"It Wouldn't Feed Snipe": Irish Immigrants in Janesville

If you had to guess where Irish ancestry ranked among Wisconsin citizens, what would you say?

Perhaps fourth--after Germans, Norwegians, and Swedes or Finns? No! In the 2000 census, 11% of Wisconsin citiziens identified themselves as Irish, making Irish ancestry second only to German in the state.

A Canadian man has written a new history of an Irish immigrant family that once lived in Janesville. Intrigued by several mysteries about his maternal grandparents' Irish roots, Thomas Baxter researched and wrote about John Regan and Mary Sheehan Regan in his 2009 book, It Wouldn’t Feed Snipe. Some of the author’s questions were:

--What made his grandfather decide to leave Ireland in 1907, long after the Potato Famine?

--What brought him (and his future wife, also an Irish immigrant) to Janesville in particular?

--Why did his maternal grandmother leave Ireland without saying goodbye to her family and fail to resume contact with them once she returned?

--Why did the family return permanently to Ireland in 1924?

--What kind of people were the grandparents he had never known?

The author has done considerable research. He discovered the Janesville places where his grandparents lived (406 and 496 W. Holmes; 218 S. Park St.) and where his grandfather worked (the Janesville Fire Department, the railroad, and as a stockman at the School for the Blind, among others), and provides a useful map of where his grandparents and their fellow Irish immigrants lived in Janesville’s Fourth Ward. He found out a lot about his grandmother’s difficult personality and ambitions, and shows the stark contrast between life in the U.S. and life in Ireland in the 1920s. Ultimately, however, he is unable to answer all the questions that prompted him to write the book, and what he does uncover about his grandmother’s personality is not very flattering. But his firmest conclusion—why the family returned to Ireland—appears to be related to the significance of owning land in Ireland. When the author’s grandfather was finally able to own the family farm in Ireland—even though its quality was so poor “it wouldn’t feed snipe”—the lure to return and to try to operate it proved irresistible.

One of the most interesting aspects of this family's story is how the Regans embodied many of the characteristics of other Irish immigrants described in The Irish in Wisconsin, by David G. Holmes (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004). Like other people from Ireland, the Regan family passed on their Irish land only to one son, the eldest. Consequently, if one were a younger son--as John Regan was--one's career choices in Ireland were limited. There were few thriving businesses in the rural areas and virtually no free land to buy or rent. Such people believed that their only opportunity for a better life lay overseas.

Another characteristic of Irish immigrants is that, unlike other ethnic groups, women emigrated in roughly the same numbers that men did, and--another uniquely Irish characteristic--many of these women were single. The author's grandmother--Mary Sheehan--actually left Ireland on her own, without telling her family that she was leaving. And, like her future husband and most other Irish immigrants, she settled on Janesville as her ultimate destination when she met other Irish people who had already immigrated to the town or who were actually heading to that town and who encouraged her to join her there.

Author Tomas Baxter makes the point that Irish women in Wisconsin had a degree of independence unthinkable in Ireland, a situation that made life particularly difficult for Mary Sheehan Regan when she returned to her native country and her relatives, married and with three children, 17 years after leaving it.

The major difference between the author's grandparents and other Irish immigrants is
that, drawn back by the fact that his family's Irish farm had finally become available to him, John Regan and his wife returned to Ireland permanently, putting them among the fewer than 10% of Irish immigrants who went home for good.

A short book printed on glossy paper richly illustrated with family photos, maps, official documents, and family letters, It Wouldn’t Feed Snipe is a memoir about Irish immigrants who came to the United States but chose not to stay. You can read it at Hedberg Public Library.