By Tim Walch
St. Patrick’s Day is a great day to be Irish in Iowa! From Davenport to Sioux City, from Dubuque to Council Bluffs, untold numbers of Iowans will be celebrating their Irish heritage. They’ll be marching, orating and, of course, taking a nip or two in commemoration of their ancestry. “Slainte,” as the Irish would say.
But being Irish is more than the percentage on your DNA test. Being Irish in general, and being Irish in Iowa in particular, means that you have a knowledge of the sacrifice made by the tens of thousands of immigrants who took a chance on a future in the Hawkeye State. Unfortunately, most Irish Iowans know almost nothing about the pioneers and progressives who helped make our state what it is today.
That’s what I learned when I set out to write a book on the Irish of Iowa. If you ask the typical Iowan about the Sullivan Brothers, many will tell you about the sacrifice made by five sailors who gave their lives for their country. Ask those same Iowans about Kate Shelley, and a few will recall a brave young girl who saved hundreds of people from being injured or killed in a horrible train wreck.
But beyond those well-known figures, most Iowans know precious little about the Irish heritage of our state. So on this special day, let’s salute some of the lesser-known members of this special clan known as the Iowa Irish. Here is a selection of special people who continue to touch our lives to the present day:
• Consider some of the Irish women who established many of the schools, hospitals and asylums in our state. Tens of thousands of Iowa children were educated by Irish-born women such as Mary Frances Clarke and the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the religious order she established in Dubuque in 1843. And many others were nursed back to health by Irish-born nuns at one of the many Mercy Hospitals across the state. The quality of that service is evident in their religious vows.
• How about the thousands of Irishmen who cut timbers and laid the steel for the many miles of railroads that crossed the state in the 19th century? The work was so daunting that working on the rails was referred to as “hell on wheels.”
• Another group of forgotten Irishmen are the journalists who championed free speech. At some risk to his own life, Denis Mahony of Dubuque was a vocal critic of the prosecution of the Civil War. Another journalist of note was Fred Sharon of The Catholic Messenger who exposed the British indifference to poverty and injustice in Ireland. Both men used their newspapers to advocate social change.
• Independence for Ireland was a passion and a preoccupation for the Irish in Iowa. Led by John Brennan of Sioux City and Michael V. Gannon of Davenport, organizations such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians raised tens of thousands of dollars in the aid of their native land. Their commitment to the cause was rewarded by visits from Irish patriots such as Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell, for whom the town of Parnell is named.
• And let’s not forget the good people of communities such as Garryowen, Melrose and Emmetsburg who have remained faithful to their ancestors’ commitment to faith and fatherland. For these communities, being Irish is a lot more than quaffing a pint or two on a cold day in March.
• Finally, I want to salute the Iowans of all ethnicities who take pride in their Irish roots and help to sustain two wonderful cultural events each August. Take a moment and check out what is being offered at the annual Irish Hooley in Dubuque (www.irishhooley.org) and the Iowa Irish Fest in Waterloo (www.iowairishfest.com) if you are interested in the best in Irish cultural education and entertainment.
Researching and writing “Irish Iowa” was a real moment of personal pride and satisfaction. To be sure, I was born Irish in Michigan, received an education at the University of Notre Dame and spent parts of my career in Illinois and Virginia, but it was my move to Iowa that gave this “immigrant” a sense of home.
(Timothy Walch is the author of “Irish Iowa,” published this month by the History Press and available in book stores and via the internet. He is a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville and a member of the board of directors of The Catholic Messenger. He can be reached at Twalch47@gmail.com)