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Connemara Patch

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Painting of Connemara Patch

Oil-on-canvas painting of Connemara Patch by Wilbur Hausenur, ca. 1935.

Connemara Patch began as a community of Irish immigrants on St. Paul’s East Side in the early 1880s. An unintended result of Bishop John Ireland’s Catholic colonization efforts and a victim of 1950s freeway construction, it was a small, swampy neighborhood on the banks of Phalen Creek. Despite its short and oft-forgotten existence, Connemara Patch was home to several generations of Irish working-class families and later immigrant groups.

Between 1876 and 1881, Bishop John Ireland secured 369,000 acres of farmland along the expanding railroad in rural Minnesota. There, he resettled thousands of Catholic immigrants—most of them Irish. During this time, Graceville in Big Stone County emerged as a commercial center among Ireland’s Minnesotan colonies.

After devastating crop failure in western Ireland in 1879, Bishop John Ireland sponsored fifty poor, starving families from the Connemara region of County Galway, Ireland. He arranged for them to settle in Graceville among earlier Irish immigrants to the region. The 309 newcomers, called “Connemaras,” arrived in Minnesota in June 1880. Ireland gave each family 160 acres of land, clothing, farming supplies, seed, and credit for food.

Ireland expected the families to farm their land and ultimately pay it off. The Connemaras, however, were not familiar with large-scale farming techniques. They hardly spoke English and preferred to find work as day laborers on the nearby railroad or on established farms. Already suffering and arriving too late in the season to plant their first crops, the Connemaras were wholly unprepared for the winter of 1880–1881, one of the worst in Midwestern history. Bishop Ireland, persuaded by the Connemaras’ worsening condition and growing public sympathy, decided to move the families to St. Paul, where they were likely to find greater financial stability. The situation received national attention, and Ireland believed the move to St. Paul would preserve his reputation and not further demoralize his colonization efforts.

Most settled in an area that became known as Connemara Patch, a neighborhood at the base of Dayton’s Bluff. It was roughly bounded by East Seventh Street on the north, Third Street on the south, Hoffman Street to the east, and Commercial Street to the west.

Like Swede Hollow across Seventh Street and other poor neighborhoods built along the river flats, Connemara Patch was a working-class ethnic enclave. Its proximity to commercial activity in downtown St. Paul offered a range of employment opportunities. Residents found work as teamsters, tinsmiths, dressmakers, blacksmiths, and conductors.

Many Connemara Patch residents attended St. John’s Parish on Dayton’s Bluff. The twelfth Catholic Church in St. Paul, St. John’s was established in 1886 to serve English-speaking Catholics new to the area. Existing Catholic parishes in the area catered to German speakers.

A 1902 St. Paul Globe article paints one of the most vivid pictures of Connemara Patch, “a little settlement that lies at the foot of Dayton’s Bluff like sediment in the bottom of a big pool.” It was a small, rather hidden neighborhood. The writer visited on a sunny spring day and described the streets as crooked and the houses—or “huts”—as awkwardly built. Children played happily in the mud and sunshine, wearing tattered clothes.

Opportunities to move away from the banks of Phalen Creek and make the metaphorical climb up the bluff represented upward social mobility and prosperity. As families moved in and out of the neighborhood, its identity evolved. Over time, Irish names like Connelly, Leahy, and McDonough became less common. Former residents like Rick Cardenas, interviewed in a 2007 St. Paul Pioneer Press article, never referred to it as Connemara Patch. By the mid-twentieth century, when he lived in the area he called “below the bridge,” most residents were Mexican American. All were cleared out by 1956 during the construction of Interstate 94. In 2005, the City of St. Paul created Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary on the former site of the neighborhood.

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Boxmeyer, Don. “Homes Gone, but Memories Sweet Growing Up Under Bridges’ Shadows in Connemara Patch.” St. Paul Pioneer Press, November 15, 2015.
https://www.twincities.com/2007/10/15/homes-gone-but-memories-sweet-growing-up-under-bridges-shadows-in-connemara-patch

Diebold, Susan M. “The Mexicans.” In They Chose Minnesota, edited by June Drenning Holmquist, 92–107. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1981.

Regan, Ann. Irish in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002.

——— . “The Irish.” In They Chose Minnesota, edited by June Drenning Holmquist, 130–152. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1981.

Shannon, James P. “Bishop Ireland’s Connemara Experiment.” Minnesota History 35, no. 5 (March 1957): 205–213.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/35/v35i05p205-213.pdf

“St. Paul’s Most Unique Settlement.” St. Paul Globe, March 16, 1902.
https://newspapers.mnhs.org/jsp/viewer.jsp?doc_id=mnhi0031/1HMADF5A/02031601&page_name=20

Trimble, Steve. “St. Paul's Most Unique Settlement.” Saint Paul Historical.
http://saintpaulhistorical.com/items/show/9

Related Images

Painting of Connemara Patch
Painting of Connemara Patch
Aerial view of Swede Hollow and Connemara Patch
Aerial view of Swede Hollow and Connemara Patch
Seventh Street Improvement Arches, St. Paul
Seventh Street Improvement Arches, St. Paul

Turning Point

In 1881, Bishop John Ireland resettles Irish immigrant families in the Connemara Patch, where they establish a small community of laborers.

Chronology

1860

More than 20 percent of Minnesota’s foreign-born population is Irish.

1880

In June, the Connemaras arrive in Minnesota from County Galway, Ireland, and settle on farms in Graceville.

1881

Bishop John Ireland resettles the Connemaras on St. Paul’s East Side, creating the Connemara Patch neighborhood.

1886

St. John’s parish is built on Dayton’s Bluff, and many Connemaras join the congregation.

1890

Minnesota’s Irish population reaches its peak at 28,011, or 6 percent of the state’s foreign-born population.

1900

Roughly one-third of first- and second-generation Irish workers in St. Paul are craftsmen, foremen, and skilled laborers. This proportion nearly matches the citywide average for skilled labor.

1912

Mexican immigrants begin to move to St. Paul’s West and East Sides. Neighborhoods like Swede Hollow and Connemara Patch see spikes in their Mexican American populations.

1956

Construction of Interstate 94 begins, wiping out neighborhoods throughout St. Paul and Minneapolis, including Connemara Patch.

2005

The City of St. Paul creates Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary on the former site of Connemara Patch.