As it did for many settlers of all backgrounds, Texas offered a land of opportunity, freedom, and independence to the first Irish settlers.
In Texas, Irish immigrants finally found land they could cultivate as their own after fleeing the political and religious prosecution they had suffered in their homeland under the English for more than 300 years.
One of the first Irishmen to leave an indelible mark on Texas history was Hugo Oconor (O'Conor), a native of Dublin. As a young man, Oconor fled Ireland to Spain to join his cousins in service in the Spanish Army.
He was later transferred to serve in Cuba and Mexico, and in 1767, he was sent to Texas to investigate reports of corruption within the ranks of the colonial administration. Soon after uncovering the root of the corruption, Oconor was appointed acting governor of Texas.
During his tenure as ad-interim governor, Oconor was dubbed the "Red Captain" by local Indians because of his classically Irish, fiery-red hair.
Upon assuming the position of governor, the province was in disarray because of the constant clashing between local Indian tribes and raids on San Antonio by the Apaches. The Red Captain is remembered for his success in reinforcing San Antonio against the Apaches and bringing order to the region.
James Hewetson, a native of Thomastown, Ireland, came to the U.S. as a young man and set his sights on making his fortune in Mexico. His plans were temporarily diverted when he met Stephen. F. Austin in St. Louis.
Hewetson struck up a friendship with Austin and accompanied him on his first visit to Texas in 1821. In Bexar, Hewetson parted ways with Austin's party and made his way to Mexico, where he started several enterprises and gained influence in the Mexican government.
He was eventually drawn back to Texas, however, and he and James Power established the Power and Hewetson Colony (Refugio Colony) in 1826 along the Texas coast between the Lavaca and Guadalupe rivers, which was later extended from the Guadalupe to the Nueces River.
The Refugio Colony was largely inhabited by Mexicans and Irish Catholic families from the southeast coast of Ireland. James Power would later be influential in seating Sam Houston at the Convention of 1836.
In 1828, two Irishmen, John McMullen and James McGloin, established the town of San Patricio de Hibernia on the north side of the Nueces River, in tribute to Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.
McMullen and McGloin contracted with the Mexican government to obtain 80 leagues of land for the settlement. They recruited 200 Irish Catholic families to settle in San Patricio, which legally became the Municipality of San Patricio in the Mexican state of Coahuila and Texas in 1834. During the beginning of the Texas Revolution, San Patricio was ensnared with fighting.
Residents from San Patricio did their part to aid the Revolution – sending representatives to every convention, except the first. In December of 1835, men from San Patricio helped Captain Ira Westover and his troops from Goliad capture Fort Lipantitlan. The colonies of San Patricio and Refugio endured some of the harshest conditions experienced by early Texas settlers.
In addition to these four Irish empresarios, Hewetson, Power, McMullen and McGloin, many Irish settlers played significant roles in the Texas Revolution. History tells us 11 of the Texans who died defending the Alamo were Irish natives, and nearly 100 Irish natives fought in the Battle of San Jacinto.
After the war, those Irishmen who did not remain in the army became artisans and merchants, while some pursued politics. The 1850 census in Texas listed 1,403 Irish, and by 1860, there were 3,480 Irish living in Texas.
Today, Irish heritage is celebrated throughout Texas and especially on St. Patrick's Day. In Shamrock, Texas, revelers participate in an annual beard contest, along with sheep-dog shows and a Miss Irish Rose Pageant.
In San Antonio, which at one point in Texas history was known as the Irish Flat because of the large number of Irish who settled there, they dye the San Antonio River green on St. Patrick's Day.
Organizations in Abilene host a St. Patrick's Day dance and a Painting of the Shamrock ceremony. And in Dallas, the North Texas Irish Festival has become so popular, it draws crowds of more than 20,000 each year-the largest Celtic festival in the southwestern United States.
Our state's first Irish settlers embodied independence and endurance. Texans are proud to continue that legacy and celebrate the rich contributions of the Irish people.
Sen. Cornyn serves on the Finance, Judiciary and Budget Committees. He serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee's Immigration, Refugees and Border Security subcommittee. He served previously as Texas Attorney General, Texas Supreme Court Justice, and Bexar County District Judge.