In 1833 three hundred people emigrated from County Wexford to the Mission River valley in southern Texas.
Having spent twenty years in Texas, one James Power returned to his home place of Ballygarret in 1833 to encourage members of the community there to emigrate for the chance of a better life in America. Many of the descendants of those who left Wexford still ranch cattle in Texas today.
At that time Texas was under Mexican jurisdiction, and James Power brought with him permissions from the Mexican government for Roman Catholic families to settle near the old mission of Our Lady of Refuge in south Texas. Mexico wanted Catholics to colonise Texas to prevent the mainly Protestant United States from annexing it.
Those who left were small farmers and farm labourers. Money was scarce and the political situation was tense. Many of those who emigrated had lost fathers and uncles in the 1798 Rebellion. In June 1831 eighteen people were shot by the yeomanry in Bunclody when they objected to the seizure of their cattle for non-payment of tithes.
Thomas O'Connor from Ballygarret, whose relatives still farm the land there, was a nephew of James Power. Fifteen years old when he arrived in Texas, his great-granddaughter Marie O’Connor Sorensen describes his drive to succeed,
Hard times in the old country made him anxious to be successful. They worked very hard.
Three hundred people signed up to go back to Texas with Power, anticipating a life where land was plentiful. The voyage by sea to the port of New Orleans was long and hazardous. Many died from cholera, and the remainder survived shipwrecks in the Gulf of Mexico. Less than half who had set out arrived alive at the old Spanish mission of Our Lady of Refuge in the Mission River Valley.
Each family received 4,500 acres of land in 1834, in addition to a plot in the town of Refugio, which was being surveyed and laid out.
The Fagans are one of a number of families descended from the original settlers who still ranch the land granted to their forebears. They take care in preserving their family’s history.
The residence of their ancestor Peter Henry Fagan is now a designated historical site in Refugio County. The imposing house also contained a chapel for the local Catholic community and a room for visiting priests. The chapel was complete with a bell, and according to family historian Lucie Fagan Snider,
They would ring it and everybody on the river that could hear it came to services when they had a priest.
Priests were few and far between in this isolated colony, and people attended Mass when they could, something not appreciated by the families back in Ireland. Martin O’Connor tells 'Radharc’ about a letter his great grandmother received from her son, who wrote
The nearest village is 100 miles away…if you get Mass in twelve or thirteen years you count yourself lucky.
The Irish who settled in this part of Texas were fortunate, as the land in the Mission River Valley is fertile and suited for raising cattle. Ranchers lived off the land, growing their own food.
One of their main difficulties however was sourcing clean drinking water, and there was a high death rate among the early settlers due to this. Death and disease were a constant presence in their lives, explains Lawrence Wood,
Either people lived very long lives, or very short indeed. It was actually a system of survival.
‘Radharc: Stories from Irish America, Irish Texans’ was broadcast on 18 June 1995. The narrator is Fintan Drury.