By Pauline Murphy
John Thomas Browne, better known as John T. Browne, was born in Ballylanders Co. Limerick on March 23rd 1845. By 1851 famine had ruined the land and the six year old John T. Browne went with his parents and four siblings on an emigrant ship to America. Tragically, one of the Browne children, a baby girl, died on the voyage and was buried at sea. Shortly after arriving in New Orleans the patriarch of the Browne family took ill and died.
Life was very tough for the Brownes. Young John T’s widowed mother was forced to place her children in an orphanage in New Orleans in order to go out and find work for herself. Within months she took her children out of the orphanage and went to Houston, Texas, where her brother emigrated ten years before. A priest called Fr John Gunnard arranged for John T and other immigrant youths to go to Washington County before going back to Houston where he worked at Spann Plantation but also received an education there.
From there Browne got his first job in a brick yard in Madison County before going back to Houston where he worked as a messenger for the Texas Central Railroad. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861 Browne joined the Confederate Army where he was wounded in battle.
He was then sent back to Houston where he served as a fireman for the railroad. After the war Browne went into the grocery trade and married Mary Jane Bergin, a daughter of Irish immigrants, and together they would have six boys and six girls. They were the first couple to exchange vows in the new Catholic Church of the Annunciation in Houston.
In 1872 he went into business with Charles Bollfrass, opening Browne and Bollfrass grocery store in Houston. In 1887 Browne entered the world of politics when he joined the Democratic Party and represented Houston’s Fifth Ward on the City Council. In 1892 he ran for and won the position of Mayor of Houston in a landslide victory.
The Limerick man would serve as Mayor for four years before retiring in 1909. He would become a much respected mayor which saw him tackle the city’s budget deficit and improve street paving and sewage. He also set up a fully paid Houston Fire Department. Browne would go on to serve four terms in the Texas State House of Representatives before taking his retirement in 1909.
Browne was affectionally known in Houston as “The Fighting Irishman” and became one of the oldest surviving Confederate veterans of the Civil War in Texas, overseeing commemorations and memorial events. For a man who was born during the Irish famine and survived the treacherous journey on a coffin ship, along with a tough start in New Orleans and service in the Civil War, the Ballylanders native lived to the ripe old age of 96. John T. Browne died on the 19th of August 1941 and was buried in Glenwood Cemetery, Houston.