A childhood friend recently posted the title of this column on her Facebook page as a meme. It made me smile as I thought about the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Even those who don’t have a drop of old Ireland in them enjoy celebrating with corned beef and cabbage, soda bread, green beer, Irish parades, shamrocks, or leprechaun tales. This adoption of Irish customs, even temporarily, is a recent occurrence. In the mid to late 1800s, those of Irish heritage found more heartache than ready acceptance.
Many such immigrants came to this country under harsh conditions. They’d been starved out of Ireland during the potato famine or landowners had evicted croppers from tenant farms that couldn’t feed or clothe a family. According to emerging history, some arrived in the new world as slaves to work Caribbean sugar cane plantations. Examining old military rolls reveals that a number of those fresh-to-the- continent kept their bellies full by joining the U.S. Army, where they ended up as Indian fighters in the West.
For those who find little interest in history, it’s hard to understand that not so many generations ago, newcomers with strong brogues weren’t welcome. Those who wanted to work found it difficult to find employment, even if they had special skills. Walking up a street in developing communities that obviously needed hard workers, fresh arrivals would see signs in windows that said, “No Irish Need Apply.” Discrimination continued after death. Those who visit old cemeteries in mining communities will see graves segregated into sections for different ethnic groups.
Interestingly, a good number of Irish arrived in Kansas during this settlement period. Today, schoolchildren studying American history scan chapters filled with names such as Kennedy, Moynihan, and Keogh. According to one source, over 70 million people living outside Ireland, many of them in the United States, claim roots to that Emerald Isle. For those of Irish ancestry, it’s hard to imagine our forebears not only suffered hunger, poverty, and exploitation in the old country, but the struggle continued after they landed ashore in New York. Fortunately, for those who kept moving west and ended up in Kansas, life got easier.
We find towns like McCracken, named after a railroad employee. These hardy emigrants constructed a Catholic Church almost immediately. In Kansas Memory, we read Irish priest Thomas Butler’s report that Kansas churches of his denomination multiplied from three in 1854 to forty-five by 1871. He attributes this expansion to immigration. In Marshall County, visitors can explore the Irish community of St. Bridget established in 1862. Once there, they can tour a lovely chapel erected by settlers. Visit any old cemetery in the area, particularly a Catholic graveyard, to spot tombstones engraved Donnelly, Connelly, McKee, Keaghy, O’Brien, Sullivan, and so on. These aren’t foreign names here.
This state is a great example of what can happen when people work hard and adapt to a new culture. Most likely, you won’t hear locals speaking with an Irish brogue, but you might see several tipping back a Guinness to celebrate St. Paddy’s Day, even if they don’t have a drop of the blarney in them.