A nod to the ould sod: Irish-American writers of the Ohio Valley.


Long before there was Michael Flatley there was Irish dancer Kitty O'Neil, who wowed Broadway in the late 1800s. She also has the archetypal Irish beauty associated the "Irish Colleen."

Long before Michael Flatley there was Irish dancer Kitty O’Neil, who wowed Broadway in the late 1800s. She also has the archetypal Irish beauty associated with  the “Irish Colleen.”

It’s St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve always enjoyed this unusual holiday, not only because I’m Irish-American and have memories of the celebration through the years, but also because of its peculiar nature. I can’t think of any other American holiday when one particular ethnic branch of the American tree is so loudly celebrated. It’s a day when Irish music, arts and culture are honored, and an opportunity for school children to learn about Ireland and St. Patrick himself. The day is quiet for the most part, except perhaps in some bars or taverns. People are mostly at school or work, and in some cities the parades are held the previous weekend.


It’s an unabashedly American holiday despite the celebration of all things Irish. The parades, rivers dyed green, mugs of green beer,  grocery stores full of tacky plastic buttons and leprechaun hats, all combined with a curious assertion of national solidarity—“we’re all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day”—are certainly in the over-the-top modern American grain, although echoes of an older sentimental tradition are found in the Hallmark cards emblazoned with Irish blessings, quaint cottages, green fields, shamrocks and leprechauns. This is the legacy of earlier Irish-American pop culture, a time when the “stage Irishman” became a fixture in American theater, along with the beloved, self-sacrificing Irish mother and the bewitchingly beautiful dark-haired Irish colleen. This is the realm of John Ford’s film The Quiet Man and countless tenors rendering “My Wild Irish Rose.”


The stark simplifications that accompany this American holiday always stand in contrast to the complexity of Irish and Irish-American history, culture, and identity. As a little kid I went to school on St. Patrick’s Day in a green sweater bearing two pins: one of a leprechaun and the other of a shamrock. I was fascinated by the lore of Ireland, this misty land of the Celts. But it was the early Seventies, and the news often carried disturbing images of The Troubles in Ulster: masked IRA gunmen, protesters throwing rocks at armored cars, the grim streets of Belfast. I couldn’t understand it or put it into words, but it somehow registered that there was a real Ireland that was different and frightening. Being an American kid far away, I preferred leprechauns and legends.


This complexity surrounding Irish culture and identity resurfaced as I considered the writers to include in this post. I kept coming back to one question: What do we mean when we say someone is Irish-American?

The term has multiple definitions. One definition of an Irish American would be an immigrant born and reared in Ireland now living in the U.S. who has acquired citizenship and plans to remain in the United States. And when I refer to “Ireland,” for the sake of convenience here I’m going to let this term stand in for the entire land mass of the nation, including the Republic of Ireland that took shape in the 1920s, the country of Northern Ireland, and the smaller islands off the coast of Ireland that are part of Irish heritage.

“Irish-American” to most people certainly evokes the millions of Irish Catholics who streamed out of Ireland during the Potato Famine and who have been coming here since: The ones who formed the large Irish-American populations of Boston, New Orleans, and New York City; the ancestors of John Kennedy, James Cagney and Grace Kelly; the ones who worked the railroads, patrolled the streets, cleaned the houses of the rich and kept the Catholic parishes in America well-stocked with nuns and priests.

Grace Kelly.

Grace Kelly

Then there are the Scots-Irish, those descendants of Scottish immigrants (and some northern English) to Ireland’s northern counties who left their mark on America, becoming known as frontiersmen, pioneers, soldiers, politicians, and merchants. Their descendants, to name but just a few of the prominent, include a host of American Presidents, including Andrew Jackson and U.S. Grant, along with such fiery American notables as John Wayne, George Patton, Jeb Stuart and John McCain. Some of Ohio’s Presidents have Scots-Irish ancestry.

President William McKInley, one of many U.S. Presidents with Scots-Irish ancestry.

President William McKinley, one of many U.S. Presidents with Scots-Irish ancestry.

Then there were the Irish Protestants living throughout Ireland who also left for the New World. The association of Catholicism with Ireland can obscure the fact that the island’s history is full of noted figures who did not belong to the old Catholic culture. Their number in Irish literature–to take but one aspect of Irish culture–includes W.B.Yeats, Oliver Goldsmith, Jonathan Swift (who was Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral), Oscar Wilde, Elizabeth Bowen, George Bernard Shaw, Marie Edgeworth, and Sean O’ Casey, to name but a handful.

Sylvia Plath interviewing Elizabeth Bowen.

Sylvia Plath interviewing Elizabeth Bowen.

The Ohio Valley writers featured here include authors with these kinds of varied Irish-American backgrounds. For some, Irish ancestry is just another fact of existence, part of their DNA: an ancestor came to America long ago. In other instances, the imprint of Irish-American culture forms part of the background of their works and lives.

For the purposes of this blog I’m defining the Ohio Valley as those states—and part of one state—through which the Ohio River flows. These include the western third of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. The Ohio River actually drains waters as far south as Alabama and as far west of a section of Illinois, but the above states constitute my definition. I will later update the “About” section to include this definition. There are certainly more authors with Irish roots in this region than the ones I have found here. I have only included those whose Irish heritage was included in biographical information. I did not want to make any assumptions based on last names.

And if I were to shift the focus of this blog to the entire literary Midwest—which may happen far enough down the road—the number of Irish-American literary figures would likely increase notably, with the state of Illinois alone producing three noted authors whose work dealt deeply with Irish Catholic life: James T. Farrell, Andrew Greeley, and J.F. Powers. Greeley had three careers: Catholic priest, sociologist, and novelist.

James T. Farrell on the job.

James T. Farrell on the job.

Father Andrew Greeley.

Father Andrew Greeley

And when we consider American literature overall, the volume of noted Irish-American writers—especially those of Irish Catholic stock—is remarkable. In addition to the three noted Illinois natives above, consider the following roll call: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor, Mary McCarthy, Alice McDermott, Edwin O’Connor, Billy Collins, Philip Barry, Finley Peter Dunne, Kate Chopin, Nora Roberts, Mary Higgins Clark, Bill Bryson, Eugene O’Neill, Kay Ryan, John Kennedy Toole, John Patrick Shanley, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Chandler, James M.Cain, Tim O’Brien, Margaret Mitchell, William Kennedy, Mickey Spillane, John O’Hara—I could add more. A pretty impressive contribution.

Flannery O'Connor.

Flannery O’Connor

So here’s a look at some Ohio Valley authors with Irish roots.


Jim Tully (June 3, 1886—June 22, 1947) is probably the one writer here whose work draws most deeply on Irish-American life. Tully was born into a working class Irish family in St. Mary’s Ohio in 1888. Both parents were immigrants. His father was a ditch digger and alcoholic who often left his wife and kids to fend for themselves. When Tully’s mother died, his father placed him in St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Cincinnati. He spent six years there, then three years working for an abusive farmer. Later he took to the road as a hobo and wandered the country. He worked odd jobs and was also a boxer before making his way to Hollywood, where he became a journalist.

Jim Tully

Jim Tully

Tully wrote a number of novels and several volumes of autobiography. His novel Emmett Lawler concerns his mother’s Irish family, and he also wrote a memoir called Shanty Irish, detailing the life of his dirt-poor Irish-American family in rural Ohio. Tully has had a revival lately, thanks in no small part to an excellent biography by Paul Bauer and Mark Dawidziak called Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler.

Jim Tully in Hollywood.

Jim Tully in Hollywood.

John Knoepfle.

John Knoepfle.

John Knoepfle ( February 4, 1923) was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is a noted American poet. His father’s background was Swiss and his mother’s was Irish Catholic. He attended St. Xavier High School, a Jesuit high school in Cincinnati. In recent years he has traveled to Ireland seeking more information on his ancestors.

Richard Hague.

Richard Hague

Richard Hague (1947) is a poet, essayist and teacher who has taught since 1969 at Purcell Marian High School, a Catholic high school in Cincinnati, Ohio. He grew up in Steubenville, Ohio in a family both Irish-Catholic and Appalachian. He describes his boyhood and Irish American family in his memoir Milltown Natural, published by Bottom Dog Press in 1997. Milltown Natural was nominated for a National Book Award.

Zane Grey

Zane Grey

Zane Grey (January 31, 1872—October 23, 1939) noted western novelist, was born in Zanesville, Ohio. His father, Dr. Lewis Gray, was a grandson of Irish immigrants who settled in Muskingum County. His son would later change the spelling of his last name.

Patrick Jake O'Rourke.

Patrick Jake O’Rourke

P.J. O’ Rourke (November 14, 1947) is a well-known journalist and humorist from Toledo, Ohio. He is known for his libertarian views. He has authored twenty books and writes for such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, The American Spectator, and The Weekly Standard.

Lafcadio Hearn.

Lafcadio Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn (June 27, 1850-September 26, 1904) was born on the Greek island of Santa Maura, also known as Lefkada, to a Greek mother and an Irish father who was a surgeon in the British army. He was raised partly in Dublin, later traveling to the United States where he worked for the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Cincinnati Commercial Appeal, then drifted to New Orleans where he worked for the New Orleans Item and the New Orleans Time-Democrat. He later lived in Martinique and then went to Japan, where he became a citizen and married a Japanese woman. He became known as an interpreter of non-western cultures, producing not only articles on the literature of Asia, but also translations and anthologies of stories and legends. He was a novelist as well.

Dan Emmett in blackface.

Dan Emmett in blackface.

Dan Emmett (October 29, 1815-June 28, 1904)—Dan Emmett, a native of Mount Vernon, Ohio, is usually credited with writing the song “Dixie,” along with “Old Dan Tucker,” and “The Blue Tail Fly.” He was a fifer in the U.S. Army and later helped develop the blackface minstrel show. Despite the crude stereotypes of the minstrel show and the southern embrace of “Dixie,” Emmett was not a Confederate sympathizer. My paternal grandmother was born in 1895 in Mt. Vernon and could recall seeing Dan Emmett on the streets of town when she was a little girl. By that time he was an impoverished old man always wearing a long threadbare coat.

Dan Emmett in later years.

Dan Emmett in later years.

General Grant at Cold Harbor.

General Grant at Cold Harbor.

U. S. Grant (April 27, 1822-July 23, 1885) was descended from Scots-Irish settlers. We know him as the commander of the Union armies from March of 1864 through the end of the war and as a U.S. President. However, General Grant also left his mark on American literature. His Memoirs are a widely admired model of clear and concise prose and have earned a place in American letters.

Roger Zelazny.

Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny (May 13, 1937—June 14, 1995) wrote many works of fantasy and science fiction. He was born in Euclid, Ohio. His father was a Polish immigrant and his mother was Irish-American.

James Hanley.

James Hanley

James Hanley (October 22, 1931—May 25, 2012) was born in Lorain, Ohio. He was a playwright, screenwriter and novelist. He received critical praise as a Broadway and Off Broadway playwright during the 1960s. He later had a successful career writing teleplays, winning Emmys for writing Something About Amelia in 1984 and 1988’s The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank. He was the nephew of two British novelists with Irish roots: James and Gerald Hanley.

William Davis Gallagher.

William Davis Gallagher

William Davis Gallagher ( August 21, 1808—June 27, 1894)—Gallagher was a poet and anthologist born in Philadelphia who later moved to Mt. Healthy, Ohio with his family. His father was an Irishman who fled the country after the Irish Rebellion of 1803. Gallagher edited one of the first regional poetry anthologies not only in the Midwest but the entire United States: Selections from the Poetical Literature of the West. This anthology also included one of Gallagher’s most well known poems: “Miami Woods.”

Western Pennsylvania:

Nellie Bly.

Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly (May 5, 1864—January 27, 1922). I look forward to one day doing a profile on Nellie Bly. She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran near Pittsburgh and later used the name “Nellie Bly” as a pioneering journalist. While she is well-known for her famous 72 day trip around the world—inspired by the 80 day journey of Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days—she also did groundbreaking investigative work on factory conditions for women workers and neglect and cruelty in a women’s insane asylum.

Stephen Collins Foster.

Stephen Collins Foster

Stephen Collins Foster: (July 4, 1826—January 13, 1864): Stephen Collins Foster was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania. He was the grandson of a man from County Derry. Foster is one of our most famous American composers, known especially for “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Old Black Joe,” and “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.” Foster spent several years in Cincinnati.


Wendell Berry.

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry  (August 5, 1934):  Wendell Berry is a prominent essayist, poet, novelist and farmer who has become widely revered for his devotion to small scale sustainable farming and conservation. He lives in the same region where his family has lived and farmed for generations. In the “Irish Journal” section of his book Home Economics, Berry mentions his Irish great grandfather James Mathews, who came from Cashel.

Best wishes for a happy, reflective, and literary St. Patrick’s Day!

Patrick Kerin (another Irish-American writer).


Zane Grey and the Western Dream

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Zane Grey. The name itself can conjure images of dusty arroyos, gunfighter villains, square-jawed cowboys and frontier heroines. And yet one of the most prolific and financially successful American writers of western novels—in fact, one of the creators of the western as we know it—was born in Zanesville, Ohio on January 31, 1872. His works have been read and enjoyed by millions of readers, including President Dwight Eisenhower and western actor Randolph Scott. He had 61 books published in his lifetime.
zane grey beard

According to Carlton Jackson, author the Twayne’s U. S. authors study of Grey, “at one time Zane Grey’s works, after the Bible and McGuffey’s Readers, were the third best-selling books in U.S. literary history.” The public purchased 28 million copies of his assorted books. Hollywood based 104 films on Zane Grey plots, and Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre introduced his work to baby boomers through the new medium of television.


He was born Pearl Zane Gray, the son of a local dentist. For a while he followed his father into dentistry, eventually leaving it behind along with the name “Pearl.” He would in turn Anglicize the spelling of his last name, changing the “a” to an “e.”

He came of pioneer stock. His father was the grandson of Irish immigrants who settled in Muskingum County, and the pioneer heritage was particularly notable on his mother’s side. He was named for his maternal great-grandfather Ebenezer Zane, who defended Fort Henry at present day Wheeling, West Virginia during the Revolution and was later awarded land in Ohio, one of his tracts later becoming the town of Zanesville. Ebenezer also left his legacy on the land by blazing Zane’s Trace from what is now Wheeling, West Virginia to Maysville, Kentucky. A section of Zane’s Trace later became part of the National Road, one of the first major interstate routes in the country.


He wasn’t Grey’s only famous relative. His great aunt Betty Zane, who famously sneaked out of Fort Henry and returned with a supply of powder and shot hidden in a tablecloth to aid the besieged settlers, was the subject of his first novel, Betty Zane. The aura of frontier legendry was with Grey from the start.


Zane was an indifferent student, preferring baseball, hunting, and fishing to the classroom, although he enjoyed reading, particularly dime novels. He and a group of friends enjoyed Tom Sawyer-like adventures in the nearby woods, where they had their own cave and passed around copies of dime literature. The boys spent long hours there, even cooking meals together. The only problem was that the cookware came from Zane’s home, and his father finally tracked it down. He discovered the pots and pans, but also a short adventure story that young Grey had written. He burned the story, retrieved the cookware and spanked his son.

Grey continued to read dime novels and also books by authors such as Daniel Defoe and James Fenimore Cooper. Yet the outdoors remained a passion. Grey spent long hours hunting and fishing, avocations he would pursue throughout his life, even acquiring deep sea fishing records in later years. He also loved baseball and played for the University of Pennsylvania while studying dentistry. After he earned his degree, Grey went to New York City and opened a practice.

Zane Grey when he played for the University of Pennsylvania.

Zane Grey when he played for the University of Pennsylvania.

Grey was a strong man who excelled at pulling teeth, but was less skilled at other procedures and was restless in his career. At times he closed up shop and traveled to see his family in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania where they had moved after a stay in Columbus, Ohio. Here Grey would escape to the woods and streams, and it was here that he met a young woman named Lina “Dolly” Roth. Grey married Dolly in 1905, and she would remain his wife, helpmate and reader for 34 years, even though Grey would prove to be a relentlessly unfaithful husband.

Grey’s first book was Betty Zane, a novel based on the frontier experiences of his famous relative. He followed this work with two others—Spirit of the Border and The Last Trail—to form a trio of books known as the Ohio trilogy, which also feature the controversial real-life frontiersman Lewis Wetzel.


Betty Zane was self-published, and while not a financial success, it got Grey noticed and attracted an agent. He was able to place the next two books with a publisher, virtually giving them away. Betty Zane helped give Grey the confidence to pursue a full-time writing career, and he also married Dolly at this time.

In 1902 Owen Wister had scored a success with The Virginian, a novel that would have a powerful influence on the twentieth century western genre. Grey became interested in writing about the west and wanted to see the region and its people firsthand in order to accurately capture details of western life. In 1907, Grey met a man named C.J. “Buffalo” Jones, a former buffalo hunter and Yellowstone guide who now had a mission to save the buffalo. Grey persuaded Jones that he should go west on a hunting trip with the frontiersman and write a book about their excursion.


Grey traveled with Jones and several other men, experiencing firsthand the rugged terrain and talking to western people. He absorbed Jones’ stories and wrote Last of the Plainsmen, which is essentially a biography of the old buffalo hunter. Grey submitted the book to Harper’s and was discouraged when an editor told him that he didn’t think he could write. Grey was briefly plunged into despair, but recovered, persevered and eventually found another house to publish the book, which was successful.

Grey continued to travel the west, meeting people and absorbing details of geography and culture. He published his first western, Heritage of the Desert, in 1910, following it with Riders of the Purple Sage in 1912, one of his most famous books. Another famous Grey title, The U.P. Trail, was published in 1918.


A torrent of prose flowed from his pen, including not only his westerns but also works on hunting, fishing and baseball. Grey’s popular success made him wealthy. By the early 1920s, Grey was pocketing $80,000 for each book and was traveling the world pursuing his love of the outdoors. He purchased a yacht and sailed throughout the world fishing, becoming especially well known in the waters off New Zealand. He and Dolly and their two sons moved to a three-story manor house in Altadena, California, and Grey also acquired ranch property in Arizona.


He also enjoyed a triumphant journey back to Zanesville. In 1921 the town had a special celebration in his honor, and there was a screening of the movie version of The Desert of Wheat, a novel Grey published in 1919.

Many of Grey’s books feature a western hero skilled with weapons, able to negotiate hostile terrain, and possessing a capacity for violence he usually employs in the service of someone—or a community—in trouble, possibly from within the community or outside of it.

Sound familiar? This probably goes to show that we are all “readers” of Zane Grey as the western myth he elaborates in dozens of books and stories is so familiar to us. Grey was never famed as a stylist or a creator of literary high art, but he had a powerful storytelling talent that spoke directly to a hunger in the American public for the mythic west. A literary critic of the early twentieth century, Burton K. Whipple, wrote “We turn to him not for insight into human nature and human problems nor for refinements of art, but simply for crude epic stories, as we might to an old Norse skald, maker of the sagas of the folk.”

While Grey’s dialogue can be flowery and his characterization weak, his work remains compelling. In her book West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, literary scholar Jane Tompkins discusses the power of Grey:

Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) is not like The Virginian. Zane Grey didn’t come from an upper-class background; no one in his family knew Henry James; and his prose doesn’t sound like he’s been reading Thackeray and Austen. It’s wonderful writing, but not in good taste. For sheer emotional force; for the capacity to get and keep his readers, absolutely in his grip; for the power to be—there is no other word for it—thrilling, few practitioners of narrative prose can equal Grey. Sometimes reading him is like being caught in a waterfall or flood; you feel at the mercy of a natural force that cannot be emanating entirely from the page.”

Grey died of a heart attack in 1939, but additional works were published into the early 1960s, although some of these were likely ghostwritten. Millions of readers purchased and enjoyed his books—and still do–and he shaped the dream life of the nation, giving everyday readers the gift of a few hours of escape. Serious literary critics sniffed, both Grey could be counted on to deliver the thrills of a western yarn.

Wiliam S. Hart, one of the first iconic movie cowboys.

Wiliam S. Hart, one of the first iconic movie cowboys.

Other western writers would follow—Louis L’Amour, Will Henry, Matt Braun, William Johnstone, to name but a few—but Grey’s books continue to appear on store shelves. Grey has also attracted increased academic attention. Grey’s treatment of religion (he was highly critical of missionary activity, particularly among the Indian nations), his concern for American Indian people and culture, the role of Mormonism in the west, the impact of new technology and transportation systems on the frontier, his interest in evolution and conservation—these are just some of the topics in his fiction that have drawn scholars to his work.

Other novels touch on issues of politics. For example, The Desert of Wheat, most of which is set in the Northwest, is notable for its strong anti-German sentiment of the First World War and its attack on the famous radical union the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), popularly known as the “Wobblies.” This novel is the subject of an extended treatment in Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, to give one example of a Grey novel as subject of critical analysis.

In a future post I will attach some links to some of the Zane Grey sites around the country, but let me just note here that there is a National Road and Zane Grey Museum in Zanesville, Ohio. The museum has three components: one on the National Road, one on Grey and the third on the famous Ohio art pottery produced in the region.

The Zane Grey’s West Society helps keep Grey’s legacy alive, and Zane Grey Inc. manages Grey’s literary properties. In addition to continued sales, academic interest, historic sites, and the Zane Grey’s West Society, there is also a yearly 50- mile endurance run named for him held in Arizona.

Not bad for a dentist from Zanesville.

Patrick Kerin