In this week between the celebration of the founding of Pennsylvania and the Irish holiday of St. Patrick’s Day, I’m reflecting on the relationship between William Penn and the Irish, and why so many people with early Pennsylvanian ancestors are Irish.
When people talk about William Penn being given the charter for the piece of land to be known as “Penn’s Woods” in 1681, the focus is on Penn’s Quaker religion and its influence on the founding of the colony. The Pennsylvania colony had the distinguishing characteristic of allowing all religions inside it’s borders as long as the person “worshipped God”. Not talked about is the influence on William Penn of his time in Ireland and the long, bloody battles the English fought to suppress the Irish people.
The battles between the English people and the Irish began back in the 1500’s. Starting in the reign of Henry VIII, the English worked to conquer the island of Ireland. First there was an effort to convert Catholics to the Anglican Church, the new state church of England. Then the English moved Scottish and English Protestants who were not members of the Anglican church, but other churches, into Ireland onto what they called “Plantations”. These plantations were mostly the Ulster region in northern Ireland and the people came to be known as Scots-Irish.
Fast forward to the 1600’s, and from 1641-1649 the Irish Catholics rebelled against the English impositions and removal from their land. One new law was the Anglican Church of Ireland became the official church and for more the next 100 years all baptisms, marriages and burials had to go through this church. People often did ceremonies in their home church – Presbyterian, Catholic, Baptist, Quaker -and then filed paperwork in the Church of Ireland to make it official.
It was in this time period that William Penn, the Pennsylvania founder, lived in Ireland. William Penn’s father was Admiral William Penn who was awarded several estates in Ireland for his service in the Royal Navy in the 1640’s. It was in County Cork that the younger Wiliam Penn converted to Quakerism in 1670. Penn was reflecting on the English’s violent history with the isle and felt the refusal to use religion as a way to punish and oppress people was essential. Penn’s father was angry and disappointed in his son
By the 1700’s many Irish had become peasants renting their land from their English landowners. People became poorer. It was this Ireland that William Penn knew and one that his own father had estate land in. The Irish peasants were expected to farm the land and send food back to the growing English empire. The 1700’s was a time of growing imperial empires, sailing to ever remoter lands, and naval battles. Some English landowners became sympathetic to the Irish eventually and united with them in an attempt to throw off English rule in the 1798 the Irish Rebellion. The Rebellion was inspired by the American Revolution in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789.
During this same time period of the 1700’s, the English forced the Irish to penal colonies in the Caribbean to work as slaves, or to the American colonies to work as indentured servants. The Irish were seen as less than human in English eyes. The first Irish to arrive in America’s largest port at the time, Philadelphia, had no record from the English of who they were. That is how insignificant the Irish were to the English. If we are fortunate, a record may be available from the Philadelphia port in which they arrived.
Many of these early Irish arrivals to America were Catholics. The first Catholic Mass was celebrated in 1707 in Philadelphia with 40 people, and by 1790 there were 8,000 Catholics in the city.1 The entire population of Philadelphia was 28,500 in 1790, so almost one third were practicing Catholics. It was in this welcoming environment that English Jesuits who were forced out of Maryland, made their way to Philadelphia and founded what is now known as Old Saint Joseph’s in 1733. William Penn’s grand “Holy Experiment” worked, many of these Catholic arrivals from Ireland had a place to worship and practice their faith, alongside of Quakers, Anglicans, and other Protestant religions.
Later by the 1800’s, the Scots-Irish from Northern Ireland arrived in even greater numbers than the earlier Catholic Irish. Some of these were more willing travelers and so we have more records of their arrivals. The oppression of the Irish by the neighboring English continued into the 1800’s and many know of the starvation of the Irish in the Potato Famine in the 1840’s.
So it was the continual English persecution of the Irish and William Penn’s open and welcoming attitude, that brought so many Irish to Pennsylvania. Only here did they find the freedom to be practice their religion and grow in independence and wealth. I plan to raise and glass and toast Billy Penn as he is called in Philadelphia, when I see him next at the top of Philadelphia City Hall, looking out over us all.
1 A Brief History of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia http://archphila.org/history.php