Tallest gravestone whiskey can buy helps tell the story of this Utah barkeep, writes Michael O’Brien

If it’s true, as some say, that God invented whiskey so the Irish would not rule the world, then the good Lord must have carved out an exception for Mount Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Salt Lake City.

The tallest monument there — for a beloved Irish Catholic saloonkeeper named James McTernay — dominates the 127-year-old graveyard’s skyline.

Mount Calvary is one of the oldest Catholic places in Utah. Salt Lake City Mayor James Glendinning sold the 20-acre site for $1 to Bishop Lawrence Scanlan in 1897.

At the time, there were six parishes and 8,000 Catholics in Utah. The Cathedral of the Madeleine was yet to be built.

I often visit the peaceful hillside cemetery overlooking the Salt Lake Valley. My older brother, Pete, rests there, as do many friends and several Catholic priests I knew and liked.

No matter when or why I go to Mount Calvary, however, I find myself also paying respects to James McTernay’s monumental grave.

It’s hard to miss, marked since 1911 by a massive 27-foot-tall obelisk sculpted from Vermont granite. For years, I thought McTernay must have been a prominent businessman or church official.

One day I learned he tended bars. So how did an immigrant (and never naturalized) Irish American Catholic saloonkeeper acquire what perhaps is the largest monument in the cemetery?

From Ireland to Utah

(Michael Patrick O’Brien) This gravestone at Salt Lake City’s Mount Calvary Catholic Cemetery marks the final resting place of Irish Catholic saloonkeeper James McTernay.

McTernay was born in 1845 in County Leitrim. It is a corner of northwestern Ireland where, according to poet William Butler Yeats, a “wave of moonlight glosses the dim gray sands with light.” (“The Stolen Child,” 1889.)

Although the North Atlantic landscape inspired lovely lyrics, McTernay left that island home in 1855 as a young boy.

He emigrated — apparently with two brothers — in the aftermath of the devastating potato famine. The Great Hunger killed a million Irish and displaced another million or more.

After several years on the East Coast and then in Helena, Mont., a 20-something McTernay arrived in Utah in 1867. He worked as a team driver and boardinghouse manager before discovering his true calling in 1872, when he took charge of a saloon serving silver miners in Alta.

A year later, McTernay bought the bar at the Salt Lake House, a hotel on Main Street where Mark Twain had stayed. McTernay spent the next four decades in the saloon business in downtown Salt Lake City.

He also was known for operating the bar at Delmonico’s Restaurant, owned by Utah pioneer James Dinwoodey, and for the Onyx Bank Bar on 200 South just west of Main Street. McTernay was quite skilled at his chosen profession.

The newspapers of his day called McTernay a “genial mixologist,” a “polished proprietor,” and a “philosopher” whose views on life “have gone down as gems always to be remembered.”

The Intermountain Catholic said he was a “well known and respected resident” with “sterling qualities” such as “his honesty and charity.”

In 1910, The Salt Lake Tribune observed, “It was always said of him that were all drinking places conducted as he conducted his, the evils of the liquor traffic would be reduced to a minimum.”

Bars for bookies

(Michael Patrick O’Brien) A newspaper reports the death of Salt Lake City Irish Catholic saloonkeeper James McTernay.

Despite these many accolades, McTernay was far from perfect. His bars ran backroom operations taking bets on election results.

A newspaper reported that he had “lost two or three fortunes” speculating in mines and mining stocks. He also got entangled in well-publicized litigation.

There was a property dispute with the estate of one of Utah’s famous Walker brothers and a lawsuit over an allegedly stolen diamond. McTernay also litigated with a priest over the return of funds said to be due back to an estate he managed.

In December 1909, the teetotaling Deseret News ran this prominent headline: “ONE MORE SCANDAL IN SALOON CIRCLES.” The story underneath detailed a lawsuit filed against McTernay — a lifelong bachelor — for breach of an alleged promise to marry.

At the time, plaintiff Selma Swanson was the head waitress at Salt Lake City’s Kenyon Hotel, where McTernay lived. The News reported McTernay “had been intimate” with Swanson after an offer of marriage but then had refused to keep his promise.

McTernay denied the allegations. The lawsuit ended when he died the following spring at about age 65.

He had been ill, on and off, with lung problems and pneumonia. Chronic gastritis also contributed to his demise April 28, 1910, at the old Holy Cross Hospital.

A life ‘lined’ by generosity

A large crowd attended McTernay’s funeral at the cathedral. One of his pallbearers was William H. Dickson, a former U.S. attorney for Utah who founded the law firm — Parsons Behle & Latimer — where I now work.

Despite the public airing of his possible sins, a weekly newspaper eulogized McTernay as having “an honest heart and an honest disposition” and as someone who followed a path “lined by generous acts. … He had hosts of friends and no enemies that we know of.”

McTernay attracted almost as much media attention in death as in life. He had two wills and left behind a reasonably large estate, including some $25,000 (worth, by one calculation, more than $800,000 today) in cash on hand.

One will bequeathed the bulk of his estate to any heirs who could be found. The other, signed two weeks before he died, gave most of his money to charitable and educational purposes. Probate litigation ensued.

McTernay’s friend (and Utah mine operator) Patrick Ryan sorted out the estate and, in the end, money went to charity and to at least two confirmed nephews. Attorney Charles Stetson Varian, a member of the Utah Constitutional Convention and another early founder of my law firm, helped with the estate.

Monumental mystery

(Michael Patrick O’Brien) This 27-foot-tall obelisk at Salt Lake City’s Mount Calvary Catholic Cemetery marks the grave of Irish Catholic saloonkeeper James McTernay

The big news about McTernay in 1911 — a year after his death — concerned the erection of the formidable grave monument for, as The Tribune called him, “one of Salt Lake’s prominent citizens.”

The newspaper said the monument was “as handsome a shaft as may be seen in the West” and “probably the most expensive in any of the Salt Lake cemeteries.”

Local lore reported by The Tribune and the Deseret News says McTernay’s friends collected money to fund the construction and thus to remember a beloved man with no local family. It’s a good story, and it may even be true.

(Michael Patrick O’Brien) A Salt Lake Tribune story reports on the obelisk at Salt Lake City’s Mount Calvary Catholic Cemetery, marking the grave of Irish Catholic saloonkeeper James McTernay.

Yet, McTernay’s probate papers (which I found on Ancestry.com) also indicate that his estate could have paid for the obelisk. Both of his wills had set aside almost $2,000 for a grave marker.

We may never know all the details of how McTernay got his grand monument at Mount Calvary over a century ago. Still, I love this story for so many reasons.

If it’s true that McTernay’s friends paid for the marker to make sure he was remembered, then it’s a touching story of fellowship with a man who apparently never forgot his own humble origins.

If McTernay paid for the monument himself, then his is a wonderful rags-to-riches story, a great Irish American triumph over the horrors of the Great Hunger that brought him here.

Whiskey (and other substances) have decimated so many Irish lives in the distant and recent past. McTernay’s story may be one in which this did not happen, where an Irish man found his footing, and his rightful place in the world, despite the invention of whiskey.

This St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll raise my glass of Jameson to any and all of those happy tales. Sláinte!

(Courtesy photo)
Writer and attorney Michael Patrick O’Brien.

Michael Patrick O’Brien is a writer and attorney living in Salt Lake City who often represents The Salt Lake Tribune in legal matters. His book “Monastery Mornings: My Unusual Boyhood Among the Saints and Monks,” about growing up with the monks at an old Trappist monastery in Huntsville, was published by Paraclete Press and chosen by the League of Utah Writers as the best nonfiction book of 2022.

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