South Orange claims an Irish-descended population of nearly 12 percent, but that figure seems to multiply as St. Patrick’s Day approaches. The town is associated with Irish music and pubs; indeed, when the Star-Ledger’s Munchmobile went looking for Irish food two Saint Patrick's Days ago, they found it at Cryan’s. South Orange can boast of a long Irish history that begins with King William III.
Offered the throne of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1689, William III was descended from the House of Orange. Though his rule was turbulent, the Orange stripe, his heraldic color, of the Irish flag still commemorates his years on the throne. And when Scotch and Irish immigrants came to the New World, they named the area in which we live the Orange Mountain Range after William.
Then part of Newark, the area’s rapid growth began in the 1800s. The Morris Canal and two railroad lines were under construction, and countless Irish immigrants came to work on those projects. Largely due to the efforts of Seth Boyden—for whom the school district’s Demonstration School is named— industry flourished, since goods could easily be shipped in and out of the city.
In 1815, Boyden came to Newark from Massachusetts and turned his talents to manufacturing patent leather. By 1824, he had discovered a means to produce malleable iron. Other manufacturers flocked to Newark. By the mid-19th century, the city produced beer, soap, pottery and shoes in factories that employed Irish who stayed after completing the canal.
By 1845, when the Potato Famine struck Ireland, greater Newark was established as a thriving community eager for ambitious workers. Waves of immigrants arrived, settled in the Ironbound and then moved over the hill into what is now South Orange. Other Irish immigrants were employed in the hat-making industry. Prominent hatters, including Stetson, were a dominant industry in Orange, and many employees and then the generations that followed stayed in our area.
Immigrants and their children found success in South Orange. Seton Hall University was established mid-century, and by the 1870s, the Catholic community was growing so rapidly that Our Lady of the Valley in Orange was built and Our Lady of Sorrows in South Orange was expanded. Both churches built parish schools to meet the growing demand for education.
By the turn of the 20th century, the Irish had arrived in South Orange and were here to stay. Their story became the American story, as Irish took leading roles in many spheres.
Still, the local legacy continues. Seton Hall boasts the Msgr. William Noe Field Archives and Special Collection Center, a gathering of material related to the experience of the Irish and the Irish in America. Much of the material comes from the archives of Michael Joseph MacManus, editor of the Irish Press at the turn of the 20th century. Professor Dermot Quinn remains a local resource and global expert; he published "The Irish in New Jersey: Four Centuries of American Life" in 2004.
As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, it’s our shared heritage that we celebrate, no matter where each of us is from. So there’s no excuse for missing the party: lift a Guinness and chant, “May you have food and raiment, a soft pillow for your head. May you be 40 years in heaven before the devil knows you’re dead.” If you’re lucky enough to be Irish—even if only on St. Patrick’s Day—you’re lucky enough.
This article originally appeared in March 2011.