"The Irish in St. Louis"| Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Updated: Aug 2
The multi-faceted presence of Irish immigrants in St. Louis is chronicled in media-personality Patrick Murphy's book, “The Irish in Saint Louis: From Shanty to Lace Curtain.” Murphy covers the bright side and the “very dark side” of this ethnic group’s assimilation into St. Louis’ diverse population. Irish immigrant Anthony Doyle, who was earning a comfortable living by investing in a lime quarry and a grocery store in St. Louis, sent a letter to his brother in County Wexford, Ireland, “Chances [are] here every day for men of foresight,” Doyle wrote. Doyle and others like him saw great potential in the frontier city. In 1819, when Doyle sent the letter to his brother, 15% of the city’s citizens were immigrants from Ireland, but that number soon soared. The Irish people were attracted to St. Louis because of its French-influenced characteristics and because France and Ireland shared a hatred for the hegemonic English Empire.
St. Louisans welcomed these Irish until 1840 when the Great Potato Famine spurred masses of poor Irish citizens to emigrate to the New World. Then the city’s natives became overwhelmed by the poverty they witnessed, appalled by the dire destitution of the arriving emigres.
The majority of these new arrivals came from County Kerry and settled in an area of north St. Louis which soon gained the moniker “Kerry Patch.” In an 1878 city guide, these new residents are described as “a poor, but independent folk, whose chief amusement consists of punching each other's eyes.”
In 1850, just prior to the Civil War, the Know-Nothing Party stoked hatred for immigrants, particularly for Catholics which was the faith of most of the Irish newcomers. Some nativists declared the Irish were “not fully white.”
In 1854, 5000 people attacked the Irish in Laclede's Landing. By the end of the 3-day skirmish, 10 people were killed, 30 people were injured and nearly 100 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed. However, for most there was no going back to Ireland. When they came here, the Irish were stereotyped and discriminated against, but it was nothing compared to the way they had been treated during seven centuries of occupation by the English in their homeland, Murphy writes.
Despite the prejudice and violence, within three generations the Irish were assimilated into Saint Louis. In the post-Civil War years, they gained status and respect, many advancing from “shanty Irish” to “lace curtain Irish.”
The author introduces the reader to a broad range of well-known St. Louis lace curtain Irish including The Reverend Charles Dismas Clark, founder of the Dismas house for ex-convicts, the Cardinal baseball broadcasting favorite Mike Shannon, and author Kate Chopin, who wrote “The Awakening.” He also describes some infamous Irish immigrants who made up The Bottoms Gang and Egan's Rats. He outlines the early years of Dogtown, as well as explains some current curiosities such as why Saint Louis has two St. Patrick's Day parades.
“The Irish and Saint Louis” is an informative coffee-table book; it honors Irish immigrants and their influence on St. Louis history. A collection of photographs, interviews, and documents is woven into 86-concise, smartly written chapters. This 178-page book is published by Reedy Press.
About the Author: Patrick Murphy has worked in radio and television for the past 40 years. His first book “Candyman: The Story of Switzer’s Licorice” was adapted into a special for St. Louis PBS. He also is a working artist who exhibits original woodcut prints in several St. Louis art galleries.