Bill Gallagher, president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, makes a point during a May 15 talk on John Patrick O’Hara, editor of the Catholic Sentinel for the first decades of the 20th century.
Bill Gallagher, president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, makes a point during a May 15 talk on John Patrick O’Hara, editor of the Catholic Sentinel for the first decades of the 20th century.

A May 15 talk on an early Catholic Sentinel editor made one thing clear: Immigrants in Portland have been getting walloped for a long time.

At the start of the 20th century, Irish Catholics were the target of the city’s collective swat. John Patrick O’Hara, Sentinel editor from 1903 to 1928, used the newspaper to fight back. 

It was tough to be an immigrant in Portland during that era, said Bill Gallagher, a former radio host who is president of Portland’s Ancient Order of Hibernians, a fraternal and charitable band of Oregonians with Irish ancestry. According to the 1920 census, about 87 percent of Portland residents had been born in the United States. Only one in a dozen Portlanders was Catholic.

“Nativists hated them,” Gallagher said during his talk, given at Kells restaurant. “Anti-Catholic attitudes, laws and practices were everywhere.” One Portland law forbad flying the Irish flag on St. Patrick’s Day. Tom Markgraf, a Hibernian member in attendance, recalled his grandmother telling stories of the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses on the family lawn near Holy Redeemer Church in North Portland. Markgraf’s grandfather, a builder, faced efforts from the Klan to keep him out of work.

“Can you imagine after leaving Ireland, coming all the way here and having to put up with that?” Gallagher said.

At the Sentinel, O’Hara responded to attacks on the church with common sense and fiery prose. “He waged war with the Know Nothings with the Sentinel,” said Gallagher.

The Oregonian newspaper once published a sneering editorial questioning the virgin birth. O’Hara fired back that the secular paper ought not hold forth on matters in which it has no expertise.

One of the bromides O’Hara continually fended off was that Jesuit missionaries had incited the 1847 Whitman massacre, in which disgruntled tribes killed Protestant missionaries near Walla Walla, Washington. The Sentinel also countered the tired fictions about nuns who had escaped convents and had horrific tales to tell.

“It was the fake news of the day,” Gallagher said.

O’Hara was a businessman as well as an editor. He sold ads and managed the always-slim budget. He also was a family man with a house full of children and served a term as president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians early in his career at the Sentinel.

“J.P. O’Hara had a strong Irish bias,” said Gallagher.

The Sentinel was so opposed to the exploits of the British that the paper downplayed German aggression in the early years of World War I. And the uprising in Ireland garnered more coverage than the fight in Europe. But once the United States entered the global conflict, O’Hara “flipped” and backed the alliance with Britain as a patriotic act, Gallagher explained.

The juggernaut of anti-Catholic attacks came in the form of the Oregon School Bill, a ballot initiative that required children to attend public schools. Oregon, because of its nativist leanings and its initiative process, was chosen as a national test case by those who wanted to dampen Catholic influence across the country. O’Hara and Archbishop Alexander Christie fought the measure, but Klan-influenced government officials pushed for it and voters gave approval in 1922. Interestingly, it won the most support in Portland but failed in rural areas.

O’Hara was dejected, thinking he had not done enough, Gallagher explained.

But the struggle was not over. A generation of Irish Oregonians had fought from the famine era into the middle class, some becoming lawyers. With the help of these educated men, the Sisters of the Holy Names and the Knights of Columbus teamed up with the local church to file an appeal against the school bill. O’Hara lent editorial support.

By 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court told Oregon, “You can’t do that,” Gallagher explained. The crux of the argument was not religious, but about liberty: Parents have a right to educate their children as they see fit.

“The Irish were used to fighting the Brits, so they weren’t going to sit down to these guys,” Gallagher said. “Irish Catholic identity could survive and thrive because there was an established community here.”

It was after the victory for the church that O’Hara slowed down, perhaps weary from the conflict. He sold the Sentinel to the Catholic Truth Society in 1928 and in 1931 entered the church book and supply business. He died in 1952 of a heart attack.

“He’d fought the good fight,” Gallagher said.