James and Margaret Creely, great-great-grandparents of Elizabeth Creely, in San Francisco near the 1880s. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Creely.

The story of the Creelys involves persecution and the Gold Rush, horse-shoeing and veterinarians, love, loss, and some Irish nationalism.

James and Margaret Creely were among the many Irish immigrants that came to San Francisco shores in the late 1800s and converted the Mission to an Irish neighborhood through and through.

But the Creelys’ tale is not unique.

“There’s nothing remarkable about the Creelys,” said Elizabeth Creely, the great-great-grandaughter of James and Margaret and is a fourth-generation Californian who has lived in the Mission for 23 years. Instead, she said, the Creelys are just a case study of how people organize themselves in a new environment and plant roots in a community.

“This is a popular history of the working class.”

Irish Roots

James Henry Creely, great-great-grandfather to Elizabeth, was born in 1844 in Armagh, one of the six occupied counties in Northern Ireland. Like many Irish Catholics then, the Creelys were subject to English and Protestant intolerance. To avoid it, they fled across the Atlantic in the early 1850s. James was accompanied by his father Patrick and his sister Anna. His mother? “It’s anyone’s guess,” said Elizabeth.

The Creelys likely spent some time in New York, but left quickly because the Protestant majority made the city unwelcoming to Catholics. Not so in San Francisco – its long history of Spanish Catholicism made it friendlier to the Creelys and other Irish Catholics.

“The story of the Irish was that San Francisco was an open, porous community,” said Elizabeth, who explained that the West Coast city differed from New York, where the Irish first came to America. Immigrant communities in New York were primarily Protestants from Germany and Britain, “which had nativist idea about who belonged in America and who didn’t… in San Francisco, you simply didn’t run into that Protestant nativist hostility,” she said.

The Creelys disembarked at San Francisco’s bustling port in 1851 before making their way south to Stockton, pursuing the pipe dream that enchanted so many immigrant families: prospering in the Gold Rush, a back-breaking endeavor that ultimately proved  fruitless.

Patrick became disillusioned with gold fever and attempted a return to his Irish farming roots. In 1859, he bought two plots of land with his teenage son, which is also the first public record of James H. Creely in the United States. It turned out to be a parting gift from dad to son as some two months later, Patrick died.

James stayed in Stockton for some time and married Margaret McCarty in 1866. There, they had the first of 11 children when Margaret was 18 years old.  She had her last at the age of 41.

Moving to the Mission

In 1869, the family moved to San Francisco, where James is listed in the city directory as a “porter” living at 558 Stevenson Street, South of Market. Some three years later, he appears again as a co-owner of Connel & Creely, a horse-shoeing shop at 556 Mission Street. From then on he appears as both a porter and blacksmith/“farrier” or horse-shoer.

“He’s obviously holding down two jobs and trying to make ends meet,” said Elizabeth, which was a familiar story for the immigrant working class.

At some point in the 1880s, the Creelys appear in the Mission at 916 Florida Street, between 21st and 22nd Streets and just one block from where Elizabeth lives now.

“They’ve made enough money to get out of mid-Market,” said Elizabeth of that move. At what time the Mission functioned as the countryside of San Francisco, full of large dwellings that dotted an undeveloped rural space. The smell of the Bay and its mudflats were ubiquitous in this agricultural past; Mission Creek and an abundance of tidal inlets were distinguishing features of the landscape.

Here, James and his family lived out their lives in hard-earned comfort. “He had children that prospered – one famous attorney, two famous veterinarians,” his great-great-granddaughter said. “That’s what upward mobility looks like.”

A Veterinary Family

That sense of upward mobility seemed especially present in two of James’s sons: Edward and Thomas, both of whom became veterinarians. After apprenticing under James, Edward became a prominent veterinary surgeon, according to Elizabeth, later opening two of San Francisco’s first veterinary hospitals. One was located at 1818 Market Street, near where the LGBT Community Center and Transgender San Francisco are located today.

Edward’s younger brother, Thomas, followed in his brother’s footsteps. Graduating from San Francisco University with a Doctorate in Veterinary Science.  Thomas became one of the foremost veterinarians in California in the late nineteenth century. He was known for opening an animal hospital “considered one of the best appointed and successful in California” according to the History of San Francisco by S.J. Clarke Publishing. Thomas is also credited with bringing the National Horse Show to San Francisco in 1928 and 1929.

The Creelys Today

Margaret died first, in 1898 at the age of 50, likely weakened by many pregnancies. She had an obituary in The San Francisco Call and a mass at St. Peter’s Church. James died in 1915 at the age of 71.

In their time in California, the pair birthed 11 children, seven of whom made it past infancy to have families of their own, some becoming heavily involved in San Francisco life.

The generations of Creelys and their impact here is never far from Elizabeth’s mind.

“I knew that the Creelys were from the Mission, but I was not paying attention to that stuff at the time [I relocated here]. It’s a total accident that I moved to within a block of my great-grandparents,” said Creely, who lives near 22nd and Florida Streets. But she’s not surprised. “We tend to go to places we know.”

Elizabeth, for her part, continues to participate in the civic culture of San Francisco. This year, she will be contributing to a series of public talks aimed at unearthing much of San Francisco’s lost history. She will act as an “unofficial O’Shaughnessy historian,” speaking on the famed Irish engineer who developed the controversial Hetch Hetchy water system.

Elizabeth is also a frequent contributor and events organizer with the Crossroads Irish-American Festival, a yearly festival that celebrates “all things Irish” – writing, music, politics, film, among others. The festival is planning ahead to 2016, which marks the centennial anniversary of an important event in Irish history — the Easter Uprising of 1916, an unsuccessful attempt to throw off the yoke of British colonialism.

“We’re thinking about 2016 – what are we going to do how are we going to capture some of this history and fashion it into public exhibitions. I hope that we can land a lot of that activity in the Mission,” said Elizabeth.

And that historical consciousness translates into modern sympathies for Elizabeth. She sees a thematic connection between the seizure of Irish land by the British and the recent trend of evictions affecting the Mission.

“Displacement is a horrible, horrible fate,” she said, adding that the removal of people who have been here “for generations” is a travesty comparable to the difficulties faced by the Irish. Elizabeth added: “I feel connected to the city, connected to the Mission, and have a great deal of sympathy with the displacement that is uprooting people because of greed.”

In the weeks ahead, we’ll be recording more stories in Mission Local’s new series History Files.  Coming up: the stories of Gloria Ramos, the first Latina to graduate from UC Berkeley with a degree in architecture and a scholar of the history of Latinas in North Beach; Jim Salinas, the first executive president of the Carpenter’s Union, who actually was convinced that he was Irish; and Bob Dominguez, who lived in the Mission for 28 years, taught ESL classes at City College and traces the movement of Latinos from the churches in North Beach to SoMa and then 24th Street.

If you know of someone with a unique Mission history, let us know by sending an email to missionlocalATgmail.com

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  1. Hi there Elisabeth- I’ve come across several pieces written by you & I am intrigued since I too am a Creely. My own 3 daughters were born in San Francisco in the 1970s. Eventually we moved to the Cambridge/Boston area. I would like to be in touch. Dr. E.J. & Margaret Creely were my great grandparents.

  2. “six occupied counties in Northern Ireland” – I am not quite sure what you are referring to here – “back then” in the mid-1900s the whole of Ireland was under British rule. Then after 1922, the “South” (a misnomer as Donegal, the Northern-most county, is part of the Republic) became a British dominion (“free state”- until 1937), much like e.g. New Zealand or Canada. The Irish being very “clannish” would often settle in larger cities in the US where there already was a considerable Irish population rather than take the opportunities (often promoted by the government) to move into the farmlands and build their homesteads there (even though most were of farming stock); they’d rather languish in damp Boston cellars and be close to one another.

  3. You might not realize there is also a non-Catholic history in the Mission. My parents were married at the (Swede/Swede-Finn) Ebenezer Lutheran in 1941, then close by Mission Dolores (but recently covered by condos), and the Mission used to have many churches of Lutheran and other Protestant denominations. German Lutherans right across Dolores, and many others throughout the greater Mission.
    Now there are so many Latino storefront Protestant-Evangelical churches. And even the former St. John’s Lutheran on 22nd is a Chinese Buddhist temple, not a bad thing.

    1. Eric: yes. I walk by Hua Zang Si temple everyday and look at the inscription…I think it’s German/English….and St Matthews on 16th, which still has bilingual services.