Finding the Irish in San Francisco

The University of San Francisco Gleeson Library

Next up in our postgraduate bursary winner blog series is Bobbie Nolan (Edinburgh) on her BAIS funded visit to archives in San Francisco.

With thanks to the BAIS bursary I had the opportunity to undertake a two-week research trip to San Francisco in June 2018; where I consulted materials in the University of San Francisco’s Gleeson Library, the San Francisco Public Library, and the California Historical Society.

The San Francisco Public Library

My research investigates Irish language usage amongst migrants in San Francisco, Philadelphia and London between 1850 and 1920: looking at perceptions of the language, its role in shaping identity, and how different environments affected its decline or transmission. I hope that my thesis will begin to bring to the surface the Irish language in the British and American diasporas: including the contexts in which it was spoken, its role in the migrant experience, and the reasons it ultimately came to disappear. I also hope that my research will raise awareness of the diversity of Irish cultural heritage overseas, and draw attention to the significance of language for all migrant groups in the past and the present.

The use of case studies has been fascinating and by including one city which remained within the British Empire, one on the east coast of America, and one on the west, my research to date has brought to light the significant effect differing regions and environments had on migrant integration and language maintenance, and has highlighted just how wide-ranging the Irish migrant experience really was. The use of case studies has also necessitated a number of research trips, even though a large (and ever-increasing) amount of material is available digitally, and so San Francisco was my final big undertaking. Owing to the facts that statistical data regarding the Irish language overseas is almost entirely absent and that Irish was an oral language which left only minimal written evidence until the onset of the Gaelic Revival (c.1890), my project requires the use of a wide range of public and private sources in both the English and Irish languages in order to gain insights into the day-to-day use of Irish. However, given time constraints, my focus for this trip was on a selection of newspapers – an important source for political, economic and social history in addition to public opinion and everyday life.

My first week was spent in the University of San Francisco’s Gleeson Library looking at the Monitor – a publication which began as “a weekly journal of Catholic literature and general intelligence” in 1858 and went through a number of iterations; becoming “the only Irish and Catholic Journal in California” in the early 1870s, and the official organ of the Archdiocese of San Francisco in the early twentieth century. In the absence of a secular Irish periodical, such as the Irish World in New York, the Monitor filled this role in San Francisco and was the most important publication in the city for keeping the Irish community there connected and up-to-date on both Irish and local affairs. I had been in contact with a member of staff before my trip who had all the relevant materials ready upon my arrival, which helped me to finish an ambitious number of samples. Next on my list was the San Francisco Public Library where I consulted a number of general newspapers with high daily circulation, including the Morning Call, the Call and Post, and the Daily Examiner and Examiner. The inclusion of general publications like these – i.e. non-ethnic and non-religious – is important for gaining an insight into the city as a whole and how the Irish were perceived to have fit in to this society, and provides an interesting comparison to the Irish-dominated Monitor. Lastly, I spent two afternoons in the California Historical Society, where I looked at a small selection of emigrant manuals and contemporary histories of the city and its post-Gold Rush development.

Each of these places provided a very different researching experience – from the familiarity of a university library and the expertise of archivists, to the anonymity of a public library. While the benefit of consulting documents in their original form is often discussed, the same can also be said for visiting the place which you are studying; particularly when a project focuses on how a particular group of people interacted with others and with their surroundings within a specific region. During my time in San Francisco, and in Philadelphia last summer, I found that seeing the natural landscape and the built environment helped me to contextualise my research and visualise the world in which the Irish community lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

As a reluctant flyer, this research trip was a somewhat daunting prospect. However, with the aid of thorough preparation, direct flights, and helpful librarians, the trip was a success and I wish to thank the BAIS for allowing me the opportunity to carry out this research.

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