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Though scattered all over, Irish are region's 2nd-largest nationality

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Saturday, March 15, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald downplays his Irish heritage, noting he's six generations removed from the Emerald Isle and also part German, Croatian and Italian.

“Today you see a lot of people with mixed ancestries and ethnicities. I think that multicultural aspect of Pittsburgh is something we can all be proud of,” said Fitzgerald, who plans to walk in today's St. Patrick's Day Parade.

About one in six Pittsburghers claims Irish ancestry, making them the region's second-largest nationality behind Germans, according to Census data.

Yet, Pittsburgh no longer has any Irish neighborhoods like it once did in areas of Downtown, the North Side, Oakland, Lawrenceville and other places.

“The little pockets or enclaves that used to be common in and around the city are gone for the most part,” said Jim Lamb, president of the Ireland Institute of Pittsburgh and the honorary consul of Ireland in Pittsburgh for Western Pennsylvania.

Instead, the Irish are everywhere, say local leaders and Irish heritage experts.

“The Irish of today are more in the middle class. They can afford to go elsewhere. Many have moved out of the city and scattered all over the place,” said Jim Graven, who runs Squirrel Hill's Irish Centre of Pittsburgh but lives in Greensburg.

Membership in the group plummeted from a high of about 400 in the 1960s and 1970s to about 80 today. It promotes Irish culture through Irish language instruction, dance classes and various arts and crafts, music, drama and athletic groups.

“The Irish had a distinct advantage over many other immigrant groups. Because they could speak English, they were less likely to stay in their little enclaves past the first or second generation. Once you get some money, you tend to move out of the old neighborhood,” said Joseph Coohill, an assistant professor of history at Duquesne University who wrote the book, “Ireland: A Short History.”

The first wave of Irish immigrants flocked to Pittsburgh in the first half of the 19th century to live on the frontier and work as traders and merchants, while the next big wave occurred in the latter part of the century for mill and factory jobs, Coohill said.

Contrary to popular belief, few Irish came to Pittsburgh because of Ireland's Great Potato Famine from 1845 to 1852.

“Most of the Irish who came to Western Pennsylvania were from northeastern Ireland and didn't suffer as much from the famine,” Coohill said.

Jim Green, president of the Allegheny County chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, didn't start to feel a deep connection to his ancestry until after his grandfather — an Irish immigrant — died when Green was a young adult.

“When I was growing up, I was just a Pittsburgh kid. I wasn't even aware of my ethnic heritage,” Green said.

Green said he joined the Ancient Order of Hibernians to help with genealogical research, but his involvement quickly grew. The fraternal organization, which was created to combat discrimination and poor working conditions facing Irish immigrants in the 19th century, has about 1,000 male members countywide and about 500 in a ladies' auxiliary, he said.

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