The Irish in America


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Anyone up for a game of checkers?

It might not look like much to you, but this somewhat crudely fashioned checkerboard has always been a treasured relic of my family history.

Patrick Foley’s checkerboard, circa 1870. Fisherville, NH.

I grew up in a house full of family heirlooms. My mom liked to incorporate them into her overall decorative scheme. She framed her grandparents’ wedding certificate and put it on the wall amongst old family photographs and used her great-grandmother’s china pitcher as a vase for lilacs and lilies of the valley in the springtime. Mom also lulled us to sleep in the same rocking chair her grandmother once rocked my grandpa. Old stuff and family history were all around the place.

But the checkerboard always intrigued me. It was tucked discretely in the space between a tall radiator and the dining room wall. When I was young I assumed that my mom intentionally put it there to hide it from potential thieves and jealous relatives. In my mind, the checkerboard was an extremely valuable antique.

The checkerboard (we always called it “the checkerboard” but I suppose it could be a chessboard) belonged to my great-great-grandfather, Patrick Foley. Patrick died the year my grandma was born (1913), but she shared what she had heard about her grandpa.

Grandma didn’t have stories about her grandpa, as much as she recounted some random details of a man’s life that survived the generations. My grandma was proud to say that Patrick was able to read and write (a rarity among her grandparents). Patrick was educated in a hedge school in County Cork, Ireland. He came to the United States as a young man with his friend John Regan and settled in Fisherville, NH. When Bishop Ireland started his colonies in Minnesota, Patrick moved west, bought a farm, and raised his family in Tara Township. Patrick was known as “Grandpa Petey” (or P.T. for his initials). He was a prosperous farmer in Tara and eventually moved into a nice house in the nearby larger town of Benson, Minnesota.

Patrick Foley, circa 1867, tintype (Private Family Collection)

I grew up in the 1970s, before the genealogy craze, Ancestry.com, and DNA matches, and was grateful for my grandma’s information, but I did want to learn more about Patrick. What did he do in Fisherville and where did he come from in Ireland? The checkerboard stirred my imagination and inspired me to learn more about my family history. I’ve visited Fisherville (Concord), New Hampshire and Kilmichael, County Cork and I have learned many more random details of Patrick Foley’s life. I guess it is my job to piece it all together and tell the story.

In case you are interested, here are the details of the checkerboard. Maybe you’ve seen something similar hidden in the nooks and crannies of your family home? Let me know!

The checkerboard measures about 20.5 inches (wide) by 19.5 inches (deep) and is about 3 inches thick. This is a substantial piece, I’d say it weighs nearly four pounds. Alternating stained and dark green painted squares create the playing surface (squares range in size 1.5 to 2 inches). In spite of these irregularities, I thought it was quite fancy because it was personalized. “Patrick Foley” is stenciled on one end and “Fisherville” on the other.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!


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Family Album: Minnesota’s Irish During the Depression

My grandma Agnes McMahon Regan graduated from Columbia Heights High School in 1930. She was the only one of the seven McMahon children to graduate. Her dad agreed to let her finish high school because she was smart and liked school and was just sixteen at the start of senior year (she skipped the second grade). Plus, he said she might as well stay in school since there were no jobs. After graduation, Agnes felt lucky to find part-time work in the office of an insurance broker, but she really wanted to get in at Sears. Her older sister Margaret worked at Sears and Agnes would go down to Chicago and Lake in Minneapolis once a week to check in with the Personnel Department about any job openings.

Grandma said her persistence paid off and Sears eventually hired her – temporarily at first, but she had her foot in the door. She stayed at Sears for the next ten years, until her first child was born.

On the weekends, Margaret and Agnes would often travel west to Benson, Minnesota to visit their older sister, Mary and her growing family of nieces. They would catch a ride with someone or hitchhike. Wonder whose car this was?

Margaret and Agnes McMahon, 1933 (Private Family Collection)


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Family Album: Irish in Minneapolis

Technically-speaking, this is a terrible picture. But I love it, because EVERYONE is smiling – even my great-grandmother and Uncle Frank. Margaret might be hiding his grin, but I can see the smile in his cheeks. I suppose this is 1942-1943? Mom will need to help out with this…when was Frank in the service?

I wonder what they are all so happy about???

John W. Regan, Agnes McMahon Regan, Ella McMahon (wife of John McMahon), Frank McMahon, Margaret McMahon Nelson, Mary Foley McMahon (Private Family Collection)


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Clontarf Goes Green in 1899

Clontarf History

These days it seems everyone celebrates St. Patrick’s Day. Target’s shelves are stocked with strings of  shamrock lights, pot of gold window decals, sparkly green headbands, and leprechaun costumes complete with a long red beard and top hat. Bars put up tents to accommodate the revelers, while the restaurants add corned beef and cabbage specials to their menus. The fountain at the White House is turning green, and I heard even Niagara Falls will be dyed green (is that even possible?)

Let’s put aside the more commercial side of St. Patrick’s Day for a moment and take a look at the March 17, 1899 celebration in Clontarf – the last St. Patrick’s Day of the nineteenth century. By 1899, the children of the original Irish settlers in Clontarf were beginning to marry and start families of their own. Most of this first generation of Clontarf Irish-Americans married fellow Irish-Americans, thus Clontarf’s…

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Family Album: Aunt Kate

Catherine McMahon was the oldest daughter of Frank and Catherine (McAndrew) McMahon, born in Tara Township, Minnesota on October 17, 1877.

Catherine McMahon, circa 1900 (Private Family Collection)

I know very little about Catherine, except to call her Aunt Kate like my grandma and mom would. My mom remembers her as one of the old aunts. She married Jack Mears and the couple had no children. They lived in South Minneapolis, near downtown, and Jack was employed as a laborer. Before she was married, she lived in Clontarf with her family. The 1900 census says she was employed as a teacher. By the 1910 census she is “keeping house” – her mother passed away in 1908, so she was taking care of the house and her dad.

Aunt Kate, circa 1950 (Private Family Collection)

This is probably how my mom remembers Aunt Kate. She’ll let us know! I’m looking forward to learning a bit more about Aunt Kate. I am working on finding a marriage record and I want to take a look at her death certificate.


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Family Album: McMahon Siblings

On December 3, 1955, my great aunt Rose McMahon married Bernet Oien. Here’s a snapshot of Rose and her siblings from the reception. All surviving siblings are present except for the youngest, Frank. I wonder where he’s hiding?

McMahon Sibs 1955 (left to right): Agnes, Margaret, John, Rose, and Mary. (Private Family Collection)

Let’s take a look at them about thirty-five years earlier, on the family’s farm in Benson, Minnesota.

McMahon Sibs 1920, back row: Mary, John, Tom; front row: Margaret, Frank, Agnes, Rose (Private Family Collection)

I know, that is a terrible photo of the front row, but here is a better one of the youngest McMahons, Agnes and Frank.

1920: Agnes and Frank McMahon (Private Family Collection)


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Family Album: Snapshots of the Irish in Minneapolis

In the lead-up to St. Patrick’s Day this year, I want to feature some favorite snapshots from my collection of family photos. These photos will celebrate the Irish in Minneapolis!

Not sure what house this is, or the date. My guess is that it is my grandparents’ house and it is about 1943. On the left is my grandma’s sister Rose McMahon (we called her Dodo) walking with her mother, Mary Foley McMahon. Trailing behind is my great-grandfather Neil Regan.

When I see this photo, I think about Neil and Mary, both born in Fisherville, New Hampshire to Irish immigrants from Kilmichael, County Cork. The connection between the Foley and Regan families survived a transatlantic journey to America followed by a move half-way across the county to central Minnesota for Mary and Neil, a generation later, to grow old under the same roof in Minneapolis.

I wonder where they were going, anyway?

I hope my mom comments on this post and fills us in on the location and date of the photo!

In this photo: Rose McMahon (left) with her mother, Mary Foley McMahon. Followed by Neil Regan. (Private family collection)


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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.