Sharing of the Green: Frank McNally on the Irish gardeners of 19th-century Washington

 The White House South Lawn. Photograph: iStock

The White House South Lawn. Photograph: iStock


Long before the custom of bringing shamrock to the White House every March, Irish visitors were greening Washington in a much more profound way: a way that, like themselves, put down roots. In fact, more than 160 years after he died, one of them is now the hero of a themed walking tour in that city, although he is entirely forgotten in his native country, if he was ever remembered at all.

John Ousley was born in Wexford circa 1795 and emigrated to New Jersey in his early 20s. But from 1825, for more than a quarter of a century, he was gardener at the White House, first under John Quincy Adams, who called Ousley his “nomenclator” for teaching him the botanical names of plants.

Thereafter, he served under eight more presidents: Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, and finally Pierce, who put the old gardener out to grass in 1852, after which little more is known about him. Today, however, he is the protagonist of a scripted walk – “What a President Tells his Gardener”, which dramatises his relationship with the various incumbents.

Then there was John Foy, one of two Roscommon men who also helped put a green stamp on Washington. Foy was foreman in the grounds of the Capitol for a time, then became superintendent of the city’s public parks in general.

One of his projects was to plant flora from every country in the world. In the meantime, he also helped plant his fellow county man, James Maher, who became public gardener in 1833, and one of whose friends – William Whelan – was head of the White House vegetable plot for a period.

Like many government employees then, Maher had a side-line business too. Soon after his arrival in Washington, he acquired the Globe Hotel, subsequently nicknamed the “Indian hotel” because it was known for hosting delegations from the Sioux and other tribes when they were invited to Washington for talks, or attempts to “civilise” them.

The sensation they caused there can be judged from an account of one such visit, in 1846, as reported by a “religious and literary” journal, The Friend: “The ‘rig’ of these red men is peculiarly savage. They are as nearly naked as is consistent with the idea that clothes are an essential convenience. They have long and black hair, generally plaited and tricked out with feathers and small bells[...] There are several coats of different sorts among them; but the interpreter, we believe, is the only man in the company who indulges in the superfluity of a shirt.”

According to a popular joke, Maher did not need the interpreter. It was said that he spoke to them in Irish, while the Indians replied in their own languages, and “they understood one another perfectly”. Whatever about that, Maher and his wife may have been ahead of their time in using the now politically correct term for their guests.

The Friend noted the hotel had been closed for a time, “but was opened to-day, as the good landlady (all the way from green Erin) says, for the exclusive accommodation of these ‘genuine native Americans’.”

It was thanks to the likes of Foy and Maher that by the mid-1800s, according to Washington historian Pamela Scott, the Capitol building was “floating on a sea of green”. Then Frederick Law Omsted, “father of American landscape architecture”, oversaw a whole new plan and much of the earlier work was undone.

Meanwhile, large numbers of Irish emigrants had also been engaged on another ornamental project not be so easily altered. A wave of post-Famine refugees coincided with the start of construction, in 1848, on the gargantuan Washington Monument, which in a few years ascended to 46 of its eventual 169 metres with a largely-Irish labour force, before a series of setbacks stopped the work.

One problem was lack of funds. Another was the “Know Nothing” Party, the Mexican wall builders of their day, who targeted the Irish in particular and Catholics in general. Outraged by the planned inclusion of an inscribed marble block from the pope, they attacked the monument in 1854, and later took control of construction for a time, with minimal effect.

The civil war delayed things further, so that by 1868, Mark Twain called the stump “an ungainly old chimney [that] ought to be either pulled down or [...] finished”. It was another decade before the latter option could be pursued.

The monument was capped in 1884, since when it has been the world’s tallest obelisk, although to this day, you can see the join between the earlier and later work, in different shades of grey.

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