by Dan Ganley
Image Oil-on-canvas painting of Connemara Patch by Wilbur Hausenur, ca. 1935. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: The poor Irishman, the wheelbarrow is his country. [I love this statement] This phrase might have been on Archbishop John Ireland’s mind back in the 1870s when he began efforts to colonize thousands of acres of land along several railroad lines in the southwestern part of Minnesota with Irish settlers. Bishop Ireland worked with other prelates from around the country to relocate those Irish immigrants clustered in Eastern cities whose living conditions were cramped and unhealthy with limited opportunity.
Over the years settlement in the west was encouraged and promoted by many organizations, societies etc. Including religious denominations. The Catholic church was certainly among those that wanted to spread the propagation of the faith. For some, nationality wasn’t the primary concern when new towns were started. Religion was. Nevertheless nationality came into play. There were efforts to relocated eastern slum dwellers to the west. But of course there is much more to the story of Irish immigration in America. It includes efforts in the 1870s to resettle Irish immigrants, eastern city dwellers and farmers to North Carolina, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Minnesota. This Irish diaspora includes efforts by then Bishop John Ireland of Saint Paul, along with Bishops John Spaulding of Peoria, Illinois and James O’Connor of Omaha, Nebraska.
In Minnesota, Bishop Ireland was instrumental in forming the Irish Colonization Bureau in 1876, a stock company. Working with railroads who owned property along their right of way, land was acquired. In Eastern cities where Irish fleeing the Great Hunger lived in crowded conditions with little opportunity for any improvement in their lives, Ireland brought them west to open the prairie to an expanding economy’s demand for good hard wheat. This of course was after the tragic earlier events where Native Americans were driven off that land, their land, in a shameful period of American history called the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862. Throughout southern and southwestern Minnesota.
Contrary to popular belief the Irish did settle beyond the big cities of the East in the 19th century. Minnesota has lots of Irish towns named with a nod to the old sod. One such is Green Isle. It is fairly sophisticated too, with a local bar named the New Yorker Club. They have Margarita Mondays and a chili cook-off. Big city Eastern cousins would be impressed. There is also a nearby lake called Erin which looks to be a man-made terminus of a series of drain tile ditches. The tile system was used to divert the wet land water and make it suitable for farming. It is green much of the year. Which may explain how the lake really got its name. Green Isle is about 65 miles south of Lake Wobegon in Sibley County.
Many Irish farmers got their start in Minnesota through the efforts of Archbishop John Ireland back in the late 1870s. The era of westward expansion where 160 acres of land was free if you could live on it for five years and improve it. Social organizations, religious groups and commercial interests including railroads were made to bring settlers to the west. Archbishop Ireland was one of these organizers.
Born in Ireland, raised in Minnesota, educated in France, Ireland was American in his political outlook in that he encouraged settlement of western lands regardless of national origin. As long as they were Catholic. He actually wanted communities to be of mixed nationalities. But then it was probably Northern Europeans he was thinking about. However he was deeply concerned with Irish slum dwellers in Eastern cities and their living conditions. Some were more recent immigrants fleeing the potato famine. Ideally it included relocating those living in slum conditions in eastern cities who had the wherewithal and $400.00 to farm the unplowed prairie lands in the west. Farming experience was preferred. Some were small farmers who had experience with small farming practices. It was thought they would be better prepared for farming on a larger scale with new crops.
For everyone It was thought a new beginning, with a fresh stake, clean air and hard work in a new land would continue the propagation of the faith. In Minnesota settlements were often along railroad lines. Loans were made and towns were platted. 6 to 10 miles apart. With loan proceeds large sturdy churches were built in the towns. These beautiful buildings remain today and still provide the focus of community life. As you travel west through the country you will notice how each successive town has a one year later founding date, 1879, 1880, 1881 etc. showing when the towns were built as the railroad laid down tracks.
Not all settlers or settlements were successful however. One noted exception involved some Irish from Connemara. They were ill suited to farming and more comfortable with day wages and day work. They were not farmers by trade or inclination. The seed and tools given to them were not used and when winter came there were no crops to harvest and the foodstuffs were used up. Being Irish they were clannish by nature and resisted outside advice. They did however appeal to Archbishop Ireland to rescue them and so he did. He brought them back to Saint Paul where many settled in the Phalen Creek area near the Mississippi river. Underneath what is now the Interstate 94 bridge and Bruce Vento Park. As they moved up the creek ravine they also made home in what later became Swede Hollow and then home to many Latino immigrants. Those surnames would be familiar to many Saint Paul residents today. Those folks went on to claim their place in the halls of contribution, participation, power and respectability in the Minnesota of today.
The failure of the Connemara Patch was used against Ireland. Some press accounts said it was indicative of the whole experiment altogether. This was most certainly not the case. It was one farming settlement that did not work out. It did cause difficulty however and enthusiasm for future prairie expansions was diminished.
In the end the story of the Irish experience in America was multifaceted, multilayered. They came in waves in all sorts of shapes and sizes. They spread across the country telling their stories as they went, all these threads contributing to the fabric of society. And the more we understand our own journey the better we understand those who come after us
Postscript: 4 or 5 years ago I drove the old road out west from Minneapolis. Highway 12. My steed was not Rocinante or Nellybell, just a blue gray Mazda CX5. I stopped in Hettinger North Dakota for lunch. The town cafe had some sort of a German soup I think was called kreplach. While there I visited with an old timer, still farming into his later years. He told me how his Norwegian father came out to Dickenson on the train then went by covered wagon down to the Hettinger area. He was also a veteran of WW1. I thought wow what roots.
Then I drove on to Miles City Montana seeking more root stories. I stopped at the Montana Bar on Main Street. Right across the street from the Olive Hotel, featured in Lonesome Dove. The beer was cold and the locals were talking about the price of beef cattle. One fellow had a Chicago baseball cap on and we started talking about it. Turned out he was 100% Irish, kept up on his heritage through various publications etc. Then he told me how his family settled in that part of Montana. His great grandfather mustered out of the United States Army Calvary in 1881, 5 years after the Battle of the Little Big Horn. He liked the area and decided to make a life. The Irish tended to run on the small side and were therefore better suited for calvary horses. At any rate this anecdote illustrates again how the far flung the Irish have come.