Their Irish eyes were smiling

Beth KinnaneDowntown, Our Town Stories

Like many who grew up in Knoxville, my roots in East Tennessee run long, back to when this part of the state was North Carolina before the failed attempt at a State of Franklin. I can count John Cate Sr. of Dumplin Valley in Jefferson County and Jesse Hoskins of Washington then Anderson County among my ancestors. From those two alone, the number of unknown distant cousins I have are legion.

But the first of my ancestors to arrive in Knox County were not the children and grandchildren of those early settlers. They were immigrants, every last one of them from Ireland. Though I am a classic Appalachian mutt of varied European extraction, I have always clung hard to my Irish heritage, probably because it’s the source of the name I carry that no one can pronounce.

The author’s great great grandparents, Elizabeth G. Fagan and William G. O’Brien Kinnane.

My great great grandfather, William George O’Brien Kinnane, didn’t make his way to Tennessee until after the Civil War. He served with the 51st New York Infantry Regiment (the Shepard Rifles) during the war and was wounded at the Battle of Cold Harbor. By trade, he was a blacksmith. He and two brothers made their way to New York from Ireland in 1864. I imagine his life in the Big Apple before the Union Army (I doubt he signed up voluntarily) was much like the movie “Gangs of New York.”

Here is where he met his bride, Elizabeth Georgiana Fagan. Born in 1848 in County Wexford, Ireland, she was the daughter of George William and Mary Byrne Fagan and came to America with her family sometime between 1850 and 1860. George was a marble cutter and dealer, listed on Gay Street in the 1860 edition of John L. Mitchell’s State Gazetteer and Business Directory as Geo William Fagan & Bros.

Patrick Brennan, Kate Sullivan Brennan, Mary Margaret Brennan Kinnane, Nell Brennan and John Brennan at their home, 617 Union Avenue in 1909. This site currently houses the downtown fire station. Standing in the back is A.J. Kinnane, the author’s great grandfather. John Brennan is the grandfather of local musician Nancy Brennan Strange.

Other records indicate the marble shop was somewhere in the vicinity of the lower end of the State Street garage, when Central was called Water Street and First Creek wasn’t underground. Family lore tells that the Fagans donated marble to the Washington Monument, but proof of that has yet to be found. Proximity indicates a likelihood they cut some stones for First Presbyterian on State Street, but they for sure cut some for Lebanon in the Fork in East Knox County. Their services weren’t reserved for Catholics only, though some of their work is evident at Calvary Cemetery in East Knoxville, including the impressive obelisk marking the grave of Mary Fagan.

The other names of my Irish ancestors in Knoxville are Brennan and Sullivan. While I do have a Patrick Sullivan in the family tree, he was not THE Patrick Sullivan of Old City Saloon fame, though rumor has it he was known to belly up to the bar there. Beyond blacksmithing and stone cutting, my Irish ancestors here worked for the railroads, though there was a seamstress or haberdasher sprinkled in here and there.

George Fagan’s son Ambrose was also in the marble business.

If you want to research Irish ancestors that lived here, the first place to check (beyond what you can find online) is the Church of the Immaculate Conception downtown. And also plan a trip to Calvary Cemetery.

And get ready for the wearing o’ the green. After a two-year hiatus, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade is back on the schedule for March 12.

Erin go bragh!

Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for

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