James Donahue escaped Ireland's famine

Written by Joanne Burkett from research taken from Paolo Sioli's History of El Dorado County California, from El Dorado Co. birth, marriage, death and land records and often from interviews.

James Donahue was 23 when he left his ancestral home in Ireland for America. It was 1850 and the Irish countryside was decaying under the black rot of an untreatable fungus disease that was destroying its crops. This devastating "potato famine" would end up claiming the lives of as many as a million Irish souls. Starvation, cholera and typhus were cutting a wide swath across the country and it's more than likely that Donahue left his homeland to escape the same fate. Nearly two million other Irishmen did.

Donahue's father was a farmer, so it's safe to guess the family's plight. The land they farmed was probably not their own. The Encumbered Act of 1849 allowed creditors to have debt-ridden estates auctioned off and the tenant farmers evicted. Hundreds of thousands had already been uprooted and thrown to the winds. Some had nowhere to go but the crowded disease-infested workhouses. Some of the landlords actually paid for their tenants to emigrate to America and other English-speaking countries. Perhaps Donahue was one of them.

Ireland had been a better place when James Donahue was a boy. On June 1, 1827, he was born in County Cavan, a land of some 250,000 citizens, a place where his family surname was one of the main Gaelic names. He was just a youngster when his family up and moved north to County Fermanagh, a beautiful, forested land filled with lakes in the southwestern region of Northern Ireland. The famine had decimated County Cavan's population, reducing it by 80 percent.

But, before the hard times overtook his family, James had received a common school education, while also working on his father's farm.

The famine years took their toll; landlords were raising rents and evicting hundreds of thousands of peasants, sending them packing to the crowded, disease-infested workhouses. Some landlords actually paid for their tenants to emigrate to America and other English-speaking countries. Perhaps Donahue was one of them. He must have been a hardy individual, because more than one-third of the displaced citizens who sailed from Ireland's shores during this desperate time perished before reaching their destination, from disease, hunger and other causes. Young James was a survivor, landing in America in 1850.

Within the next four years, he fell in love and was married on Jan. 8, 1854, taking an Irish-born girl as his bride in Massachusetts.

The following year, the Donahues joined the ongoing westward migration, eventually putting down roots in Kelsey, in the heart of the Sierra foothills, about seven miles northwest of Placerville and five miles east of Coloma. They arrived in March 1855.

At the time, Kelsey was the busy commercial center of the area, boasting about a dozen stores, maybe two dozen saloons and gambling dens, a half dozen hotels and a number of other businesses. Stories of exciting gold finds in the area worked like a magnet, drawing miners from all over the Mother Lode. Donahue was one of them.

The bustling town had been destroyed by fire in 1853. Three years later, another fire that got its start in an old deserted shanty destroyed much of the town once again. The Donahues were residents at the time. It was New Years Day 1856.

The following June, James and his wife settled on a 40-acre spread near town and went to growing fruit. He continued some of his mining activities. Sometime before the final days of 1857, a daughter, Rose was born.

Over the next few years, two sons were born to the young couple, Charles E. in 1859 and James T. in 1860. By 1876, Donahue was no longer mining, concentrating instead on his farming activities. Both Donahue sons received a thorough business education in San Francisco, where the younger James would later settle, working as a bookkeeper until his death in 1943.

Before the 1880 census could be taken, Donahue lost his wife and Charles had struck out on his own, settling in the rich silver mining district of Nye County, Nevada, at Grantsville, which lies some 60 miles northwest of Tonopah in the Ione, or Shoshone, range of mountains at an elevation of 8,500 feet. He is listed in Grantsville's 1880 census count. Here Charles set up one of the town's 10 stores that dealt in general merchandise. The younger James and his sister Rose were still living with their father in 1880.

The elder James continued to expand his holdings, purchasing more than 80 additional acres in El Dorado County and some property in San Jose. On Jan. 18, 1893, 36 year-old Rose married 46 year-old Jeremiah "Jerry" Callan, an Irish miner from New Jersey who had purchased property near Kelsey in 1884.

James Callan, who grew up and attended the Kelsey school through the ninth grade became the executive vice president of GMAC in New York City. Was he the son of Rose and Jerry Callan? If so, he must have made his grandfather mighty proud, a man who came to this country to escape the poverty of life in Ireland.

Permission is granted by the author to use or republish this article, but proper attribution to the author -- Joanne Burkett -- is requested.

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