Ireland, John (1838–1918), archbishop of St Paul, Minnesota, was born 11 September 1838 in Burnchurch, Co. Kilkenny, eldest son among two sons and four daughters of Richard Ireland, artisan, and Judith Ireland (née Naughton). In 1850 he emigrated to America with his family, following his father who had left the previous year, and went to Vermont. Educated at St Mary's School, Chicago, he decided to enter the priesthood and studied in France before returning to his new family home at St Paul, Minnesota, where he was ordained (21 December 1861). The outbreak of the American civil war saw him enlist in the union army and he became chaplain of the 5th Minnesota volunteers. On the field he won an enduring reputation for piety and courage; for example, at the battle of Corinth (October 1862) he distributed ammunition to the soldiers despite the obvious danger.
He returned to St Paul (April 1863) after becoming ill at Vicksburg, and in 1867 became pastor of the cathedral. An opponent of intemperance, he became known as the ‘Fr Mathew of the west’ for his campaign against drinking. On 21 December 1875 he was consecrated coadjutor bishop; he succeeded to the see at St Paul on 31 January 1884. When St Paul was raised to an archbishopric in 1888, Ireland became an archbishop in a province of five (later eight) bishops.
Patriotism was an integral part of Ireland's character, and he extolled it as ‘a catholic virtue’. He was fiercely proud of his American citizenship, prefacing many speeches with ‘I am an American citizen’, and advised Irish and German immigrants in the USA to assimilate. This Americanism attracted much criticism throughout his career; Pope Leo XIII warned against it in 1899, but Ireland resolutely defended the principle. More controversy concerned his vocal championing of compulsory education. In politics he was a supporter of the Republican party, and this was viewed with suspicion in some catholic circles. He was not a pacifist and supported American entry into the first world war in 1917. In 1885 he established the St Thomas Seminary (later College), in 1907 laid the cornerstone of the St Paul cathedral, and in 1908 the cornerstone for the basilica of St Mary's. He never became a cardinal, but it appears that he would have finally received this long overdue honour when the first world war ended.
A powerful speaker, Ireland was by no means an orthodox orator. He made awkward gestures and his voice was sometimes harsh-sounding, but these flaws did not detract from his persuasiveness, and he regularly spoke without notes. He died 25 September 1918 at St Paul, where he remains a local legend for his tireless work on behalf of the community.