Many of Illinois' Top Leaders Share Irish Heritage

By Comerford, Mike | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), March 17, 1999 | Go to article overview

Many of Illinois' Top Leaders Share Irish Heritage


Comerford, Mike, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Mike Comerford Daily Herald Staff Writer

In the St. Patrick's Day parade on Saturday, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley strolled down Dearborn Street with U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Peter Fitzgerald and Gov. George Ryan in tow.

Illinois hasn't had that many Irish-Americans monopolizing the state's most powerful positions since the heydays of "Richard the first." In fact, the roster of Irish last names in public office this year is so extensive that Illinois may just qualify for the mantle of being the most Irish state in the Union.

Not even Massachusetts, with its Kennedy clan has more prominent Irish-American politicians.

"I'm not quite sure why," said Michael O'Malley, mayor of Hoffman Estates. "But I like the way things are going."

On this the real St. Patrick's Day, the question arises - why are Irish-Americans so dominant in Illinois politics?

In statewide politics, Michael Madigan is the speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives. James Ryan is state's attorney. Daniel Hynes is the state comptroller.

In Cook County, Michael Sheahan is sheriff, James Houlihan is assessor and Dick Devine is state's attorney. And Sheahan had to beat an O'Grady, and Devine an O'Malley to land their jobs.

Chicago's City Council still has its Irish faction lead by the likes of Alderman Edward Burke.

The dominance of Irish-American judges in Cook County is so legendary that running for a judgeship is considered entering the "Irish Sweepstakes." It even prompted some controversy in the last election when attorney Bonnie McGrath added Fitzgerald to her ballot name. In her case, however, it didn't quite work, in part because she lost to the Democratic candidate, one James Patrick McCarthy.

Yet with all the Irish surnames, the politics seem to be diverse. Irish-American politicians in the Chicago area were once strongest on the South Side of Chicago, representing a working class ethnicity. It was an urban ethnic group striving for respectability through jobs on the police force, fire department and in politics.

More recently, Irish-American politicians are Republicans and Democrats, urban and suburban, upstate and downstate.

"Their politics may be different but they have this shared history and they're aware of that," said Jack Leahy, a Libertyville resident and professor at DePaul University, currently teaching "Ireland, Religion and the Contemporary Troubles in Ireland."

About 16 percent of the six-county metropolitan area claims to have Irish heritage, most of them in the suburbs, according to the Metropolitan Chicago Information Center. …

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