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Irish had early foothold in Olmsted County

It's not exactly Dublin-on-the-Zumbro, but Olmsted County has had a strong Irish contingent almost since it first was settled. In fact, a recent study by aGustavus Adolphus Collegeprofessor has found that in 1870,...

Bagpipers in Wabasha
About 200 people hit the streets of Wabasha on Saturday for the St. Patrick's Day Parade. Among the revelers were Rochester Caledonian Bagpipers, who also played at the Olde Triangle Pub and the American Legion Club at the end of the parade route. Irish heritage runs deep in Olmsted County as well -- in 1870, about 12 percent of the population was Irish.

It's not exactly Dublin-on-the-Zumbro, but Olmsted County has had a strong Irish contingent almost since it first was settled.

In fact, a recent study by a Gustavus Adolphus College professor has found that in 1870, 12 percent of Olmsted County's population was Irish.

"That's actually quite a bit," said Robert Douglas, an emeritus professor of geography at Gustavus. "But based on census tabulation, High Forest Township was 24 percent Irish, Rochester Township was 29 percent Irish and Marion Township was 17 percent Irish. The Irish were really clustered in those three townships."

St. Paul historically has been considered the center of Irish life in Minnesota, but clearly, Rochester Township, with its large Irish population, would have been quite a natural place for someone with the surname of Mayo to settle.

Douglas undertook his mapping of Irish population in Olmsted County after conducting a survey of historic locales for the Olmsted County Planning Department. He and a student, Eric Cronin, combed through census documents and plat books to determine where Irish people lived in the county. "We decided to see if we could map the Irish in the county from 1860 to 1870," Douglas said.


What they found was a somewhat clannish form of settlement, with Irish newcomers, as was typical for most immigrant groups, settling in close proximity to other Irish people.

What is somewhat unusual about their findings, though, was the rural nature of the Irish settlement in the county. Typically, Irish immigrants settled in urban areas, particularly in the northeastern U.S., or in Midwestern cities such as Chicago and St. Paul.

But Douglas found that, in the 1860s, many Irish joined the movement to new lands in the Midwest. "They were just moving in with the other waves of immigrants," he said.

But not all Irish who settled on the land turned out to be successful farmers, Douglas said.

A few years after the initial settlements in Minnesota, Archbishop John Ireland, of St. Paul, recruited Irish immigrants from the East Coast to settle in rural Irish colonies in Minnesota.

"Most of these Irish were city people," Douglas said. After enduring a tough season or two on the farm, he said, "they headed for St. Paul."

The Olmsted County Irish hung on longer than that. They established St. Bridget's Church, in Simpson, southeast of Rochester, which still is going strong.

Lately, Rochester Irish Fest was founded, and several Irish cultural events have been staged year-round, including a Ceili dance on Saturday to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.


Mairtin de Cogain, a musician from Cork, Ireland, who moved to Rochester five years ago, said he wasn't surprised to find people of Irish heritage here.

"Everywhere you go in America, there are Irish," he said.

Especially, he might have added, on St. Patrick's Day.

Source: 1870 Federal Manuscript Census

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