‘Connemaras’ struggled to survive on the mid-west plains of Minnesota

Week II

Graceville, Minnesota, circa 1900 (Celtic Junction Arts Centre).

Graceville, Minnesota, circa 1900 (Celtic Junction Arts Centre).

The 309 Connemara emigrants, selected by their local clergy as suitable for a new life in America, arrived at Boston June 14 1880, 11 days after departure from Galway Bay on the SS Austrian, an Allen Line ship. The settling of ‘The Connemaras’, as they became known, was a new venture prompted by a Liverpool priest, Fr Patrick Nugent renowned for his ‘philantropic and truly patriotic exertions to alleviate the social conditions of his fellow countrymen in England’; and Archbishop John Ireland, of St Paul, Minnesota, who was already settling thousands of Irish Catholics who were trapped in the ghettoes of New York and elsewhere, on rich prairie lands.

As the railroads rolled westwards land and opportunities were opening up, presenting ideal spaces for healthy, and hard-working emigrants to work and prosper.*

Word of the approaching ‘Connemaras’ was greeted with a genuine welcome and empathy. Irish Americans knew from first-hand experience, or from hear-say, of the devastating effects of the Great Famine, the additional potato crisis of the 1870s, and the relentless evictions that continued in Ireland. They were glad that some of their fellow countrymen were being sponsored by Catholic authorities to find a new life.


Once the Austrian docked in Boston, Mr Dillon O’Brien, editor of the North Western Chronicle, a close friend and co-organiser with Archbishop Ireland, went on board to meet them. They were advised to remain on board that evening. Crowds came to wish them a ‘Cead Mile Failte’.

Escorted by Mr O’Brien they left Boston next day by train passing through Buffalo and Cleveland, where again they were welcomed by Irish groups. At Chicago members of the St Patrick Society met them, where its secretary, William J Onahan, was quietly appalled at how emaciated and exhausted they looked: ‘The Famine was visible in the children’s pinched and emaciated faces, and in their shrivelled limbs…they could scarcely be called legs and arms. Their features were quaint; and the entire company was squalid and wretched. It was a painful revelation to all who witnessed it.’

Not a good omen for the hard physical work that would be necessary on their allotted farms at Graceville, Minnesota.

However, the good Irish people of Chicago gave them bread, milk, cheese and ham. Rev Fr Cashman gave them a large box of clothes, followed by a ‘sumptuous dinner’ in Mrs Loftus’s hotel.

From Chicago they travelled to St Paul where they were met by Archbishop Ireland and a great crowd. Two priests, Fr Shanley, and Fr McMullen had obtained jobs in St Paul for the 45 young man and 35 young women in the group, while the rest moved on to the Connemara colony at Graceville.


Things began to fall apart almost immediately. Fifty farms, of 160 acres each and a small cabin already built on each allotment, was presented to the remaining ‘Connemaras’. The first five acres had been ploughed over ready for planting, but it was evident that the ‘Connemaras’ had not the skill for the heavy farm work that was required. Furthermore it was now late June, two months behind the normal planting season.

Despite efforts to regain their strength, and adjust to a new environment, and probably only able to speak in Irish, it did not take long for reports of hardship to be reported. Residents from the near-by town of Morris visited the settlers and were concerned by what they saw. They said that the Archbishop was neglecting his new Catholic colony. There was work available on neighbouring farms, at wages of up to two dollars a day, yet some refused to avail of it declaring that the Archbishop was responsible for them.


Archbishop Ireland was extremely irritated by all this. He was a man who took considerable pride in his achievements. As a young priest he became chaplain of the Union’s 5th Minnesota Volunteers during the Civil War, and was not shy in lending a hand in battle. He was a strong opponent of intemperance, a proud Irish American, and a loyal supporter of the Republican party. He founded St Thomas Seminary, and several schools; he had laid the foundation stone for St Paul’s cathedral, and was applauded for his successful settlements of Irish emigrants. An emigrant himself from Kilkenny in the 1840s, he was admired for being a progressive man of staunch Catholic beliefs. However, the ‘Connemaras’ were in danger of turning all his achievements into one big failure.

He visited Graceville and spoke directly to them, but was dismayed to hear that they had made little or no preparation for the coming winter; that some had actually sold their seed, while others did not bother to plant it. Some had even sold the clothes and the tools they were given.

The Archbishop initiated a public works scheme, financed by the dioceses, that would pay the ‘Connemaras’ two dollars a day, and warned that if they did not take up the scheme he would have their credit for provisions cut off.

‘Connemara Patch’

Things dramatically got far worse. It was now mid October and the snows came early. In fact the winter of 1880/81 is still regarded as the worst on record. Dillon O’Brien went to Graceville to administer the funds, and to advise the settlers how to withstand such severe weather. As a supporter of the Archbishop he wrote to the New York Sun testifying that the snow was too deep for horses and sleighs. He observed that neighbouring farmers had brought them flour through the snow pulled by hand-sleds, but the flour was left untouched. ‘Many of them are wholly unreliable, and have all the cunning which a life of pauperism gives’. He accused the emigrants of hiding money they received from young family members working in St Paul.

Yet another reporter, Leonard B Hodges, described the women and children more or less ‘frozen in their shanties for want of fuel’.

These contradictory reports prompted the Archbishop to be even more defensive, and to further excuse himself of all blame. Shortly before Christmas he wrote to the St Paul newspapers where he hit out at the poor ‘Connemaras’. ‘The parties in the west of Ireland, whom Fr Nugent requested to select families for the colony sent us for the most part paupers of long standing totally demoralised and unmannered by years of suffering and unaccustomed to provide for their own wants’.

Several months later, Archbishop Ireland finally relented and provided funding for the ‘Connemaras’ to relocate to St Paul. They settled in what became known as the ‘Connemara Patch’ on the east side of the city, which became, in time, a shanty ghetto of its own.

Next week: How the James Hack Tuke’s assisted emigrants fared, many of them in Minnesota.

NOTES: *Some of this new land was once where native tribes roamed and hunted. Throughout the 1700s the Sioux Nation, divided into the Dakota and Lakota tribes, were pushed into southern Minnesota. In the 1880s the Dakotas signed a series of treaties with the US, ceding much of their land there. But failure by the US to make treaty payments on time, as well as low food supplies, forced the Dakotas to declare war on the US which resulted with the Dakotas being exiled from Minnesota, and brought to reservations in Nebraska, North and South Dakota, and Canada.

The Lakota were a warrior people who roamed the great mid-western plains, and inflicted a crushing defeat on the US army at Little Big Horn. They were eventually destroyed at Wounded Knee, December 1890.

I am grateful this week for an article by Jane Kennedy (who signs herself as ‘A proud Tuke descendant’ ) in Celtic Junction Arts Centre, ‘Journey to Uncertainty’; and Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill’s Beyond the Twelve Bens, reprinted numerous times and available in local bookshops.

Listen to Tom Kenny and Ronnie O'Gorman elaborating on topics they have covered in this week's paper and much more in this week's Old Galway Diary Podcast.


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