Comstock unearthed by Irishman
It was a pleasant spring day in June 1859 when two Irishmen, Patrick MacLaughlin and Peter O’Riley, unearthed what would be known as the Comstock Load. They had discovered one of the world’s richest deposits of gold and silver, a strike that inspired the creation of Virginia City. Unwittingly, the two immigrants did as much as anyone to found Nevada, setting in motion a long history of Irish contributions to the state.
Over the next two decades, the Irish came to represent nearly a third of Virginia City’s population, and there were few statewide public offices that did not have an Irish-American at the helm at one time or another. In fact, immigrants from the Emerald Isle played critical roles in practically every part of Nevada’s economy, society, and politics during the last half of the 19th century.
Ireland’s native sons helped to organize Nevada’s first miners’ unions, and they founded the state’s guard units. Virginia City’s Emmet Guard, a militia associated with an Irish revolutionary group known as the Fenians, marched in its first parade on the Fourth of July 1864. Similar military units formed in other Nevada communities.
Fenian was a nickname for a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a predecessor to today’s Irish Republican Army. The secret society worked to overthrow British occupation of Ireland. Fenian intrigues frightened the ever-watchful government of the United Kingdom. In the American West, there was less concern about English spies infiltrating their groups. In Nevada, Irish nationalists openly participated in parades and public drives to raise funds for the cause of independence.
In spite of years of planning, clandestine maneuvering, and the procurement of arms and financial support, the Fenians managed only a few minor uprisings in Europe. American Fenians, however, were often Civil War veterans fresh from combat and eager for a fight on behalf of their homeland. On May 31, 1866, they launched an attack on eastern Canada. The troops hoped to capture the province and hold it hostage in exchange for Ireland. The plan failed, but it caused considerable excitement among America’s Irish immigrants.
In Nevada, the event inspired increased interest in the Fenians. The groups had expanded to the point where they held a series of statewide meetings in Austin and in Gold Hill, but with the bold Canadian campaign, membership grew in local Fenian organizations scattered across the state.
Irish revolutionaries hoped for a stunning success in 1866, but the Canadians sent the captured Fenians home in disgrace, and there was little additional trouble. Although the movement subsided, other Irish patriots eventually established a free Republic of Ireland in 1921.
Today, the Sons and Daughters of Erin in Northern Nevada and the Las Vegas Sons of Erin and the Las Vegas Daughters of Erin, each founded in the 1960s, celebrate Irish heritage, continuing a tradition that began a century earlier. Still, they tend to restrict themselves to local events and there are apparently no plans to invade Canada again.
Note: The Nevada Department of Museums, Library and Arts offers many cultural resources to the public. For information, see dmla.clan.lib.nv.us or call (775) 687-8323.
State historic preservation officer Ron James studied for a year in Ireland in A Fulbright-related program.
photo: Two sides of a 19th century photograph from Virginia City include a greeting in Gaelic, which translates “To Timothy, the dear brother of my beloved mother; I am the son of your sister, Robert.” (The McCarthy Collection, Historic Preservation Office.)
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