The contrast between the Tuam workhouse and the vibrant colours, blue skies, and the smell of exotic food of New Orleans in the 1840s could not have been more dramatic. To the eyes, ears and senses of two young Galway children it must have been jaw-dropping.
New Orleans, Louisiana, America’s fourth largest city after New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, literally roared with movement and energy. It was a city where all the clichés were true. From the refined accents of the cultured descendants of the original French and Spanish settlers, to the rough American riverboat gamblers, free and slave Negroes, Creoles ( a mixture of French and Spanish ), and of course other immigrants from Europe including Germans, English and Italians. The city heaved with noise and humanity.
Honora (10 years old ) and Dick (nine ) were the two eldest children of Pat and Bridget Qualter Dowling of Knock (Milltown ) Dunmore, County Galway. The Dowlings had survived reasonably comfortably as tenant farmers on the W R Annesley estate, until it was sold to an new owner who simply cleared the land of tenant farmers. The Dowlings were thrown out on the road, at the mercy of the workhouse system.
Emigration was the only way out of their predicament. It was agreed to ask their former neighbours, the Cunninghams, who had settled in New Orleans for some years, if they would look after two of their nine children until such a time as the family could get sufficient funds together and join them.
It must have taken enormous courage on behalf of the two children to set out on their amazing adventure in July 1846. How eagerly their parents must have waited for news that they had arrived safely. Leaving Cobh, their first port of call was Ponta Delgada in the Azores; then on to Havana, Cuba, before arriving at New Orleans some six weeks later.
Whatever shock the new world had on the two Galway children records show that Dick was living with the Cunninghams some years later. However, there was no mention of Honora’s whereabouts. Dick was likely to have attended the free school attached to St Patrick’s church as one of its 350 pupils, run by the Irish Christian Brothers.
As they had planned six years previously in Tuam, the entire Dowling family arrived in new Orleans in 1852 to join their two children. Despite the excitement of the family reunion, they could not have arrived at a worse time. A severe yellow fever epidemic (an acute viral haemorrhagic disease ) was raging through the city. The disease, which had plagued the Gulf Coast so many times, had no cure because its cause had not been discovered. Conflicting opinions held that yellow fever was caused by impure air, poor sanitation, filth accumulating in the atmosphere from construction work, impure water, overcrowding slums, or from the heat of the summer sun. This time more than 29,000 people contacted the disease. More than 9,000 died including the newly arrived Pat and Bridget Dowling and one of their sons.
The remaining children were probably taken into the kind homes of neighbours and friends. But the attitude towards the Irish was beginning to change in the city. The health of some of the Irish emigrants when they arrived, and the crowded conditions in which they lived in their own quarter of the city, led people to believe that fever and disease came, and lived with them.‘ No Irish need apply’ began appearing in local employment advertisements. In 1854 anti-Irish feeling resulted in the populace voting to rid New Orleans of the Irish. Pro-Irish city officeholders were swept out of power.
American gangs now began to physically harass Irish groups and families, targeting popular meeting places such as Irish coffee-houses. When it was rumoured that gangs planned to burn St Patrick’s church there was a major street fight, which only resulted in more attacks, and a deeper hatred of the Irish.
This was no life for Dick Dowling. He looked across the Sabine River, on the western border of Louisiana, to Texas, and boarded the train for Houston.
Bank of Bacchus
And as today, the magic of America seems to have taken hold of the young man from the Tuam workhouse. He was described as being ‘ six feet tall, a handsome man of fair complexion, blue eyes, reddish brown hair, and a ready smile’. The American magic is the extraordinary possibilities which can open up to anyone who is prepared to work hard, have good skills, live in harmony with his neighbours, and to enjoy life.
When Dick arrived in Texas it was the biggest cotton growing state in America, and Houston was booming. On November 30 1857 he married Annie Odlum. Probably with a loan from her family he purchased a lease of his first bar, which he called The Shades, after the sycamore and cottonwood trees which lined the street.
Apparently Dick excelled at the bar business. ‘His boyish charm and genuine friendliness’ assured a good trade. He also excelled at public relations. To celebrate the New Year of 1858, Dick sent a round of drinks to the employees of two local newspapers, which was reciprocated in print. The editor of the Houston Republic hailed Dowling as‘ a worthy young man’, while his billiard saloon was ‘the best in the state’.
Dick had found his road to his fortune. He bought several more bars, built up their trade, then sold them on until his most popular success, the curiously named Bank of Bacchus bar, where he promised to sell liquor ‘in less than quart tots’. It is speculated that Dowling took the name from a famous horse advertised in The Tuam Herald just before he left Ireland for America, then a small boy of nine years old. The Herald described the horse as the ‘ winner of over 20 public races’.
Dick Dowling had arrived. He was a winner in every way. Still only in his early twenties he was a prosperous and successful entrepreneur, happily married, and employing his siblings in his various businesses.
The Bar of Bacchus opened in the autumn of 1860. But the major topic of conversation at the time was that Texas, and other southern states, had began movements to secede from the United States.*
Next week: How Dick Dowling became a hero in Texas.
NOTES: I am taking all this from a new book, Dick Dowling - Galway’s Hero of Confederate Texas, by Timothy Collins and Ann Caraway Ivins, published by Old Forge Books, on sale €29.99.