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A brief history of Irish immigrants in Michigan

corktown sign
Robert Duffner
Wikimedia Commons / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

It’s St. Patrick’s Day. While the bars may be emptier than usual, you can still enjoy some Irish history over a socially distant Guinness here at Stateside.

The day is usually marked by large festivities in Detroit’s Corktown, the tradition continues, although smaller. Pat Commins and Elizabeth Rice are the authors of the new book Irish Immigrants in Michigan: A History in Stories.While you might picture Boston or New York when you think of Irish immigrants settling in America, Commins and Rice pointed out that those cities were already crowded in the early 1800s when the Irish began to arrive. So they looked west-ward and sought out the Great Lakes state, which was a frontier colony at that point. The construction of the Erie Canal in the 1830s made it an easy trip to Michigan.

“Detroit, of course, had been settled as a frontier place and a trading place by the French, the fur trading community really in the 1700s,” Rice said. “Detroit had kind of a reputation as a Catholic enclave already, which was appealing to lots of the Irish who were coming over and you would have to kind of understand that those eastern cities that were getting so crowded, it wasn’t always the most welcoming place for new immigrants.”

So Michigan welcomed them in and Irish immigrants settled all over the state for a whole host of reasons. Commins brought up that most of the settlers were wealthy “adventurers” who found a home amongst the bustling fur trade on Mackinac Island, moving down to Beaver Island when Mackinac grew crowded.

Beaver Island is also known for its wacky stint with Mormonism, who drove out the Irish under King Strang, but the Irish returned to the island and flourished once again.

“The Irish immigrants came back and they wrote home and this would have been during the famine years in Ireland, so in 1845 - 1850, and there were many people who just had nothing,” Rice said. “Irish was the first language of everyone, business was conducted in the Irish language. So you might not think of that.”

They also went north to copper country in the Keweenaw Peninsula, as many of the Irish immigrants had worked as copper miners in their home country. When the mines were less plentiful in Michigan, they moved west again and in their stead came the Finnish and Italian populations that are known to the area today.

But what about Corktown, the center of St. Patrick's Day festivities in non-pandemic years? It was primarily populated by those who had come from the bigger cities. Irish settlers originally made their home on the east side of Detroit but shifted westward into where Corktown now is. The name comes from these people’s origins, they mostly came from the Irish county of Cork, thus Corktown.

A man named George O’Keefe came over in the early 1800s after studying law in his home country and becoming a judge in the city of Corktown, as Commins explained.

“He was said to be an Irish gentleman in the truest and fullest sense of the word. He was learned, cultured, brilliant, and witty. And he was over six feet tall,” Commins said. “He was a wonderful orator and he was founder of the Saint Patrick’s society in 1829. He was interested in all, even though he left Ireland, he was still interested in all things Irish.”

One year he led a St. Patrick's Day parade, but it looked far different from the festivities we might recall. There was no drinking, no green beer or Guinness. The Cathoic Temperance movement was in full swing.

This year is an even quieter celebration for us all. Especially Commins, who lives in Dublin and, due to lockdown, can’t gather with friends or family or even go farther than five miles from his home.

“Hopefully, with the vaccination coming in and people being vaccinated, maybe next year we will celebrate in a proper way,” Commins said.

He finished the interview in the best way. In Gaelic, he said “Happy St. Patrick’s to you all.”

This article was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 9 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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