Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Patrick's Sons Don The Green In Wisconsin

The ethnic richness of immigrant Wisconsin about which Fred L. Holmes wrote was already fading quickly in 1944 and may have all but vanished by now.  Places like Erin Prairie (population 658 according to the 2000 census) is still 98% white, but I wonder just how Irish it is today.

Holmes, himself of Irish heritage, visited Erin Prairie in the 1940s, interviewed people, and wrote:
'Every monument except one in this cemetery bears an Irish name' said the youthful caretaker, pausing a moment in the mowing, 'and that one is a Norwegian who had married an Irish girl.'
Headstones lettered with birthplaces from every county in Ireland bear names such as Donahue, Kennedy, Padden, Ross, Gherty, Garrity, Maloney, Wells, Stephens, Murta, Riley, Moore, Dean, Mead, Meath, Gill, La Vele, and many more. A roll call of the same names at mass any Sunday would show people answering. It is as if the identical pioneers are still around laughing, joking, praying. I looked upon it all with a feeling of sadness. Here was a sting in my heart that told me this was Ireland in essence; the spirit of love, devotion, and hope.
'Erin Prairie has changed mightily since I was a boy,' explained the township assessor, who had paused at the church. 'Then the overwhelming majority of the people were native-born Irish or first generation descent. So many of the younger have gone to St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Irish ways are dying out.'

Holmes went on to describe "Irish politics" in Wisconsin's largest city, Milwaukee, and a tragedy still unsurpassed:
Traditionally the Irish are Democrats in politics. Politics attracted them, like moths to candlelight, from the first. Five native-born Irish took prominent part in the convention that drafted the Wisconsin Constitution of 1848. They were the largest nationalistic group, exceeding all the others in membership combined. Early attachment to the Democratic party came from a feeling that the Jacksonians were more sympathetic to the hardships of the immigrant.
One of the most tragic incidents in the history of the state arose from a display of their lively interest in politics. During the Lincoln-Douglas presidential campaign of 1860, a group of young Irish boys, members of the Union Guard of the Third Ward in Milwaukee, chartered the 'Lady Elgin,' one of the finest boats on Lake Michigan, for a round trip tour to Chicago. They wanted to hear their favorite, Senator Stephen Douglas, speak. They took their sweethearts along for the holiday outing of singing Irish songs and dancing. On the return trip at night their excursion boat was rammed in the dark by a lumber freighter. The 'Lady Elgin' soon foundered and sank quickly off the shore at Winnetka, Illinois, with a loss of nearly half of the six hundred passengers.[1] That tragedy cast a pall of such mourning over the state that the disaster was remembered for generations in both stories and in song. It is still recalled by an annual requiem mass at St. John's Cathedral, Milwaukee, on September 8.  
~Fred L. Holmes, "St. Patrick's Sons Don The Green" Old World Wisconsin (1944)

Sign commemorating the sinking of the "Lady Elgin" in 1860

The Paddle Steamer "Lady Elgin"
[1] The wreck was located in 1989. Link


  1. There is something profoundly blessed and yet tragic about the Irish.

  2. On my mother's side (pure Irish - the Quigleys and the Bryans) there is the Irish sorrow, wisdom, propensity for whiskey and delight at encountering the world.

  3. I have no Irish in me that I'm aware of. A bit of Welsh.