What have the Irish done for us?

A horse drawn street car in New York City, 1917. Picture: Brown Brothers
A horse drawn street car in New York City, 1917. Picture: Brown Brothers

What have the Irish ever done for us? Well, the story of one Tandragee man James Austin will go some way to explanining just that.

For his story and many other surprising stories are covered in a new book by author and journalist David Forsythe titled ‘What have the Irish ever done for us?’

“The idea for the book came about during The Gathering Ireland in 2013,” said David, “I was covering a lot of the events associated with the diaspora and it struck me that virtually every village, town and townland in Ireland has some kind of intriguing story about one of their own,” he said.

James founded the Dominion Bank. Born into a Methodist family, in 1813 James emigrated to Toronto as a teenager. After working as a printer he went into the wholesale business with another Irishman, Patrick Foy.

Austin and Foy made a great success of the wholesale business. By 1859 Toronto was in the grip of a severe depression and Austin decided to leave the partnership.

Austin continued to be a success in business in the city and in 1866 he purchased and rebuilt one of the city’s best-known mansions Spandia.

In 1870 he was approached by a group of local businessmen who were looking at setting up a new bank in the city and Austin became a central figure in its formation.

In 1871 the Dominion Bank opened for business having raised half a million dollars. Under Austin’s direction the bank opened its headquarters on King Street and another branch on Queen Street. It was a popular innovation with customers and was soon copied by several other banks. The bank under Austin’s stewardship prospered and weathered the 1870s recession.

Austin would remain the president of the bank for the rest of his life.The Dominion Bank went on to become one of Canada’s strongest financial institutions.

The book also tells the story of the first streetcar in the world developed in New York by John Stephenson from Armagh, who was born in 1809.

He became a successful coach builder and set up his own company in 1831 and and developed the world’s first omnibuses to run on rails (streetcars) between The Bowery and Fourth Avenue.

He was also responsible for developing the first railway in New York.