Adams County Historical
Historical News Vol. 10, No 3, March 1977
Although only the new green of spring in Nebraska has any resemblance to the countryside of Erin, the Irish have been in the state and in Adams County almost from the beginning of settlement. They have been here in sufficient numbers and vitality to make significant contributions in business, politics, education and religion.
Even before the American Revolution, the Irish migrated to the New World, and came in such large numbers after the potato famine of the late 1840s in Ireland that by the time of the U.S. Census of 1860, two out of every five Americans were listed as having been born in Ireland. the Irish-born wife of Manuel Lisa, explorer and fur-trader in the early 1800s, was probably the first white woman to live in Nebraska, and fur traders at Fort Atkinson near Omaha in the 1820s included Irishmen. After Nebraska Territory was opened to settlement in 1854, a wagon train of Irish settled in what is now Dakota county, near Sioux City. After construction started on the Union Pacific Railroad in 1864, Irish construction workers swarmed in in large numbers to work on the railroad, either on the line itself or in the Omaha yards. From then on, for the next several decades, the flow of Irishmen into Nebraska was constant, whether they came directly from the Auld Sod or stopped off in more easterly points and moved to the state later.
Who the first Irishmen in Adams County were, nobody quite knows, nor the date of their arrival. On February 20, 1874, the Rev. Ferdinand Lechleitner, pastor of the Crete Catholic Church and its missions, celebrated the first Mass in Hastings at the home of Thomas E Farrell, an Irishman, and baptized Margaret Neylon, infant daughter of two other Irish immigrants. In the next few years, others arrived in Adams County to establish homes.
The fierce patriotism of the Irish toward their new homeland and the belligerence with which they defended it showed up on April 9, 1877, during an election in Juniata to determine location of the county seat. Among the Hastings partisans was the Committee of Toms, five Irishmen named Tom--Farrell, Kernan, Pardue, Murphy, and one other, who were assigned to watch the polls and challenge illegal votes. By noon their patience was exhausted; they started swinging, and the war was on. The battle lasted into the night, with cracked heads and bruised knuckles the result. The colorful blow-by-blow account of the skirmishes, told by an eye-witness, is given on pages 907-909 of Adams County, The Story 1871 - 1971.
A year later, when St. Cecilia's Catholic parish was established in Hastings on March 25, 1878, most of its membership of sixty families were Irish: Farrells, Malones, Horrigans, Brennans, Monahans, McKennas, Kernans, Mitchells, Kennedys, Hallorans, Neylons, and others; the few non-Irish were mostly French-Canadians. And when St. Patrick's Catholic Church, in Highland Township, was organized in 1890, its membership was almost 100% Irish, including Conroy, Mahon, Kennedy, Kernan, Wynne, Donlon, Kieffe, Murphy, Yates, O'Brien, McKenna, Goodwin, Quinn, Sheehy, and others.
The stories of two Irish families who settled in Highland township in the early years and have remained ever since, are typical of scores of others.
In 1875, 25-year old Bart Kernan and 45-year old Patrick McKenna came by railroad to Hastings to buy land. Both had come from Ireland a score of years earlier and had settled in an Irish community in Wisconsin. When they heard of prairie land in Nebraska that could be homesteaded or bought from the railroad, they traveled to Hastings together, and after choosing their land, set out on foot for Lowell, the land office, thirty miles away. A farmer on a wagon gave them a ride for ten miles. When the men arrived in Lowell, they bought adjoining quarter sections for $5 per acre.
Kernan, whose name in County Meath had been Kiernan, was a youngster when he migrated from Ireland with his parents and siblings. At the time he sought land in Adams County, it was for himself and his brother, Tom: the other members of the family remained in Wisconsin.
McKenna had sailed alone from the British Isles as a young man in 1851, and three years later married Mary Delaney, an Irish lass who had emigrated from Donegal with her brothers who had died at sea. (Kernan's sister-in-law had also died and been buried at sea.) Mary Delaney had been cared for by other Irish emigrants on the boat who took her with them to an Irish settlement when they arrived in the United States. There she met and married McKenna.
In the spring of 1877, both families sold their land in Wisconsin and moved to Nebraska, building a house for the McKennas the first year, and for Bart Kernan the next year. At a dance south of town, Bart met his future bride, 17 year-old Nellie Malone. The lives of the Kernans and the McKennas were to be intertwined for the next several generations.
Many of the early Irish in Adams County were farmers whose incomes often did not keep up with the needs of their large families, particularly during the hard times and drought of the 1890s. The story is told about parishioners walking the several dusty miles to Mass at St. Patrick's, carrying their shoes until they got to the church door, where they put them on; the shoes didn't wear out so fast that way. At funerals, even the pallbearers--who carried the coffin on their shoulders, Old Country style, in respect to the departed--walked bare footed to church, stopping on the doorstep to put on their shoes.
Irish family life was warm and expansive. Although families were large--one woman says she can't remember when there wasn't a baby to take care of--they could always accommodate an extra child, an orphaned or otherwise homeless one, sometimes related by blood.
For instance, Ellen Cecilia Scott, whose mother and baby sister were swept off a bridge during a flood in Marshalltown, Iowa, lived with the John Malone family near Ayr when her father was working on the construction crew of the Burlington railroad; Malone was Scott's section boss. When Patrick Scott moved on with the crew, he left his young daughter behind--and never was heard from again. The Malones brought up the youngster as their own and she was known thereafter as Nellie Malone. She later married Bart Kernan and was the mother of twelve children, eleven of them growing to adulthood. That family later took in 14-year-old John Curry, a newly-arrived Irish immigrant, and reared him with their own children. He eventually married Kate Kernan, Nellie and Bart's daughter, and when Kate died in childbirth, Nellie and Bart reared her child, their granddaughter, Helen.
Everybody in the family worked hard, either in the field or in the house. They had food on the table--what they raised themselves, vegetables from the garden, eggs and milk from the livestock, flour from the grain they took themselves to the mill, molasses pressed from sorghum they grew. Nellie Kernan went to town twice a year with her husband and bought bolts of fabric and the supplies she needed to keep her family clothed. She and her daughters sewed their garments. Their only store-bought clothes were trousers and shoes. Bart Kernan later started a shoe store in Hastings, which his grandson, Stephen, still operates (in 1977).
The children learned to share space, work, affection, and play with their siblings. And Sorrow, too. Although the Kernans lost only one baby, other families were not so fortunate; diphtheria and scarlet fever epidemics and other diseases caused heavy casualties, and mothers died in childbirth. Mary Ellen (Mame) Kernan McKenna often told her children of watching farm wagons with small caskets rumbling along the road near their home on the way to the Rosedale cemetery.
There were simple pleasures--music, for instance, and dancing. Neighborhood gatherings included dancing, one activity among many that set the Irish Catholics apart from Protestants of that era. Bart Kernan was a teetotaler--not all Irish were--and his one weakness was a love of music. He bought the family a pump organ and saw to it that his daughter Mame, one of the older ones, had ten lessons to learn to play it; she then taught the others. A younger sister, Stella, became the organist for St. Cecilia's church, playing for many years before she entered the Dominican Order and became Sister Katherina.
Curiously enough, although the lives of the Irish Catholics in Highland Township revolved around the Church, few of the youngsters entered vocations. Stella had to wait until her mother died, in 1943, before she could enter the convent; she was then 56 years old.
But as they could, the families supported the Catholic girls academy at Hastings, making financial contributions they could and sending some children to classes there. Most of the support of the academy came from the Catholics in town who seemed to be more affluent.
Bart Kernan lived to see his dream fulfilled, however, he was able to give 80 acres of farmland to each of his sons.
Not all of the Irish immigrants were farmers; some were businessmen. Tom Farrell, who gave the land for the girls academy as well as for the original site of St. Cecilia's, was a contractor. The Farrell Block [now on the National Register of Historic Places] on the south side of Second Street, and the foundations of many houses in town, are made of stone from the quarry in Colorado he acquired to help in his construction business. Frank Kealy, born in this country of Irish immigrants, became a contractor, and his business here is now  operated by his grandson, Joe. Jim Mooney and his wife, Bridget, both Irish immigrants, bought the Lindell Hotel in 1910 and operated it for a number of years, later selling it to Charles Malone, another Irishman.
And neither were all the Irish members of the Catholic faith, for there were Orangemen, Protestants, among the Irish in Adams County. Samuel Alexander, the first merchant and first postmaster in Hastings, was a second generation Irishman, a pillar of the Presbyterian Church. The Madgett brothers, John and Will, also second-generation Irishmen, established a real estate and investment business, Will also served two terms as mayor of Hastings.
In the 1890s, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a fraternal benefit society, was active in Hastings, meeting every Saturday at the Metropolitan Hotel. Its members were eligible for life insurance, relief and sick benefits; the organization was similar to other ethnic fraternal groups which blossomed at that time.
Other Irish families have come since. Some represented the legal profession, James Conway and William Connolly for instance, and William M Whelan, one of whose seven sons became lieutenant governor of Nebraska. Some entered medicine, the sons and grandsons of Bess Byrne Foote, Drs. C.M. Foote, Donald B Foote, Jr., and the late D.B. Foote.
Although the St. Patrick's Church in Highland township has disbanded and the church itself was torn down--only the cemetery remains, its gravestones suggesting some of the poignant stories of life a generation or two ago--the influence of the Sons of Erin in the area still remains.
End of Historical News story.
NOTE There were also Irish families who attended Assumption Catholic Church in Roseland Township. Their names included: Brannagan, Duncan, Henigan, McCauley, and O'Donnell.
Catholic Church Records
Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Crete, NE
Records begin in 1873, and cover 17 Nebraska Counties during the 1870s, including Adams.
Write to Diocesan Archive, PO Box 80328 Lincoln NE 68501
St. Cecilia's Catholic Church
301 W 7th St. Hastings NE 68901 ph (402)463-1336
Baptism, Marriage and Confirmation records begin in 1878.
St. Patrick's Catholic
Township, Adams County
Records begin in 1908 and end in 1969. Copies held by Adams County Historical Society.
Historical Society email@example.com
PO Box 102 Hastings NE 68902
Copies of all available St. Patrick's Church and cemetery records.
Copies of St. Cecilia's Baptism, Marriage and Confirmation records 1878 - 1896
Adams County Naturalizations 1871 - 1929
Marriage License Index 1871 - 1973
Newspaper Death Index 1877-1970s
Probate index 1971-1925, later in progress
Many other sources