From Tyrone to New York – An Irishman’s Diary about Archbishop John Joseph Hughes

John Joseph Hughes: founded St John’s College (now Fordham University) and laid the cornerstone of St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York

John Joseph Hughes: founded St John’s College (now Fordham University) and laid the cornerstone of St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York


Born in Tyrone to a poor farming family on June 24th, 1797, John Joseph Hughes grew up to become the leading cleric of his day in the United States. The third son of seven children, Hughes began his life in the townland of Annaloughan near Augher.

A hedge school contemporary was the novelist William Carleton, whose later works depict their early shared childhood. Hughes’s family suffered religious persecution, and his late sister was denied a Catholic burial conducted by a priest.

All of this played on his youthful mind, and in 1817, a year after his father had left for a new life in America, he emigrated there at the age of 20, working as a gardener in Mount St Mary’s seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

In 1826 Hughes was ordained to the priesthood, serving as curate at St Augustine’s Church in Philadelphia, where he founded the Catholic Herald newspaper. Twelve years later he arrived in New York and was appointed administrator of the diocese before being consecrated bishop in the old cathedral of St Patrick’s in 1842. When New York was made an archdiocese in 1850, he became archbishop.

A pugnacious orator, Hughes was a crusader against bigotry and slavery. During the third decade of the 19th century, the Catholic immigrant population had increased by 60 per cent to 600,000. Many were impoverished and ill-educated, and Hughes was determined they should not be treated as second-class citizens.

He was, he said, an American by choice, not by chance.

Throughout his busy life he was involved in numerous projects. On his 44th birthday in 1841, he founded St John’s College (now Fordham University), the first Catholic institution of higher education in the northeastern US. Partly because of a lack of funds, he described it as a “daring and dangerous undertaking” but it thrived. Within a few years it became a Jesuit institution and in 2016 celebrated its dodransbicentennial (175th anniversary).

To this day, the founder’s illustrious memory lives on in Hughes Hall at Fordham’s business school, and in a Hughes statue at Rose Hill campus in the Bronx, where students can meet at Dagger John’s Pub. The pub’s name comes from a moniker applied to Hughes, who became known as “Dagger John”. This was derived from the fact that his episcopal signature was followed by the mark of a Christian cross in the appearance of a dagger; other theories suggest it was also because of his reputation for being short-tempered.

In between his work in America, Hughes found time to return to his native Ireland. He preached at St Macartan’s Church near his homeland of Augher in January 1846, six months before the building was dedicated. More than anything, he is best known for his work in founding St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. On August 15th, 1858, he laid the cornerstone of the new uptown cathedral on Fifth Avenue before a crowd of 100,000. In those days, this was still a rural part of Manhattan and due to its remote location, the building was dubbed the “Hughes folly” by the press.

Despite the put-downs that he experienced in his lifetime, his legacy lives on and he has been immortalized in a bronze bust and a blue plaque. In 2015, a bust of “Dagger John”, sculpted by Rowan Gillespie, was dedicated and blessed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.

It was produced as part of the Irish Giants series and stands on top of a four-metre column in Lower Manhattan near the old cathedral. Aside from his name and dates, it simply states: “Immigrant”.

Three thousand miles across the Atlantic, Hughes’s name is held in esteem. And in his native country, the Ulster History Circle, which erects blue plaques to men and women of achievement, has honoured him at St Macartan’s. Amongst the dignitaries at the event was the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, Eamon Martin, who unveiled the plaque outside the church set amidst the rolling Clogher Valley countryside looking across to the Monaghan drumlins.

Hughes died at 66 from Bright’s disease on January 3rd, 1864. His remains were initially interred in the old cathedral, but 19 years later they were transferred to their final resting place under the altar of the new cathedral on Fifth Avenue, which he never lived to see completed. His death brought many expressions of sympathy and a tribute from President Abraham Lincoln, for whom he had served as special envoy to Europe.

People from across south Ulster reflect with pride on his achievements and of how a rural boy from humble beginnings rose to such dizzy ecclesiastical heights. Not only was he instrumental in founding St Patrick’s Cathedral, he also became one of the most influential men of his time and won the respect of many.