Chicago Irish American Bar Association

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A history of the Irish in Chicago

When the Irish diaspora began with the coming of the Great Famine in 1845, the City of Chicago was only 8 years old with a population of 6000. Thus, the early Irish immigrants in Chicago, in contrast to their counterparts in the great US cities of the east coast, had a genuine opportunity to be a part of, and contribute to, the growth of Chicago from its inception. It was an opportunity the Irish seized.

"Emigrants Leave Ireland", engraving by Henry Doyle. From Mary Frances Cusack's Illustrated History of Ireland, 1868.

Irish people were an integral part of Chicago's development from a humble frontier town into a major transportation and manufacturing hub. In the nineteenth century, working class Irish people helped build the railroads, steelmills and the great Illinois and Michigan Canal connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi. Over the years, Irish-Americans began to climb the economic and social ladder, with the ever-increasing Irish-American population playing prominent roles in the the Catholic Church, through the establishment of over 80 parishes; the police force, including notable figures such as Sergeant Patrick Collins (brother of Michael); and politics, as shown by the 12 Irish-American mayors in the City of Chicago's history.

It was around the turn of the twentieth century that the Irish-American community in Chicago began to make its mark on the legal profession. The increasing Irish population needed legal services to assist in the planning of their estates, the purchase of their homes, and to provide representation times of trouble. And so, many Irish-Americans, with the help of local Irish politicians, began to establish small practices in Irish-American parishes to serve the needs of the community. And as the legal profession evolved in the twentieth century, so did Irish-American lawyers.

Mayor John Patrick Hopkins (1858 – 1918), the first of many Irish-American mayors of Chicago.

Indeed, Irish-American lawyers are not only ubiquitous in the Chicago legal community today, but they represent some of the most distinguished lawyers in the City and further afield, as reflected by the perennially large contingent of Chicago-based lawyers in the Irish Legal 100. It is a further testament to the contribution Irish people have made to the legal community to see a names Burke and Kilbride sitting as judges on the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois.

The Irish in Chicago have always exhibited a remarkable sense of community, solidarity and togetherness. It is that sense of community that has nurtured the prosperity of Irish-Americans here. The Chicago Irish-American Bar Association aims to embody the spirit of previous Irish generations by bringing together the Irish-American legal community and fostering its continued development.