Category: Archive

108 years ago: Mr. Dooley opines

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Edward T. O’Donnell

One hundred eight years ago this week, on Oct. 7, 1893, the city of Chicago met Mr. Martin J. Dooley. The creation of writer Finley Peter Dunne, Dooley was a saloonkeeper on Chicago’s south side who had an opinion about everyone and everything. His weekly monologues, written in dialect to portray a thick Irish brogue, touched on everything from the shenanigans of machine politicians to the travails of tenement life. Dunne’s column in the Saturday edition of the Chicago Post quickly became a Chicago institution. By the turn of the century Mr. Dooley went national and made Dunne one of the best-known journalists of his day.

Finley Peter Dunne was born on Chicago’s west side in 1867. His was one of those classic, upwardly mobile Irish-American families. His father was a carpenter by trade but an entrepreneur at heart. By the time young Peter was a teenager, his father had exchanged his hammer for a pencil and become a successful lumber merchant. Dunne’s mother, Ellen Finley, taught her children to appreciate literature and music. Not surprisingly, Dunne’s writing would reflect this experience of being born working class and raised middle class.

When he graduated from high school at age 16, he found work as an office boy at the Chicago Telegram. Over the next few years, at the Telegram and several other local papers, Dunne worked his way up to full-time reporter and then assistant editor. In 1892, at the age of 25, he became editorial chairman at the Chicago Post. One year later, he published his first Mr. Dooley column.

Martin J. Dooley was, according to Dunne, “a bachelor, a saloon-keeper, and a Roscommon Irishman.” Each week from behind the bar of his Archer Avenue saloon he’d launch into a monologue on a given topic. The recipient of his wisdom was most often Malachi Hennessy (or “Hinnissy,” as Dooley called him), a tired factory worker and regular patron. Occasionally Hennessy managed to get a word in edgewise, but only to provide Dooley with an opportunity to expand on his point.

For the first five years, Mr. Dooley trained his eye on the local Chicago scene, puncturing the egos of local politicians and ridiculing the city’s corrupt streetcar franchise owners. Although nearly all of Dooley’s memorable quotes from this period are humorous — “Don’t jump on a man unless he’s down” — many of his monologues in those years were dark, serious musings on everything from famine in Ireland to violence in the slums. Taken as a body of work, Finley Peter Dunne’s nearly 300 Chicago columns represent one of the most authentic and revealing works on urban Irish-American attitudes and values at the cusp of the 20 Century. Ultimately, they reflect the cultural tension within people like Dunne — old-world peasant values vs. new-world ideals. His Mr. Dooley alternates between optimism and fatalism, humor and sadness, middle-class propriety and working-class anti-authoritarianism.

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Five years after his debut column, Dunne burst onto the national stage. The occasion was the Spanish-American War in 1898. After several papers around the country reprinted the column in which Dooley holds forth about his “cousin” Admiral George Dewey (“Dewey or Dooley, ’tis all th’ same. We dhrop a letter here an’ there.”), Dunne went into national syndication. The country delighted in Mr. Dooley’s satirical takes on the military and political bungling during the “splendid little war.”

While Martin J. Dooley remained ensconced in his Archer Avenue saloon, Dunne’s success necessitated that he turn his attention from Chicago politics and personalities to national events. Few corrupt politicians, pretentious socialites, misguided reformers, or egotistical robber barons escaped his sharp, satirical wit. Among his countless witty quips, here are some of the most memorable:

On higher education: “Ye can lead a man up to the university, but ye can’t make him think.”

On fanaticism: “A fanatic is a man that does what he thinks the Lord would do if He only knew the facts of the case.”

On trust: “Trust everybody — but cut the cards.”

On the courts: “America follows th’ flag, but th’ Supreme Court follows th’ illiction returns.”

On nostalgia: “The past always looks better than it was because it isn’t here.”

On reformers: “A man that’d expict to thrain lobsters to fly in a year is called a loonytic, but a man that thinks men can be tu-rrned into angels be an iliction is called a rayformer an’ remains at large.”

On Irish nationalists and their penchant for fund-raising picnics: “Be hivins, if Ireland could be freed be a picnic, it’d not on’y be free to-day, but an impire, begorra.”

On the self-aggrandizing philanthropy of robber barons like Andrew Carnegie: “Every time he [Carnegie] drops a dollar, it makes a noise like a waither [waiter] falling’ downstairs with a tray iv dishes.”

On the disparity between justice for the poor and the rich: “Jawn, niver steal a dure mat [door mat]. If ye do ye’ll be invistigated, hanged, an’ maybe rayformed. Steal a bank, me boy, steal a bank.”

On the press: “Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis force an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.”

More than one commentator has placed Dunne on a par with Mark Twain as one of the era’s America’s most effective satirists. That’s high praise. Moreover, it’s true. For like Twain, more than a century later Dunne’s observations of people are still funny — and true.


Oct. 3, 1691: The Treaty of Limerick is signed, ending the Williamite War in Ireland.

Oct. 5, 1968: In one of the first major clashes of The Troubles, a march by 500 members of The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in Derry is attacked by the RUC.

Oct. 8, 1871: The Great Chicago Fire destroys four square miles of downtown and kills 300. Katherine O’Leary is falsely blamed for starting the blaze.


Oct. 4, 1851: Nationalis, John Dillon is born in Blackrock, Co. Dublin.

Oct. 5, 1923: Militant priest Philip Berrigan is born in Virginia, Minn.

Oct. 9, 1903: Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley is born in the Bronx.

Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@EdwardTODonnell.com.

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