Larry Flaherty’s story is like those of many other Irish Americans whose ancestors settled below Dayton’s Bluff in Saint Paul in a neighborhood known as Connemara Patch. Flaherty’s grandfather Dudley was among the emigrants from the west coast of Ireland who traveled to Minnesota to escape famine in the late 1800s. Theirs is a story of suffering that trickled down to future generations.
“I was the youngest of 15 brothers and sisters,” said Flaherty. “We lived in the Selby, Western and Rondo area. For the most part, we kind of raised ourselves, and we weren’t the only ones.”
Though Flaherty’s parents raised their family outside of Connemara Patch, they struggled mightily with the social, financial and emotional problems common to those who lived in the Patch. “I went to four or five grade schools,” Flaherty said, “Saint Vincent’s, Cathedral, Saint Mary’s, Saint Rose of Lima.” Now in his 80s and retired after a 50-year career in law enforcement, he said that life for his siblings improved in adulthood, but “it wasn’t easy.”
The emigrants from Connemara were brought to Minnesota by Archbishop John Ireland to escape the Irish famine of 1879. Their story will be told in the two-part program, “Emigration During the Famine of 1879,” that will be presented online from 8-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays, March 16 and 23, through Celtic Junction, 836 N. Prior Ave.
The first part of the program by Irish-American historian Jane Kennedy focuses on the Connemara emigrants. “In 1880, 24 families left that region of County Galway to flee the famine,” Kennedy said. Their immigration was sponsored by Archbishop Ireland after he was contacted by English humanitarian John Hack Tuke. A Quaker from York, England, Tuke is credited for helping a multitude of Irish survive famines in the middle and late 1800s. He will be the focus of the second part of Kennedy’s program.
“Few people whose ancestors fled the famines in Ireland are aware of how their relatives escaped,” Kennedy said. “They know little, if anything, about the man who is revered in Ireland for helping those who emigrated and those who remained. Today, there are an estimated 750,000 Irish descendants living in North America, and many, myself included, have Mr. Tuke to thank for keeping our families alive.”
A lifelong resident of Saint Paul, Kennedy holds a B.A. in English and journalism from Saint Catherine University and an M.A. in business communications from the University of Saint Thomas. She teaches at Saint Cloud State University. Her family emigrated in 1883 from Ireland’s County Mayo to western Wisconsin where they lived until her grandparents moved to Saint Paul in the 1930s.
“The famine in western Ireland in the late 1870s mimicked the great Irish famine in the middle of the century. While other parts of Ireland managed to avoid a repeat, the counties of Mayo and Galway were again experiencing desperation.”
“The Tuke presentation will be its premiere,” Kennedy said. “I was supposed to give this lecture last March at the University of Saint Thomas in conjunction with a symposium, but it was cancelled due to COVID-19.” The opening Connemara program was first presented in a conference on Irish famines held at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
“The famine in western Ireland in the late 1870s mimicked the great Irish famine in the middle of the century,” Kennedy said. “While other parts of Ireland managed to avoid a repeat, the counties of Mayo and Galway were again experiencing desperation with famine fever, little to no food and limited clothing. With a poor potato crop, their rent payments fell behind and their landlords demolished what hovels they had to live in.
“When Tuke heard rumors that times were bad again in Ireland, he and some Catholic clergy reached out to U.S. bishops for help,” Kennedy said. “Some refused because they feared the proposed plan wasn’t viable. But Archbishop Ireland agreed to help if enough funds could be raised by U.S. Catholics.”
Archbishop Ireland was eager to expand Catholicism in Minnesota, according to Kennedy. He arranged for the immigrants to settle in Graceville with “a modest house, a plot of land for farming, a cow, seeds for sowing and some basics,” she said. “But by the time the immigrants arrived, planting season was virtually over. And just a few months later, western Minnesota and the Great Plains as a whole experienced one of the worst winters ever.
The Connemaras had no experience with large farming. Their wish was to move to Saint Paul where they could take up jobs they knew, such as railroad workers, seamstresses, domestic help. Archbishop Ireland finally relented, and the Connemaras settled in Connemara Patch where they lived in tiny houses and where the people on the bluffs above dumped their trash.”
“Much turmoil ensued with the residents of nearby Morris complaining in U.S. newspapers that the Connemaras were being left to starve. For their part, the Connemaras had no experience with large farming. Their wish was to move to Saint Paul where they could take up jobs they knew, such as railroad workers, seamstresses, domestic help. Archbishop Ireland finally relented, and the Connemaras settled in Connemara Patch where they lived in tiny houses and where the people on the bluffs above dumped their trash.”
The residents of Connemara Patch used outhouses perched at the end of piers on the Mississippi River. It was there that they also drew their water, though the current often failed to clear the waste adequately. “The Graceville transplants became known as the disgraceful Connemaras,” according to Celtic Junction executive director Natalie O’Shea.
The significance of Connemara Patch today
Like Kennedy, O’Shea believes that lessons can still be gleaned from the experience of the Connemaras. She wrote a play about Connemara Patch and the ridicule its inhabitants endured in Saint Paul. A version of the play was performed by SteppingStone Theatre under the name, Get Up Your Irish: A Celebration in Music & Dance. “We’ll be hosting a 10-year anniversary special of the play’s 2011 recording in April, with interviews of the cast, now all grown up,” O’Shea said.
Those who were still living in Connemara Patch in the 1950s were displaced when the neighborhood was razed to make way for I-94. Today, it is home to the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.
“The reason we do bus tours there is that it’s an important area that shouldn’t be forgotten,” O’Shea said. Celtic Junction strives to keep that history alive through its programs in literature, music, dance and language. In fact, it offers a class in the Connemara dialect.
“There are a number of Connemara descendants in Minnesota with whom I’m connected via social media,” Kennedy said. “My aim is to physically reunite us once we can start doing such things, and eventually hold a national reunion of sorts for emigrants of the forgotten famine.”
To register for Kennedy’s program “Emigraton During the Famine of 1879,” visit celticjunction.org/product/emigration-during-famine-of-1879/. The cost is $40. Historical resources related to the Connemaras are also available through the group Connemara to Minnesota in the 1880s at facebook.com/groups/805342643604898/?ref=share.