John Ireland was born 11th September 1838, in Burnchurch Co. Kilkenny. The eldest son of two and four daughters of Richard and Judith(nee Naughton) Ireland. His family emigrated to the United States in 1848 and eventually moved to St. Paul, Minnesota in 1852.
At an early age he indicated his wish for the priesthood, coming to the attention of his Bishop, Joseph Cretin who obtained his parent’s permission, sent John to a seminary in France for study, he was ordained in December 1861 by fellow Kilkenny man Bishop Grace in Saint Paul. The outbreak of the American Civil War saw him enlist in the Union Army, and he became chaplain to the Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. On the field he won an enduring reputation for piety and courage. At the battle of Corinth in October he distributed ammunition to soldiers despite the obvious danger to himself. He returned to St. Paul was assigned to the Cathedral Parish. When Grace retired in 1884 Ireland succeeded him and became Archbishop in 1888. At a time when most Irish Catholics were staunch Democrats, Ireland was known for being close to the Republican Party. The influence of his personality made Ireland a commanding figure in many important movements, especially total abstinence, for colonization in the Northwest, and modern education. He worked with non Catholics and was recognised by them as a leader of the modernizing Catholics.
Ireland called for racial equality at a time in the U.S. the concept was considered extreme. On the 5th May 1890 he gave a sermon at St Augustines Church in Washington D.C.to a congregation that included several public officials. His sermon concluded with the statement “The colour line must go, the line will be drawn at personal merit.” It was reported that the bold and outspoken stand of the Archbishop caused a sensation throughout America. He was also ahead of his time in recognising the equality of white and black people, but saw native Americans as “wards of the state” He was known to have an aggressive personality and by one account to be an ecclesiastical tornado, but he refused people to kiss his ring and insisted on being addressed as Arch Bishop rather than” Your Grace.”
Disturbed by reports that Catholic emigrants in Eastern cities were suffering from social and economic hardship, Ireland and fellow Bishop Spalding founded the Irish Catholic Colonization Association. This organisation bought land in rural areas and settled and helped Irish Catholics from the slums. The land had been cleared of it’s native Sioux following the Dakota war of 1862.Working with the Minnesota state government and the Western Railroads he brought more than 4,000 Catholic families and settled them on 400,000 acres.
In 1880 he assisted several hundred people from Connemara to emigrate to Minnesota, unfortunately they arrived at the wrong time of the year and had to be assisted by the Freemasons, an organisation the Catholic Church condemned on many points. In the debate that followed the emigrants being Gaelic speakers could not voice their opinions of Ireland’s criticism of accepting the Freemason’s support during the harsh winter. Despite the controversy Ireland found jobs for the men and helped their families settle in the Eastern area of St. Paul that became known as the “Connemara Patch”.
In his book “The Church and Modern Society” published in 1896 , he wrote that” we owe it to the Church to make plain our Americanism, our loyalty to America. In no other land is there given to Catholics the freedom of action and the opportunity for work given to them in America.” His optimism was grounded on the rapid growth of the Church which had 2,000,000 members when he arrived in the country (1848) and 12,000,000 by the end of the Century. When he died his own Archdiocese had a Catholic population of 1,000,000 and 600 priests. In 1900 President McKinley sent Ireland to Paris as “an eminent representative of American patriotism and eloquence “to present a statue of the Marquis de Lafayette to the French Nation on behalf of the American Government. He received an honorary doctorate from Yale University, a rare honour for an Irishman or a Catholic bishop. His fellow recipients included President Roosevelt and Mark Twain.
In 1891 Ireland refused to accept the clerical credentials of Byzantine Rite Ruthenian Catholic priest Alexis Toth, citing the decree, that married priests of the Eastern Catholic Churches were not permitted to function in the Catholic Church in the United States. Ireland forbade Toth to minister to his own parishioners despite the fact that Toth had jurisdiction from his own Bishop. Toth went on to lead thousands of Ruthenian Catholics out of the Roman Communion and into what would be eventually become the Orthodox Church in America. Marvin O’Connell the author of a biography on Ireland, summarized the situation by stating that if Ireland’s advocacy of the Blacks displayed him, Ireland at his best, his belligerence toward the Uniates showed him at his Bull headed worst. Ireland was also involved in efforts to expel non Latin Church Catholic clergy from the United States.
Ireland is remembered in America for helping to found the Catholic University of America. He founded Saint Thomas Aquinas Seminary, and De L Salle High School in October 1900 through a personal gift of $25,000.Fourteen years later he purchased nearby property for the expanding Christian Brothers school. In 1904 he secured land for the building of the Cathedral of Saint Paul, on Summit Hill, the highest point in downtown St. Paul. He also commissioned the construction of the almost equally large Church of St. Mary in the neighbouring city of Minneapolis, which later became the first Bascilica in the U.S.A. in 1926.
John Ireland Boulevard a St. Paul street that runs from the Cathedral to the Minnesota State Capitol was named in his honour in 1961 through the encouragement of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
After his death on September 25th 1918, Cardinal Gibbons Archbishop of Baltimore described Ireland as the man who contributed perhaps more than any other to the harmony that exists between the Constitution of the Church and the Constitution of the United States. A Celtic Cross was unveiled in his memory, in Burnchurch, in 1966.