May 27, 2016 by

It’s impossible to tell the early story of Omaha without discussing its residents of Irish ancestry. Sadly, Omaha’s first Irish neighborhood, located just south of Florence, was called Gophertown. It derived its name from the dug-out shanties the residents built for themselves.

While these shanties were built for those without much money, not all of Omaha’s pioneer Irish population were poor. Take the Creighton brothers. These Ohio residents, sons of Irish immigrants, came to Omaha with a string of successes behind them. The older brother, Ed, was one of the largest builders of telegraph lines in America. He came to Nebraska, in part, to survey the route for the Transcontinental telegraph in 1860. While he was here, Creighton became heavily involved in early railroad, beef, and banking concerns—three of Omaha’s main industries for the next century.

Younger brother John also worked in the telegraph business and later the beef business. But he followed the trail west, mining for gold in Montana and eventually developing a reputation for battling desperadoes. John settled in Omaha permanently in 1868, and the brothers went on to have long careers as local businessmen, eventually starting the college that bears their name.

The Irish are well-known for their political acumen, and County Tyrone in the motherland produced one of Omaha’s best-known early mayors—James E. Boyd. He came to Omaha in 1956 as a carpenter, but in 1872 built a lucrative packing house. This gave him the resources to build one of Omaha’s earliest performance venues, Boyd’s Theater and Opera House on 16th and Harney streets.

Boyd ran a successful campaign for mayor in 1881, and then again in 1885. He set his sights on the gubernatorial race in 1890, and, though elected, would have to wait to take office. The previous governor refused to vacate the office, claiming that because Boyd was born in Ireland, he was ineligible to serve. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1892 the judges sided with Boyd. He was the first Democrat to act as Governor of Nebraska.

Omaha also wound up with a hero of Irish nationalism; he may not have lived in Omaha during his life, but he has been here ever since. John O’Neill, buried in Holy Sepulchre cemetery, became a member of the Fenian Brothers, which eschewed politics in favor of militant action to expel the British presence in Ireland. O’Neill’s story is too complicated to fit into this article, but it is suffice to say that in the 1800s Irish-Americans decided it would help the cause to invade Canada. O’Neill did so repeatedly, leading the most famous of these “Fenian raids.” He died in Nebraska while working for a firm of land speculators. Somehow his body wound up in Omaha.

The most colorful of early Omaha’s Irish leaders was a man named Tom Dennison, who spent his young years working some of the roughest jobs in some of the roughest towns in the American west. He came to Omaha in about 1892, possibly bankrolled by gambling interests out west, and quickly became the king of Omaha’s semi-legal vice industry. Dennison would functionally be the town’s political boss for most of his adult life, and was the major player in Omaha’s bootlegging crime rings during Prohibition. His powers really only waned at the end of the Prohibition era, and he died in 1934, having run the town for close to four decades.

The 2000 census reports that today, 16 percent of Omahans claim Irish ancestry, second only to German as a European ethnicity. Based on history, our current Irish-American neighbors can look forward leaving a storied legacy.

IRISH IN OMAHA

1854:
Ireland native James Ferry moves to Omaha, builds many of the early buildings, including territorial capitol; his daughter is officially first white child born in new city

1856:
Irish Catholics build first church, St. Mary on Eighth Street between Harney and Jackson streets, led by the Rev. John Cavanaugh

1860:
Pioneer businessman Edward Creighton moves to Omaha; brother John settles in Omaha in 1868

1863:
Edward and Mary Creighton donate land for convent, used by Sisters of Mercy, a religious institute founded in Ireland

1864:
Irish begin to arrive in Omaha in large numbers to assist in building of Union Pacific Railroad

1881:
Irish-born James Boyd elected mayor of Omaha; elected Nebraska governor in 1892

1885:
Formation of Union Stockyards; leading founders were all of Irish descent

1892:
Political and crime boss Tom Dennison moves to Omaha

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