Like many I have had a number of events cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic. One talk that fell victim was for the Kilrush and District Historical Society, where I had hoped to discuss stories of local men and women from that part of Co. Clare who left for America in the 19th century. In its place, I thought I would briefly share one of them on the site. It relates to the Killeen family from Kilrush, and how the death of one of their number during the Civil War helps to uncover their sustained chain-migration to the area around Jolien, Illinois, where their descendants still live today.
On 3rd January 1862 Patrick Killeen from Kilrush enlisted in the town of Ottawa, LaSalle County, Illinois. He was described as 5 feet 6 and 1/2 inches tall, with black hair, blue eyes and a fair complexion. Though recorded as a farmer, it is probable Patrick was a farm labourer, a position that many Irish emigrants in their 20s held in the Midwest. The 27-year-old became a private in Company K of the 53rd Illinois Infantry, a strongly Irish American company commanded by Captain Michael Leahy. Over the next few years he would see action at places like Corinth, Hatchie’s Bridge, Vicksburg and Jackson, before taking the decision to re-enlist as a Veteran Volunteer. It proved a fateful move- on 21st July 1864 Patrick was killed in action at the Battle of Atlanta. (1)
As a result of Patrick’s death in service, something of the story of his mother, Mary, was revealed. She had been born in Co. Clare around the year 1811, and in 1829 the parish priest Timothy Kelly had married her to John Killeen in Kilrush. Sometime in the late 1840s or early 1850s they had emigrated to America, settling in Chicago, where John died in 1854. But it was their next move, to Joliet, Illinois that proved to be the lasting one. There the Killeens helped to propoagate a stream of chain migration among their family to the Illinois town. (2)
Both Mary’s pension application and the 1870 census serve to demonstrate how Joliet had become a magnet for these Clare emigrants. By that date, Killeens had begun to converge on the banks of the Des Plaines River from multiple different points in the compass. William Killeen, who had emigrated in 1864, had recently arrived from Iowa with his wife Ellen and two baby children. 30-year-old Patrick Killeen had just set up home in Joliet having come from Ohio. He was making his home with his wife Ann and young son and daughter. His brother John, who had left Kilrush in 1868, soon joined him there. (3)
Mary Killeen, whose son Patrick had died in the Civil War, passed away in Joliet on 23rd May 1895. By the 1920s and 1930s her surviving children and younger Clare relatives had themselves reached old age. But by then they had more than fulfilled the Irish American goal of inter-generational improvement. While in 1870 all the Irish-born Killeens had been labourers, their American-born children had begun to scale the ladder. They occupied jobs as public-school teachers, insurance stenographers, steel mills foremen, and dry goods store assistants. Today many of these different generations lie together in Joliet’s Mount Olivet Cemetery. (4)
There is a particularly notable postscript to the story of Kilrush emigrants in Joliet. On 1st November 1932 the Daily Times-Press of Streator, Illinois, reported on a 100-year-old woman who had been found dead in her home. Her name was Mary Killeen- yet another of the Kilrush Killeens. Mary had left Ireland in 1859 and settled among her kin in Illinois. In 1862 she had married William Brusnighan (Brosnihan) in Joliet, and they eventually moved a few miles away to a farm near Gardner, Grundy County. The family tree compiled by Mary’s descendants suggests that this long-lived member of the Clare diaspora was originally from the townland of Knocknahila. In their possession they have a remarkable image of Mary, taken on her 100th birthday in February 1932. It is easy to forget that the elderly lady sharing the scene with her beautifully decorated birthday cake had borne witness to the Famine as a West Clare teenager. Mary was the last survivor of an impressive influx of Kilrush emigrants who had successfully made Joliet their second home. For her, as for most of them, it had fulfilled its promise as the land of opportunity she must have hoped it would become when she first departed the Atlantic coast. (5)
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(1) Pension File, Database of Illinois Veterans; (2) Pension File; (3) 1870 Census, 1880 Census, Pension File; (4) 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930 Federal Census; (5) Federal Census, Daily Times-Press;
Joliet Evening-Herald News.
1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930 Federal Census.
Database of Illinois Veterans.