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Remembering a lost Irish enclave in St. Paul

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

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.

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.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Joseph Hoover on 06/25/2018 - 06:58 pm.

    Polish Patch

    Across the river on the West Side Flats was Polish Patch.

  2. Submitted by Richard Rowan on 06/26/2018 - 11:50 am.

    A Touch of Family History

    I enjoyed this article. My great grandparents lived in Connemara Patch, at least briefly, during the 1880s. They had been farming in Rice County in the late 1870s before moving to St. Paul where my great grandfather Thomas Rowan worked on the railroad. During that time they bought a farm near Graceville but never moved there, probably because my great grandfather was struck and killed by a Minneapolis & St. Louis railroad locomotive while he was shoveling snow in 1886. My great grandmother won a judgement against the railroad and moved herself and her 8 kids up onto the bluff. In her later years she used to say one thing she was proud of was never having to put her children to bed hungry.

    She kept ownership of the farm in Graceville and leased it to an adjacent farm family – Patrick and Margaret Hyland. The Hylands had homesteaded there in 1884. My grandfather eventually married Patrick and Margaret’s daughter Elizabeth and they raised their family in the Dayton’s Bluff area. One of their sons was Richard H. Rowan who was a police officer and rose through the ranks to become Chief of Police in St. Paul.

    Because of the story of the 50 ‘Connemara Irish’ families a myth seems to have persisted that the Irish were not good farmers. However, there were many prosperous Irish farmers in the Graceville area. My Hyland grandparents, and later their son, farmed there for 45 years, and by the time they sold their land, they had expanded their holdings to about 4 times their original farm.

    I went on a tour of Connemara Patch last year – it was a St. Paul Schools Community Ed tour led by Teresa McCormick. It’s easy to see why the Irish moved there. They found jobs with the railroads and Connemara Patch was right next to the tracks and the shops where the trains were maintained. It was easy to get to work. But with a couple of hundred trains running through there everyday, it must have been noisy!

    Thanks to Natalie Heneghan for this article about the history of St. Paul.

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