A Closer Look
Janesville's Irish Heritage
Exploring Deep Traditions and an Untold Story
Story and Interviews by Teresa Nguyen
A Celtic Triquetra
Historically, the Triquetra symbol became frequently used from about the 4th century BC, found in ornamented ceramics of Anatolia and Persia. It was used by Pagans and non-Pagans alike throughout the centuries, even in Buddhist traditions. Since the Celtic revival of the 19th century, it has been interpreted as representing the Christian Trinity: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
“Every American ought to have the opportunity to feel Irish, at least for a day” is what local author and film producer, David Haldiman, wrote in his book, High Our Hopes and Stout Our Hearts; The Irish in Janesville.
Well, why not?
In a 2000 census, Irish ancestry identification ranked only second, following German, in the state of Wisconsin! Rock County is a beautiful mix of descendants of immigrants from an array of countries. We are a collection of Irish and German families, Norwegians, Dutch and Italians, of African Americans, Asians and Latinx. Our cultural diversity continues to grow and evolve, slowly but surely.
In the mid-1800s our city was established and grew by leaps and bounds thanks to the hard work of many of our local Irish families. Today, we have a more diverse community of “settlers” along the beautiful Rock River. Yet, in spite of our cultural differences, there is one thing we all have in common, regardless of origin: a deep-rooted pride in our heritage.
In the decades of mass immigration to the United States, assimilation into American culture was encouraged. It is unfortunate that many customs and language skills were lost in the ‘melting’ pot of America. Still, a number of wonderful traditions from the “old country” are detected in our recipes, holidays, and even in the phrases we might use around the house.
Why not embrace our heritage, celebrate our diversity and learn from each other?
Young Janesville Irish dancers - photo by Teresa Nguyen
Like a quilt, we can create opportunities to bring together unique patches of beautiful folklore and customs to our community events, art shows, music, dance and, of course, our cuisine.
The Untold Story of Vere Foster
Janesville’s Dan Fredricks shared a unique and amazing story with Janesville Area Stories writer, Tess. It is one he and his friend, local author and film producer, David Haldiman, researched extensively. How extraordinary to discover an unknown story about a British diplomat who gave countless, young Irish men and women a new chance at life in America, right here in Janesville, Wisconsin!
Fredricks and Haldiman obtained information from a Paul McArdle of Ireland through the County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society. Paul is involved in researching this very story and in restoring the home of Vere Foster, the philanthropist and selfless hero who brought a group of desperate young Irish to their new home in America.
The story takes place mid-nineteenth century Ireland…
In 1847, at the height of the Great Famine, English nobleman, Vere Foster, was sent over to County Louth in Ireland to oversee a family estate and the emigration of a farming family there. The Potato Famine was raging as one of Ireland’s darkest chapters in history, bringing starvation and death to the population and tragically affecting communities across the Emerald Isle.
In 1850, Foster traveled to the United States looking for places to help settle the children of destitute Irish families. He visited various cities and towns and made a connection here in Janesville with the Reverend Michael McFaul.
McFaul was serving St. Cuthburt’s, a brick church in Janesville's Fourth Ward that had replaced the first Catholic log chapel in Janesville. It wasn’t until 1864 that the first bricklaying began in that same area for what is now St. Patrick’s Church on Cherry Street.
Vere trusted Rev. McFaul with the plan and, in 1857, Foster gathered a group of young Irish men and women, chosen with the help of clergy and community leaders in Ireland. They were selected based on the poverty of their families as well as their moral character.
Foster accompanied these 38 immigrants across the wide, blue ocean, over the rolling woodlands of eastern America to the small, Wisconsin town of Janesville. After settling here, these young people joined the Catholic congregation and the community, married and, like many early Irish settlers in America, found new work opportunities in the city of Janesville.
Much credit for the Irish in Janesville goes to the kindness of Vere Foster. Foster had been born into an aristocratic family, where money was never an obstacle. Yet, he died penniless in a Belfast attic boarding room, having spent his own wealth on helping others to find a better life in a new land.
Building Our Community
In the 1850s, many of our Irish immigrants worked their days away in back-breaking labor, building the railroad. With that resilient Irish spirit and good values of hard work, ambition and a healthy dose of humor, many were able to rise above the challenging socioeconomic status of their forefathers to realize the American dream.
Our community has traditionally been a Celtic stronghold with some well-known Irish family names like Cullen, Conway, McDonald, Ryan, Murphy and Fitzgerald, to name just a few. Many of these Irish families were in the construction trades and poured hours of hard work and entrepreneurship into building this great city. Their descendants have become an integral weave in the fabric of our local history.
The Irish immigrants who came here embodied the founding ideals of the United States.
The counties of Ireland
It is especially important that we realize how the great promise of the American dream is still vital to the immigrants of today.
St. Patrick's in Janesville, WI - Photo by Pat Sparling
Generous in Spirit
In reading Haldiman’s book, one beautiful story stood out.
The Irish of Janesville were generous in spirt, and the early immigrants, with little in their pockets, filled their hearts and homes with family and faith. One fine man, called Bunk Riley, worked on the railroad in Janesville, Wisconsin. In those years, numerous homeless men would walk along the rails looking for work.
Bunk told the men how to find his home, and that if they came to the back door and used the code word, “Bunko”, they could get a bite to eat.
This went on for some time until, as the story goes, his wife, Rachel, became none too happy about it.
Meanwhile, Rachel extended that same giving spirit working countless hours for the Milwaukee Railroad Women’s Club. Their son would also take vegetables to the tracks so the homeless would have something for their stew.
Eventually, their grandson, Dan Fredricks, also humble in spirit, has been known in our community to give generously from his heart in that same Irish Catholic tradition of his ancestor Bunk. Dan has shared abundant time, energy and many talents in organizing numerous fundraisers to help the less fortunate in Rock County.
Those fine Irish values live on!
Janesville’s Irish Experience
In normal, non-pandemic times around St. Patrick’s Day, O’Riley & Conway’s Irish Pub in downtown Janesville is filled with patrons enjoying live music, delicious treats and tasty craft beer. Owner, Joe Quaerna, shared a few things with Tess about his heritage and the origins of the pubs’ name:
“My Irish side came from my great grandmother, Mary, who was 100% Irish, and my grandfather, Bill Riley, who was also 100% Irish. We added the ‘O’ because they took it off when they came across as immigrants. There’s also a Conway side, from my great grandmother, Mary Conway, hence the name O’Riley and Conway’s.”
Quaerna’s Tavern was opened right after prohibition in 1933 and was owned by Joe’s great grandfather. That establishment was first located on Franklin Street. The tavern was then moved to the current site, after World War II.
Oscar ran the business until about 1948. Joe’s grandfather took it over until about 1990, when Joe’s father took ownership. In 2003, Joe bought the business from his dad.
Joe happened to be doing contract work with companies and pubs in Ireland and in Irish pubs around the United States. He learned what an Irish Pub needed, what techniques they were using and their various styles interior design.
By 2009, Ed and Joe Quaerna shut down the Janesville place in order to convert it to an Irish Pub. Joe incorporated those ideas, which he learned from his travels to Ireland and other Irish pubs, into the remodeling. Finally, on St. Patrick’s Day in 2010, the establishment opened as the Irish Pub, O’Riley & Conway’s.
Carrie Finucan Kulinski
Janesville native, Carrie Finucan Kulinski, embraces her Irish heritage, as do many Irish descendants in our community. In an interview with Tess, Carrie tells the story of her family, the Finucans and shares some special, family traditions.
My family emigrated from County Clare in the west of Ireland around 1900, long after the Irish Potato Famine that brought so many to America. My great, great grandfather, John Finucan, settled on farmland in Monroe County. The Finucan Farm in Kendall, Wisconsin is still in our family.
I remember my grandmother saying that the Finucan family became known as high-spirited pranksters, but they also worked hard on the farm. Other Finucan family members chose a life in the priesthood or politics. One of our family members even became a governor of Wisconsin!
The Finucan family enjoyed traditional Irish music and seemed to possess some of their own musical talent. My Brother John is a gifted pianist, learning to play at a very young age. My grandmother would say, “Music is in our blood.”