Capt. Nathaniel Irish

Capt. Nathaniel Irish
Courtesy of Oliver Lorenz Picher, Member, Pennsylvania Society of the Cincinnati

Irish was born in Saucon Township, then in Bucks but now Northampton County, on 8 May 1737, the son of Nathaniel Irish, Sr., a native of the Island of Montserrat in the British West Indies. The father came to the Mainland about 1730 and died as the manager of Union Furnace, Hunterdon County, New Jersey, in 1748, leaving his son well-provided for. While still quite young Nathaniel, Jr. also engaged in iron manufacturing and was reportedly thus employed when the Furnace was destroyed by British raiders.

Irish now turned to the Continental Army, and was commissioned as Captain of a company of Artillery Artificers on 7 February 1777. He thus became connected with a branch of Continental service that was the cause of considerable trouble to him at a later time. He recounted his service thus,

…having been Commission’d & serv’d two Terms of Duty in the Philadelphia Militia in 1776 & 1777 as Lieut. of Capt Moulders Company of Artillery, was in the Cannonade of Amboy & Actions of Trenton & Princeton, & at the Expiration of each Tour was offer’d a Capt of Artillery’s Commission in the Continental Service, the first by Genl [Hugh] Mercer who commanded at Amboy, the second by Colo Benjamin Flower, who informed your Memoralist that His Excellency Gen. Washington had Commission’d him, & Order’d him to raise four Companies of Artillery & a [Company] of Artificers, the non-Commission’d Officers & Privates of which was not only to act & do Duty as other Artillery, but were also to work for the Army occasionally, for which they were to receive Extra Pay, The Commissiond Officers the same Pay, & every other Benefit allowd to other Officers of Artillery in the Army of the United States – On these Conditions your Memoralist accepted the Appointment, and was Commission’d Capt of Artillery & Commander of a company of Artificers Feby 7th 1777, rais’d his Company, & was Ordered to Carlisle shortly after his Appointment, [where] he Continued doing his Duty as a good Officer, ’till the Honble the Board of War sent for him to go to [Virginia] in which Command he went agreeable to their Orders, & has continued in that duty to this Present Year [1785], having performed it to the best of his Understanding, with Assiduity, Care & Fidelity –

Captain Irish thus became associated with a regiment whose chief duties were somewhat like those of a depot ordnance unit. However, as he stated somewhat obliquely, in 1780 he was ordered to other duty in the Southern Department as Commissary of Military Stores in Virginia, a post he held until 1785.

When Irish returned to Pennsylvania he found confusion about his commutation pay, and it was in this regard that he sent the above Memorial to Congress. The Artificers were rather a special breed, and neither the Commonwealth nor Congress was quick to claim responsibility for them. Irish’s case was further complicated because he left the Artificers just before the adoption of the Resolution of 21 October 1780 establishing half-pay for life for supernumerary officers, as he apparently was considered when he was transferred. Irish made the point that the Board of War had assured him at the time that the transfer would not prejudice his rights, but by 1788 the matter still was not settled and Irish joined with others of his old regiment, John Jordan and Thomas Wylie [Original Members of the Society], in a further petition, again asserting that they were artillery officers and should be treated no differently than other artillery officers whose status was unquestioned. The matter was never settled in Irish’s lifetime, but in 1838 a Congressional Committee on Revolutionary Claims awarded any emoluments due him to be paid to Irish’s heirs.

When the Society of the Cincinnati of Pennsylvania was formed in November 1783 Irish signed their “Parchment Roll” as “Capt of Penn. Artillery Artificers entered the service Feby 7, 1777 and still in Service”. Although he signed the “Pay Order of 1784”, his name appears on the “List of Officers that Signed, but did not pay,” in the Report of a Sub-Committee, dated 20 June 1789, perhaps an error.

He soon removed to western Pennsylvania, where he settled on Plum Creek in Westmoreland [now Allegheny] County. In the census of 1790 Irish appears as a resident of Pitt Township [Pittsburgh], with one other male over sixteen years of age, one male under sixteen, and one female. When Pittsburgh was incorporated in 1794 he was one of four assistant burgesses. He was associated with other Cincinnati members in various municipal enterprises such as a 1798 lottery “for erecting piers to descend the banks of the Allegheny and Monongahela” when he was a manager along with Presley Neville and Isaac Craig (q.v.). The next year he and Ebenezer Denny [an Original Member of the Society] were two of the Commissioners of Allegheny County. In addition, Irish was appointed Inspector of Flour for the western country.

But a change was about to occur. It is impossible here to go into the chaotic nature of Pennsylvania politics in the period following Washington’s last term of office. Prior to that time Irish seems to have been, like most of his fellow-officers, a lively Federalist: from “1794 to 1800 the borough offices, the federal post office, and the office of the deputy quartermaster-general had been in the hands of the Federalists. Their control was the result of the fact that approximately two-thirds of some sixty merchants in Pittsburgh belonged to the party of Hamilton. John Wilkins, James O’Hara, Isaac Craig, and John Scull were the more prominent of the business leaders in the town. They were ably supported by John and Presley Neville…and others who were assiduous in the politics of the town”.

For whatever reason, but perhaps influenced by the general tenor of politics in western Pennsylvania, Irish now joined the opposition. He became closely associated with Adamson Tannehill, an original member of the Society of the Cincinnati of Maryland, and other “Republicans” [Anti-Federalists]. One visible evidence of Irish’s change of position was his signing a petition against Judge Alexander Addison’s influence on the Bench. Addison had been characterised by Governor McKean as the “transmontane Goliath of Federalism”, but he fell a victim to Jeffersonian warfare against the Federalist judges and in 1803 was removed from office. But the Republicans of western Pennsylvania could not agree amongst themselves, reflecting conditions prevailing elsewhere in the Commonwealth also. In 1805 there were at least three varieties of “Republicans” in the western counties, each of which prepared a ticket for that year’s election. Nathaniel Irish was presented a candidate for Congress, but when he proposed to support the re-election of Governor Thomas McKean he alienated a segment of his party large enough to assure his own defeat.

Irish was perhaps happier in his spiritual relationships, and was one of the Vestrymen at the incorporation in 1805 of Trinity Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, now Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, and signed the call to first rector, the Rev. John Taylor, second husband of Susannah (Woodruff) Huston, the widow of Lieutenant William Huston [an Original Member of the Society]. Irish is said to have lived “quite retired” in his later years. He had married in 1758 Elizabeth, daughter of John Thomas, ironmaster of Philadelphia County, and she died 11 July 1789 having borne nine children. She was buried in the old Irish neighborhood on Plum Creek. Captain Irish married for a second time Mary Irwin, but there was no issue of this marriage. The captain’s will was dated 7 November 1815 and probated in Allegheny County on 24 September 1816. His heirs were his wife Mary and children William B., Ann McCully, and Mary Smith, apparently the only survivors of his large family. Nathaniel Irish died 11 September 1816, and he and his second wife are buried in Trinity Cathedral Burial Ground, Pittsburgh.