Elizabeth Rice and Pat Commins were recent visitors to the Cleaver office to speak with me about their new book “Irish Immigrants in Michigan: A History in Stories.” Their book is an interesting read featuring one person from each county in Michigan with roots in Ireland. How they came to write the book is just as interesting.
Rice, from Michigan and Commins, from Dublin, Ireland are cousins. Rice’s branch of the family immigrated to the U.S. in 1848, first to Ohio and later to Michigan. A journal that was kept in the family noted “Michael and Catherine left today for America.” One hundred, fifty years later Rice’s sister was taking a genealogy course and eventually connected with Commins’ family.
“We never had any communication for 150 years,” Commins said. “My Mum had this notebook and a phenomenal memory. According to the family, Michael and Catherine married in April 1848 and immigrated in September 1848.”
Commins, a teacher, visited Michigan a few times over the years for continuing education and to visit his newfound cousins. Both Commins and Rice noticed other Irish names in cemeteries while caring for the graves of their families, and they began to fill notebooks of Irish names and visit communities and cemeteries with an eye to Irish people and their stories.
They decided they needed to do something with all the information they had collected. While a complete account of every immigrant was impossible, they decided to feature an immigrant from each Michigan county to create the title “Irish Immigrants in Michigan, A History in Stories” published by Arcadia Publishing as part of its American Heritage series.
The Clare County story of John Quinn was chosen because, the as the founder of the Cleaver, the unique name caught Rice and Commins’ attention. Commins’ brother is a butcher, so the fact that Quinn co-founded a newspaper in the back of a butcher shop delighted him. Even more surprising was Rice’s notice of the Cleaver office on vacation driving through Harrison with her family. Rice then reached out to make us aware Quinn was featured in their book.
During the potato famine years in Ireland, Michael and Ann Quinn lost four of their eight children. Desperate to escape, they immigrated to Seneca County, New York. John Quinn was born there in 1854 and later moved with his family to Calhoun County, Michigan. When John was 20, he headed to Saginaw. He found work in a shingle mill and lost fingers from both hands. He returned home to continue his education and was later hired as a bookkeeper for the W.H. & F.A. Wilson Lumber Co. The company was in Vernon Township, and he later relocated to Harrison when the Wilsons moved their lumber operation to Clare’s new county seat.
Quinn wore many hats, another reason he was chosen to be featured in the book. Quinn co-founded and ran the Clare County Cleaver for eight years before he sold his portion of the business. He married Jennie Dodge and was postmaster, owned a share in a hardware store, was the proprietor of the Johnson House (later the Surrey House), and passed the bar and was elected as Clare County prosecuting attorney in the 1890s.
Their book was published in February of 2021 and Commins is here in Michigan until February, visiting with his cousins and traveling throughout Michigan promoting the book. The pair will present their book and give a talk at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 19 at the Pere Marquette District Library in Clare.
Interviewing Commins and Rice was a pleasure. We all listen for the whisperings of our ancestors in the same way. And the best part? We were all wearing claddagh rings.
“Irish Immigrants in Michigan, A History in Stories” is available at the Cleaver office, on Amazon or at www.arcadiapublishing.com.
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