Saint Patrick's Day is right around the corner. I thought in honor of such a fine Irish Holiday, I'd devote this post to the history of a forgotten section of our county. Irish Hill.
In Birmingham, an industrial city from its first stirrings, immigrants formed close-knit communities, named streets for European towns and nursed Old-World traditions. One such community is well remembered by those who grew up there.
Irish Hill in Birmingham's Pratt City neighborhood consists of a few streets on the side of a slope, not far from the former site of Pratt Mine Number One.
The streets bear melodious Irish names such as Hibernian. The corner of Hibernian and Sheridan once held the local meeting hall for the Irish Ancient Order of the Hibernians before it was burned by the KKK in the early 1940's. Other streets on Irish Hill carried distinctly Irish names such as Closhire, Chaucer, Meehan Trilby, and Sheridan. There is even a Bayberry Street named appropriately after the Bayberry tree that was ever present in Ireland.
Topping the hill is the lot once occupied by St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church, the second parish in Jefferson County. St. Catherine of Siena was established in 1890. The old Saint Catherine of Siena Convent (later the Rectory) and the school still stand on that lot. The Church was destroyed by a tornado in the early 1970's and was never rebuilt. St. Catherine's parish was absorbed along with the parish of St. Raphael into what is now St. Patrick's in Adamsville.
Photo of the original Church built in 1890.
It burned in 1917 and was replaced with the building pictured below
The Convent which later became the Rectory is shown in the rear of the church.
To the right is the school.Across the street and beside the old Saint Catherine's lies a Cemetery comprised of approximately 20 acres. Initially, this cemetery was called the Pratt Mines Cemetery. Then it was the United Mine Workers Cemetery. Next, it was called the Fraternal Order of Mine Workers Cemetery. Presently, it is known as the Fraternal-Greenwood-Foley Cemetery.
TCI donated the land for the cemetery. The most prominent spot in the graveyard is occupied by the burial site of John Meagher, general superintendent of the mines. He came from Tennessee and put the coal mines on a paying basis. He was so close to the workers that when he died, they gathered money and bought him a monument.
The earliest grave dates back to 1879. The names on the tombstones read like an Irish phone book. Names such as McGinty, Sullivan, Durden, Kirkpatrick, Hannigan, McArdle, Hurley, Dugan, Meehan, O'Hare and Kelly to name just a few.
Entrance to The Fraternal Cemetery
On Saint Patrick's Day, nearly everyone claims to have a drop or two of Irish blood. But for a large number of Birmingham residents, that claim is more truth than blarney.
Their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers left an Ireland torn by famine and political strife and settled in Birmingham during the industrial boom years of the late Nineteenth Century.
Many Irish immigrants settled first in the crowded Northeast of our country. Before long, the combination of their economic needs and the South's burgeoning industries made young cities like Birmingham irresistibly attractive.
The migration took some to the Midwest and down the Mississippi River, while others worked their way from New York, Boston, and Philadelphia to the Carolinas and Virginia. Most labored on railroads, in coal mines or in steel mills.
As industrial prosperity found the South, so did the Irish. By 1903, some 5,000 Irish or Irish descendants had made their way to Birmingham. Early Irish arrivals were among the city's founders. Later, they worked the mines and railroads on which Birmingham's "magic" growth was founded.
Frank P. O'Brien, one of Birmingham's early businessmen who would later become Mayor of Birmingham, was present on June 1, 1871, at the city's nativity, when the first lots were sold. O'Brien wrote "with Irish modesty" in the Birmingham Age-Herald 10 years later that "many of the details of her history are interwoven with my own personal recollections."
That was an understatement. O'Brien started the first permanent morning daily newspaper, built the first opera house, began the first gas works, established the first telephone line, erected the Birmingham Rolling Mill, was proprietor of an early hotel, helped form the second afternoon newspaper, was orderly sergeant of the first military company organized in the city, was a member of the first elected municipal board and helped found the first Catholic Church in the city.
Frank P. O'Brien
Among the congregation's organizers were other Irish pioneer families. The Cahalans, McAnnallys, O'Connors, Durkins and Whelans. Birmingham's first Mass took place in the Michael Chalan home. St. Paul's Church was founded around 1880 when the group petitioned the Bishop of Mobile for their own pastor. A succession of Irish priests served the congregation, beginning with the Rev. William McDonough. Under the Rev. Patrick O'Reilly's leadership, they built the church in 1883.
Since the Irish were quickly assimilated into the culture of the predominately Anglo-Saxon South, little evidence remains in most areas of their way of life, beyond their names on deeds and census records.
Pratt City grew up at the heart of Birmingham's newfound prosperity. The Pratt Coal and Coke Company, Alabama's first big coal company, purchased $30,000 worth of coal lands, opened mines, built coke ovens and constructed a railroad from Birmingham to Pratt Mine No. 1, according to "The Birmingham District, An Industrial History and Guide", by Marjorie Longenecker White.
Pratt Mines circa 2008
The first coal was shipped from the Pratt mines in 1879. In 1882, Enoch Ensley bought the company in the first million dollar coal and iron deal in Alabama industrial history. That precipitated an expansion at the mines, which soon employed more than 1,000 men and produced 5,000 tons of coal daily. In 1886, Ensley sold his mines and furnaces to Tennessee Coal and Iron Company (TCI), which opened new mines in the Pratt fields by 1890. The coke plant also was increased from 110 ovens to 806 ovens to supply the district's pig iron furnaces with fuel.
By 1900, TCI's Pratt Mines division was operating 14 coal mines and 1,072 coke ovens in the Pratt City, Ensley and Blossburg areas. The division employed 2,500 men, assisted in the mines by 250 mules. The Birmingham Southern Railroad (a local carrier later acquired by TCI) located its yards, shops and roundhouse at Pratt City, which now served as the principal shipping point for TCI furnace operations in Birmingham, Ensley and Oxmoor.
It's no wonder that people of all nationalities flocked to Pratt City. By 1890, the population at the Pratt Mines and surrounding communities was 4,000. When Pratt City was incorporated into the City of Birmingham in 1910, it had a population of 7,000 with nearly half of these being European immigrants.
Pratt City in 1880
Among these immigrants were the Stephen Sullivan family and the John Silk family. Natives of Ireland, John Silk, his wife Violet and their six children ran a boarding house. The list of boarders included John Sullivan, John Travis, J.A. Crawley, Cornelius Sullivan, Thomas Duggan and Joseph Kelly. This group formed the nucleus of what was later to the Saint Catherine of Siena Church, according to Mable Wallace in her history of the church. Descendants of all these families live in the area today. The modern-day Sullivans have grandparents and parents buried in the Fraternal Cemetery. Stephen Sullivan's descendant, Steve grew up in Pratt City in a house on Hibernian Street. He later built a home on Sheridan Road across from the church and while he now lives in Forestdale, he still owns land on Irish Hill.
Most Irish celebrations took place in the hall fo the Ancient Order of the Hibernians located across the street from the church. St. Patrick's Day, which began with morning Mass and ended with a parade, picnic in the Fraternal Cemetery, banquet and dance at the AOH Hall, was a day enjoyed by all and certainly not limited to the Irish.
According to Ms. Wallace, "The Scottish immigrants lived on the west side of St. Catherine's and the Irish on the northeast side of the hill. Bobby Burns Night held in January was the big Scottish celebration and the Irish would come over and help the Scots celebrate. Then on Saint Patrick's Day, the Scots would go over and help the Irish celebrate.
Soccer provided another opportunity for camaraderie - and rivalry - between the Irish and the Scots. Pratt City's Irish and Wylam's Scottish players battled for the Ramsay Cup, a trophy given by industrialist Erskine Ramsay, a Scot.
To quote Mrs. Wallace, "The Scots would put their beer kegs on one side of the field and the Irish would put their beer kegs on the other side of the field and they'd fight, drink and play ball."
Play and work were important to the Irish, but prayer had its place in their lives, too. Local historian Mabel Wallace remembers moving to Pratt City as a small child and being exposed for the first time to the piety of the Irish. She recalls seeing Mary Elkins Brislin drop to her knees while sweeping her front path when St. Catherine's bell began to chime the Angelus. Mrs. Wallace later converted to Catholicism when she married Mr. Wallace.
Every St. Patrick's Day the Secret Order of the Hibernians sponsored a huge St. Patrick Day parade that would begin in downtown Pratt City and led by a marching band, floats and banners would lead the crowd to Irish Hill where everyone would gather in the Fraternal Cemetery to watch fireworks and enjoy a picnic lunch among the headstones. Later that night the AOH members would host a banquet and grand ball in their headquarters beside the cemetery.
Pratt City Herald Newspaper, March 18, 1899
These days Irish Hill is not the Irish community that it once was. The parade from downtown Pratt City to the Fraternal Cemetery no longer happens nor does the grand ball held in the AOH headquarters which is still to this day, a vacant lot. The festivities have long since moved to St. Patrick's Church in Adamsville. St. Patrick's tries to keep the festivities in line with the traditional Irish celebrations. The people attend Mass and take Holy Communion together in great numbers. Then a dinner is catered for a couple of hundred people and they have entertainment with an Irish flavor. There is live entertainment from noon until dark, arts and crafts, a dunking booth and a raffle.
I think the Ancient Order of Hibernians would be proud.