Dominick O’Kane (1866–1944)

The Life of Dominick O’Kane – of Kittens and Biscuits

Timothy O’Kane, USA

In about 1877 an 11 year old Irish boy was just learning how to throw, catch and carry red-hot steel rivets at the Andrew Leslie & Co. “Little Aberdeen” shipyard in Hebburn, on the south shore of the Tyne River, just across from Newcastle in northeast England1. Joining ships’ hull plates using these candescent rivets, crews of laborers worked, often in family-teams, building the new-fangled steel steamships.

At the end of each dangerous and exhausting day the boy, Dominick “Dom” Kane, walked home with his dad, Bernard “Barney,” and older brother, Neil, who both also probably worked at Leslie, to the family’s shabby tenement row house at 30 Station Street in Jarrow, a couple miles southeast. The family there also included Dom’s mother, Mary (nee: McKay), and his sisters Susannah and Hannah. 2

The high-tech centers of their age, the shipyards fueled the conversion of England’s merchant fleets from the wooden sailing vessels of earlier centuries to much larger steam-powered steel-hulled ships. While more educated and skilled Scottish and English shipwrights were the heart of the new shipyards, there were hundreds of jobs for unskilled laborers who provided the muscle. Many of these were filled by impoverished Irish farmers, still sorely hurting from the aftermath of the Great Potato Famine, and the desperately depressed Irish economy. 3 4

Following this tide of manpower, Barney turned his small tenant farm lease in the small townland of Gorteade over to his uncle, John Kane. Families of Kanes and O’Kanes had born and raised their children, and worked small farms in this Mercer Co. townland for decades, at least back to Barney’s grandfather and father, Neil, well into the previous century. Between 1861 and 1863 this small part of the Kane/O’Kane family emigrated from County Derry across the Irish Sea to England. 5 6

Pipewellgate tenements
Pipewellgate tenements

First settling in Gateshead, the impoverished, crowded and unsanitary blue-collar tenement quarter of adjoining Newcastle, Barney, then in his mid-40s, and his oldest son, Neil, in his early 20s, found employment as laborers in heavy manufacturing companies along the Tyne. The family had seemingly left behind three of their toddlers and youngsters (James, Anne, and Mary Jane, baptized in 1857, ’59, and ’61 in the Maghera Roman Catholic parish) in Ireland, probably with family in Gorteade.7

It wasn’t long after their arrival in England, however, before Mary gave birth to Susannah in April 1864. The family was then living in a tenement in South Shore, just east of Gateshead, a heavily industrialized and gritty area of ship and lumber yards, soap and chemical plants, coke ovens, warehouses, and coal wharfs that belied the somewhat idyllic images its name might conjure. Barney was working as a chemical laborer.8

Two years later, when the family was living at Tyne Main, the site of one of the area’s largest coal mines, about a half-mile east of Gateshead High Street, and a half-mile south of the river, Dominick was born. Shortly afterwards the family moved again, just a quarter mile or so northwest, to 7 Backfield Cottages, and while preparing for Dom’s second birthday the family was blessed again, this time with twin girls, Hannah and Sarah. The Kanes likely had a lively family party a few days later, jointly celebrating Dom’s birthday and the girls’ baptisms at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church on West Street. 9 10

Only three years later, based on the 1871 Census, one of the twin girls Sarah had seemingly died. By the end of that decade Dominick was officially in the apprentice program at the Leslie shipyard.11

In 1882 Dominick decided to seek his fortune in America. Using money he’d saved working in the Tyne River shipyards, he booked passage, apparently alone, to the New World. He was only sixteen years old when his ship rounded Cape May into Delaware Bay, and began the 110-mile transit up the Delaware River to Philadelphia. No record has been found of the name of the ship on which Dom travelled across the Atlantic, nor the port from which he embarked.12 However, contemporaneous maritime newspaper reports for mid-July 1882 suggest the most likely vessels were one of three American Line combination passenger-cargo steamships which made the 10-12 day crossing from Liverpool, via Queenstown, Ireland.13

A less likely, but certainly more romantic, possibility was that Dominick obtained a working passage aboard an aging sailing cargo ship. He was a large, strapping youth with 5-6 years of shipyard work experience, and perhaps some maritime contacts from his Tyneside years. It may be that he wangled a crew berth as a basic seaman, a ship’s carpenter’s helper, engine room oiler or deckhand.

19th century Bark sailing ship
19th century Bark sailing ship

In mid-May the Francisco R, an Italian sailing bark, similar to that at the right, departed from Newcastle-on-Tyne, and arrived in Philadelphia on 20 July, 70 days later. Alternatively, the Norwegian bark Hamborgsund crossed from London to Philadelphia in 56 days, and had arrived in the port three days prior. Both ships were carrying general merchandise and no passengers. Either was a possibility. Unfortunately, no crew lists are known to exist.

By 1884 and then just 18, Dominick was working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York City. There he joined the International Brotherhood of Boiler Makers (IBBM), the trade union that was to become a central feature of his life. Uncommonly mobile for the age, and his, he moved later that year to the San Francisco Bay area, where he worked at the Mare Island Navy Yard. He helped organize and became President of the “Patrero” IBBM local. This would have only been two years after the completion of the second link of the intercontinental railway.14

Three years later he had relocated back to Philadelphia, and took work at the Navy Yard there. By now he was married to Hannah Crilly, also an Irish immigrant, nearly 10 years his senior. They had a son, who died soon after birth. The marriage too was brief; Hannah passed in that summer of blood poisoning.15

In December 1888 Dominick, embracing his Hibernian roots, chose to use the surname O’Kane when he married again, to yet another Irish girl. His new wife was Mary Ann McKenna, 23, who worked “in service.” 16 Dominick was working as a steel worker. Just over two years later they had a son. Following the Irish naming tradition, they named their first son after Dom’s father, Bernard. Unfortunately, while he was still a toddler, Mary Ann died, in 1893.

In the fall of 1896 Dominick remarried once again, to Elizabeth “Lizzie” Agnes (nee: Connelly) Manion. Lizzie was a household servant and a 30-year old widow, with two boys by her previous marriage, Martin and Daniel. Also 30, Dom was working in a local shipyard, probably the Navy Yard.17

Gus Ruhlin
Heavy-weight prize fighter Gus Ruhlin,
against whom Dominick fought in 1896 in Cleveland,

With a reputation for working hard and playing hard, and coming from socio-economic backgrounds which taught their members early how to use their fists, the Boiler Makers union produced a number of well-known bare-knuckle boxers during the century’s last decades, when it was a leading sport.18 Large and strong, Dominick too climbed into the ring, mostly in local amateur and club fights. However, in 1896 he fought in a prize-fight in Cleveland, Ohio, against a well-regarded heavy-weight, Gus Ruhlin, “The Akron Giant.” Dominick lost the fight but received good reviews in the sporting press.19 20

During his fights in Philadelphia and around the country, Dominick had gained something of a following among local fans and reporters, proudly lauding his own Irish heritage. One tenacious burrowing newsman, however, caught a whiff of a story and dug into Dom’s history. After one of Dom’s pugilist bouts, the newshound confronted him, asking if it wasn’t true that Dom wasn’t Irish at all, but had in fact been born in England. Unfazed and unhesitating — and demonstrating a very Irish grasp of the blarney — Dominick glibly responded, “Just ‘cuz a cat has kittens in the oven, doesn’t make ’em biscuits!” 21

The family returned to San Francisco by 1898, where Dominick continued his labor organizing and leadership, while working as a ship riveter. During these years two sons joined the family, James in 1898 and Frank the next year.

Dominick O'Kane in 1904
Dominick O’Kane in 1904

In 1900 Dominick was elected as the Grand Vice President of the Boilermakers International, an office in which he served for four years.22

By 1902 the Kane family was again on the West Coast, just across Puget Sound from Seattle in Port Orchard, a tiny lumber and mining town on the fjord. Dom was back at a Navy Yard, this time as a machinist, at the nascent Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in the newly-platted town of Bremerton. He commuted daily on the small boats that crisscrossed the inlet in such numbers they were known as the “mosquito fleet.” Still organizing for IBBM he founded and led a new union local at PSNS. That year a daughter, Mary, joined the family.23

The following year Dom tried local politics, running for a Bremerton city council seat under the Independent banner.24 Their slate lost to the Citizen party on 8 December 1903. Afterwards apparently rethinking his political affiliations, a few months later Dom pledged fealty to the county’s Republican Party.25

That year the family moved across the Sound to the fast-growing city of Seattle. In October another son was born into the family, Bill (the author’s dad), at Seattle General Hospital. However, Dom continued to commute to the shipyard in Bremerton on the mosquito fleet.26

That year was a turbulent one for the Boilermakers Union. Their long-time President was internally charged with malfeasance in office and expelled from the Brotherhood. Dominick ran for the office, but was defeated. Two years later Dom and others split off from the IBBM, and formed a rival national brotherhood, the United Boiler Makers and Iron Ship Builders of North America. After two years, with encouragement and exhortation of Samuel Gompers of the umbrella American Federation of Labor (AF of L), the two organizations amalgamated into the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, and Helpers of America. Dom was elected as a Trustee, and the International Deputy Organizer, roles he fulfilled for many years. 27 28

Just two years after the Great Earthquake and Fire, the family was again living in San Francisco. But in late 1908 tragedy again struck. Lizzie died of heart failure, while carrying their toddler son Bill. Now as a single father, Dom simply couldn’t work and care for his young family. Dom and the older boys remained in the Bay area, but he left the younger children with his mother, Mary, living in Cleveland with Dom’s sister, Hannah.29

Chinatown
Chinatown, San Francisco, early 20th century.

Only four years later another major tragedy struck the family in a confrontation that could have been taken from current newspapers. Jimmy, then 14, was with a group of boys on the edge of the city’s famous Chinatown district, when one of his associates shot a BB gun at a group of Asian boys across the street. A turf fight ensued, and one of the Chinese brandished a real handgun. Jimmy’s group scattered and the Asian boys pursued. A shot was fired from behind, and Jimmy was hit in the head. He died on the spot in a school yard.

The incident was widely reported, earning lengthy stories, photographs and illustrations on the front pages of all the San Francisco daily newspapers. A young Chinese was quickly arrested and charged with murder. When the case came to court three months later, the atmosphere in the courtroom was very tense for this high-profile racial gang trial. White and Asian spectators filled the galleries, many with ominous bulges under their jackets. For security, the court bailiffs added additional plain-clothes officers, dispersed throughout the crowd. One bailiff sat directly behind the upset and outspoken Dominick. The case’s main forensic obstacle was that the caliber of the death bullet, and the gun of the defendant did not match.30

When the foreman reported to the Judge that the jury could not reach a verdict, Dominick was enraged. He shouted that if they couldn’t reach a verdict, he certainly could. He stood, pulled a .44 caliber revolver from under his jacket and took aim at the Chinese defendant. The bailiff behind him grabbed Dom’s gun-arm just as he pulled the trigger. The gun discharged, but no one was hit. Several of the spectators reached under their coats; a gun battle seemed imminent. But the bailiffs quickly regained control of the courtroom, taking Dom into custody. The Judge declared a mistrial, and ordered the defendant be deported. Apparently taking pity on the distraught father, he confiscated Dominick’s handgun but declined to file charges (certainly an unlikely result today).31

A few months later, perhaps hoping to affect change in the legal process that had yielded what he must have viewed as a terrible miscarriage of justice, Dom ran for the California State Assembly for the 22nd District. However, again he lost.32

In 1913 his Irish-born father, Bernard, died at the home of his daughter Hannah in Cleveland. At the behest of AF of L’s Samuel Gompers, Dominick returned to the East and labor organizing, establishing several IBBM locals in the East and Midwest.33 While in Ohio Dom met and married his fourth wife of Irish descent, Delia Durkin. Bill, now nine, and the other siblings rejoined the new nuclear family.34

By 1919 the family had returned to Seattle, where Dominick was working as a foreman for the Skinner and Eddy Shipyard (S&E), building ships for the WWI war effort.35 After the war, shipyard workers sought to have their government-frozen wages raised to meet raising costs of living, but were strongly opposed by management. The shipyard unions called for a strike, and appealed for support through the Central Labor Council from all regional labor unions. On 6 February this resulted in the world’s first “general strike.” In a city of 315,000 people, over 60,000 workers were on strike. Envisioning the specter of international socialism and anarchy, the city armed and trained police and vigilantes to confront the strikers. The unions wavered when the mayor threatened martial law. Five days later the strike was over, but it became a major labor tactic, soon emulated by unions across the country.36

When S&E closed in 1922 as business steeply declined after the War, the family moved to Southern California. In Long Beach, Dom became a utility Inspector for the City. He remained active in labor issues, serving for years as Chairman and member of the Board of Publishers for the regional weekly trade unionist newspaper, “Labor News.” He earned his “Gold Card” from IBBM in 1934, for 50 years membership and service. Four years later he retired. When he passed away in 1944, he earned an obituary that covered a quarter of the front page of the “Labor News. 37

Labor News Masthead
Labor News Masthead

Endnotes

1    Dominick Joseph Kane obituary, Labor News, Long Beach, California, 21 April 1944, Pg. 1 Col. 1.

2    Barnard Kane family, 1881 UK Census, Durham County, Hedworth-Monkton, p. 14960, Tyne & Wear Archives Service, Microfiche reference: RG 11/5027.

3    Knowles, Mick. “Shipbuilding.” On-line article on Robert Stephenson & Co. website. Accessed 7 July 2001; 22 March 2005, p. 4.

4    Pottinger, James A. “Andrew Leslie – a Shipbuilder from Shetland.” 2000. On-line article on Shetland Life website. Accessed: 7 July 2001, p.1.

5    Neily Kane family, 1831 Census of Ireland, Co. Derry, Maghera Parish, From Family Treemaker CD197.

6    Griffiths, R., Commissioner, Valuation of Tenements, Parish of Maghera, Gorteade Townland, 1859; ValuationOffice, Government of Ireland, p.114; and 1881 Revision.

7    (Anonymous). Baptism Registry Book, unpaginated, Maghera, Co. Derry, Ireland: St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Parish, 1852, 1857, 1859, 1860.

8    Cain, Susannah. Certified copy of Birth Entry, UK, Durham Co., Gateshead, 28 April 1864, No. CK759967, issued 22 May 1998.

9    Cain, Dominick. Certified copy of Birth Entry, UK, Durham Co., Gateshead, 24 May 1866, No. CK759843, issued 29 April 1998.

10    Kane, Hannah. Index to Baptismal Register, UK, Durham Co., Gateshead, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. On-line.

11    Ibid. Dominick Kane obituary.

12    O’Kane, Dominick. Naturalization Declaration. Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, 10 September 1888.

13    (Anonymous). Public Ledger newspaper, “Port of Philadelphia” Ship Arrivals, 14-20 July 1882, into 1883.

14    Wands, Thomas L., Jr., Archivist, International Brotherhood of Boiler Makers (IBBM). Records of IBBM, computer list of locals organized by Dominic Kane, along with letter to Sean Kane, 18 September 1997.

15    O’Kane, Hannah. Death Notice, Public Ledger newspaper, Philadelphia, 22 June 1887, p. 2.

16    McKenna, Mary Ann and O’Kane, Dominick. Application for Marriage License, Orphan’s Court, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, 30 November 1888.

17    Manion, Lizzie, and Kane, Dominick, Application for Marriage License, Orphan’s Court, Philadelphia County,Pennsylvania, 29 September 1896.

18     (Anonymous). “Boilermaker Boxers,” on-line article at website of IBBM. Accessed 15 May 2005.

19    (Anonymous). Article in the Plain Dealer newspaper, Cleveland, Ohio, 11 Feb 1896, p. 5, col. 1.

20    (Anonymous). On-line record. BoxRec.com, ID 520226 and 10813, accessed 20 October 2013.

21    Kane, William. Oral History of his father, Dominick Kane, circa 1960, Long Beach, California; and several other family members over the years.

22    Wands. Letter, ibid.

23    Caine, (female). Birth Register. Port Orchard, Kitsap County, Washington, 20 November 1902.

24    (Anonymous). “Tuesday’s Elections,” Bremerton News newspaper, 12 December 1903, p. 4.

25    (Anonymous). The Republican Mass Meeting,” Bremerton News newspaper, 26 March 1904, p. 4.

26    Kane, William Arthur. Certified Copy of Birth Certificate, Seattle, King County, Washington, Dept. of Health, 21 October 1904, Reg. No. 11438-04, copy issued 9 October 1968.

27    Wands, Letter, ibid.

28    Caswell, Donald. “History of the Boilermakers, Part One, 1834-1917,” on-line article IBBM website, pp. 22-28, Kansas City, KS, accessed 7 March 2005.

29    Kane, Elizabeth Agnes. Death Certificate, San Francisco, California, 3 November 1908, Reg. No. 5538.

30    (Anonymous). “Fight of Years Claims Victim,” The Call newspaper, San Francisco, California, p. 1, 2 February1912. Also, (Anon). “Race Feud Ends in a Murder – White Boy Fired First Shot,” San Francisco Chronicle, California, p. 1, 2 February 1912.

31    (Anonymous). “Draws Pistol on Chinese in Court,” San Francisco Examiner, California, p. 1, 3 May 1912. Also, (Anonymous), “Father Nearly Slays Chinese in Courtroom,” The Call, San Francisco, Ca., p. 1, 3 May 1912.

32    Johnson, Linda, Archivist, California State Archives, E-mail from, to author. 21 December 2000.

33    Wands, Letter, ibid.

34    Durkin, Delia, and Kane, Dominic. Application for Marriage License, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, 25 November 1913, No. 90518, Register vol 80, p. 380.

35    Kane, Dominic (Delia), 1919 Polk Seattle City Directory, p. 1030.

36    (Anonymous), “25,500 Workers Quit Shipyards,” The Seattle Star newspaper, p. 1, 21 January 1919. Also, (Anonymous), “Plan General Strike to Aid Shipyard Men,” ibid, p. 1, 23 January 1919.

37    Wands, Letter, ibid.

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