A look back on the first Irish-born Yalie
On March 17, 1842 the New Haven Blues marching band led members of the New Haven Hibernian Society through the streets of New Haven in the city’s first public celebration of the canonization of the patron saint of Ireland.
It was, albeit on a much smaller scale, similar in many ways to today’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, with one very notable exception. The 1842 observance included a two-hour oration by a “son of the Emerald Isle” and Yale’s first Irish-born student, William E. Robinson, who had graduated from the university the year before.
Robinson’s address — which received cheers from the audience at its conclusion — was a comprehensive course in Irish history and politics, the current state of Catholicism, and a plea for the continued encouragement of immigration. Titled “Ireland, Past, Present, and Future,” Robinson’s speech also stressed his admiration for Catholics as patriotic Americans.
Surprisingly for an Irish patriot, Robinson was a Belfast-born Presbyterian who championed American Catholics, says Judith Schiff, chief research archivist at Yale and historian for the city of New Haven, who authored a column titled “Yale’s first student from Ireland” about Robinson for the Yale Alumni Magazine. Robinson’s manuscript diary is part of the holdings in the Sterling Memorial Library.
Schiff — who has penned 225 “Old Yale” columns for the Yale Alumni Magazine — says that Robinson’s journey to America and then to Yale, which he documented in detail in his diary, was one that was filled with peril, a little patience, and perseverance.
It was 1836 — before regular steamship service replaced the sail — when Robinson boarded the ship “Ganges” for his 52-day, storm-tossed journey from the river Mersey in Liverpool to New York — the boat powered only by wind. “A lack of the right wind was the worst thing that could happen,” says Schiff. “The boat would just bob in the water, waiting for another ship to float by sailing east.” In his diary, which is housed in the Sterling Memorial Library, Robinson describes being “home-sick and sea-sick,” and seeing a ship pass by so closely that the passengers spoke to each other. Robinson’s arrival to New York was further complicated by an outbreak of smallpox on board, forcing the passengers to be briefly quarantined on Staten Island, says Schiff.
Still, Robinson was able to make some fun for himself on board, notes Schiff, who says that he recounted in his diary making pancakes and dancing on the deck with a female passenger.
Back then, says Schiff, people were their own entertainment and since they often felt they had to entertain other people, they memorized poems, sang songs, or learned how to play an instrument. Robinson’s talent, says Schiff, was oration.
Robinson moved to New Haven less than a year after arriving in America. He matriculated to Yale in the fall of 1837 — with $9 to his name — and supported himself as a student by writing for the New Haven Daily Herald. While in college and for several years afterwards he contributed to the newspaper much of its content.
“I was delighted to see a small collection of William Robinson’s papers in Manuscripts and Archives at Sterling Memorial Library, that included his diary and correspondence documenting his experiences at Yale,” says Schiff, who adds that the archive itself may be small in size, but Robinson had a big impact on Yale and beyond.
What was it like on Yale’s campus during Robinson’s time here? Yale was the leading liberal arts college at that time and was considered to be the largest college in the United States by the start of the Civil War. “It was a time,” she says, “when people were questioning the practical value of a liberal arts education, but Yale College continued to believe in the proven disciplines that originated in the days of the Greeks and the Romans.” Also, says Schiff, students were required to attend chapel twice a day, morning and night.
During his time at Yale Robinson is credited with founding the Yale Banner, which became the Yale College yearbook, as well as a Yale chapter of the Psi Upsilon fraternity. As a junior, Robinson was actively engaged in political work, and gave over 100 speeches in Connecticut, New York, and other states campaigning in the election for General William H. Harrison for the presidency of the United States.
Robinson lived in New Haven for seven years and attended Yale Law School after graduation. In 1843 he toured the United States lecturing on Ireland. Robinson would go on to pursue journalistic work, serve three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives on the Democratic ticket, and was admitted to practice in the Supreme Court of the United States in 1864, among many other ventures.
After his death in 1892 at the age of 77, Robinson was hailed by a fellow journalist for how he had embraced the diversity of his chosen country — as a Protestant who spoke for Catholics and as a Union patriot who called for magnanimous treatment of the South. “He was an Irishman, and at the same time, and in its largest sense, he was an American,” noted the journalist, who also described Robinson as having “marked characteristics which were equally exhibited in journalism and in public life, and which everyone must have, who begins with nothing but pluck and ends with the deserved respect of the community.”
Schiff says what she most admires about Robinson from her time spent with the archive is “his energy and motivation.” Exploring his archives has only piqued her curiosity. “I would like to know much more about him because he was very outspoken. This story really puts town and gown together.”
When she began researching and writing her “Old Yale” columns many years ago, Schiff says the experience was akin to detective work. “It used to be that you would be so happy if you could glean a few facts from the upper reaches of ‘the stacks’ in the library,” says Schiff, a native of New Haven. “With the advent of digitized library sources and the internet, my research sources are now unlimited.
“I have just found wonderful things that have excited me,” she adds.