Legally Speaking: An Irish Legacy

By John G. Browning | Mar 12, 2008

Amidst the photos in my law office that serve as reminders of my Irish heritage and mementos of my travels in the Emerald Isle, there is one that stands out.

Its sepia tones distinguish it as the oldest of the photos, and it depicts a crowd of Irish men and women at a depot in County Clare in the mid-1800s, steeling themselves for the first leg of a desperate journey on grimly named "coffin ships," an exodus that would end with their arrival in the promised land of America.

After fleeing the great famines of the 1840s, and making the harrowing Atlantic crossing (described as a "bitter bowl of tears" by James Joyce), a different kind of journey began for the newly-arrived waves of Irish immigrants: a quest for acceptance in their adopted American home.

The unskilled, poorly-educated Irish masses were met with distrust and discrimination by many mid-nineteenth century Americans. Prominent New York lawyer and politician George Templeton Strong described the Irish as "almost as remote from us in temperament and constitution as the Chinese."

Businesses looking for workers hung signs reading "No Irish need apply," and so the Irish took the most menial of jobs. Thousands of Irish laborers died digging canals from New York to the swamps outside of New Orleans, and building railroads that would span the country. They labored for more than wages – they labored for the opportunity to make life better for the generations to follow, generations that would see the Irish make their mark as merchants, police, and firefighters, and grow in political power with each decade.

With the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 as the first Irish Catholic president, the Irish had truly arrived.

Reaching such heights would not have been possible without the impact the Irish made on American business, education, politics and the legal profession. Irish-American lawyers were integral to the very founding of our republic.

Three signatories to the Declaration of Independence were of Irish birth, and nine others were of Irish origin, including lawyer Edward Rutledge (a Revolutionary War patriot who would later become governor of South Carolina). Lawyer James Sullivan was a renowned orator and delegate to the Continental Congress; after the American Revolution, he would go on to become governor of Massachusetts.

In the early 1800s, Irish-born George Alexander O'Keefe became one of Michigan's first Irish-American attorneys, as well as the state's first Irish-American judge. Educated in New York, he played an important role in transforming Detroit into a major commercial center, and in helping Michigan become a state in 1836.

Other Irish-American lawyers like William Sampson and Thomas Addis Emmet received their legal education abroad, and honed their gift for fiery courtroom rhetoric in Ireland as part of the United Irish rebellion against the occupying British. Emmet, a brilliant barrister fond of grand gestures of defiance, was imprisoned by the British for his political beliefs.

After emigrating to the U.S. in 1804, he was admitted to the New York Bar, and soon established a reputation as one of the finest trial lawyers of his time. Emmet became New York Attorney General in 1812, and was highly sought after to argue cases before the Supreme Court.

Just as other Irish-Americans would band together for political clout, Irish-American lawyers united to form a variety of legal organizations, including Irish-American bar associations in major cities. They formed the Incorporated Society of Irish American lawyers, as well as Irish legal associations at various law schools.

A Group called the Brehon Law Society (which dedicates itself to human rights causes) takes its name from the body of ancient Celtic law (administered by wandering jurists) that defined and governed legal relationships in Ireland.

It is impossible to fully gauge the impact of Irish-American lawyers and judges on our legal system. Many have risen to political prominence, often through service as prosecutors, to the point where the Irish-American D.A. is as much a pop culture staple (witness "Law & Order"'s Jack McCoy) as the brave Irish cop or genial priest of the past.

Irish-Americans have sat on the U.S. Supreme Court throughout our history, shaping the jurisprudence of our nation. These individuals range from early justices like John McLean and Roger Taney to FDR appointee Frank Murphy, and from the late liberal giant William Brennan (whose parents were born in County Roscommon) to present Justice Anthony Kennedy.

There is an old Gaelic saying that goes "Ar scáth a cheile maireann na daoine;" loosely translated, "We live in the shadows of others."

I keep that old photo of Irish emigrants awaiting the promise of a better life in America as a reminder that I (and the Brennans, Callahans, and others from County Clare and County Mayo to whom I'm related) live in the shadows of those Irish-Americans of years past.

Fresh off the boats, they joined the Union Army and fought in record numbers for a nation that had hardly embraced them with open arms. They truly were, as U2 put it, "the hands that built America," tirelessly laboring for the sake of future generations of writers, doctors, artists, business leaders, and lawyers who would in turn help shape a growing United States.

For the roughly 44 million Americans who trace their ancestry back to Ireland, this is the true Irish legacy.

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