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As the world celebrates Saint Patrick’s Day—from Brazil to Baltimore, from Trafalgar Square to Boston Common—the day that originally was a Catholic Feast Day, but has now come to include the celebrations around the globe of all things Irish by the Irish Diaspora (and millions of “Irish-For-A-Day” folks!), we thought it a perfect time to celebrate Edgar Poe’s Irish heritage.
THE POE FAMILY COMES FROM IRELAND
It begins, as far back as can be reliably traced, to Edgar’s great-great-grandfather David Poe in the town of Dring, County Cavan, Ireland, about 75 miles north of Dublin. (There are going to be a few “Davids” in our brief re-cap, so get your score cards ready!)
There is no record of David Poe’s birth, only of his death in 1742. He was a farmer and overseer of Parrish roads in Kidallan in County Cavan. It is possible (but there is no definite proof) that he was descended from the Dr. Leonard Poe who was the official physician for King James I and later for King Charles I.
David Poe, who married a woman named Sarah, gave birth to a son called John (date unknown). John Poe (Edgar’s great-grandfather) married Jane McBride and immigrated to America sometime around 1749 or 1750. They lived briefly in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and then moved and settled in Baltimore, Maryland. David and Jane had 10 children. Their son David (Edgar’s grandfather—still with me?) was born in either 1742 or 1743 before they came to America.
EDGAR POE’S GRANDFATHER, “GENERAL” POE
“General” David Poe, Edgar A. Poe’s grandfather, born in County Cavan, Ireland sometime in 1742 or ‘43, came to the American colonies settling in Baltimore, where he became a respected and influential citizen. His business was making spinning wheels and clock reels, on Market Street in Baltimore from 1775 on. With the coming of the American War of Independence, David Poe was a member of Captain John McClellan’s Company of Baltimore troops in 1778 and 1779, and was commissioned Assistant Deputy-Quartermaster General for the City of Baltimore with the rank of Major on September 17, 1779. He was a patriot who took responsibility seriously.
Irish immigrants found themselves in the major American cities like Baltimore and New York during those years, and like David Poe Sr. (Edgar’s granddad) they loved their new country, and never forgot their homeland. Many worked as laborers, building America’s first railroads, it’s buildings, and her ships. The Irish were discriminated against terribly in their early years in America, and that horrible discrimination lasted well into the early 20th Century.
During the War of Independence, David Poe Sr. was entrusted with the responsibility of transporting a large portion of the French Allies from Baltimore by sea and across the Susquehanna River. So well known were Major Poe’s services that he became brevetted in the eyes of the public and was known for many years as “General” Poe. That’s where the nickname came from—it was one of respect, and not of denigration. His wife, Elizabeth Cairnes, born in 1756 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, also of Irish descent, shared in his energy and patriotism. When LaFayette passed through Baltimore in 1781 with his ragged Colonial troops, Mrs. David Poe was one of the women who furnished clothing for them. It was due to these services that LaFayette, during the ball given in his honor when he visited Baltimore in 1824, turned to one of the committee and said, “I have not seen among these [the surviving officers of the Revolution who were present] my friendly and patriotic commissary, Mr. David Poe, who resided in Baltimore when I was here, and out of his own very limited means supplied me with five hundred dollars to aid in clothing my troops, and whose wife, with her own hands, cut five hundred pairs of pantaloons, and superintended the making of them for the use of my men.” He was told that Poe had passed away and insisted that he be allowed to visit his grave. At the grave he knelt at Poe's grave and kissed the ground and said, "Here lies a noble heart."
During the War of 1812, David Poe Sr. was also a participant, at 71 years-old, having taken part in the defense of Baltimore in 1814 against the British attack. David and Elizabeth Cairnes Poe had seven children, several of which died in infancy or very young. His son, Edgar's father, David Poe Jr., was born in Baltimore in 1784. David Poe Sr., patriot and grandfather of the poet Edgar, died on October 17th. He is buried in Baltimore, at Westminster Hall and Burial Ground.
THE POET’S FATHER, DAVID
Edgar’s father, also called David, was born in Baltimore on July 18, 1784. David Poe Jr. began his young adult life studying law, but quickly through it over to become an actor on the stage—but that’s another story.
Edgar Allan Poe’s life was heavily shaped by his Irish heritage, a fairly palpable Presbyterian presence from his paternal, biological family, and the strong Scots-Irish ethos of his faux-adoptive father, John Allan. (But that’s another story, too!).
Éireann go Brách! Ireland forever!