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Penn Hills resident and author shines light on region's Irish immigrants

Patrick Varine
| Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, 9:03 p.m.
McElligott's 'Irish Pittsburgh' is a part of Arcadia's popular 'Images of America' series. SUBMITTED ARTWORK
Penn Hills Progress
McElligott's 'Irish Pittsburgh' is a part of Arcadia's popular 'Images of America' series. SUBMITTED ARTWORK

Gene Kelly. Art Rooney. David L. Lawrence.

Pittsburgh's history of Irish immigration is rich with familiar, famous names, so it may come as a surprise that Arcadia Publishing's “Images of America” series didn't already have a sepia-toned volume exploring Irish influence in the city.

Thanks to Penn Hills resident and author Patricia McElligott, now it does.

McElligott's “Irish Pittsburgh” was published last week, and through 126 pages and more than 150 photos, it takes a look at the chain migration which began in the 18th century.

“I noticed that although other major ethnic groups in Western Pennsylvania, like Germans and Italians, had Arcadia books devoted to their experience, there was no book on the Irish in the Pittsburgh region,” said McElligott, who has been published in Robert Morris University's literary magazine “Rune” and is a contributor to the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book series.

After submitting a proposal for a book exploring the area's Irish immigrants, McElligott got a favorable response from Arcadia and spent the next 20 months collecting photographs, stories and snapshots of life for newly arrived Irish in the Pittsburgh area.

McElligott spoke with the Progress recently about the research for the book and her family's place in “Irish Pittsburgh”:

Q: How did you go about collecting material for the book, and how long of a process was it from start to finish?

A: The biggest challenge was collecting enough vintage photos to make up a 128-page book. I contacted every person and Irish-themed organization I knew and asked for images. Jack Webber of the Gaelic Arts Society of Pittsburgh, Chuck Peters from South Side Celtic Society, Father Joseph Mele of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Mary Frances Garrison from the Irish Centre of Pittsburgh, Diane Byrnes, host of the “Echoes of Erin” radio show, Pittsburgh Irish Network and Ancient Order of Hibernians all took the lead in spreading the word about my project. I can't thank them enough for their help. The book took approximately 20 months from inception to completion.

Q: How did the McElligott family come to America, and where do they hail from in Ireland?

A: The McElligotts hail from County Cork and came to the U.S. in the late 1800s. My mother's family, the Martins, hail from County Galway, and came in the early 1900s.

They did not come all at once because they couldn't afford to. The Irish generally immigrated singly or in pairs; when they earned enough money here, they sent for more relatives to join them. It was a practice called “chain migration.” Both families were escaping poverty. In post-famine Ireland, there was little or no opportunity for them to thrive. Emigration was their only hope for a better life. They came, as most Irish immigrants did, in the steerage class of ships, and entered the United States at the Port of New York.

Q: With the Irish being the second-largest ethnic group in the city, were you surprised that this book hadn't already been included as a part of the series?

A: Yes, I was very surprised that the book didn't already exist. The publisher told me that Arcadia did want a book on Irish Pittsburgh; they simply had not identified anyone who was interested in the project and qualified to write the book.

Q: What's been your favorite part of being involved with the book?

A: Resurrecting the memory of the thousands who went before us. The immigrants were despised because they were Catholic, Irish and poor. They suffered terrible hardships. In the 19th century men died in work-related accidents in such large numbers in Pittsburgh that one historian said they were “the industrial equivalent of cannon fodder.”

Women and children expired in shantytowns of poverty-related diseases that are unheard of today. And yet the Pittsburgh Irish survived to create a world where their children could move ahead, and where their grandchildren and great-grandchildren could live in comfort. Bringing back their images and their stories is my way of honoring them. This book has been a labor of love.

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