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For nearly two centuries, St. Paul's been an epicenter for Minnesota's Irish immigrants, descendants

Minnesota history: Irish roots run deep in St. Paul
Minnesota history: Irish roots run deep in St. Paul 03:45

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- When St. Patrick's Day approaches, those who celebrate know St. Paul will be the epicenter in Minnesota, as it has been for well over a century.

"It's part of our city's identity," Irish-American historian Jim Rogers said, "but it's odd because the last time the Irish were the largest foreign born ethnic group in St. Paul was the 1850 census."

So why did St. Paul hold onto its Irish roots so well?

"It has to do with people sort of clinging to something that makes us a little more distinctive here in St. Paul," Rogers said.

The standouts include the annual Irish Fair at Harriet Island Regional Park, and the St. Patrick's Day parade downtown. And for the every day connection, you have only to look at the pubs.

"I've never lived more than seven blocks from an Irish pub, which is just another way of saying I've lived in St. Paul," Rogers said.

Behind the bright green celebrations is a hard-working history that helped mold Minnesota's capitol city.

"One of the oddities about Irish immigration is that they were the most rural people in Europe and became the most urban people in America," Rogers said.

That was not by choice but, rather, circumstance. In 1880, hundreds of immigrants from Connemara Ireland settled in Graceville, Minnesota to be farmers, orchestrated by Bishop John Ireland of St. Paul. Rogers said it happened to coincide with the worst winter in Minnesota history up to that time.

Unprepared and overmatched by winter's might, they resettled on St. Paul's lower east side near Swede Hollow Park, a grimy, shanty-laden area that became known as Connemara Patch. Today, visitors passing underneath stone-flanked bridges will see nothing but a patch, as the neighborhood was bulldozed to make way for Interstate 94.

The Irish immigrants tended to be heavily represented in St. Paul's public safety, fire departments, police, and politics, as well.

"Specific to St. Paul is the fact that we had this long line of Irish mayors," Rogers said.

Starting with William Mahoney in 1932, nine of the next 10 mayors in the city were Irish.

Rogers says Irish women often were educators, seamstresses, and domestic servants.

From the former West Side Flats along the river to the canopy-covered streets of Highland Park, Irish families were found all across St. Paul, and a few landmarks serve as reminders. Take Lake Phalen -- named after Edward Phelan, one of the city's first Irish settlers -- or the St. Paul Cathedral, commissioned by Bishop John Ireland.

"No part of a city's history ever really disappears," Rogers said.

The sounds, sights, and revelry ensure St. Paul's connection to Ireland stays strong, an effort championed by the descendants of those original settlers.

"It's part of who we think of ourselves, as an Irish enclave out here on the prairies," Rogers said. "No part of a city's history ever really disappears."

Beyond St. Paul, Irish families did find success farming across the state, many near Rochester and also Sibley County along the Minnesota River.

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