The Remarkable Cow of Kilgubbin

Back in the old days, the lower north side, around Orleans and Chicago Avenue and up to Division and the River, was an Irish enclave known as Kilgubbin. It was apparently after the name of the part of Ireland from which many of the early settlers hailed, though no one ever seemed to be able to find such a place on the maps (it was apparently somewhere in Cork). It retained this name, off and on, for some decades (much of it was absorbed into Little Hell eventually, then Goose Island and Cabrini Green), and papers occasionally told folky stories about it, not unlike Irish-tinged versions of, say, the Uncle Remus stories.

In one particular instance in 1859, it told the story of Mr. O’Brien’s cow, who one day disappeared, taking its milk with it. This was quite a scandal, and the story “spread from shanty to shanty,” as the Tribune put it. They noted that one could “cut off water from Kilgubbin if you will, banish rain fall and river-flow, but spare the milk, and its congener fluid, the etherial part of rye.”

The cow stayed gone for months, then O’Brien announced that he had found the cow in the stable of his neighbor, Ferrick. Ferrick claimed taht the cow in the stable was his own, and that he’d raised it from “tender calfhood.”

O’Brien went to court and had Ferrick brought in for “cow stealing,” but was acquitted. Hence, in order to get satisfaction, he tried to sue Ferrick instead. The trial became quite a spectacle, on attended by “spectators well nigh to the depopulation of Kilgubbin,” and eighteen witnesses testified. The cow itself was brought into court. Ferrick one the day, and O’Brien was ordered to pay over $100 in court costs (over a case regarding a $40 cow).  He immediately announced plans to repeal, and, after the story was published, wrote an angry letter to the Tribune stating that he did not live, and never had lived, in Kilgubbin.

How much of the story was true and how much was just a folksy yarn to break the boredom and chill of a January day at the Tribune office is anyone’s guess. The Tribune wasn’t nearly as bad with racism as some papers, and was known to stick up for the people of Kilgubbin when Wilbur F. Storey, the dyed-in-the-wool racist who ran the Chicago Times, was bad-mouthing them.

The Times account of Kilgubbin in 1866, though, gives one some idea of how the area got its current name of Goose Island: “Here and there were goose ponds laid out in the streets, with great care as to effect. They were directly where a traveller wanted to step, and it was a long and muddy distance around them. Large flocks of goslings inhabit these stagnant pools, to kill or stone one of them would be instant death to the intruder. The geese cackle and hiss as you pass, as if no one but a resident had any business there. They seem to far a land owner whenever a strange footstep is heard, an instinct early instilled into all the chattels of the squatter. They spread their wings and run off to the door of the nearest shanty.”

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