From the Emerald Isle to the Borderland: How the Irish contributed to El Paso history

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St. Patrick’s Cathedral, at 1118 N. Mesa. Photo by Jorge Salado

Originally published in El Paso Inc. B Section on March 12, 2018.

The Southwest may not be the first place you think of when you think of Irish immigrants, but the connection is closer than you might think. In fact, John Brendan Flannery writes in “The Irish Texans” that the Irish were some of the earliest settlers in the area, and today “the number of Texas descendants of Irish-born antecedents is probably incalculable.”

El Paso is no exception. The city has had its share of Irish politicians, businessmen and religious leaders, while a shared Catholic faith helped form relationships between Mexican and Irish communities.

In fact, at one point in the late 1800s, a prominent Irish El Paso resident named Dan Reckhart said, “There’d be nobody in El Paso but the Irish if it were not for the fact that Mexico was just on the other side of the Rio Grande.”

The mass immigration of Irish citizens to the U.S. was a result of the desperate times that characterized Ireland in the mid 1800s. A potato famine ravaged the country, killed 1 million people and was a tragedy compounded by centuries of sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants and oppression by the British crown. Between 1820 and 1860, about 2 million Irish citizens immigrated from the Emerald Isle to the U.S. That’s a third of all immigrants who arrived in the U.S. at the time.

Once here, the Irish found things weren’t perfect. Irish people were widely discriminated against and relegated to the lower rungs of society. The hostile climate and the availability of jobs prompted Irish communities to slowly move westward, where anti-Irish attitudes weren’t as pronounced.

Some of the first prominent Irish communities in Texas were in what would become San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Beaumont. Many came to El Paso from St. Louis because the city was then in French territory and Catholicism was France’s national religion, said Barbara Angus, curator of the El Paso Museum of History.

As the railroads stretched west across Texas, Irish workers went with it, and many Irish wound up working as miners, ranchers and laborers in the small boomtown.

Relatively free of the anti-Irish attitudes in the East, it wasn’t long before many Irish citizens came into positions of power. At one point, Irish men from the same family occupied the offices of El Paso mayor, sheriff and chief of police. Canada native Richard Caples, whose parents were Irish immigrants, ran for mayor of El Paso. He managed to get citizenship the day before the election, which he ultimately won.

One of the city’s most illustrious citizens has roots in Éire: Joseph Magoffin’s grandfather was born in Ireland. According to Machelle Wood, education and public programs coordinator at the Magoffin Home State Historic Site, Magoffin gave a nod to his Irish roots when he built the courthouse, picking March 17, 1899 to lay the cornerstone – St. Patrick’s Day. The parade celebrating the opening of the courthouse was combined with the boisterous St. Patrick’s Day parade, creating a mega-parade that boasted 32 floats, an Irish band and a masquerade ball.

But not all of the Irish necessarily felt beholden to the U.S. Before Texas was a state, many Irish settlers set up ranches in what was then northern Mexico at the invitation of the Mexican government. Land agents, or “empresarios,” from Ireland like James McGloin helped establish Irish colonies from overseas. According to an 1824 Mexican decree that determined the amount of land given to settlers, more land would be given to immigrants who married into Mexican families.

While this benefited many Mexicans and Irishmen, indigenous groups were forced out as a result.

“The newcomers proudly pointed out their leagues of land,” writes William H. Oberste in “Texas Irish Empresarios and Their Colonies,” “because over the centuries this right had been denied them, they could chortle with glee that now they were the proud owners of more land than even the Lords of England.” And so, when some American ranchers took up arms to break away from Mexico, many Irish ranchers chose to fight on Mexico’s side, content with the “peace and plenty” they enjoyed there.

A contingent of Irishmen from San Patricio, an Irish settlement in Mexico, fought under Mexican command, while another group defected from the U.S. to Mexico and were later captured by the U.S. and executed.

“To people in the U.S., they were considered deserters and traitors,” Angus said. “But to many in Mexico, they were heroes.”On the other hand, many Irish men also fought on the side of the U.S. Historian Flannery notes that Irish colonists in general supported the Texas cause, and even “demanded independence at a time when it was unpopular among other Texans.” This posture led to some Irish settlements being burned and looted by the Mexican army.

Either way, one of the reasons that Irish settlers may have felt at home in the area was the region’s Catholic faith. Many historians noted the Irish and Mexicans shared traditions and festive days of religious significance, as well as similar “sociability and fatalistic attitudes about life.” In some cases, the shared faith facilitated communication – literally. Angus said the church’s Latin would suffice when Spanish or English didn’t work.

In El Paso, the Irish influence can be seen most prominently in the St. Patrick Cathedral. The Diocese of El Paso was established in March 1914, and construction of the cathedral began in July of the same year. To raise money for the church, a friar offered the chance to pick the saint the cathedral would be named after to the first person to contribute $10,000 to its construction. A wealthy El Paso woman, Delia Lane, donated the money, but her “innate modesty” meant that she didn’t want to choose the name herself, and so she gave the rights to name the church to the Irish civic group the Daughters of Erin. The group named the cathedral after St. Patrick, the saint who introduced Christianity to Ireland in the 400s.

As it happens, St. Patrick is also the patron saint of engineers, which accounts for a UTEP engineering fraternity’s annual tradition of painting the campus green with shamrocks early in the morning of St. Patrick’s Day.

The Irish possessed a serious drive to make their own way in El Paso, Magoffin Home coordinator Wood said. The chance to make their own way, on their own terms, inspired a sense of belonging to an area vastly different from the place they called home.

“People from other countries might consider themselves ‘foreigners,’” writes historian Lenore Dil in “Molly MacGuires in the Southwest,” “But the Irish never considered themselves so.”




Dance of the Trustees: my book will be out on July 30!

My book Dance of the Trustees: on the Astonishing Concerns of a Small Ohio Township will be published by Trillium Press, an imprint of The Ohio State University Press, on July 30.

Info about the book can be found below, and some excerpted chapters can be found on this site. For a look at the table of contents and other miscellaneous info, please visit the OSU Press’s site for this book here. The book will be available in bookstores and through a certain monolithic online megastore. And as a digital version too!

As the webpage explains, “On September 9, 2015, in the quirky village of Yellow Springs, Ohio, the Miami Township Board of Trustees arbitrated a dispute concerning an area bed and breakfast that was apparently causing a lot of problems in the neighborhood where it was located. People were irate – the B&B was considered too loud or unfairly under attack, and the township officials were called incompetent by both sides for not ruling in their favor. The trustees looked amused, concerned, interested, annoyed, and baffled at the situation before them.

But this quaint debate was one of many fascinating problems the trustees deal with on a daily basis. While Miami Township is small, the concerns are myriad – cemeteries are filled with unknown remains, there is a fire department to oversee, and they sometimes take legal action against properties clogged with junk. The responsibilities are doubly impressive considering no trustees have backgrounds in public office.

This book combines entertaining nonfiction vignettes with well-researched township history – including its history of religious cults and the possibility that Lee Harvey Oswald was once in town – and elucidates the processes behind an entire civic division. The book documents 21st century township life with humor, warmth and erudition, but also with the scholarship befitting an easy to read civics textbook.”

And as an esteemed colleague of mine commented, “Dylan Taylor-Lehman has a curiosity that knows no bounds, and he has trained it on the quirky concerns of a village and township in southwest Ohio where he lived for two years. Lucky for us, the readers, his narrative voice is as charming and distinctive as his curiosity is strong — this book is a funny, informative and delightful look at small town shenanigans and goings-on.” —Diane Chiddister, Editor, Yellow Springs News

A €20,000 Monument to the Spanish Tortilla

Authentic Spanish tortilla - MAGDALENA BUJAK/ ALAMY

I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of years in Spain, and like most people who spend any amount of time there, I found the country very agreeable. This stemmed in part from the fact that that country likes to eat a lot. In fact, Spaniards are passionate their food, and it was often pointed out that their food was superior to all other world cuisine. But they have good reason to celebrate it, as some of the country’s simplest foods are truly incredible. This article linked below is about one of those dishes.

As a bonus to a much-appreciated visit to that country last fall, I ended up writing a story about a small town in southwestern Spain that is building a €20,000 monument to the tortilla de patatas, the country’s trademark dish and one said to foster among Spaniards “more cohesion than the constitution.” I spoke with representatives of the town of Villanueva de la Serena about the plans for the monument, as well as the artist who won the contest to design it. I also learned a lot of truly interesting things about the history of the potato and how people responded to seeing the tuber for the first time. I’m really happy with the way this article turned out because I got to include a bunch of this niche history.

I am still attempting to perfect my own version of the tortilla, which has gone from crumbling disappointingly out of the pan to something that bears more than a passing resemblance to the dish I’m trying to emulate.

This article was originally published on Gastro Obscura on February 13, 2018.


Meet the Super-Serious Sasquatch Chasers of America’s Premier Bigfoot Conference

As luck would have it, one of the largest Bigfoot conferences in the United States is held thirty minutes from the town where I grew up. Each May, Marc DeWerth hosts the Ohio Bigfoot Conference, located in Salt Fork State Park in southeastern Ohio. The area is known for its high level of Bigfoot sightings, as the topography is reportedly ideal for the creature.

I found that people have many different impressions of what Bigfoot is. Some people feel Bigfoot is an alien or a government experiment, but a majority of the more rational sasquatch enthusiasts believe that Bigfoot is a holdover from premodern times, a giant biped that co-evolved with our ancestral forebears. (There is some evidence to suggest that ten foot tall humanoids did at one point walk the earth.) The OBC is like an academic conference in which these ideas can be exchanged.

One thing I found particularly interesting was the ethical debate surrounding the hunt for the creature – some people maintain killing one is the only way to prove they exist, while others strongly feel that the creatures should be respected and left alone. I touched on this in more detail in my original version of the article; a bit was taken out for brevity’s sake.

The article was published in June, 2017, on Narratively, and can be found here.

A guy from the town where I was living at the time stepped in at the last minute and took some amazing photos of the event. His name is Matthew Collins, and his work can be found here.

Info about the Ohio Bigfoot Conference can be found here.

The Grisly Murder That Launched a Podcast Star

I have been listening to a true crime podcast called “True Murder” for years. Each week, host Dan Zupansky interviews true crime authors about the cases they’ve written about. The complex/troubling appeal of true crime is a discussion for another time, but Zupansky is one of the first true crime podcasters and is considered an OG expert in the genre.

Zupansky will sometimes make reference on the show to a case he himself was involved with in 2003. A man named Sydney Teerhuis viciously killed another man in a Winnipeg hotel, seemingly doing so for the grim celebrity it would bring him. Zupansky, who always wanted to be a journalist, saw an opportunity to write his first book. He got in touch with Teerhuis, who agreed to work with him on the book. Zupansky unwittingly became a major witness in Teerhuis’s trial, experiencing firsthand some of the world he had so often read about. This article is about the strange Zupansky-Teerhuis affair, and how Zupansky was able to launch his own career as a result.

This was especially interesting to work on because I got to speak with Zupansky directly. I was really familiar with his voice from having listened to so many episodes of his show, and talking to him almost felt like a personal podcast playing for me.

The article was published by Narratively in September, 2017, and can be found here.

He’s a Murderer With an Intergalactic Alibi. And She’s in Love With Him.

This article is about Jo Ann and Mark Richards, a couple with a backstory that is at first hard to comprehend. Their relationship stretches across the galaxy from a California prison, and is one that got its start with a senseless murder committed in 1984.

I first came across this story when researching micronations for a separate project. A seminal text on the subject called How to Start Your Own Country featured an index of experimental nation-states across the world. One cryptic listing was for something called Pendragon, which I shortly learned was a plot to take over Marin County, California and declare it a sovereign kingdom. The plot involved a tragic murder and gullible teens, and is in and of itself a fascinating story. I looked into writing a full story about it, and I learned that from there the story only got deeper. I learned that the man allegedly behind the Pendragon plot (who is serving a life sentence for the attendant murder) has published thousands of pages of texts detailing his family’s secret history as intergalactic diplomats working for shadowy branches of the US government. He believes he has been framed, and his wife has started a nonprofit to disseminate classified government information and advocate for her husband’s release. The story chronicles this tale, and shows how this unconventional couple continues to make it work.

This story originally appeared on Narratively, and was published in November, 2017.

A link to the full article can be found here.


Niche business: running a smoke shop


I was walking down the street recently and saw Sarah sitting on the patio in front of The Smoking Octopus. It is a smoke shop, and I wondered about the difficulty of opening a store like that. Sarah owns the shop, and she was friendly and casual but also spoke with the nonchalant seriousness of an experienced business owner.

I started out working for another smoke shop in Fairborn about four years ago. I was into hookahs before I started I had a friend from Turkey and he was really big into hookah. He asked me to smoke with him. It was the first time I did and ever since then I’ve loved it. That’s what interested me about working there.

It was fun to go to work – I didn’t see it like a job anymore and thought it would be fun to do [professionally]. I worked my way up and ended up managing that shop for about three years. My manager there actually offered me a position running his hookah bar, which was down the street in Beavercreek. I managed the hookah bar and ended up owning it. The land the bar was on went up for sale, so it was either I stay there and ride it out until someone buys it or sell it then and take the money and run. So I sold it. With the money I made, I moved down here. I originally wanted to open a hookah bar. But due to zoning issues I couldn’t, with the building being so close to a church and a school. So I took the information I learned managing a smoke shop and said, ‘I’m going to do that instead.’ I’ve been here for a year and a half. I just turned 23 this month.

I love the town, I loved the people, the building my shop is in is amazing. I’ve grown up around here and this was always my favorite building in town. It took me about half a year to find a new spot after I sold the hookah bar. Thankfully my parents have been very supportive. Without them, I wouldn’t be here right now. I went to my parents’ house for Christmas and one of the last gifts they handed me was this little box. I opened it up and there was a picture of this building. Best Christmas present ever.

Opening the shop went pretty smooth. The only thing you have to do [unique to a store like this] is apply for your tobacco license. That’s though the State. It takes a while for them to process your application, but once you have that, it’s legal for you to sell tobacco products in your store.

Getting the tobacco license wasn’t too difficult for me. I used a lot of advice from my boss at the old place, because I told him I had interest in opening a smoke shop. I asked him what he did and he helped guide me through. Without that advice, it probably would have been a lot more difficult because I wouldn’t have known who to go to and how to talk to them about opening it. Being able to rent from somebody who allows smoking is important too. For a lot of smoke shops, it’s kind of grandfathered in that you can smoke inside the store, but you have to make sure that it’s ok to smoke inside the building with the landlord.

There is a lot of legal terminology you have to learn to work in a smoke shop. You have to come in here knowing what to say to the workers here. It’s not a ‘bong,’ it’s a ‘water pipe.’ If someone came in here right now and used a street word for something, I legally have to tell them to leave my store. It’s that serious. (Laughs) People like to joke about having signs everywhere that say ‘for tobacco use only’ – you have to have those in front of everything, especially the glass and the papers. Some shops are really strict – you say one wrong thing and they’ll kick you out.

And IDs: you have to respect the ID policy. I have signs everywhere – if you don’t have one, I won’ sell anything to you.

Every now and then you’ll get your troublemakers. You have your groups – you have your disrespectful patrons and you have your patrons that know what it’s all about it, get what they need, and leave. It’s usually the kids that have just turned 18 that are the hardest to deal with. They think that because you work in smoke shop that you’re going to be cool with them acting stupid. They’ll joke around about smoking and ask if I know where to buy drugs, and I tell them I have no idea. They’ll have to go ask someone else that question. I’ve had to kick people out before.

The weekends are a little more difficult because you have your out-of-town crowd. I had this lady in her mid-twenties come in not that long ago. She said, can I smoke in here? I said, yeah, you can smoke cigarettes in here. She said, no, can I smoke a joint in here? I said no, you can’t do that here. She said, really? I said, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. She gets really lippy with me and she pulls it out of her purse and acts like she’s about to light it. I said, you either leave my store right now or I’m going to have to call the police. She got all mad and slammed my door and walked away.

You will get undercovers that come in every now and then. Usually you can pick them out if they ask a lot of questions but don’t really show interest in buying anything or ask you to get anything out. They try to catch you on your terminology, mainly, and they ask you about things that are difficult to describe to try to test you. I’ve never had any problem getting through it with them, nobody here has.

But one experience I really enjoyed involved these five older ladies that came in after eating in the restaurant next store and asked me what a hookah was. I explained it to them and asked if they wanted to try it. They said, yeah, I think so. It took them about ten minutes to pick out a flavor. I prepared the hookah for them and they sat out here and smoked it. They wanted me to take pictures of them to send to their grandkids, like “Look what I’m doing!” (Laughs) They bought shirts from the shop that say “Put that in your pipe and smoke it” on the back.

I was surprised, being in a small town, at how close I’ve gotten with the people I’ve met in the shop. I have a lot of regulars that I’ve become really good friends with. Because back where I worked before, I would recognize people’s faces but I’ve really gotten to build some great friendships out of running the store. I’ve made a lot of good connections with people, like glass blowers. I travel around to a lot of music festivals too and that’s where I get a lot of my local glass connections.

The weekends are a little hectic, as they are more touristy times. It get can pretty busy in there. We always have two people working in there. The street fairs are insane. We have to have at least four or five people here. We took a picture from up above during the last street fair and I think there were eighty-three people in the store. But I enjoy the busy days. It makes the time go by quicker. Bad days are rainy days. Not a lot of foot traffic. Parking’s kind of limited right now and not a lot of people are going to want to walk up here in the pouring rain. But if it’s nice like this, business is always good.

I’ve been really into business ever since I started managing the old shop. I’m going to Wright State for business management. I went through my first year of college not knowing what I wanted to do, but being able to manage the shop and then owning the hookah bar convinced me that I really like the business-side of running a store. It was probably one of the most stressful times ever, because I was doing both. I’d get two hours of sleep a day – the hookah bar was open til 4 a.m. and I’d have to open the smoke shop at 9. It sucked but it paid off. I’m very appreciative to have had those opportunities.

The hand pipes are some of our best sellers, as well as the shi-shas and hookah tobacco. We also have a cigar humidor in there too, and cigar sales have really picked up a lot. We’re actually about to expand the humidor and install another one in there because we’ve had so many requests for new cigars. My shelves are stocked completely full. That’s been nice – people who live in town say they don’t want to drive all the way to Fairborn to get their cigars. I have a list of requests that people can add to, that way I can stock cigars for them. Every day in the smoke-shop world there’s something new, something new out on the market. It’s a learning process of figuring out all the new things that are coming out. So that keeps it interesting, there’s always something new to learn.

As far as all the local artists, they’ll come here with a bunch of briefcases when you call them. I get to pick and choose what I want. Having the tobacco license is what allows you to buy everything in bulk. You can’t go through a wholesaler without your tobacco license. There’s no way I’d be able to stock my store paying full price for everything. I go through maybe four different distributors because there’s never just one that has everything you need.

I’m very open about cutting deals with people. I’ll definitely help you out. I know a lot of smoke shops can be overpriced. Now, when I go into other smoke shops, I judge them on the prices they charge, because I know what they got [their merchandise] for. I don’t want to be that person that rips you off. I do package deals and give ten percent off with any student or military ID. I’ll run sales through the weekend and stuff like that every now and then.

I take off about one day a week. Other than that I enjoy being here. Most of my employees are friends and family. My fiancée and I run it together, and the lady that just left is my mom. She works for me in the mornings. When I’m away from it for too long, I feel weird. I just got back from a week and a half-long vacation so I was eager to get back here. If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. Finding that niche makes it a lot easier to have a job. I worked guest services at a hotel for four years and then I worked at Bath and Bodyworks, which is the worst job in the world. Having that many bad experiences working for someone, I wanted to be my own boss. I’ve never had one I liked. I wanted to do everything the opposite of how they did. I can treat my employees they way I wanted to be treated in my past jobs.

This interview originally appeared in an abbreviated form at the Yellow Springs News.