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05 Oct 2022

Fascinating Edenderry historical talk given on Offaly emigrant to USA

Fascinating Edenderry histiorical talk given on Offaly emigrant to USA

Ciaran Reilly and Danny Leavy at the historical talk on Cornelius Heeney.

AN absolutely fascinating and engrossing historical talk was given recently in Edenderry on a renowned Offaly emigrant to New York.

Hosted by the Edenderry Historical Society in the local Parish Centre, the talk attracted a much bigger crowd than usual for those type of events. It was on the life story of Cornelius Heeney, an Irish emigrant who made a vast contribution to life in New York after moving there in the 1780s.

While a native of Clondalee near the Hill of Down in Meath, Heeney spent much of his early childhood in Edenderry, where he was reared by the Fullard's, proprietors of a local distillery.

The talk was given by an Edenderry historian, Ciaran Reilly and Rhode native, Danny Leavy. Both were talented footballers in their youth with Leavy playing minor and U-21 football for Offaly before emigrating to New York in the 1990s while Reilly won Senior Football Championship medals with Edenderry in the 1990s and 2000s.

Reilly is a history lecturer at Maynooth University and specialises in the Irish famine. Leavy became fascinated with the story of Cornelius Heeney when he discovered him while visiting old Irish sites in New York. Now living in Manhattan having been based in Yonkers for years, Leavy is writing a book on Heeney along with Reilly. In addition, he has campaigned to raise knowledge of Heeney's life in the Irish American community in New York.

Heeney was an extraordinary character, who became very successful in the USA but displayed a great charitable instinct. A devout Catholic, he worked as an accountant and book keeper with a Quaker shipping merchant called William Backhaus. A fellow employee was John Jacob Astor, founder of one of America's wealthiest dynasties and when Backhaus retired in 1797, he left the business to Astor and Heeney.

Heeney soon branched out on his own, setting up his own New York merchant business in the fur trade. A bachelor, he became very wealthy but donated a lot of money to the Catholic Church and charities. In the late 1700s/early 1800s, Irish Catholic emigrants were not very welcome in the English Protestant dominated New York – it was an era when “No Blacks or Irish need apply” signs adorned the windows of some businesses seeking employees - and Heeney played a pivotal role in helping his people and Church get established.

He was a trustee of St Peter's, the first Catholic Church in New York city and was a major subscriber towards the fund to build the original St Patrick's Cathedral – not to be mistaken with the world famous one now on 5th Avenue. He made various gifts to the Church as well as helping build an Orphanage and set up a Catholic newspaper. He was a guardian to John McCloskey, the first American Cardinal.

He was involved in a campaign to remove an anti-Catholic oath from the statute books for the New York Assembly and later served five terms on the Assembly, elected as a Democrat from 1818 to 1822. After a fire destroyed his business, he retired to a farm in the then rural Brooklyn Heights in the 1830s and continued to give great support to charities, espcially orphans and widows. He gave land in Bookyln for the new St Paul's Church and an adjoining asylum and industrial school.

In 1845, he set up the Brooklyn Benevolent Society to distribute relief to the Catholic poor – with the famine devastating Ireland, thousands of desperate emigrants headed west in search of a better life. He transferred all of his property to the society by deed and over a million dollars has been distributed from rents and investments over several decades.

He died in 1848 and was buried in a vault in St Paul's Church.

Danny Leavy has been working closely with the Brooklyn Benevolent Society to unearth Heeney's life story and put it out in the public domain. He has made several intriguing discoveries, including an old bell with Heeney's name on it in the tower at St Peter's Chuch in the city – he is currently trying to get this displayed in a more prominent place at the Church as well as providing a plaque to Heeney.

Heeney originally went to Philadelpia where his father lived, though there is only limited information available on his early life in Ireland and his parents.

Home in Rhode on holidays with his wife Ann and children, Leavy brought various artefacts and documents with him about Heeney to the talk.

The talk was excellent, full of information and presented in an entertaining way that kept the attention of those with only a peripheral interest in history as well as providing more than ample detail and depth to keep the more serious history enthusiast enthralled.

Reilly gave a very informative snap shot of Heeney's life at the start of it while Leavy gave a compelling outline of how he got interested in Heeney, the research he had undertaken and slides presenting various artefacts and documents relating to him.

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