Immigration Stories: Fr. Ken Hallahan’s Irish Roots

The following story is part of a series of Immigration Stories, in which Catholics from the Diocese of Camden will share pieces of their journeys with us. This series is running in advance of two special immigration-related events in the diocese: Bishop Sullivan will celebrate a Mass for Immigrant Families on May 3 at 7:30 pm at Divine Mercy Parish in Vineland, and May 5 has been designated “Justice for Immigrants Sunday” throughout the diocese. This Sunday will be observed with prayer and a postcard campaign to lawmakers in Washington, urging comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship for our immigrant sisters and brothers.

In this installment, Fr. Ken Hallahan of the Diocese of Camden recounts his family’s emigration from Ireland in the 1800s. Fr. Ken currently serves the diocese with the Black Horse Pike Ministry, which provides pastoral care for Latino Catholics along the Pike.

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Fr. Ken Hallahan.

It was the worst year of the Great Famine in Ireland. The young couple of tenant farmers were told by their landlord that they had two choices – stay at home and starve, or leave for America. The landlord would pay the four and one-half pounds passage fare from New Ross on the Barrow River in County Wexford.

This was a benevolent gesture by the landlord. He could have sent the couple to Liverpool and paid only two and one-half pounds for the passage.

Perhaps the landlord took pity on the young couple because they had a baby. Bridget Walsh, who would later become my great-grandmother, was only five months old when she boarded the Hibernia in April of 1847. Her father, James Walsh was 21, her mother, also Bridget Walsh, was 16.

After several weeks crossing the Atlantic, they arrived in New York Harbor on May 27, 1847.

One hundred years later, almost to the day, on May 19, 1947, I was born.

This sculpture in Dublin honors those lives lost and forever changed by the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1849).

During that 100 years and the subsequent 66 years of my own life, our family has been a family of immigrants.

The Houlihan (later Holohan and Hallahan) branch of the family settled in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, where some worked in the coal mines and others in steel mills. Bridget Walsh married James Houlihan and together they had 15 children, the 12th of whom was my grandfather, John J. Holohan.

Schuylkill County, Penn., where Fr. Ken’s Irish ancestors settled.

My grandfather married Mary Jennings, the daughter of an Irish barkeeper who left Mary’s mother for another woman. Their son, John Holahan married Isabel Semple, Aunt Izzy, who was a Methodist from Northern Ireland. Aunt Izzy’s parents and half of her siblings never spoke to her again for the rest of her life, because she had married a Catholic. Uncle John became a fireman in the Philadelphia Fire Department, retiring at the rank of Captain in the 1980s. He died at the ripe old age of 96.

On my mother’s side, my great-great grandparents both came from Ireland. Bernard Sweeney was a young teenager, too young to be a soldier during the Civil War, but he volunteered to be a bugler. He was wounded in the war and walked with a cane for the rest of his life. He grew a beard that fell all the way to his ankles.

In 1868, he married Hannah O’Farrell, and their son, James J. Sweeney, became a bare-knuckles boxer who fought for the light-weight championship in Philadelphia in 1891. He lost the match, but was paid $100. He used the money to pay for his wedding to Catherine Malloy, whose father was born in New York State and whose mother came from the City of Cork in Ireland. The Malloys had two brothers, John and Edward, who became priests in the Diocese of Trenton. John later joined the Trappists.

Cork, Ireland.

In the Sweeney family, the immigrants worked in the jobs available, such as the expansion of the Erie Canal and the steel smelting plants (as “skimmers” who walked on catwalks above the molten metal, skimming the impurities off of the surface).

Several of the Sweeneys founded their own businesses: Great Uncle Tom Sweeney had his own home heating oil company in Pottsville, Penn., my grandfather had a Kelly Tire outlet in Trenton and his son Jack owned several successful businesses.

Despite the warnings to “stick to your own kind” and “don’t marry an Italian, your children won’t know who they are,” two of the Sweeneys married children of Italian immigrants. My uncle Larry Sweeney married Wanita Foulk Norato and Ellen Sweeney married Joe Anastasia. The two families produced a priest, a nurse and Lieutenant in the Lawrenceville Police Department.

The immigrant history of the Hallahan-Sweeney family follows the trajectory of so many similar families. The immigrant generation came to avoid famine, war, or poverty. They took the jobs available (“No Irish Need Apply” was a common sign in shop and factory windows). They helped to build the nation, and this region, with their labor.

As the generations descended, the children got more education. The first generation, in the 1880s, measured their education in “months.” The present generation of descendants has three doctorates, seven masters degrees and 14 college graduates, as well as two priests.

Today’s immigrants often come fleeing awful conditions similar to those of our ancestors. They are energetic and creative and they will make the same beneficial contribution to our society as our own ancestors did.

Very many of today’s immigrants are also Catholics who are making a wonderful contribution to the faith life of our Catholic community.

I am very proud of my own immigrant heritage and blessed to work with today’s immigrants.


  1. Pingback: Immigration Stories: 5 Things I’ve Learned | The Ampersand

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