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Remembering a lost Irish enclave in St. Paul

Despite its short and oft-forgotten existence, Connemara Patch was home to several generations of Irish working-class families and later immigrant groups.

Oil-on-canvas painting of Connemara Patch by Wilbur Hausenur, ca. 1935.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Connemara Patch began as a community of Irish immigrants on St. Paul’s East Side in the early 1880s. An unintended result of Bishop John Ireland’s Catholic colonization efforts and a victim of 1950s freeway construction, it was a small, swampy neighborhood on the banks of Phalen Creek. Despite its short and oft-forgotten existence, Connemara Patch was home to several generations of Irish working-class families and later immigrant groups.

Between 1876 and 1881, Bishop John Ireland secured 369,000 acres of farmland along the expanding railroad in rural Minnesota. There, he resettled thousands of Catholic immigrants — most of them Irish. During this time, Graceville in Big Stone County emerged as a commercial center among Ireland’s Minnesotan colonies.

After devastating crop failure in western Ireland in 1879, Bishop John Ireland sponsored fifty poor, starving families from the Connemara region of County Galway, Ireland. He arranged for them to settle in Graceville among earlier Irish immigrants to the region. The 309 newcomers, called “Connemaras,” arrived in Minnesota in June 1880. Ireland gave each family 160 acres of land, clothing, farming supplies, seed, and credit for food.

Ireland expected the families to farm their land and ultimately pay it off. The Connemaras, however, were not familiar with large-scale farming techniques. They hardly spoke English and preferred to find work as day laborers on the nearby railroad or on established farms. Already suffering and arriving too late in the season to plant their first crops, the Connemaras were wholly unprepared for the winter of 1880–1881, one of the worst in Midwestern history. Bishop Ireland, persuaded by the Connemaras’ worsening condition and growing public sympathy, decided to move the families to St. Paul, where they were likely to find greater financial stability. The situation received national attention, and Ireland believed the move to St. Paul would preserve his reputation and not further demoralize his colonization efforts.

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Most settled in an area that became known as Connemara Patch, a neighborhood at the base of Dayton’s Bluff. It was roughly bounded by East Seventh Street on the north, Third Street on the south, Hoffman Street to the east, and Commercial Street to the west.

Like Swede Hollow across Seventh Street and other poor neighborhoods built along the river flats, Connemara Patch was a working-class ethnic enclave. Its proximity to commercial activity in downtown St. Paul offered a range of employment opportunities. Residents found work as teamsters, tinsmiths, dressmakers, blacksmiths, and conductors.

Many Connemara Patch residents attended St. John’s Parish on Dayton’s Bluff. The twelfth Catholic Church in St. Paul, St. John’s was established in 1886 to serve English-speaking Catholics new to the area. Existing Catholic parishes in the area catered to German speakers.

A 1902 St. Paul Globe article paints one of the most vivid pictures of Connemara Patch, “a little settlement that lies at the foot of Dayton’s Bluff like sediment in the bottom of a big pool.” It was a small, rather hidden neighborhood. The writer visited on a sunny spring day and described the streets as crooked and the houses — or “huts” — as awkwardly built. Children played happily in the mud and sunshine, wearing tattered clothes.

Opportunities to move away from the banks of Phalen Creek and make the metaphorical climb up the bluff represented upward social mobility and prosperity. As families moved in and out of the neighborhood, its identity evolved. Over time, Irish names like Connelly, Leahy, and McDonough became less common. Former residents like Rick Cardenas, interviewed in a 2007 St. Paul Pioneer Press article, never referred to it as Connemara Patch. By the mid-twentieth century, when he lived in the area he called “below the bridge,” most residents were Mexican American. All were cleared out by 1956 during the construction of Interstate 94. In 2005, the City of St. Paul created Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary on the former site of the neighborhood.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.