Irish helped form Detroit for centuries

Bill Loomis
Special to The Detroit News
Immigrants pack into the crowded lower deck of a ship bound for America, circa 1890. The Irish came to the United States in waves during the 19th century, especially during the potato famine of 1845-52.

Detroit's St. Patrick's Day is not one of the biggest in the U.S. but it is among the oldest. City historian Silas Farmer recorded that the very first St. Patrick's Day in Detroit was in 1808.

In the early years, the holiday was a religious event. Later, the civic function was emphasized and the parade and banquets became more citywide, with residents of French and German heritage attending the festivities and Polish bands marching in some parades.

In various years the passion of Irish politics ruled the day, and sometimes tragedy or war overshadowed the frivolity of a parade as Detroiters opted instead to raise money for suffering overseas. But in most years it was for fun, to celebrate the joy of being Irish ("if you're lucky to be Irish, you're lucky enough") if only for the day. And of course revelers have always worn green.

Early immigrants to Detroit

Early on, Detroit had an appeal to Irish immigrants that other American cities lacked: It was an established Catholic city and had been for 100 years at the start of the 19th century.

The earliest immigrants to Detroit and the Great Lakes came during the colonial era of America and were stationed as soldiers in army garrisons on Mackinac Island. The first major wave of Irish came to America in 1815 when 1 million people came to live in eastern cities such as Boston and New York.

Once settled in the eastern U.S., many early immigrants were reluctant to move further west despite reports of great opportunities.

The Freeman's Journal, an Irish Catholic newspaper read in New York, wrote that lands in the west were "not infrequently teeming with fever and ague — remote from the church — remote from school — remote from the Post Office — remote from the neighbors."

But many cities in the East were largely Protestant and waves of immigrating Catholic Irish led to street warfare, church burnings and riots. Detroit was still a frontier village in the early 19th century, but the appeal of Catholic Detroit called to many in the mid-1820s after the completion of the Erie Canal.

At this time most of the Irish settled in Detroit's near east side. Before the Irish immigrants had their own church in Detroit they were invited to celebrate Catholic Mass at St. Anne's on early Sunday mornings before the French service began at midday.

In 1833 Father Bernard O'Cavanaugh, one of the diocese's few Irish priests, found a benefactor, Alpheus White, to buy the First Protestant Society Building. It was reconsecrated as Most Holy Trinity and became the first Irish parish in the western U.S. In 1834, during a cholera epidemic, it was turned into a hospital, with parishioners serving as nurses.

It was originally at Michigan and Bates, but by 1849, as the Irish began filling in the area west of downtown, parishioners had difficulty walking the long distance up Michigan Avenue, so the parish had the little wooden building jacked up, put on rollers and relocated to the corner of Porter and Sixth streets. This area around Most Holy Trinity soon became known as the Irish Section, and also Corktown, for the large numbers of its residents immigrating from Ireland's County Cork.

George O'Keefe, parade founder

Early immigrants, today classified as "Pre Great Famine" (before 1845), were frequently educated professionals such as George Alexander O'Keefe (sometimes spelled O'Keeffe). O'Keefe was from County Cork and studied law in England and at Trinity College in Dublin. Due to some unspecified incivilities with other classmates that may have involved his Catholic religion (Trinity was a Protestant college), O'Keefe came to America in 1816 and to Detroit to practice law in 1820. He would soon become a dominant figure in Detroit's judicial scene as a barrister and a probate judge, and a critical founder of the St. Patrick's Day festivities in Detroit.

O'Keefe was physically imposing: a massive, tall man for the early 1800s – over six feet tall with bushy black hair, a large head, blue eyes and a stentorian voice. One Detroit historian described him as "an Irish Gentleman in the truest and fullest sense, learned, cultured, brilliant and witty."

He made a name for himself in Detroit in the 1830s when he defended Stephen Gifford Simmons, a tavern owner and violent drunkard who struck his wife with such force he killed her in one blow as their children watched in horror.

While the facts were incontrovertible, O'Keefe used his gifts of drama, humor, Irish flourish and captivating oration to try to convince the jury to set aside the grizzly facts and look at the wreck of a man. O'Keefe's emotional appeal was described as inspired, hypnotic, but not quite enough. Simmons became the second, and the last, man to be hanged for murder in Michigan.

O'Keefe was an active leader in several local Irish organizations: president of the Friends of Ireland, founder of the St. Patrick's Society in 1829, and president and chairman of the St. Patrick's Day festivities for many years.

In 1842 after a parade on an unusually beautiful March day, 800 people were seated at 14 large tables in the warehouse of the American Fur Company for a St. Patrick's Day banquet in which George O'Keefe presided and gave the opening welcome. He rejoiced at the presence of the ladies as evidence of advancing civilization: "…they are now occupying their proper sphere."

During the mid-1800s temperance organizations such as the Catholic Temperance Society and Father Mathew Temperance Society ruled over the large gatherings, which were why women were even present; when men drank alcohol women did not attend either by law or by choice. So, despite the reputation of excessive boozing, many St. Patrick's Day banquets were alcohol free.

At these celebrations toasts and speeches were important, ranging from humor, U.S. patriotism, jibes at the despised England, glorious love of Ireland, to moments of loss and sadness, many times recognized by all rising to stand in silence. One toast brought out roars of laughter on that day as it was directed to the women: "Ladies, may you be temperate in everything but your affections for your husbands."

The potato famines

Famine was not a new event to Ireland in 1845-48, when people began digging up diseased potatoes. Irish famines had occurred frequently in the 18th century and would reappear in the 1880s.

In her book The Irish on the Urban Frontier: Nineteenth Century Detroit, Eastern Michigan University professor JoEllen Vinyard writes that in the 1840s as many as 60 to 75 percent of the peasant families who left the western counties in Ireland came from one-room mud houses, and nearly 18 percent of all farmed sites in Ireland were less than one acre, 24 percent between one and five acres. In the late 17th and early 18th century the crown of England prohibited Catholic Irish from owning land. They were required to pay English owners of the Irish farmland rent, called tithes, for use of the land.

The combination produced horrific consequences, as told in this shortened letter to the Detroit Free Press, on Feb. 23, 1847:

Suffering Ireland: Addressed to the Ladies of America

The Christian Ladies of America are earnestly called up by their Irish sisters to assist them in saving alive in famine and its pestilent diseases the utterly destitute men, women and children in God-smitten Ireland…. Oh! That they could see the dead father, mother or child lying coffinless and hear the screams of the survivors around them, caused, not by sorrow but in the agony of hunger … unless some extraordinary aid can be obtained, Ireland must soon become one vast Lazar house of the dying and the dead.

- Dummanaway, County of Cork, Ireland, Dec. 28, 1846


Martha D. Cox

Katharine A. Cox

Harriet Shuldam

Anna Marie Galbrath

Issabella Sullivan

Ellen Jagore

By 1848 when the potato crop failed for the fourth year in a row, despair overwhelmed the resolve and hope of the toughest holdouts, and they flooded into Canada and the U.S. in the millions. They were not always welcomed.

Anti-Catholic attacks

In Detroit, as elsewhere in the U.S., during the decades of mass Catholic Irish immigration, established Americans were afraid the cities were being overwhelmed by immigrants who they believed did not honor republican values and were controlled by Catholic priests and the pope in Rome. They staged protests, sometimes violent, to try to chase immigrants out of the city.

This was part of the "Know Nothing" nativist movement that swept the country before the Civil War. They promised to purify American politics by limiting or ending the influence of Irish Catholics and other immigrants, thus reflecting nativism and anti-Catholic ideology.

During the day they were better known as the American Protective Association (APA). Irish immigrants in Cleveland formed a counter to the APA called the Knights of Equity. Branches of the Knights were called "courts" and the courts ranged from Boston to Iowa. Detroit was Court 6, one of three courts that are still active to this day.

By 1853 more than 15 percent of Detroiters had arrived from Ireland - one of every seven residents. Forty-five percent of the Irish population lived in the 8th ward — Corktown. Lawless mobs ran through Detroit streets attacking Irish neighborhoods. As the newspapers asked, "What monstrous sin have Irish citizens committed that the hell-hound of popular rage should be turned loose against them?"

These immigrants were not nearly as educated as George O'Keefe and some of the earlier Irish. Among the pre-famine Irish, 40 percent worked as laborers, whereas 80 percent of those after 1846 were in that category; however, most of the heads of Irish families who came to Detroit between 1845 and 1850 were able to read and write. Education of children was a priority.

This fear and reactionary anger of public sentiment did not last and St. Patrick's Day ceremonies went on. By that time it had become customary for German, American and French Catholics to share St. Patrick's Day celebrations.

As the Free Press wrote in an editorial as early as 1835: "To adopted citizens of Irish birth we say… You are Americans. You came here at the invitation of our laws. You became citizens by the fulfillment of all the conditions by which they stipulated, and your rights shall be defended."

Most Holy Trinity expands

By the mid-1850s Most Holy Trinity's parish was growing and prospering. Catholics and Protestants alike came from all over the city to hear Beethoven and Haydn masses that were accompanied by the huge pipe organ and a 16-piece string orchestra, as reported by the Daily Advertiser on March 5, 1853.

A bigger church was needed, so the diocese erected the brick edifice that still stands on Porter and Sixth. The impressive Gothic Revival church was completed in 1865, serving 4,000 parishioners on Sundays.

Some of the Victorian-era houses in Corktown have survived and been painted in vivid colors, like these along Bagley.

Professor Vinyard's book describes life in Detroit for the Irish around the Civil War. Like most Detroiters, the Irish in Corktown lived in one- and two-story wooden frame houses, lined up along dirt streets deeply rutted from wagon wheels. Some of these houses still stand today.

The frame houses were cold in winter and hot in summer. Outside there was about eight to 10 feet of grass stretching from the house to sidewalks made of wood planks, shaded by huge trees. Inside, rooms were small with tiny windows. Children often slept overhead beneath the roof in an attic-like space packed with comforters.

The kitchen was the center of family life. As Vinyard wrote, "Meetings, arithmetic lessons, prayers and letter writing took place at the wooden drop-leaf table." The Irish placed a priority on schooling regardless of financial position. Among children ages 5 to 16, 74 percent of the Irish attended school in 1850.

Detroit's first Irish Mayor

By 1858 Detroit had elected its first Irish-born mayor, the popular carriage maker John Patton. Patton was born in County Down, Ireland, came to Albany, N.Y., with his family as a teenager in 1830 and then alone to Detroit in 1843. He opened a carriage factory on Woodward and Brush and prospered for many years. Patton loved literature and recited long passages of Shakespeare and the poems of Robert Burns in a perfect Scottish brogue. (His parents were both Scottish.)

Patton was involved in the St. Patrick's Day festivities as a long-serving president of the St. Patrick's Benevolent Society. By the late 1850s the parade really began to grow as marchers and viewers began to number in the thousands. In 1859 the various guild and guards and marshals and bands all started out down Porter Street to Michigan Avenue then to downtown.

The parade then turned onto Woodward Avenue, then Jefferson, to the Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral. The cathedral was already jammed and people heard a sermon on — what else — St. Patrick, then applauded and cheered as "St. Patrick's Day in the Morning" was played on the enormous cathedral organ.

In 1868 the weather produced a 30-minute drenching downpour on the unpaved streets of Detroit:

"Of course, a large crowd of men, women and children followed, or rather accompanied the procession, and the struggles of old and young in the muddy street crossings were amusing in the extreme." – Detroit Free Press, March 18, 1868

The politics of Ireland were never far from the surface of good cheer and the parades reflected that as they featured military or quasi-military organizations. In 1868, following the civic marching groups was a battalion 200 strong of the 15th Infantry of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). They wore uniforms with green jackets and bore the regimental flag of green silk with a center circle of a sunburst and the words 15th Regiment, IRA. Other years the Detroit National Guard and the Montgomery Rifles — an amateur Detroit military company formed in 1877 — also marched in the parade.

Disagreement results in two parades

By the 1870s a schism had developed in the community about the true purpose of St. Patrick's Day. One group that paraded in the morning wanted the religious nature of the day emphasized, while the group in the afternoon paraded for the civic nature of the celebration.

The religious-minded groups insisted that all parade participants attend mass before the parade, and, most importantly, remove their costumes and regalia before entering the cathedral. That was seen as not possible by many parade participants. By 1879 the two parties again merged for a single parade with the civic leaning associations winning the day over the religious minded parties.

In 1880 Ireland was again experiencing famine and a debate began about abolishing the parade. One delegate named Dixon of the Ancient Order of Hibernians stood and said he was told to vote against a parade during a famine in Ireland as a "piece of great foolishness." It was resolved that the parade would be canceled and the time used to tell the people in Detroit about the terrible suffering going on in Ireland.

In that same year the great Irish political figure Charles Stewart Parnell came to Detroit with another Irish political hero, John Dillon, and gave a speech to crowds numbering in the thousands to raise money for famine relief and home rule. Parnell was responsible for ending the dreaded tithing rules of Ireland.

More color and revelry

By the start of the 20th century Detroiters began expressing their Irish roots with more color and enthusiasm. As early as 1896, instead of a modest shamrock or small green ribbon, ladies started wearing green skirts and hats. Storefronts were draped in green. Messenger boys decorated bikes in green. In 1909 St. Patrick's Day dinners featured shamrock salads, snake and pig decorations (St. Patrick chased the snakes from Ireland with pigs), potato salads in the form of smoking pipes, and corned beef, with people spending less time in church.

In 1899 the Lord Mayor of Dublin, the Hon. Daniel Tallon, came to Detroit to raise money for a monument to the memory of C.S. Parnell. On St. Patrick's Day in 1947 Ireland's prime minister, Eamon de Valera, urged Detroiters to preserve the Gaelic language, "for if Eire lost the Irish tongue we would not have the complete nationhood which has been the dream of the Irish for so many generations."

But overall the celebrations of the 20th and 21st centuries have been an all-in moment of fun, a manic break from the long gray winter with green beer, orange hair, marching bands, bobble-head leprechauns, glittery shamrocks on bouncy springs and so on. And as they have for hundreds of years, many Detroit families, Irish and otherwise, still gather along Michigan Avenue to watch the parade and celebrate the sheer joy and pride of being Irish.

An Irishman from Cork comes to Corktown

Sean Canty, age 62, is today a senior vice president for an international manufacturing supplier. He is from County Cork in Ireland and in the early 1970s was working on a college bachelor's degree in commerce. In Ireland he met an American exchange student from University of Detroit and fell in love. When it was Cynthia's time to return to Detroit, he came with her for a visit. It was March in 1976 when Sean arrived, a few days before St. Patrick's Day in Detroit.

"I was shocked," he admits shaking his head. "St. Patrick's Day in Ireland has always been a national holiday, but it was like a quiet Sunday: a day off. Everything was closed. You went to church and wore a shamrock in your lapel. We basically stayed home and watched sports on television.

Irish-born Sean Canty followed his future wife Cynthia to Detroit in 1976, and discovered that St. Patrick's Day was celebrated  very differently in America.

"When I arrived in Detroit word was out and I was immediately roped into carrying a political banner in the parade. In the 1970s the politics and violence with the IRA and British Army was going on, hunger strikers – it was politics and the Church. In Ireland you kept to yourself on such things, unless you wanted real troubles."

He chuckles about it now, but during that time carrying political banners advocating violence were not done on a whim. "They were also auctioning off rubber bullets as a fundraiser and as they say, 'swinging the bloody shirt.' The political fever about the struggles in the North were more front and center here than in Ireland."

Canty continued, "Another thing that I couldn't believe was the Shamrock shakes and Lucky Charms cereal, and the corny Irish music. I remember watching a television advertisement for Highland Appliance that had dancing leprechauns and such. And green beer! We never had such a thing. This was more like Mardi Gras than the St. Patrick's Day I knew. But now I like it. It's all in fun. The parade is wonderful — bigger than ever — and I'm a part of that now." (Sean's wife Cynthia Canty, radio talk show host of "Stateside with Cynthia Canty" on WUOM, is master of ceremonies for the Detroit parade this year.)

"The politics of the '70s and '80s are gone from St. Patrick's Day, which is good. And the Irish now have 'Americanized' their own St. Patrick's Day with parades and dressing in green," Canty explained, partly to accommodate American tourists who come to Ireland expecting an all-out party and celebration. But the Irish have come to enjoy it as well.

Canty still maintains the family home in Cork and returns often to visit. When asked why the Irish are so in love with Ireland, he answered, "Ireland is just the whole package: family, friends, memories, history, sadness, happiness, charm and a great place for good times."

Bill Loomis is the author "Detroit's Delectable Past" and "Detroit Food". He is currently working on a third book — "On This Day in Detroit," for release in 2015.

His grandmother, Inez, was from county Mayo and raised in Corktown. This article is dedicated to her memory.

The 2015 Detroit St. Patrick's Parade

When: Noon today, March 15

Where: Michigan Avenue, starting at Sixth Street and proceeding west to 14th Street.​