The Irish in America


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Jumping In: Irish in Minnesota

We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.

Dakota Tribe (from Xavier University’s Quote Archive

As I started work on the Irish in Minnesota project this month, I had some trouble settling in with the research and getting organized. I’ve come to the conclusion that while I am familiar with a wide range of Minnesota history topics, I need to do some reading to get up to speed on the larger picture of nineteenth century Minnesota. That being said, I would like to get the ball rolling with a bit of background information and an introduction to a Minnesota “First.”

Irish immigration had a tremendous impact on the development of nineteenth century America. Migrating to nearly every region of the country, the Irish carved out lives in eastern cities and states, as well as established new communities throughout the West. The Irish came to America because of famine, oppression, and the lack of opportunity at home. Some were forced to emigrate, but others acted with agency and chose to come to America. Ann Regan writes in Irish in Minnesota that the experience of Irish immigrants in Minnesota “defies generalization….they have created stereotypes and broken them, held to traditions and made new ones.” This is a good point to keep in mind as we sift through the history of the Irish in Minnesota.

Irish immigrants began coming to the Minnesota region in the 1820s as soldiers at Fort Snelling and lumberjacks from Canada. Because of its location on the east bank of the Mississippi River, St. Paul grew quickly through the 1840s and 1850s. The future capital city of Minnesota, St. Paul was a town where anything seemed possible and it attracted ambitious Americans and immigrants alike. St. Paul served as a launching point for westward migration, first via steamboat and later the railroad. (More on the Irish in St. Paul to come.)

Why did the Irish come to Minnesota? The simple answer is land. The United States government signed the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux with the Dakota in 1851, which opened the territory west of the Mississippi River. This included the Minnesota River Valley, a timber-rich region accessed with relative ease from St. Paul by steamboat. With the Treaty of Mendota later in 1851, a total of 24 million acres of land became available for new settlement. (Wikipedia)

For Americans and immigrants feeling the effects of “Western Fever” the treaties came at the right time and represented opportunities for new lives. It is important to keep in mind, however, that for the Dakota, “these treaties marked another step in a process that increasingly marginalized them and dismissed them from the land that had been—and remained—their home.” (Eric W. Weber, MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society)

The U.S. government furthered its agenda of expansion with the treaties. (Did you know that the term Manifest Destiny was coined by Irish American editor John O’Sullivan in 1845?) According to the Wikipedia entry on the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, the U.S. government agreed to pay annuities to the Dakota equal to about 7.5 cents per acre. New settlers would pay about $1.25 per acre. Not a bad deal for the government, especially considering the Dakota were never fully compensated. (Wikipedia)

Patricia Johnston mentions in Minnesota’s Irish that many of the Irish in Minnesota were “two boat” migrants: One boat brought them across the Atlantic from Ireland, and a second to Minnesota. The second leg of the journey would often involve several modes of transportation, but the steamboat was important for the early arrivals in Minnesota. It wouldn’t be until later in the nineteenth century that more Irish would come directly to Minnesota from Ireland, typically joining family already established in the area. (p. 23)

McMahon Family of Tara Township, Swift County, Minnesota — Ireland, New York, Wisconsin, Civil War, love, loss…a “typical” 19th century Irish American family. (photo from private family collection)

The stages of Irish migration can be clearly seen in census data from the1850s-1890s. Patterns emerge with parents who were born in Ireland, they arrived in the U.S. and married in eastern states such as New York, Massachusetts, or Pennsylvania where their oldest children were born. Migration west resulted in middle children born in Ohio, Illinois, or Wisconsin, with the youngest born in Minnesota. Extended families, in-laws, and friends moved across the country together and in phases. As the railroad extended from Minnesota to Montana, Washington, and California, the younger generation of Irish and Irish American migrants often followed.

Claims to the “First” anything are typically controversial, especially when those claims are made at a time when events were happening quickly and record-keeping was hit-or-miss. The township of Jessenland, on the Minnesota River in present-day Sibley County, is widely accepted as the “First Irish Settlement in Minnesota.” The story goes that the Doheny Brothers (Thomas, Walter, and Dennis) took the steamboat “Black Oaks” up the Minnesota River from St. Paul and spotting a beautiful site fifty miles into the richly wooded region (part of the “Big Woods”), stopped the steamboat and made their claims. This spot would be known as Doheny’s Landing and marks the first permanent Irish farming community in Minnesota. Doheny’s Landing grew into Jessenland.

Jessenland’s “origin story” is described by John Gerald Berger in the 1965 book, A History of St. Brendan’s Parish, The Village of Green Isle, and Minnesota’s First Irish Settlement:

We might imagine that it was a beautiful spring morning when the three brothers got off the boat, and that the lush green valley with its wooded bluffs and glens reminded them of their homeland. They had left the Emerald Isle, some years before, like so many others, because of the potato famine…All they carried with them, besides the clothes on their backs, were shovels, axes, and grub-hoes. That first summer they managed to clear enough land to plant a few potatoes, but they were frozen by an early frost.

(Berger, p.2)

A few pages later, Berger proposes that the “traditional” story of the Doheny Brothers may not be absolutely accurate but he asserts that, although there were concurrent arrivals to the area, a Doheny brother made the earliest claim by an Irishman, establishing the first Irish community. Edward Neill, writing in 1882, offers some clarification:

Thomas Doheny, the Irishman who came up on the Black Oak in July, 1852, and located his own and other claims, returned in the spring of 1853, bringing with him several others, who formed the nucleus of the Irish settlement. Doheny planted a few potatoes and then returned to St. Paul while Michael Grimes, Sr., remained and built himself a house, and became the first Irish settler.

(Neill, History of the Minnesota Valley, 1882 – excerpt on GenealogyTrails.com)



I was curious about Michael Grimes, Sr. since he was not mentioned by name in Berger’s account. If he was the first Irishman to build a house and spend the winter at the site, he deserves further attention. I will have access to a reprint of Neill’s book soon and will check on the Grimes story. A quick search provided that the Doheny and Grimes families both lived in Middletown in Susquehanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania prior to coming to Minnesota (more next time). Over the next few years, the Irish would fill Jessenland and spill over to Washington Lake, Faxon, and Green Isle townships: Boland, Bray, Carlin, Dunne, Egan, Mullen, Mulligan, Shaughnessy, Wilson, and Young are some of the families who joined Doheny and Grimes.

Next time I want to take a closer look at some of the individuals who established Jessenland and see how the Irish community grew from its humble beginnings at Doheny’s Landing to include four townships. If anyone out there is a descendant of (or has a connection to) the early Irish in Sibley County, please leave a comment!

Township map of Sibley County. Irish established Jessenland, Fazon, Washington Lake, and Green Isle in the northeast corner of Sibley County along the Minnesota River.

Notes and More Information:


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Irish in Minnesota

I remember when Patricia Johnston’s book, Minnesota’s Irish first appeared at our house. It was 1984 and Ireland was my new obsession. I was reading everything I could get my hands on about Ireland or written by someone with an Irish name. I listened to nothing but U2 and poured over Mom’s Ireland of the Welcomes magazines, dreaming of living in a dramatic coastal castle or a quaint village cottage.

When I cracked open the book, I assumed it would mostly be about my family. We were the most Irish people I knew in Minnesota. I looked at the index first, expecting to see significant entries for my family names, McCormack, Regan, Foley, Flannery, McMahon. Imagine my surprise when there was nothing.

That is not entirely true. There was one photo of St. Malachy’s Church in Clontarf, the Swift County town where my maternal relatives lived. The people in the photo were all so tiny, there was no chance of identifying any individuals. I was disappointed. I thought my Irish family deserved at least a mention. I also thought Ms. Johnston should have called my grandma for some better material.

The book opened my twelve-year-old eyes to the idea that there were a lot of Irish people who made Minnesota home. I was not as unique as I believed. The experiences of the Irish in Minnesota were more diverse than I had been aware. Now, all these years later, my mom and I are taking a dive into the history of the Irish experience in Minnesota, beyond our own family’s history in Swift County and Minneapolis.

Unidentified Town Scene — private collection

My mom and I love to do research. We are great at identifying resources, following leads, discovering connections, uncovering hidden nuggets, and accumulating information. We find it difficult to stop researching, to feel like we are ever finished. This project has “work in progress” written all over it. There is so much to discover and the research is too much fun.

I would love to hear from you about where your Irish and Irish American relatives put down roots in Minnesota. Is there a township or a village in Minnesota you would like to learn more about? Need some help with research? I think of this as part genealogy, part local history, with some folklore and oral history thrown in the mix. I will share what Mom and I are finding here on the blog. Leave a comment below to get in touch!

The Irish in Minnesota came from every county in Ireland (I actually don’t know that for sure, but I will find out!), endured hardships and celebrated successes at every stage of their migration. Minnesota was the last stop for some Irish immigrants and their families, others pushed further west, and a few even returned to previous homes. Regardless, they all made contributions to the social, cultural, and political fabric of Minnesota.


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A Wedding and a Funeral

Eighty years ago today my grandparents tied the knot. April 26th, 1941 Agnes McMahon and John Regan were married at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in South Minneapolis, Minnesota. Margaret McMahon Nelson (bride’s sister) and John Foley (bride’s cousin, groom’s good friend) were maid of honor and best man, respectively, and the bride’s niece Rosaleen (Dody) Fuchs was the flower girl.

Photo from private family collection.

The wedding reception was held at Grandma’s house on East 22nd Street in Minneapolis where the McMahon clan had been based for a few years. This house had originally belonged to another John Foley, then later his daughter, Catherine. Grandma’s mother was a Foley, but she always referred to this branch of the Foley family as “shirttail relations,” and brushed it off as a relationship too distant to really consider. But in this age of Ancestry.com and DNA matches, it seems somewhat closer: Grandma’s grandfather Foley and Catherine’s father were first cousins. Both men were immigrants to the USA from Kilmichael, County Cork and lived in Fisherville, New Hampshire before coming to Minnesota. Further connection: John Regan’s grandfather was good friends with Patrick Foley and also came here from Kilmichael.

Wedding cake on dining room chair out in the yard…not something you see too often these days! (Photo from private family collection)

April 26th was also the day of my grandma’s funeral. The year was 2004, sixty-three years after her wedding day and seventeen years ago. I can’t believe seventeen years have passed since that sunny day in April when we said goodbye to her. I know she would have appreciated the coincidence of the two anniversaries. She loved thinking about numbers and playing with dates. She would point out palindrome dates and come up with (often convoluted) tricks for remembering a number for a combination or door entry system. I still remember the code to access her apartment building: 8278. I also remember her trick for remembering these four digits: “The code begins and ends in an 8 and the first two numbers add up to 10 and the second two add up to 15.”

Like I said, convoluted. But I’ve remembered it all of these years. And I think about her every day, not just on April 26th.


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Dodo Scorcese?

It has been a year since I’ve touched this blog. A few projects have brought my attention back to it, and I am ready to pick up the discussion where I left off! It has been a strange, sad year. I am looking forward to getting back to what I like to talk about…The Irish in America.

McMahon and Regan families at Christmas, 1963 (private family collection)

My cousins Fran and Andy recently gave us a copy of an old Super8 home movie taken by my great-aunt Dodo in the 1960s. It includes footage from visits with her sister Margaret in Florida, trips to Northern Minnesota to see her husband’s family, Minnesota snowstorm scenes, my mom’s high school graduation, and numerous family dinners and holiday get-togethers. The film serves as Dodo’s scrapbook; short scenes and snippets forming a record of a few years in her life. It is cool to see people I only ever knew as “oldies” in their younger shells, as well as people I never had the chance to know. They are all in motion – interacting, eating, teasing, rough-housing, and laughing. Family photos like the one above have suddenly come to life!

With my mother’s assistance, we are able to identify the people and places in the movie. I need to figure out a way to record these identifications. The film is digitized, so I am thinking there must be some way to take screenshots and ID the folks appearing in a scene? If anyone out there has suggestions, leave a comment and steer me in the right direction.

St. Malachy Catholic Church in Clontarf, Minnesota (private collection)

My mother and I are getting back into our research and writing on the Irish settlement in Clontarf, Minnesota. We are easing in by writing a history of St. Malachy’s Catholic Church. Once the centerpiece of the Catholic colony in western Minnesota, the parish became part of the St. Isidore the Farmer Area Faith Community a number of years ago and ceased regular services.

This photo is of the second church building, constructed in 1896 to accommodate a growing parish. The first church was built in 1878.

I will write later about a wonderful “discovery” I made last year on Ancestry.com. A few months into the pandemic, a generous woman from Florida united me with a family treasure. Oh, and there is another thing I found out on Ancestry.com. I am not, as I have always believed, 100% Irish. It seems as though a 7% strain of Scottish lineage has crept into the mix. I welcome the diversity, and if I ever figure it all out, I hope to do a future post on DNA and building your family tree.

Have you made any discoveries recently about your family’s roots? Unearthed any new stories about the Irish in America? Share with us by leaving a comment!


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Quarantine at Tess’s

Apparently it takes a pandemic to get me to write a new blog post…

I should be wrapping up a family trip to Ireland right now. The whole gang had synchronized our calendars. My dad’s eternal question, “When are we all going to Ireland?” finally had an answer. That was until COVID-19 seeped into our lives.

Given where things are now, it is strange to think that just a month ago we were on the phone with Jimmy and Helen, our Irish cousins, planning day trips and nights out. I couldn’t wait for my brother Matt and his family to finally meet Jimmy and Helen. COVID-19 was in the news, we even joked about the need to quarantine while we were there. Helen quipped, “Ah sure, that’s no problem. Ye can stay at Tess’s place.”

Two Jimmy McCormacks at the ancestral home, the old house on Ballyedmond farm – or “Tess’s Place” – not inhabited for decades. (Photo: Regan McCormack, 2009)

Eleven days after that phone call, Trump announced travel bans and overnight the idea of a pleasure trip became ridiculous. Helen reported panic-buying and growing fear in Ireland. They were told that they were on pace to be the next Italy. Museums and historic sites closed, pubs closed. I waited for Aer Lingus to cancel our flight so I could get a refund. That happened on St. Patrick’s Day.

We will get there later this year, I say now. In a few months, that statement could seem as naive as our light-hearted discussion of minibus tours, pints at Tuohy’s, and quarantines seem today. Right now, all I want is for there to be enough ventilators and for everyone I love, here and there, to stay safe and sound.

Tuohy’s Bar, Rathdowney (Photo: Regan McCormack, 2017)


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Aunt Dodo

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my Great Aunt Dodo. Ever since I opened my hall closet and a vintage overnight case tumbled down from a high shelf, hit me on the head, and landed a few feet away.

Rose Ann “Dodo” McMahon Oien (Photo: Private family collection)

It is a pretty cool old bag – black with a zip-top, dome-shape and two handles. There is a small window on the front of the bag where the owner could slide a slip of paper with their name for identification purposes. “Rose Oien.” Rose was Dodo’s real name and Oien comes from her husband, Bernie Oien, whom she married in 1955.

I love this photo of Dodo. It is from the early 1940s. Rose Ann McMahon was born on December 28, 1908, in Tara Township near Clontarf, Minnesota. She was four years older than my grandma and the middle of seven children. How she came by the nickname Dodo, no one could ever tell me. Nicknames are sometimes like that.

Dodo always seemed like an old woman to me, with thinning white hair, printed cotton muumuus, and sensible black shoes. And it was always “Dodo and Bernie.” I don’t think I ever remember Dodo without Bernie, and I saw them fairly often when I was growing up. Bernie didn’t do anything to make Dodo seem less old. I could never really understand what he was saying. And Bernie had a wooden leg.

Bernie lost his real one in an elevator accident. It was a long time before I realized it was a grain elevator accident. I had always pictured the doors closing on Bernie as he just makes it into the elevator car. One of his legs stays behind in the lobby, pinched off in the heavy outer set of doors while the rest of Bernie keeps going up and up…

“Don’t be silly, Annie. That couldn’t happen,” I remember my mom saying when I mentioned something about how Bernie lost his leg.

Dodo and Bernie were married later in life and didn’t have children. When I was a kid, I thought that was the only reason people got married, so I asked my grandma why Dodo married Bernie.

“I guess Dodo wanted to go to a wedding.”

What a line.

When I think about Dodo, I will now always picture her as she is in this photo, with nicely styled hair, a regular dress, and that great smile.


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100 Years at The Tazewell

Not all the residents at The Tazewell Apartments were Irish American, but this article may be of interest to anyone who enjoys topics in history such as the rise and fall (and rise again) of urban America, 19th-century social history, apartment building architecture, or the history of one of St. Paul’s most well-known neighborhoods (Cathedral Hill) told through the lives of some of its lesser-known residents. 

 

Click here to read The Tazewell: 100 Years in the Life of a St. Paul Apartment Building from the Winter 2019 issue of Ramsey County History Magazine (Volume 53, Number 4).

 

 


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Be Like John Regan

It snows in Minnesota. Some years a lot, other years not enough for some people. It snows early (Halloween Blizzard of 1991) and it snows late (last April was a storm that dumped over 20-inches).

This is the snowiest February on record in Minnesota: 30.5 inches and counting. With a week to go in the month, more snow is expected. It snowed nearly eight inches this past Wednesday and as neighbors struggle in poorly plowed streets and snowbanks loom over my head at street corners, I think about my grandpa.

It snowed 79 inches in the Twin Cities during the winter of 1951-52, following a record-setting 88.9 inches the previous winter. My grandpa (and everyone else in the Twin Cities) was doing a lot of shoveling! Click for a list of the top ten snowiest winters in the Twin Cities.

This clipping may be yellowed and brittle, but it provides a clear glimpse into my grandpa’s character. When he wasn’t shoveling out fire hydrants Grandpa was an usher at church and he played chauffeur to my mom and her friends, driving them to parties and school dances before they had driver’s licenses of their own.

Grandpa was an only child, so he loved being part of my grandma’s expansive network of siblings, nieces, nephews, and cousins. My grandpa was many people’s first call if they ran into trouble and needed a hand. He never hesitated to do what he could to help.

My grandpa was a really good guy.

John Regan (left) with childhood friend, Lloyd Hughes (Private family collection)


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The Irish in America (and at the Tazewell)

The Tazewell in Saint Paul’s Cathedral Hill

I am polishing up an article for Ramsey County History Magazine on 100 years of history at The Tazewell. The short story…The Tazewell Apartments were built in 1918 in a bustling neighborhood of St. Paul. The building suffered from mid-century neglect and urban fight and fell into disrepair. In 1979 the building was condemned. A developer rescued the property and in 1981 The Tazewell Condominiums emerged from the cockroaches, squirrels, and blown out windows.

As a current resident of The Tazewell, I find myself wondering about what the building was originally like and who used to live here. Since, apparently, the original building plans don’t exist, the former plays out in my imagination (aided by the very occasional architectural clue). The latter curiosity can be more concretely satisfied. In preparation for the article, I spent a great deal of time looking at the old St. Paul City Directories to learn about earlier residents of the building. Because so much of the research I do revolves around Irish immigrants, my eye was instinctively drawn to the Irish surnames in these directories. It’s no surprise, but there were a good number of Irish Americans living at The Tazewell over the years.

I mention several of the residents in the article,, but there are many more stories behind the names on the pages of those directories. Small stories, maybe fragments of stories, hidden but waiting to be told. I will explore some of these stories over the next few months. The Irish in America and at The Tazewell is not terribly catchy, but it will have to do for now.

Although construction was completed in 1918, 1919 was the first year a full slate of residents appeared in the directory. Of the fifty residents, there were 21 women and 29 men living in a total of 36 efficiency and one-bedroom apartments. Irish surnames like Hughes, Connolly, Howe, Kelly, Egan, and Neely were scattered among Thorson, Steuer, Albrecht, Van Sylke, and others. Of course, I understand that Felix Hoffman could have as much Irish ancestry as say, Nora Egan, and we’ll look at that as well. That’s kind of the point of America, after all, isn’t it?

For the purposes of exploring the lives of the Irish in America, I will begin next time by looking at the first resident to catch my attention – Florence Connolly, a teacher and original resident of The Tazewell who stayed for nine years. Check back on Monday for Florence’s story.

 


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Four Nickels

Thomas Patrick McMahon was born August 30, 1907, in Tara Township, Minnesota. Tom was the third of seven children to parents Thomas and Mary (Foley) McMahon. Tom was one of my grandma’s older brothers.

 

Grandma remembered the time she complained to Tom that she had a headache. He looked at her, sighed and shook his head gently. “No, Agnes, no,” he said quietly, “You need to have brains to get a headache. What you have is rheumatism of the skull.”

McMahon siblings on the farm – Grandma is in front with hair in her eyes, Tom on the right, 1919 (Agnes Regan Family Collection)

Grandma said she could feel her eyes well up, but then Tom placed a hand on her shoulder and she immediately felt better. They had a good laugh. Tom was never mean-spirited, he just had a way with words. Tom was very bright and he enjoyed working on the farm with his dad. He was always a great help, as well as great company to his dad.

Tom on the farm outside Benson, Minnesota, 1919 (Agnes Regan Family Collection)

The McMahon family moved to Minneapolis from the farm in 1924. Life completely changed for the McMahons. They all eventually adapted to life in the city, finding their ways, except for Tom. He never quite fit in. There was no place for farmers in the city and treating telephone poles in the pole yard with his dad wasn’t quite the same as working on the farm with him. Tom started drinking, started missing work and eventually stopped coming home.

Mary McMahon and her son Tom, 1939 (Agnes Regan Family Collection)

My grandma had a currency collection – buffalo head nickels, Barr dollars, drummer boy quarters, and “wheat pennies” – the penny minted in the US from 1909-1956 (see picture at left). I was at Grandma’s one day when I was about fifteen-years-old. I had found a couple of wheat pennies for Grandma to add to her collection.

As Grandma pulled the plastic bread bag of wheat-backed pennies from the drop-down desk, a small envelope fell to the floor. It was one of those tiny manilla envelopes, the kind a landlord might give you with the key to your new apartment.

“What’s this?” I asked Grandma as I bent to pick up the envelope. It looked old.

She took the envelope from my hand, pushed back the flap and poured the contents into her hand. “Four nickels. Twenty cents. This was what my brother Tom had in his pocket when they found his body. Four nickels. It was all he had in the world.” Grandma clasped the nickels in her hand and motioned for me to sit. Then she told me all about Tom, how smart and funny and kind he was and how that all disappeared when they moved to the city and he began drinking.

Tom died on September 5, 1949, or at least that’s when they found his body down by the Mississippi River. He drowned. No foul play, most likely slipped and fell, they said. Tom had no ID, no home, no possessions. The police knew who to call when they found him. They had picked Tom up many times over the years, and it was my grandpa who’d come pick him up. Tom would stay for a day or two – he could have stayed with Grandma forever – but then he’d move on. When my grandpa went to identify the body, the envelope was the only thing he came home with. It was all Tom had.

My grandma kept the envelope tucked up among her collection of bills and coins. I am sure it fell out from time to time and I can see her opening the flap and pouring the nickels into her hand as she did with me that day. My grandma was never one to dwell on the past, on the sadness of life, but I bet she allowed herself a moment to hold on to those coins and remember her brother Tom.