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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


From Encyclopedia Dubuque
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Irish youth gather at Bluff and Dodge streets in the 1890s. Photo courtesy: Center for Dubuque History and Telegraph Herald

IRISH. The Irish had many excellent reasons to migrate to the United States. In 1695 after the English had conquered all of Ireland, a separate set of rules, the Penal Laws, were written with the intent of keeping the Irish defeated for generations. The laws took most of the Catholics' property and gave them second class status. If a Protestant wanted a Catholic's home or horse, the courts could be relied upon to take it. Catholic education was forbidden and they were not allowed to hold public office, bear arms, or enter a profession. Catholics who attempted to privately education their children faced the loss of their remaining property, but they could be sent to a state-sponsored school with a curriculum designed to make them Protestant. If an eldest son became Protestant, he gained the right to take over the family's property and do with it whatever he wanted. (1)

They had so little agricultural ground of their own. According to tradition, when a man died his land was divided among his sons. After generations, even a large farm was reduced to a point that only potatoes would provide enough food. (2) In his book The History of Ireland, Daniel Webster Hollis III wrote that one acre of potatoes could produce 320 bushels of potatoes--enough to feed a family for a year. By the 1800s, Hollis wrote that one-third of the population was living on this single crop. (3)

When the Irish potato famine struck, the Irish had not enough to feed themselves because they had to export so much of their produce to England. (4) Their landlords also faced a serious problem. Their starving tenants could not afford to pay them, but the landlords were forced to pay an annual tax for each tenant they kept on the land. It was cheaper considering the shipping rates to ship their tenants to the United States or Canada. (5) In the poverty of Ireland, it became true that only the eldest son received land ownership and only the eldest daughter had the opportunity to marry. Younger males could emigrate or become a priest. Younger females were encouraged to enter religious life as a nun or emigrate. (6)

An exodus of population began that peaked in 1851. Between 1820 and 1950 more than 4.5 million Irish immigrated to the United States. (7) When they arrived in America, the Irish along the east coast were thrown together by society with AFRICAN AMERICANS in low income jobs. The socialization led to mulattoes either referred to as "(word omitted) turned inside out" or "smoked Irish." (8) This association of early Irish settlers and slaves has been used to promote the false accusation that Irish were slaves. This claim is based on the misinterpretation of indentured servitude, the method by which many poor Europeans migrated to North America in the early colonial period. (9)

Great legal differences in colonial America existed between indentured servitude and chattel slavery. In written accounts found in Ireland at that time, any form of forced labor could be considered slavery. Unlike slaves, servants were considered legally human. Their servitude was based on a contract that limited their service to a defined period of time, usually about seven years, in exchange for passage to the colonies. They did not pass their un-free status on their descendants. By definition in the colonies, Europeans were not considered slaves. (10)

“An indenture implies two people have entered into a contract with each other but slavery is not a contract,” said Leslie Harris, a professor of African-American history at Northwestern University. “It is often about being a prisoner of war or being bought or sold bodily as part of a trade. That is a critical distinction.” (11)

Twenty-first century conspiracy theories claim that historians and media are covering the truth. These theories contain similar falsehoods: that Irish people were enslaved in America or the Caribbean after the 1649 British invasion of Ireland led by Oliver Cromwell; that Irish slaves were cheaper and treated worse than African slaves; that Irish women were forcibly “bred” with black men. Many refer a nonexistent 1625 proclamation by King James II, who was not born until 1633. They often cite atrocities committed against black slaves and substitute Irish people for the actual victims. A favorite event of this type was the 1781 Zong massacre, in which over 130 African slaves were thrown to their deaths off a slave ship. InfoWars, a conspiracy website, claimed Irish people and went further by inflating the death toll by adding a zero.(12)

Racist advocates of these conspiracy theories have said, 'The Irish were slaves. They got over it, so why can’t you?' There is also the "Irish Man Demands Reparations For Slavery! video by The Alex Jones Channel. (13)

“It almost becomes a race to the bottom of who suffered more,” Matthew Reilly, an archaeologist, said, adding that the memes are “an effort to claim a certain ancestry of suffering in order to claim a certain political position.” (14)

The white slavery story became specifically Irish after the 2000 publication of “To Hell or Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland,” a book by the late journalist Sean O’Callaghan. In 2016, 82 Irish scholars and writers signed an open letter denouncing the Irish slave myth and asking publications to stop mentioning it. Some removed or revising articles that referenced the false claims, but the letter had a limited impact. (15)

Between 1831 and 1920, the Boston Pilot ran more than 45,000 advertisements taken out by family and others looking to connect with Irish immigrants.

The Irish-born comprised one of Dubuque's largest ethnic groups as early as 1835 and maintained that distinction until the mid-1850s. For Irish immigrants, eastern Iowa had many appeals. Cheap land-wooded areas cost $4 to $8 an acre, a good yoke of oxen could be purchased for $45 to $55, and for those not interested in farming, plenty of jobs were available in the LEAD mines. (16)

The January 14, 1841, edition of the Philadelphia Catholic Herald includes this letter from Charles Corkery, one of Dubuque, Iowa's first settlers:

          My sole desire is to direct the attention of Catholics 
          (Irish Catholics particularly) to the country little known, 
          and less appreciated, in the East...I have had ample 
          opportunities of bearing witness to many respectable 
          writers who unite in giving Iowa the happy (names) of 
          'The Garden of America' and "The Eldorado of the West'...
          Irishmen unite in saying that our wheat and oats are 
          nothing inferior to those in Ireland, and I have never 
          seen better potatoes in Ireland...than those raised in 
          the mining district. (17)

Mathias LORAS, bishop of the new Diocese of Dubuque, also had a strong interest in attracting Irish immigrants to Dubuque. In 1843 the SISTERS OF CHARITY OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY (BVM), were the first religious community to come to Iowa. (18) Loras wrote letters to the Boston Pilot and other Eastern newspapers praising Iowa. In 1854 Loras wrote to the Pilot:

           Let good immigrants come in haste to the west of Iowa...
           they will soon make whole Catholic settlements-some Irish, 
           some German, some French. (19) 

The Rev. Terence Donaghue, vicar general of the Diocese of Dubuque, wrote to a priest in County Carlow, Ireland, appealing for more Irish settlers. Donaghue promised to teach the settlers how to grow corn, oats and potatoes and said the new immigrants must "be smart, for we are get-ahead people here." (20)

Those not interested in farming found many reasons to settle in Dubuque. By 1840, 10% of the Irish population in Dubuque was involved in manufacturing. Despite anti-Irish sentiments along the eastern coast of the United States, Irish in Dubuque were exposed to few instances of harassment. (21) An exception to the general tone toward the Irish was the establishment in 1854 of a Know-Nothing newspaper, the Observer, in Dubuque. The paper was opposed to both Irish and Catholic immigrants. (22)

Response to the appeals for Irish settlers was swift. In 1830 James LANGWORTHY led a group of 51 miners-two thirds of them Irish- who settled in Dubuque and stayed until they were driven out by troops after the return of the SAUK AND FOX. These miners drew up a set of rules known as the Miner's Compact-believed to be the first code of law in what is now Iowa. (23) There is substantial evidence to show that the Catholic Church went to great lengths to attract Irish priests and religious communities to the area. Trappist monks from Ireland established the monastery of NEW MELLERAY MONASTERY near what is now Peosta, on land Loras gave to them. (24) In 1874 the SISTERS OF THE PRESENTATION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY (PBVM) arrived in Dubuque from Ireland at the request of Bishop John HENNESSY. (25)

The Irish accounted for approximately one-quarter of the city’s population in the 1850 and 1860 census counts. The Irish enjoyed fairly immediate political power and elected F. K. O'Ferrall mayor for successive three terms, 1844-46. (26) Other examples of Irish political influence can be found in Patrick J. QUIGLEY serving in the Territorial Legislature, Charles Corkery holding the office of public clerk, and Dennis MAHONY being influential in the newspaper business.

As early as 1846, the city was divided into wards. The First Ward, which made up the southern part of Dubuque, was called "Little Dublin," because of its many Irish residents. (27) The neighborhood reached from Fourth and Bluff to Grandview Avenue along South Locust and Southern Avenue. (28)

Of the 13,045 inhabitants of Dubuque in 1860, 13.9 per cent or 1,800 were born in Ireland. This included 992 married adults, 317 single women, 183 single men, 98 widows, 18 widowers, and 182 children under sixteen. The 992 married adults represented 535 families. (29)

Among the men there were 305 day laborers, most of whom lived in the First Ward. In addition, there were fourteen teamsters and twelve draymen. Nine ran boarding houses or inns while another eleven were saloon keepers. Sixty-three were following the trades-carpenters, tin smiths, painters, bricklayers, plasterers, and stone cutters and masons. There were fifty-six miners. River and rail transportation employed some as mail agents, express drivers, ferrymen, boatmen and baggage men. (30)

There were fifteen merchants and fourteen grocers. Only one Irishman was a butcher, grain dealer, druggist, poultry dealer, or confectioner, although eighteen were shoemakers and sixteen tailors. Only eight were manufacturers of any kind. Their products included glass, carriages and wagons, stoves and cabinets. (31)

Most of the single women, 196 in all, were servants. Some worked in the boarding houses and hotels, while many worked for the wealthier families of Dubuque. Widows were more likely to be wash women, housekeepers and dressmakers. (32)

Fifteen men could be classed as professionals. They were lawyers, printers, teachers and an editor, an architect and an engineer. Only two held government positions. (33)

By 1850 the property owned by Irish settlers had increased so much that it amounted to more than one-third of the total property value in Dubuque County despite the fact that the Irish accounted for less than a quarter of the county's population. (34)

By 1860, 1,800 of Dubuque's 13,000 people were Irish born. They were day laborers, teamsters, draymen, inn and saloon-keepers. Many worked in the mines or on the railroad. There were 15 Irish merchants and 14 grocers. There were fifteen people who would be classified as professionals-lawyers, printers, teachers, an architect, an editor and an engineer. (35)

Several generalization have been made of the early Irish settlers in Dubuque. They were less likely to marry before the age of twenty-one. They were also less likely to divorce and were more likely to have more than three children. (35)

Immigrants to Dubuque wanted to preserve the religious and ethnic traditions of their homelands. This made it difficult for Catholics of different backgrounds to find much in common other than their religion. The missionary priest Samuel MAZZUCHELLI was Italian, and most of the Catholics he served in what is now the tri-state area were Irish, but they seemed to work well together. The relationship between Bishop Loras and Dubuque-area Irish Catholics, however, was often strained. (37) The Irish Catholics in Dubuque often accused Loras of favoring French Catholics; when he first arrived in 1839. He preferred worship with the French because his English was still heavily accented. (38)

In 1852 the Irish were upset when Loras built St. Mary's Church, later STEEPLE SQUARE, at 101 E. 15th Street for the German community. The Irish wanted nothing less. They supported the construction of St. Patrick's as a parish in 1852 with the church being constructed in 1853 at 1425 Iowa St. even though ST. RAPHAEL'S CATHEDRAL was located in an Irish neighborhood and had a mainly Irish congregation. Loras recognized that the cathedral needed to be replaced. If the Irish left the cathedral, needed revenue would drop. With St. Patrick's as a mission, its income and that of the cathedral could be combined. (39) With the establishment in 1887 of ST. COLUMBKILLE CATHOLIC CHURCH with its school and convent, by the Most Reverend John HENNESSY at 1240 Rush St. the Irish had another refuge. (40)

The Irish threatened to withholding contributions and accused Loras of demanding more contributions from the Irish Catholics for the cathedral. Loras then threatened to remove his priests from Dubuque. (41)

The Irish showed their interest in politics in the 1880s through the Labor Reform Party formed by the KNIGHTS OF LABOR. The success of the party, however, was short-lived with the Democrats regaining control. In 1892 the local Republican Party played on the Irish hatred of all-things English by promoting a tariff on English imports. (42) The formation of the Dubuque Land League around 1881 denounced the arrest of Irish leaders in the home country. (43)

The Irish have continued to hold close ties to their nation of origin. In the 1860s many of them joined the FENIANS. In 1880 Irish citizens of Dubuque through the ANCIENT ORDER OF HIBERIANS made financial contributions to the Irish National Land League, a political organization in Ireland dedicated to helping poor tenant farmers. (44) In 1920 an Irish Bond Drive was held across the United States to support the Irish Republic. Although most of the subscriptions were for small amounts--$10-$25--during the ten month campaign a total of $5,123,640 was collected. This was far greater than any other similar activity in the United States. (45) In Dubuque and the immediate area, $10,395 was collected. (46)

Like other ethnic groups, the Irish established a benevolent society to help its members in times of hardship and serve as a social center. This role was served by the Ancient Order of Hiberians. Newspapers annually celebrated the occasion of St. Patrick's Day. (47) The Irish-American Club in 1887 moved from its old hall at he corner of 17th and Main to new quarters in the Cos Building two blocks further south. The new building offered a larger hall, smoking room, and library. (48)

In 1901 some interest locally was shown in teaching Irish history in school. This followed the parochial schools of Chicago coming under pressure from South Chicago Irish Historical Society. The subject became a required subject in the fall of 1902. In addition two works on Irish history were made available for supplemental reading in the public schools. The editorial stated,"This brings home to our parochial schools the tremendous force of neglect into which Irish history has been allowed to fall in our schools. (49)

Little Dublin's homes began to disappear with the construction of the JULIEN DUBUQUE BRIDGE and the relocation of U. S. 61. The ICE HARBOR which once served as a favorite swimming hole became developed for tourism with ROBERT'S RIVER RIDES and later the growth of the NATIONAL MISSISSIPPI RIVER MUSEUM AND AQUARIUM. (50)

Although many the Irish have moved to other locations, the spirit thrives. The first St. Patrick's Day Parade occurred in Dubuque on March 17, 1979. This event that became an annual occasion was organized by Maureen Siegert and Mary Dunne. (51) In 1981 residents organized the South End Club, "to keep the Irish together as much as you can." The group elected Cyril A. CALLAHAN the mayor of Little Dublin. The LITTLE DUBLIN NEWS was the organization's newsletter. (52) For generations, the highlight of Irish social life was the Hooley. Music, dance, song, good conversation and merriment flowed freely as described in the Percy French song, "There's a Hooley on in Hannigan's House Tonight." By 2013 this too had become an annual event in Dubuque.

Irish Hooley--http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-BfOXYTZgo0

See also:

Patrick O'CONNOR




1. Fialka, John J. Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2003, p. 21

2.Dolter, Amanda. "Leaving Ireland," Tri-States' Irish Heritage, Telegraph Herald, March 16, 2017, p. 9

3. Ibid., p. 10

4. Jerde, Jay. "The Twinkle in the Tri-States: Irish Immigrants in Dubuque," Julien's Journal, March 1996, p. 11

5. Fialka, p. 46

6. Dolter, p. 10

7. Mahan, Holly. "Irish Citizens in Nineteenth Century Dubuque, Iowa." Ron Roberts ed. Iowa's Ethnic Roots. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1993, p. 131

8. Veen, Alice Hoyt, "Iowa African American Heritage," Prairie Roots Research, Online: http://www.prairierootsresearch.com/black-history-month/

9. Stack, Liam. "Debunking a Myth: The Irish Were Not Slaves Too," The New York Times, March 17, 2017, Online: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/17/us/irish-slaves-myth.html

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Jerde, Lyn. Irish America Magazine March/April 1995, p. 72. Online: http://www.celticcousins.net/irishiniowa/dubuque.htm

17. Ibid.

18. Jerde, Jay, p. 11

19. Jerde, Lyn.

20. Ibid.

21. Hellert, Susan. "The Luck of the Irish has Always Had a Place in the Dubuque Area," Telegraph Herald, Mar. 20, 2001, p. 22. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=PghaAAAAIBAJ&sjid=WEsNAAAAIBAJ&pg=6518,3647389&dq=irish+dubuque&hl=en

22. Guilfoyle, Laura. "Now They Even Marry Each Other," Telegraph Herald, June 18, 1979, p. 1. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=6BhCAAAAIBAJ&sjid=S6oMAAAAIBAJ&pg=6821,2451025&dq=germans+dubuque&hl=en

23. "The Greening of the Tri-States," Telegraph Herald, Mar. 11, 1994, p. 61. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=oeZYAAAAIBAJ&sjid=7rsMAAAAIBAJ&pg=5375,2744087&dq=irish+dubuque&hl=en

24. Jerde, Jan. p. 11

25. Jacobson, James E. "Dubuque-The Key City, The Architectural and Historical Resources of Dubuque, Iowa 1837-1955, National Register of Historic Places, June 24, 2003. Online: http://www.cityofdubuque.org/DocumentCenter/Home/View/2936

26. Calkin, Dr. Homer L. The Palimpsest, "The Irish in Iowa" Iowa City, Iowa, State Historical Society of Iowa. February, 1964. Online: http://www.celticcousins.net/irishiniowa/dubuque.htm

27. Ibid.

28. Ridell, Amy. "City's Little Dublin Poor, But Proud," Telegraph Herald, March 3, 1987, p. 1

29. Calkin

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid.

33. Jerde, Lyn.

34. Ibid.

35. Gallagher, Mary Kevin, BVM (editor). Seed/Harvest: A History of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Dubuque, Iowa: Archdiocese of Dubuque Press, 1987, p. 13

36. Mahan, Holly, p. 132

37. Gallagher. p. 13

38. Ibid., p. 14

39. Ibid.

40. Gloss, Megan, "Irish Roots Run Deep," Telegraph Herald, March 17, 2024, p. 8A

41. Gallagher, p. 16

42. Mahan, p. 134

43. "The Patriots in Prison," Dubuque Herald, October 19, 1881, p. 4

44. "The Voice of Gratitude," Dubuque Herald, July 28, 1880, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18800728&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

45. Lanier-Vos, Dan. Sinews of the Nation: Constructing Irish and Zionist Bonds in the United States. Cambridge, UK,: Polity Press, 2013. Online: http://books.google.com/books?id=ARW9APtlX_cC&pg=PA82&lpg=PA82&dq=Irish+Bond+Drive+%281920%29&source=bl&ots=ClepKLxHYZ&sig=Ys-7iRWAF6YVOPx53WciSu5AzDA&hl=en&sa=X&ei=V0tXUuOkPMfwyAGz0ICYBQ&ved=0CGQQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q=Irish%20Bond%20Drive%20%281920%29&f=false

46. "Irish Bond Drive Closes in Dubuque," Telegraph Herald, Nov. 2, 1920, p. 13. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=9hJeAAAAIBAJ&sjid=DGANAAAAIBAJ&pg=6661,4761981&dq=irish+dubuque&hl=en

47. Hellert.

48. "The Study of Irish History in School," Dubuque Daily Telegraph, June 31, 1902, p. 5

49. "Local News in Brief," The Herald, March 1, 1887, p. 4

50. McCormick, John. "From Dublin to Dubuque to Dyersville They Will be Snaking Through the Streets, Telegraph Herald, March 15, 1979, p. 7. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=gPhBAAAAIBAJ&sjid=R6oMAAAAIBAJ&pg=6623,1793703&dq=irish+dubuque&hl=en

51. Ridell

52. Ibid.

See: http://www.irishhooley.org/