From Bridgeport to Beverly, from Midway to South Shore,
We’re the South Side Irish — Let’s sing it out once more!
Irish is thought to be the most prevalent ancestry of Chicago residents (followed by German and Polish), and though much has changed in a century, the Bridgeport neighborhood retains its Celtic aura in a city that has had nine Irish bishops and 10 Irish mayors besides the Daleys. Former Chicago mayor and legendary political boss Richard J. Daley gave his first squawk, grew up and — in a bungalow at 3536 South Lowe Av. in Bridgeport — raised three daughters and four sons with his wife, Sis.
His eldest son, Richard M. (Rahm Emanuel’s predecessor), the city’s longest-serving mayor, beat out his father by a year. Bridgeport resident Patrick D. (as in Daley) Thompson, grandson of Richard J. and nephew of Richard M., recently won the election for 11th Ward alderman.
Bridgeport — where turn-of-the-century writer Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley tended bar — is no longer as Irish as it was. Its spine is Halsted Street, where there is an Orange Line station on the border of Pilsen, a mostly Mexican neighborhood. Chinatown, just across the Dan Ryan Expressway, is also expanding into Bridgeport.
Michael Flatley of “Riverdance” fame grew up in Auburn Gresham, roughly 60 blocks southwest of Bridgeport, attending St. Therese of the Infant Jesus Church, the Little Flower parish, which closed in 1993. Irish Chicago also claims comedian Bob Newhart, who was born in the suburb of Oak Park and graduated from Loyola University of Chicago.
Newhart, along with Ben Hogan, John Huston, Gene Kelly and seven less-well-known sons and daughters of Erin, is a 2015 Irish American Hall of Fame inductee. Overseen by Chicago’s Irish American Heritage Center, this hall is not to be confused with the Irish America Hall of Fame, named for Irish America magazine, which recently inducted Hillary Clinton (who, incidentally, was born in Chicago, but — oddly for Irish Hall of Fame purposes — seems to be of English, Welsh, Scottish and French descent).
Green river, green museum show
In addition to dyeing the Chicago River, the city has two St. Patrick’s Day parades, one along Columbus Drive in Grant Park, on the nearest Saturday, and one along Western Avenue in Beverly (also mentioned in the “South Side Irish Song”), on the nearest Sunday.
This year, the Art Institute of Chicago ($23; 1-312-443-3600; www.artic.edu) is wearing the green, having opened a major exhibition, “Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690-1840,” on March 17. The show will be on view through June 7.
The gorgeous paintings, furniture, silver, ceramics, textiles and books on display are elegant representations of what the museum calls “an era of fertile and dynamic internationalism,” ending just before the Great Famine. During this period, an Anglican, Anglo-Irish aristocracy was dominant, lording it over (pun intended) both the majority Catholic population and the Presbyterians in Ulster.
In the exhibition text, there are few references to the poverty of the Irish masses or to political unrest tied to religious differences and economic inequality. However, the Act of Union of 1800, which dissolved the Irish parliament, is highlighted as a turning point in the history of the Anglo-Irish upper classes — the folks who paid for all these marvelous works of art and craftsmanship.
For example, the redhead with one breast bared in Robert Fagan’s accomplished painting “Portrait of a Lady as Hibernia,” from about 1801, leans on a harp with two broken strings, said to symbolize the loss of Irish independence.
Though Irish (he was born in London to immigrants from Cork), Fagan spent most of his career in Italy. Other noteworthy paintings are by Gilbert Stuart, who later became famous for his portraits of George Washington, and Englishmen William Hogarth and Thomas Lawrence. Lawrence’s lush portrait of Lady Maria Conyngham and her collie is on loan from the Metropolitan.
The ceramics — both in the first Made in Ireland gallery, and here and there throughout — are a particular delight. There is also a great deal of silver, including the mace of the Borough of Athy, County Kildare.
It turns out that the Art Institute itself owns the oldest known piece of signed and dated Irish furniture, a 1732 desk and bookcase from Dublin, made of walnut, holly, mirror glass and brass. When it was given to the museum in 1957, it was thought to be English, but a signature and date were discovered on the bottom of the lower-right drawer.
The basics: Food and drink
Eating out: In Bridgeport, Polo Café is Irish (1-773-927-7656; www.polocafe.com) and Nana is organic (1-312-929-2486; nanaorganic.com). U.S. Cellular Field, home of the White Sox (Charles Comiskey, who built the old park, was Irish, by the way), is on 35th Street right off the Dan Ryan. Walk west along 35th Street and you will find at least three authentic Chicago dog houses (not the gourmet sausage shop with a similar name). Schaller’s Pump (1-773-376-6332), the oldest continuously operating bar in Chicago, is on Halsted between 37th and 38th streets. Jack Schaller, age 91, is a member of the third generation. In Beverly, try Ken’s (1-773-238-0234) for hearty fare. Beverly is said to have the most Irish taverns of any Chicago neighborhood, roughly a dozen on the west side of Western Avenue in the low 100s. It’s been called the Irish Death March.
Coming up: This year’s music-and-activity-packed Irish Heritage Festival is the weekend of July 10-12 (1-773-282-7035; irish-american.org).
Terry Robe is a freelance writer on travel and the arts based in Washington, D.C.