John's California Irish History Page

A few folks from the old country....

The idea of this page is to document a few of the many contributions of Irish people to the State of California. It is fashionable today, in some circles, to ignore, or at least minimize, the contributions of anyone from Europe. My intent is to point out, in a small way, how important the Irish were to the development of this state. The format will be much like the other history pages. I will start with a list of names. Here, as in the other pages, comments, suggestions and corrections are always welcome.

Mention is often made of the fact that the Irish shared a religion (Catholicism) with the Spanish and Mexican folks who were here when they arrived. There is no denying the benefit of this commonality. One of the bonds that helped to make this state what it is today, good and bad, is religion. One of the results of this commonality was that a number of Irish fought on the side of the Mexicans during the Mexican American War. This site tells the story very well.

The other important point is the idea that the Irish who came here were destine to succeed. This kind of thinking was helped by the mythical prophet, Oisin , who conjured up the paradise of called "Tri-na-nog", which literally translates to "Land of Youth". Many of the Irish who immigrated here believed they were heading to this wondrous land. As we will see, compared to the slums that Irish were forced to live in throughout the rest of the country, California was a paradise.

One other point need to be made. The six million or so Irish who call California home frequently share names. In selecting the people to profile I often came across people who had the same last name, but were not related. It might help to keep this in mind.

Again, this list is far from complete. Please feel free to make suggestions for additions or corrections.


BROWN- The Brown family has been prominent in California politics since the 1940's. Pat and Jerry have been Governor. Kathleen has been Controller and a candidate for Governor. (Willie Brown, the current Mayor of San Francisco is no relation.)

BURKE- James Burke was a descendant of a pioneer Irish family who settled in the State of Virginia before the American Revolution. Among the many distinctions of this clan is The Burke Rubber Company. James was also the first person to purchase land from Downey (see below).

CASEY-(My Family) There were six septs (clans) of the Casey's in Ireland. I am working on a page that details some of the facts of the one that I belong to. I will put up a link when the page is available.

CASEY- Jermiah Casey was born in Macroom, County Cork in November, 1848. At 25 years of age he journeyed to California. He settled in Yolo County where he worked for The Southern Pacific Railroad. He worked hard and saved his money. He was able to buy a saloon in the town of Port Costa on San Francisco Bay. In later years he built a hotel and a bought a local brewery. He also participated in local politics. He pioneered the first school in Port Costa and served as a trustee. He also served on the Board of Supervisors of Contra Costa County.

CAHALAN- Mike Cahalan was born in Terryglass, County Tipperary, in 1790. His people had farmed the "Golden Vale" for years, but he ran afoul of the English in 1820 and escaped to America. (It seem that they supported Robert Emmet's "Irish Rebellion", which did not please John Bull.) Mike was more than 60 years old when he decided to move to California. He farmed in The Santa Clara Valley for more than 20 years. He amassed a large ranch (more than 1000 acres) and a larger family (14 children). There is a large marble altar that he donated still in use at Saint Josephs Cathederal in San Jose.

CONCANNON- Jim Concannon was born Saint Patrick's Day in 1847 on the Aran Islands, where he lived until he was 17 years old. He moved to Boston and soon found work at the newly established Singer Sewing Machine Company. While he was successful, he always enjoyed the "out of doors". He married Ellen Mary Rowe, and they set out for Oregon. He tried sheep herding and selling books, but did not enjoy either.

About this time the rubber stamp business was making its debut on the East Coast. Jim saw the opportunity and acted quickly. He negotiated the exclusive franchise for the San Francisco Bay Region with the Shipley Rubber Stamp Company. He worked hard and expanded his territory from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. Long before NAFTA, he ventured in to Mexico, and sold his product. During his sojourn in Mexico he acquired a vast knowledge of viticulture. He made a small fortune, but wanted to settle down. He purchased 47 acres in San Francisco.

Jim relocated to what is today The City Of Livermore. He established a vineyard and imported the finest vines from Burgndy and Sherry. He built a fine winery. His family has operated the winery ever since.

CONNESS- John Conness was a native of Abbey, County Galway and was born on September 20, 1821, the youngest son on 14 children. At the age of 14 he ran away, heading for New York. When he arrived in this country he became an apprentice piano maker and by the time he was 21 years old he was the foreman. At 28, he got "gold fever" and moved to Georgetown in El Dorado County. In 1853, this area sent him to the California legislature, and he must have done something right because he was reelected three times. In 1863 he was elected to the US Senate.

During his term in the Senate (18763-69) he became a confidant of Abraham Lincoln. Conness was able to deliver the "Irish Vote" in California, which assured Lincoln of a reelection. He was a true leader who was able to put aside party differences to save the Union. Upon his retirement he moved to Massachusetts where he died in 1909.

The book "The Lincoln Conspiracy" would have you belieive that John Conness was involved in the assasination of Lincoln. Everything that I have been able to read on this subject says just the opposite. Conness was very close to Lincoln, and devastated at the time of his death.

DALY- The "Founding Father" of Daly City was a marvel. At the age of 13 he set out, with his mother, from Boston to California, by way of Panama. His mother died along the way. He arrived in San Francisco, and found his way to San Mateo. He supported himself by doing chores for dairyman in Northern San Mateo County. He then took the job of transporting the mail from Milbrae to Belmont. Eventually he quit this job to work on a dairy ranch in the are of Pilarcitos Lake, below the present day Skyline Boulevard.

Daly worked hard and saved his money. Within a few years he had saved enough to buy the Holenworth Ranch, in what is today the City of Colma. He renamed it San Mateo Dairy. Daly worked hard and did very well. He employed many young single men, allowing them to live on his ranch in Colma. A few years later he opened a quarry in the hills nearby. Again, as a result of his hard work, he did very well. As the number of new settlers increased he subdivided his land, earning an enormous profit.

DEN- Doctor Nicholas Den was the first foreign-born physician to practice medicine in California. He was also the first physician in Los Angeles. He also owned large tracks of land, at one time more than 70,000 acres.

DOWLING- The Dowling family were of noble birth, being one the seven septs of Laois (Leix or Queen's County). Following the disastrous defeat of the Irish by the English at The Battle of Kinsale in 1601, the clan was evicted and banished to north Kerry, on the southwest coast of Ireland. The family later immigrated to America, where several of them did very well. Some were poets and others were journalists. One of the later became Editor of "The Monitor" the newspaper of The Roman Catrholic Archdiocese of San Francisco.

Thomas Henry Dowling was born in Philadelphia in 1794. He ended up in San Francisco where he purchased Yerba Buena Island. He realized that it was of great value. He raised goats on the island, selling the meat to the growing City across the bay. By all accounts he made great improvements. (More than $200,000.00 in 1860 dollars.) In a deal that defys any logic, in 1867, the US Army took possession of the island. There was no legal reason for this action, but the claim was "National Defense". To this day, the family has never been compensated. (If Willie Brown really plans to live in Dowling's mansion, I hope that he sees to it that the family is paid for the land. I am sure there is a big story here. I will be updating this section in the near future.)

DOWNEY- John Gately Downey was born in 1827 in Castlesampson, County Roscommon. He arrived here in 1849, with about $10.00 to his name, which was not enough to pay his stage fare to the gold fields. In 1860, on the death of Governor Latham, he became the youngest Governor of California, a record that he still holds. (He and Latham's opponent was a young fellow named Leland Stanford.) While he was a Democrat, he supported Lincoln in his efforts to keep the Union intact. He also imposed financial controls that were designed to straighten out the state's treasury. In 1860, the State's deficit was more than $4,000,000.00, by the time he left office there was a surplus. (We could sure use him today!)

During his tenure as Governor he was faced with a several crisis, but one of the biggest was "The Bulkhead Act". This was a real gem of a piece of legislation. If approved, the act would have allowed developers to construct a seawall, with piers and docks, along the San Francisco waterfront, with the added right to collect dockage fees from incoming and outgoing ships. The real problem was that none of the funds would go to the city, they all went to the developers. He vetoed the bill.

Upon completion of his term of office, Downey returned to Southern California, to his Santa Gertrudes Rancho. Downey pioneered the modern subdivision by offering all 20,000 acres of the property for sale at very reasonable prices. When he sold all of the property he headed to the sleepy pueblo of Los Angeles and established the first bank, Hayward & Co. Later he and Hayward formed The Farmers and Merchants Bank. He beleived that someday the area would prosper, and in an effort to drive that prosperity, he built several buildings and the first local railroad.

If that was not enough, in 1875, he decided to try another subdivision. He had built the largest banks in that part of the state, and offered the land at very attractive prices. He was sure that oranges would grow well in the warm climate, so he imported several varieties, and so launched one of the states largest cash crops. The City of Downey, in Southern California proudly bears his name.

FAIR- James Fair was known as one of "The Bonanza Silver Kings". These four Irish guys came to the "The Gold Country", found silver, and made a fortune. They also gave lavishly to several local charities and the church.

FALLON- Captain Thomas Fallon (1818-1885) One of San Jose's most historical figures and prominent capitalists. He was born in Ireland and learned the saddlers trade in London. Captain Fallon came to the United States in 1836 and fought in The Texas War of Independence. He came overland in 1843 and opened a saddlery in Santa Cruz. At the height of the Mexican War, he led a company of men across the Santa Cruz Mountains and on July 14, 1846, he raised the American flag over the Pueblo of San Jose. He became mayor in 1859 and built a beautiful mansion on San Augustin Street.

FALLON- James Luke Fallon was born in 1828 in County Roscommon and at an early age immigrated to Boston. He arrived in San Francisco in 1853, and headed to the gold diggings. He worked hard for six years and saved his money. He then returned to the bay area, establishing a dairy. He was succesful at this also. The town of Fallon, which was the terminus of the old Marin Railway, was named for him.

FLOOD- James Flood was another of the four "Bonanza Kings of the Comstock Lode". He was born in New York, but spent most of his life in San Francisco. He invested much of the money he made in silver in "The City". He started as a bartender and ended up owning several landmarks. His mansion on Nob Hill is now home to the Pacific Union Club. The Flood Building on Market Street is still a site to see.

HAYES- Catherine 'Kate' Hayes was born in Limerick in 1825. She was blessed with an incredible voice. In 1852 she gave a series of concerts in San Francisco. She is reported to have been beautiful. (She made the trip accompanied by her mother.)

HAYES- Tom Hayes was born in Rosscabrey, County Cork in 1820. His family immigrated to New York in 1840. Tom took a job in the Customs House an did quite well. On July 1, 1849, he and his brother, Michael arrived in California. They had sent a consignment of household goods. When the merchandise arrived, the brothers quickly sold it at a huge profit.

Shortly after his arrival in San Francisco Hayes discovered a spring. (This is part of the whole Irish mythology thing. Springs are very holy. To have discovered a previously unknown spring was a very good sign. Even more interesting is the fact that the spring was located in what is today the center of City Hall.) Inspired by his discovery of the spring, Hayes set about studying the Spanish Land Grants. He discovered that there were several hundred acres in the heart of the city that were unclaimed. He moved in and took possesion of a full quarter section (160 acres). He had the land surveyed and filed his claim. (Yes, he was a "squatter"!)

Like any city, San Francisco levied property taxes. For some reason, Tom did not pay the taxes on the land. When it was sold at Sheriffs auction, Tom had a friend buy it, and then sell it back to him. The interesting thing about this is that it ensured that the deed to the property was American, and as such above question. (I beleive that he intentionally did not pay the taxes as a way to perfect the title to the land!) The original claim, bearing the date March 8, 1860 is still on file in the City Recorder's Office. (Yes, it survived the fire and earthquake of 1906.)

Hayes built a big white house in what we call today "Hayes Valley". It was located where the Davies Symphony Hall is today, and he called it "Travellers'Rest". (At the time, the only other thing in this area was the Yerba Buena cemetery.) After a while, he changed the name to "The Hermitage." Whatever it's name, Hayes home became a stopping place for equestrians on their way to Portsmouth Plaza, the beginnings of San Francisco. Hayes personally greeted every visitor and riders always got refreshments while their horses rested. (Two German newcomers built a brewery at what today is 14th and Valencia Strets. From that point onwards, Hayes guests were assured of libations.)

In 1861 Hayes built the city's first outdoor recreation park on his property. It immediately became quite an attraction for locals. In 1863 the Irish threw a big party on Saint Patrick's Day. By all accounts, it would be a huge party, even by todays standards. While there is still a "Hayes Park" today, the original slipped from importance with the opening of Woodward Gardens in 1866.

About the same time that he was building Hayes park, Tom Hayes decided to turn his attention to public transportation. At the time there was only a plank road called "Mission Road" connecting the town with Mission Dolores, plus the trail through Hayes Valley. Another of his gifts to the city was the planning of Van Ness Avenue. He and Jasper O'Farrell (profiled below) insisted that the street be as least as wide Market Street. Because of his foresight, during the fire of 1906, large parts of the city were spared. Tom also held several public offices.

KEARNEY- Stephen Watts Kearney (1794-1848)was a career soldier and military leader. He rose to the rank of Major General in the army. He played a major role in securing California for the United States. In 1847, after several fierce battles he arrived in Montery and was named as the first Military Governor of California under American rule. Kearney Street in San Francisco is named for him.

KELLER- Matthew (Don Mateo) Keller (1811-1881)was a gifted musician who spent some years in a Mexican seminary and arrived in Los Angeles in 1850. Keller saw a fortune in the rich valley sheltered by the Santa Monica Mountains. He planted the first grapevines in the area and established a thriving winery, the first in the region. He later bought the Malibu Soquel Rancho, 13, 000 acres (for ten cents an acre)and became one of the most successful land barons in Southern California.

Lucas, John Have you ever wondered if the turn off from US 101 in Sonoma named "Lucas Valley" was named for the film maker? It was not! For the true story, check here.

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1998 by John D. Casey Jr.