In the 1840 census, 192 Pittston residents listed Ireland as their birthplace. The same search in 1850 counted 721 Irish-born Pittstonians. In 1860, there were 1,500. By 1870, more than 4,000 native Irish were living in Pittston — over half the city’s population of 7,500.
Today there are few native Irish living in the Greater Pittston area, but there are thousands of descendants of the Irish who emigrated here from 1840 to 1870. Jim McFarland, 70, who was born in Pittston and lives in Wyoming, is a good example. He took a DNA test through ancestry.com and it shows 91% Irish and 9% Scottish.
“He’s so Irish,” a friend once said, “his DNA is green.”
McFarland grew up on Lagrange Street in Pittston in the 1950s and early 60s, one of six kids of Mary A. and Joseph M. McFarland Sr.
“Irish heritage was important in the family,” he said. “We learned about our ancestry, history, Irish customs and traditions like Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Sunday family dinner, Irish music and folklore and of course superstitions like sweeping the dirt out the door after dark, having a person with dark hair walk through the house on New Year’s Day, not letting a bird fly all the way through the house.”
Today he’s a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians Division 1, Luzerne County and the Greater Pittston Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, where he is a past president. In the past he was a member of the Wilkes-Barre Donegal Society. In 2015, he was appointed to the advisory committee asked to create bylaws for the first Pittston City St. Patrick’s Parade Committee.
If those memberships don’t cement his Irish bona fides, consider the surnames he found in his family tree. McFarland has been digging into his roots since the 1990s.
“I started with family stories and history. On my father’s side was a family tree which helped a lot. Talking to older relatives gave me a good start. My mother had done a lot of research through the Mormon church files in Clarks Summit. The libraries were a great source of info by providing the online census and then came ancestry.com, which is a key to a lot of information.”
McFarland’s ancestors were among the half million Irish who immigrated to America during the potato famine in the 1840s. They all came through New York.
“The Gallaghers came from Donegal and wound up in Archibald,” he explained. “The Lavins came from Kerry and finally settled in Duryea. The Reddingtons and Coynes came from Mayo to Pittston, another Gallagher, no relation to the others, from Cork to Cork Lane.”
His maternal great-grandmother was a Reddington, the other a Coyne. His paternal great-grandmother was a Lavin. He was surprised to learn both his grandmothers were Gallaghers with very similar names. But Mary Loretta Gallagher and Maria Loretta Gallagher were not related to each other. One married a McLaughlin and one married Leo McFarlane.
“James MacFarlane married Elizabeth Monaghan,” McFarland said. “They were my great-grandparents. Notice the difference in spelling. They married in County Armagh in 1880 and came over in 1881, stopping in Wilkes-Barre and then settling on Cherry Street in Avoca. The only one I’m having trouble nailing down is my great-grandfather Thomas McLaughlin, but I’m working on it. He was killed in a mine accident and his wife remarried. He seemed to move around, so I’m not sure where exactly he was from. I know he is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in the Junction.”
Thomas McLaughlin was one of three ancestors killed in the mines. Thomas Gallagher and his brother James were killed in an explosion on Oct. 30, 1881 at the Number 7 Shaft of the Pennsylvania Coal company off Thompson Street in Sebastopol.
“Their bodies were unceremoniously left on the front porch on Railroad Street in Pittston,” McFarland said.
“Another ancestor, John Gallagher of Duryea, was a carpentry foreman in the shops and James MacFarlane, who was a shipbuilder, became a carpenter here. My grandfather had two brothers, they all spelled the last name differently — McFarland, MacFarland and MacFarlane. My great-grandfather never changed his spelling.”
McFarland said his family, as well as Irish-Americans at large, believe in keeping extended families close.
“Our cousins were our first best friends,” he explained. “We lived and prayed with our brothers and sisters and we would all get together for weddings, birthdays and funerals, which were all great parties.”
McFarland has never been back to the “Old Sod.” But never say never. “It’s on my bucket list.”