The Luck of the Irish: Arkansas Irish Heritage

Color shot of a person holding a traditional bagpipe.

by Jeanne Rollberg

Hot Springs boasts that it features the world’s shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade, “but it’s our fun per square inch ratio that makes other events jealous.”

With all the Irish parades and colorful social events in March, it’s satisfying to remember that Arkansas also was enriched by lots of Irish history and ancestors for our family trees.

Arkansas Irish History

About 15 percent of Natural State residents claim Irish or Scots-Irish ancestry.

Arkansas attracted both Ulster Protestants and Catholic Irish who settled in the Ozarks, the Ouachitas, the Delta, central Arkansas, and so on. Many festivals connected to their heritage entertain us still today.

And did you know that “hillbilly” derives from Scots-Irish terms “hill folk” and “companion”?  Irish descendants have played major roles in politics, military life, religion, medicine and education.

Patrick Cleburne, a “potato-famine” pharmacist immigrant, settled in Helena in 1850. He was the sole Irish immigrant to become a brigadier general in the Civil War. Cleburne County was eventually named to honor him.

In 1862, Harris Flanagin, a Quaker, became the state’s Confederate governor.  Then Unionist Irish-American Isaac Murphy became the first Reconstruction governor of the state

Arkansas’ first businessman-governor, George Donaghey (1909-1913), was of Scots-Irish ancestry. He was considered a progressive who improved the state’s education, railroads, public health, Capitol facilities, and the establishment of the Initiative and Referendum Act.  Gov. Sidney McMath (1949-1953) also had Scots-Irish ancestry.

Little Rock’s former mayor and current tourism director for the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, Jim Dailey, also has Irish ancestors.

READ MORE: Celebrating Ancestor Romance Can Heighten Family History Discovery

Civil Rights, Education, Religion, and Medicine

Let’s not forget John Michael Lucey’s efforts to set up the Colored Industrial Institute in Pine Bluff  in 1889 for 200 students as he spoke out against lynching and separate-coach laws. A New York native, Lucey was a former Confederate soldier who became a priest after the Civil War.  He served in Monticello and Arkansas City. He helped promote business in Arkansas, encouraging Catholics to settle here.

In the 1840s and 1850s, Irish priests dedicated St. Andrew’s Cathedral and established (now) Mount St. Mary Academy in Pulaski County. Irish native Fr. Andrew Byrne became the first Catholic bishop in Little Rock.  Then in 1857, another Irish potato famine refugee, Fr. Edward Fitzgerald, became the state’s second Catholic prelate, arriving on St. Patrick’s Day and serving for decades.

In the 1980s, a nursing shortage nationwide meant that the United States recruited in the Republic of Ireland. A sizable contingent of Irish medical professionals moved to Arkansas. That reinvigorated Irish traditions here.

More recently, The Irish Cultural Society of Arkansas was formed in 1995. It supports an annual parade on or just before St. Patrick’s Day and features other activities as well. Part of its mission is to “reacquaint Arkansans of Irish descent with their culture and ethnic history.”

“Kiss Me, I’m Irish:” Finding Your Irish Ancestors

Speaking of ethnic history, the legend of kissing the Blarney Stone gave rise to the “Kiss Me, I’m Irish T-shirts because whoever kissed the stone would supposedly receive good luck and eloquence.

Have you tested to see whether you have DNA from Ireland? There are March sales on DNA tests from various companies such as If you have “vague” unverified Irish heritage and want to explore it, there are some good options whether you’re related to Arkansas’ famous Irish citizens or others.

Explore the “Guide to Immigration Research” at the Arkansas State Archives. You can learn about all-important passenger lists, immigration, and naturalization. Many naturalization records and certificates are contained on microfilm at the Archives that you can check online.

Author Jim Rees’ A Farewell to Famine (1995) may be found at the Archives and other research facilities in the state. Many Irish immigrants to Arkansas came through New Orleans or Boston rather than through New York passenger ports. Both and have extensive and growing Irish heritage collections. Increasing numbers of Catholic Church vital records in major dioceses (Boston, New York) are online. Those church records might provide ways to learn more about your Irish immigrant ancestors. Historic Irish-American newspapers also are useful.

READ MORE: Finding Your Arkansas Family History Identity

Next year, the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies and the Arkansas Genealogical Society in Little Rock will host the Ulster Historical Foundation on March 21 at the CALS Ron Robinson Theater. The focus will be on Scots-Irish and Irish ancestry.

How about some Arkansas genealogy travel and research for you to provide Irish influence context? The Shiloh Museum of Ozark history in Springdale features information on Irish and other immigrant settlers. It has historic exhibits, extensive photograph collections and more. The Forge, an Irish restaurant and tavern, also serves customers in nearby Bentonville.

Ireland itself has promoted genealogy travel more than most other countries, and it, too, will welcome you with open arms. (There’s even a genealogy butler service at the upscale Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin.)

Adventurous, fun-loving Irish researchers prefer broadening their research to local Irish watering holes in March. While raising a glass to Arkansas Irish history and learning about our ancestors, let’s remember to “make sure your kilt is short enough to do a jig but long enough to hide your lucky charms!”

Jeanne Rollberg is a genealogist with American Dream Genealogy and Research who also serves on the boards of the Friends of the Arkansas State Archives and the Arkansas Genealogical Society. She teaches genealogy classes at LifeQuest of Arkansas.

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