoverished immigrant from Kiltartan in County Galway, all of whom rose through American society to become highly successful in many and diverse fields.

One of the children, James O'Shaughnessy became a star reporter with the Chicago Tribune but rose to become a major figure in the advertising industry, a pioneer who led the way for the Mad Men of a later era and who became the first chief executive of the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

His brothers, Francis and John became lawyers, the latter representing victims in notorious white slavery cases, as well being active in the US activities of Ireland's Home Rule movement, and hosting visits to Chicago by the Home Rule leader, John Redmond. Interestingly, his brother was involved, later, in a similar visit to the US by William T Cosgrave, the first President of the Irish Free State. Meanwhile, Francis and another brother Martin were very involved in Notre Dame university.

Martin became captain of the team's basketball team while Francis was the first graduate of that illustrious Catholic college to be invited to give its commencement address. Meanwhile, a fifth brother, Thomas, became a leading Gaelic Revival artist, and kept alive this particular form of neo-Celtic artistry.

Interestingly, in a similar vein, the children of James Shaughnessy restored to their family name the 'O' bit that their father had dropped in his quest for assimilation. And no wonder, given their future success.

The story begins with James arriving in the US as an orphaned child, after the Great Famine in which both his parents had died. He doesn't stay on the East Coast, as many Irish emigrants did, but is moved out west, where he grows up seeking opportunity and adventure.

Kenny, who has done a diligent and impressive amount of research and interviews for this book, vividly describes a daunting landscape that was, to the white man, an unknown wilderness but also one filled with potential for those who wished to pursue it.

This was the era of the railway companies, in which James worked, while he also earned a few bucks as a boot-maker, before he eventually moving into the buying and selling of land.

It was a hard slog. This was the frontier spirit and the creation of a modern industrial America, expanding westwards.

From Missouri, James moved his family to Chicago where they continued to rise. His son James, showing an early marketing prowess, even came up with the idea for a replica Blarney Castle at the Chicago Exposition of 1893! It was the era of a buoyant community Irish America, proud of its origins.

Obviously with five brothers, pursuing very different but related paths, there are so many elements to this book that it is hard to do it justice by focusing on one thing in particular but Kenny has woven an inspiring narrative by interlacing the different stories so that you get a real sense of a young developing nation and a rapidly changing society.

The story of James Jr alone is fascinating - given the influence of the US in advertising globally. Indeed, by focusing on one family, Kenny has done us a service by bringing alive what could otherwise be a mere faded photo in an Ellis Island picture book or just another statistic on an immigrant register. It is an inspirational read.

Sunday Independent