March 17th always holds a place in the hearts of all of the Irish people and in the hearts of the Irish Diaspora. Growing up in a middle-class, predominately Catholic neighborhood with the largest percentage of my neighbors hailing from Erin makes me as well part of that Irish Diaspora. The emigration from Ireland to the United States began way before the Great Famine which accelerated the wave of Irish migrations to the United States and throughout the world. It began with the great age of migration that began with the founding of Jamestown, the colony at Plymouth and without a doubt the migrations of the Irish to Philadelphia in the 18th century. The Irish that left their homeland sought to attain a higher quality of life, experience religious freedom and desired to live independently from political strife and oppression. Coming to America provided the Irish and many oppressed peoples of Europe the opportunity to live a dream and provide success for their heirs.
Needless to say, Gray’s Ferry initially was populated with Dutch settlers in the late 17th century, part of those settlers that sought religious tolerance as part of William Penn’s Great Experiment in founding his colony. In terms of a remote outpost, Gray’s Ferry was indeed a natural wilderness prior to the American Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, but the earliest settlers in the area were the Irish after the Dutch as the 18th century began to unfold. Penn’s colony was a haven for Quakers, Catholics, and Protestants that wished to escape the often punitive laws of Great Britain against these faiths and the Delaware Valley offered opportunities for land, resources and prosperous lives. Within this framework, of historical realities, the Irish settled the area of what we now know as Gray’s Ferry and the long history of Philadelphia’s Irish Diaspora began.
In 1771 the Irish population of Philadelphia was so great that it became possible to initiate an Irish fraternal society in the city. The Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick was established in 1771 and even the most colorful Benjamin Franklin became a member of the nascent society. To date, the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, incorporated in Philadelphia is the oldest Irish Society in the United States. This author, a descendent of Ireland is a member of the esteemed society, which this year has decided to have women as members as well. That is really a good development, because both great men and women have contributed to the heritage of Irish life in America, so having women as members in the society will help expand the non-profit mission of the society for generations to come. One of the institutions that directly benefits from the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick’s philanthropic generosity is Villanova University which has a curriculum devoted to Irish Studies. The local community of the Sisters of the Poor also receives contributions from the society to continue their mission to the impoverished in the Philadelphia metropolitan area.
Returning to Gray’s Ferry, the Irish contribution to America’s freedom is often overlooked. During the American Revolution, there were multiple brigades of Irish-born patriots that fought for the freedom of the United States from British tyranny. Gray’s Ferry, in 1777 was highly populated with the Irish, and some of those ancestors most likely assisted in the skirmish at Gray’s Ferry on September 27, 1777. During the skirmish, American sharpshooters randomly attacked the British forces entering the city after the Battle of Brandywine. Their guerilla attack tactics were necessary to protect the colonial army in retreat and headed to Valley Forge for winter encampment.
After the Revolution, the Irish were strongly ensconced in Gray’s Ferry and the local Irish engaged in many activities, including some American first’s. Gray’s Ferry watched as the first Federal Arsenal was built on Gray’s Ferry Avenue. It provided resources for all American troops in all of our military conflicts up until the beginning of the Vietnam War. Many of our grandparents and great grandparents worked at the Schuylkill Arsenal until it was relocated to Oregon Avenue in the 1960’s until it closed.
In recalling the Irish immigrant’s participation in American life, Commodore John Barry was the first Flag Officer of the United States Navy, he was of course an Irish immigrant. Many other Irish immigrants went on to serve in all of the United States armed forces and have provided a presence in all of the conflicts in which America has engaged since the American Revolution. Many of those who served in the Continental Navy, and the subsequent U.S. Navy spent their retirement at the Gray’s Ferry Naval Asylum which housed veterans of Irish ancestry up until 1968. Gray’s Ferry’s Irish population once again contributed to the services of the American nation from its inception.
As a resident of Gray’s Ferry there were many examples of Irish spirit that contributed to the enriching of our lives. Most of our great grandparents were always involved in the Ancient Order of Hibernians as a social and cultural society. They hosted many Beef and Beer events at Saint Gabriel Parish Hall over the years and provided many memories that were reflective of the tales of their displaced Irish ancestors.
Growing up in the land of the Irish Diaspora, Gray’s Ferry always had people that had a distinctive Irish brogue which always provides a mystique and allure to wanting to visit the Emerald Island. On Saint Patrick’s Day, the local tap rooms were overflowing with green beer, kitchens were filled with the aromas of ham and cabbage and confectionary Irish potatoes were always part of the fare. Those days are of course long gone, but are great memories of growing up Irish in South Philadelphia in Gray’s Ferry.
Very often, our Hibernian ancestors were not always willing to disclose the conditions they experienced in Ireland, but always made a great effort to make sure everyone knew they were Irish on March 17th.
The Irish in Gray’s Ferry also contributed in many ways to the Irish cause for freedom during the Easter Uprising of 1916. Financial donations were made to the Irish cause through sometimes subversive ways, participation in the Irish Sweepstakes, playing the street number and betting on the horses, or even the mandated collections by Dennis Cardinal Dougherty for the impoverished Irish until his death in 1951.
The Irish Diaspora of the 21st century is not as disenfranchised with contemporary Ireland with the advent of air travel and even the internet. Gray’s Ferry Catholics frequently travel to visit the land of their grandparents and even gain Irish citizenship. My own daughter is scheduled to embark on an educational tour of Ireland, including Northern Ireland and Derry (from where my paternal lineage descends) in 2017. The days of regarding Ireland as a long lost motherland is really no longer a viable sentiment in the contemporary world. Thankfully.
However, the great experiences of green beer, Irish potatoes, ham and cabbage, penny whistles and dying one’s hair green on Saint Patrick’s Day is a great part of Gray’s Ferry and growing up there, as a remnant of the old Irish Diaspora that found itself in a neighborhood that celebrated it’s ethnic Irishness to the fullest every March 17th.
Naomh sasta la Padraig ! Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to my fellow Gray’s Ferry exiles. Celebrate our common Irish heritage and remember the great contributions the Irish have made to American society.
This year it is particularly important to remember Ireland and our ancestors as that nation celebrates the 100th anniversary of their freedom achieved through the Easter Rebellion. Their struggle in 1916 is once again a testament to the fact that a suppressed people will never rest until they tyranny is deposed.
Erin go bragh! Ireland forever!

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