Judge Michael Connolly emigrated to New York City in 1828.

‘Big Judge’ Connolly from Lavey

In this week's Times Past column, historian Jonathan Smyth recalls Judge Michael Connolly of New York who came from Lavey...

Michael Connolly a big-hearted, big-humoured, Irish American judge came home to his Irish roots in 1869 when he came to stay in Cavan town. But, oh boy! was there great delight amongst the people, especially the inhabitants of the nearby parish of Lavey from where ‘Big Judge’ was a native of, and as he spoke to his former neighbours was to surprise them by talking to them in his native Language and for that they seemed to love him all the more. ‘Big Judge’ was a nickname given to him by the New Yorkers for his height, the bigness of his personality and in admiration of his friendly manner, strict integrity and countless friends. His physicality and personality reflected largeness in every way said his admirers. On August 7, 1869, the New York Tribune told its readers: ‘the Hon. Michael Connolly has been visiting his birthplace near Cavan and talking Irish with his old acquaintances, who were delighted to see a Cavan boy come home a judge.’ He had gone to America in 1828.

Another report, a few days earlier on August 2 in a New York newspaper named ‘The Sun’, offered an expanded account in its columns, telling readers: ‘our correspondent informs us that on Monday evening Edward Kennedy, the eminent merchant of Cavan, who had been in New York on mercantile business since the 18th or 19th of May last, returned to that town, accompanied by the Hon. Judge Connolly of New York, his daughter – an interesting young lady of about 17 years of age – and Mr Terrigan, Esq., an eminent merchant of that city.’

The visitors from America stayed in the home of Edward Kennedy in Cavan Town. The American judge caused a great ‘anxiety’ amongst everyone who flocked to see him, especially in Cavan and even more so for those who lived five miles south of the town in Lavey where he was reared. On the day after which was a Tuesday, it was the market day in Cavan town and ‘Big Judge’ Connolly effortlessly ‘gratified’ the curiosity of the locals by making himself freely available to mingle with the crowds and chat with everyone including ‘several parishioners of Lavey’ and it was them who set about addressing him in Irish to which he responded and to their surprise he spoke fluently. The correspondent who was in awe of ‘Big Judge’ Connolly, added, ‘he appears to be about fifty years of age, a rather majestic figure, tall and portly, and gentlemanly in his appearance, and rather handsome.’

During the great judge’s holiday in Cavan, the Town Commissioners held a function on August 17, 1869, at which an address signed by William Hague JP, on their behalf was read out and presented to Connolly. The address read: ‘We, the Chairman and Town Commissioners of this ancient borough … ‘convey to you, through this address, the feelings of gratification and pleasurable pride with which we greet your visit to your native land and county, after so long an absence.’ And with full measure they welcomed him ‘as another of our successful Irishmen abroad’ whom with pride they said ‘by the paths of industry and integrity’ aided by the ‘supremacy’ of Irish talent and energy had won high distinctions. Michael Connolly, they emphasised, had been a steadfast friend to the ‘friendless Irish’ arriving in New York and though separated by the wide ocean from his native land and a ‘stranger’ to its shores for forty years he had never forgotten his native Cavan.

Judge Connolly stood up next and read out his speech to the Commissioners. This was later published in full in the Celt. A section of the transcript read: ‘Mr Chairman and Gentlemen of the Town Council of Cavan – Permit me to offer you my grateful thanks for the honour you have conferred on me by your very kind and flattering address. If it be the proudest distinction to which a man may aspire, to deserve well of his country, your address, gentlemen, honours me with that distinction … I see in it the approval of my policy and public acts, since the time I have been honoured by the confidence of my friends and fellow citizens in New York, and that by those whose good opinions I most highly value, the members of the Town Council of the principal town in my native county, and the community they represent.’


Michael Connolly was appointed the captain of police for the 22nd ward, New York City, in 1853 and in either 1854 or 1855 they elected him Police Justice of uptown New York being elected as the Tammany candidate. He opposed police brutality, but because there were no real guidelines for the force, he made a lot of enemies amongst the ‘patrolmen and Judges.

Connolly tried for City Sheriff but lost out to John Kelly. By 1872, he had enough of politics and retired to a quieter life on a farm he bought at Essex, Connecticut. Connolly was proud of his Irish connections and Horace Greeley wrote in the Greeley report in 1876 that Michael Connolly, ‘the big judge’, was popularly known in Irish American circles as the ‘Daniel O’Connell of the American Fenians.’

Michael Connolly died on Saturday morning of July 15, 1876, and was survived by one daughter Mrs John W. Healy who was set to inherit the huge estate he’d built up through speculation in real estate. Connolly’s wife, Mary Smith Connolly, had predeceased him some sixteen years earlier.

In days now long-forgotten when he tried unsuccessfully to become Sheriff of New York, he enjoyed the close support of an old friend Charles G. Halpine better known as the poet ‘Miles O’Reilly’ who put to verse a few sentiments about ‘Big Judge’ Michael Connolly, the Lavey giant:

John A. Kennedy calls you ‘blatherin Mike,’

An the Tammany leaders curse you:

But the more at you, Mike, such heythins strike,

The more in our hearts we’ll nurse you,

Och, you’ll do the hangin’ highly;

But I want you to shwear (for I’m under a scare)

That you’ll never hang Miles O’Reilly

Now, good luck to you, Big Mike Connolly,

So burly and defiant:

You’re twice bigger than ould Tim Donnelly

That was our great ‘Irish giant.’


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