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"Sir William’s Irish Heritage Recalled"

By WANDA BURCH, Site Manager at Johnson Hall State Historic Site. Reprinted with permission

Laura Stewart generously typed this piece.   She is searching for information on NOLAN families, who worked and resided in Johnstown. Their main occupations were as masons and construction workers; in fact, they built several of the brick houses in Johnstown. Most of the family resided on the north end of Johnstown in the vicinity of Decker, Matthew and Miller streets. Her grandmother was Alberta Pearl NOLAN, her father was William NOLAN. She is also looking for information on the name NELSON. This was her grandmother's mother's maiden name. Believed this family came from Berne, NY.

Celebrated St. Patrick’s Day;
(This article was printed in the Leader Herald, 03/17/97, pg. 3)

JOHNSTOWN - The most famous early Irish resident in the Mohawk Valley was undoubtedly Sir William Johnson, who hailed from Smithtown, County Meat, Ireland, where his house still stands under the ownership of Padraic Began and whose politics and culture followed him and the Irish settlers he brought into his Kingsborough patent and into his little craftsman’s village, Johnstown, New York.

Sir William had Irish friends, Irish tenants, contracted with Irish merchants, and speculated in new Irish business ventures, such as potash and hemp production. He founded St. Patrick’s [Masonic] Lodge in the village of Johnstown, and searched high and low for an authentic blind Irish harper to bring music and luck to his Anglo/Irish estates, Fort Johnson and Johnson Hall.

His Irish harper, Sean Kane (O’Cahaughn), delivered Irish ballads and Irish wisdom to the household until he was exiled to Virginia for murdering the young boy who assisted him. Johnson’s fondness for Irish balladry extended to at least one song either of his own composition or hand-copied from someone else, written on the back of a seed order in County Meath before he set sail for America.

A courter called Dorsett from Parrgate set sail
in his Majesty’s yacht to court Grania Wail
with great entertainment he strove to prevail
For to rifle the charms of sweet Grania Wail

Sing Didro Bobro Grania Waill the fox in the
trap we caught by the tail, fill up your Glasses
and Drink without fail
success to the sons of great-Grania Wail.

The ballad continued through seven more verses, cataloging the struggle between Protestants and Catholics, both of whom attached symbolic loyalty to the figure of Grania Wail, who symbolized Irish freedom without dependence on English politics. Johnson turned Grania into a pro-Protestant symbol in the ballad.

We know Johnson celebrated St. John’s Day during the Christmas season and again in the early summer, but we know most about his favorite celebration, St. Patrick’s Day, which often left him apologizing for a shaky hand and an aching head during the days following the merriment, drinking, and dining. Friends who knew the depth of his participation in St. Patrick’s Day, often wrote to him, describing their own merry-making and their own regrets on the day after.

Gov. George Clinton complained to Johnson on March 18, 1746; “We kept St. Patrick yesterday & this Day and drank yr Health & all friends in Albany with so many other Healths, that I Can Scarce write.” Johnson’s nephew, John Dease; a friend, Hugh Wallace; and a merchant, John Wetherhead, all in New York City, kept Johnson apprised of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations; but the most entertaining description, probably not unlike those in other cities, came from Johnson’s Indian agent, George Croghan who was in Philadelphia on March 18, 1768:

I cannot close this Letter, Without informing you, that yesterday the Royal Regiment of Ireland celebrated their Saints Day - at Peg Mullers. They paraded thro’ the Streets & fired at the Coffee House&c. - and then dined at Pegs - Where there was no Want of good Beeff & Claret, And be assured & Where I assure you yr. Honor & the Six Nations, Were not forgot by us; - To Day the Whole Choir dine With us at the Center & from There I shall take my Departure for Fort Pitt, With, I fear a very aching Head.

A fellow mason, Mr. Richard Aylmer, wrote on March 16, 1767, that he had experienced a tiresome journey between Johnson Hall and Fort Stanwix, where he was forced to deal with a disastrous fire in the Royal Blockhouse. His greatest comfort during this ordeal had been the “Skipper of choice potatoes,” which were to be used on St. Patrick’s Day “in honor of the Day..As a member of St. Patrick’s Lodge I shall “without doubt) drink your Worshipfull’s health tomorrow.” Sir William had been constituted Worshipful Master of St. Patrick’s Lodge F. A. M. No. 4 on May 23, 1766.

Johnson’s own preference for his celebrations seemed to be in his own home, where his brother noted in 1760, that the weather was cold and frosty but that there had been a great meeting at William’s house (Fort Johnson) where they drank to St. Patrick and most got vastly drunk. Johnson’s favorite tavern after he built Johnson Hall and established the town of Johnstown was Gilbert Tice’s whose account books showed Johnson’s generosity with his friends and fellow masons in his annual celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.

Bowls of toddy, dinners, and mugs of cider were passed around and, in one of the more interesting entries, Johnson purchased two gallons of beer “for the foot-Ball players.”  This reference to a game that resembled soccer was one of the earliest references to that sport.  Johnson Hall now moves quietly through St. Patrick’s Day, but the spring season promises the same gracious open-door hospitality for which it was always noted.  The site will be open to the public May 15.  For further information on hours and programs, please contact staff at 518-762-8712.

Copyright ©1999 Wanda Burch, Laura Stewart, Jeanette Shiel
All Rights Reserved.

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