Mike Pence’s Immigrant Saga Makes a Case for Compassion

Although Mike Pence claims that he “grew up on the front row of the American dream” thanks in part to his Irish immigrant grandfather, he’s not keen on migrant workers or chain migration. Other positions he holds on matters as wide-ranging as pregnancy prevention and government-provided safety nets were shared by many in the era of Richard Cawley, the grandfather he’s so fond of mentioning, and the consequences for his family were far from trivial.

Migrant Worker

When Richard was born on February 7, 1903¹ in Doocastle, County Mayo, Ireland, an uncle registered his birth. Why? Because Richard’s father was working in Scotland. Nor was this a unique occurrence. The same had happened a few years earlier with the birth of his brother, James.

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As with so many Irish families at the time, their father labored in Scotland to earn money to send back to Ireland, just as migrants from Asia, Latin America, and Africa now venture to the United States to work and help relatives back home by sending remittances.

In the case of Pence’s family, Richard’s father — also named Richard — back-and-forthed a number of times over the years. It’s evident that he returned to Ireland sporadically due to the five children he and his wife had between 1899 and 1908. That his wife and children remained in Doocastle is also easy to determine because 1901 and 1911 Irish census records capture the Cawley family — minus Richard Sr. — living there.

1901 and 1911 Irish census for Cawley family, The National Archives of Ireland

In those same years, the elder Richard can be found residing in Airdrie, Scotland, not far from Glasgow. He appears in 1901 as a boarder and in 1911 with his sister.

Richard Sr. in Scotland in 1901 and 1911, National Records of Scotland

Why Scotland?

If Richard Sr. was still in Scotland as of 1911, when and why had he first arrived? It’s hard to say exactly, but the paper trail shows that he was definitely there no later than 1896 — and that he wasn’t alone.

marriage of Mike Pence’s great-grandparents, National Records of Scotland

On February 5, 1896, Richard Cawley married Ellen Marren at St. Margaret’s Catholic Church in Airdrie. Ellen was from the same place in Ireland as Richard, so it seems odd that they would have traveled 275 miles to Scotland to wed — unless you dig deeper into the records and discover the birth of their first child, John Patrick Cawley, just four days later on February 9th.

birth of Mike Pence’s great-uncle, National Records of Scotland

This might seem mildly shocking as many of us today think of our ancestors as uptight, sepia-toned Victorians, but the truth is that they were a lot like us. Abstinence was as challenging then as it is now, but birth control options were extremely limited, so shotgun weddings and allegedly premature children were far from rare. Except in Ireland.

At least, that was the generally accepted version. It would be more accurate to say that predominantly Catholic Ireland liked to think of itself as the exception, but it wasn’t, and out-of-wedlock pregnancy ramifications were especially harsh for women and children:

“It was the greatest scandal…It threatened the respectability of the family. It impacted opportunities for siblings. It would result in the Catholic priest coming to knock on the door and instruct the family to send the girl out of the house and out of the village.”(James M. Smith, author of Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment, as quoted by Sarah Laskow in The Invisible Unmarried Mothers of Ireland)

This assessment pertains to the twentieth century when it could be argued that the situation had improved, if ever so slightly. According to journalist Michelle Hennessy’s article Nowhere to Turn, “Being a single mother in 1850 meant resigning yourself to a destitute life for you and your child.” Things were so dire that, “Between 1850 and 1900 in Ireland, there were more than 4,500 suspected cases of infanticide of a child under the age of three by their mother.”

Let that sink in. The shame was so great and the reality so bleak that women would sometimes kill their children. Moreover, 4,500 is believed to be a serious understatement as this figure reflects only those who were caught and investigated.

This is the backdrop against which Richard Cawley and Ellen Marren made their decision to quit Ireland for Scottish nuptials and the birth of their first child. Ellen was one of the lucky ones. The baby’s father did the honorable thing, but her return to County Mayo sometime between 1896 and 1899 suggests that she would have preferred to never have left in the first place. In all likelihood, the couple quietly decamped and remained in Scotland long enough to establish a plausible fiction regarding the early days of their marriage. Ellen then went home and Richard embarked upon his migrant lifestyle.

Shame and fear are powerful motivators. Religious and moral dictates of the time, sprinkled with some legalities, compelled Richard and Ellen to leave Ireland, just as a growing number of women today are being driven to leave their states to seek medical attention. Economic circumstances then turned what was presumably intended to be a short-lived, split-family situation into a more permanent state of affairs that would endure for 15 to 20 years, but this was not the only chapter of the Cawley’s migration story.

Chain Migration

The recent backlash against chain migration is perplexing to genealogists because we’re well aware that this is the norm for all immigration everywhere — mainly because most people like their families and naturally wish to be together and help each other.

Pence’s family is no exception. Even before addressing the journey to America, records reveal a web of Cawley family connections in pockets of Scotland and England, so if you have Cawley roots in Airdrie or Ashton-in-Makerfield, for instance, you’re probably related to Mike Pence.

Turning to the family’s Ellis Island saga, his grandfather and four of his siblings came to America (only the eldest remained in Ireland). They were so orderly that they immigrated in age sequence with James starting things off by going to an aunt in Illinois. He then helped Richard who helped Thomas who helped the sisters — one of tidiest set of chain migration links I’ve ever encountered.

Chain migration pattern of Mike Pence’s grandfather (Richard) and his siblings

The Cawleys were fortunate. Though the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 had restricted immigration, it favored northern and western European nationalities such as the Irish. Had they been Italian or Slavic, much less from anywhere other than Europe, the odds would have been stacked against them.

Pence’s grandfather, Richard, would later gently echo his own father’s round trip pattern from earlier years. Arriving at Ellis Island in 1923, he didn’t marry until 1930, but then swiftly had two daughters (1931 and 1932) before returning to Ireland for a month in 1933. In his case, the reverse trip was to visit the ailing mother he hadn’t seen for a decade.

1933 arrival record for Richard Michael Cawley (namesake of Michael Richard Pence), Ancestry.com

Dream Fuel

In March 1941, Richard took another step toward the American dream by becoming a U.S. citizen, just a year before fellow immigrant Mary Anne (MacLeod) Trump would be naturalized in March of 1942. His namesake father back in Ireland, however, was less fortunate.

Richard Sr., who had spent years ping-ponging between Scotland and Ireland in an effort to support his family, seemingly paid a price for his absence. His wife passed away and five of his six children had emigrated to America. Though his oldest son was still in Ireland, he either couldn’t or wasn’t able to take care of him, and at a time when state-provided safety nets were modest at best, Richard had few options. He died at Nazareth House in Sligo, a facility that functioned mainly as an orphanage for Catholic children, but also a place for the aged destitute.

Nazareth House, Sligo

As is so often the case, Pence’s Irish great-grandfather led a challenging, lonely, migratory life for the benefit of future generations, but he himself did not reap the rewards. The dreams of his descendants were powered by his sacrifices. A little compassion for the countless Richards crossing borders today would be a fitting way to honor his memory.

¹ Those wishing to view this birth record on IrishGenealogy.ie may do so here (last entry on the page). You will need to sign in, but the site is free.