A bagpiper plays outside the Aurora Historical Society for The Irish installment of the cultural series, " Flavors of Aurora, Shaken not Stirred," on Friday, March 15, 2013. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Number of Aurora residents born in Ireland, 1850 to 1880
1850 — 56
1860 — 563
1870 — 762
1880 — 611
Source: Aurora Historical Society
Updated: April 18, 2013 6:33AM
Irish eyes were smiling as the musical notes of a bagpiper billowed through the night air in the city’s downtown and beckoned people to pause and remember the past.
People listened to traditional Irish songs and sipped on a cold Guinness while embracing the local Irish heritage during Friday’s opening reception for “Flavors of Aurora: Stirred, Not Shaken – Irish” at the Pierce Art and History Center at 20 E. Downer Place.
“You feel the music in your heart — it’s as though you are listening to your relatives,” Josephine Marsh Rickert said.
“It is like coming home no matter where you are,” the native Auroran said.
Aurorans of Irish descent and people with a genuine love for the Irish, as well as an appreciation for the city’s ancestral heritage attended the gala featuring traditional Irish fare — corned beef and cabbage, music and history of the early life of the Irish in the city.
Phillip Keppel of Batavia played the bagpipes on the steps outside of the museum, while guitarist Rick Pickren of River Forest performed such melodies as “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” and “The Rose of Tralee” near the exhibit of photographs and reproductions of old newspaper clippings and advertisements that are part of the museum’s archives.
The exhibit, launched in time for the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, is a chronological timeline that tells the story of the early cultural and economic impact of Irish settlement and population that began in the mid 1800’s.
John Jaros, Executive Director of the Aurora Historical Society, said John Heaton was Aurora’s first Irish immigrant — a skillful stonemason who arrived in 1842.
As many Irish immigrants, Heaton married, raised a family and prospered in his trade by leaving his mark by building the foundations of churches and the original City Hall before his death in 1876.
Jaros said the city census has a record of 56 Irish living in Aurora in 1850, but a decade later the population grew to 563.
He said most of the early Irish in America came before the American Revolution and were “Scotch-Irish” who had settled in Northern Ireland in the 1600s.
“It was the potato famine years that really pushed Irish immigration, Jaros said.
“They worked primarily as laborers and poor subsistent farmers. Like a lot of immigrant groups that came, they found employment in the factories of Aurora, the railroad and railroad shops.”
Jaros said the old Sacred Heart church originally was a multi-ethnic church for Catholic immigrants, but as each ethnic group began to leave for their own church, it eventually became an Irish church. “When it burned down, the Irish actually started their own church which is St. Mary’s today,” Jaros said.
The exhibit featured photographs of tombstones in Calvary Cemetery on Lake Street — the first Catholic cemetery in the suburban area, he said. “It became known as the Irish Catholic cemetery when the other ethnic groups developed their own cemeteries.”
Jaros said in 1855 the cemetery was about a mile outside the city limits, but today it is in the middle of the city. There have not been burials there since the 1920s, Jaros said.
Marsh Rickert said she traveled two years ago to Ireland to trace her ancestry near Kildare in the southern part of the Emerald Isle. “I am mostly enamored by my father’s great, great grandmother,” she said. “Supposedly she lived in a castle, but we don’t know if she was royalty or that her father was the gardener. The local library confirmed she lived on the property, but we couldn’t trace it any further,” she said.
“My mother was born in Aurora but she would sing songs to us in Gaelic as her mother did,” Marsh Rickert said. The exhibit will be open through May 3. The Pierce Art and History Center is open 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday.