The Irish of Dubuque, Iowa

They didn't all settle in the big cities on the East Coast. Many Irish Immigrants headed for the frontier where cheap land and mining jobs awaited them.

By Lyn Jerde March/April 1995 Irish America Magazine p. 72

The January 14, 1841, edition of the Philadelphia Catholic Herald includes this letter from Charles Corkery, one of Dubuque, Iowa's first Iowa settlers:
   "My sole desire is to direct the attention of Catholics (Irish Catholics particularly) to the country little known, and less appreciated, in the East...I have had ample opportunities of bearing witness to many respectable writers who unite in giving Iowa the happy (names) of 'The Garden of America' and "The Eldorado of the West'...Irishmen unite in saying that our wheat and oats are nothing inferior to those in Ireland, and I have never seen better potatoes in Ireland...than those raised in the mining district."
Mathias Loras, bishop of the new Diocese of Dubuque, also had a strong interest in attracting Irish immigrants to Dubuque.
He wrote letters to the Boston Pilot and dozens of other Eastern newspapers extolling Iowa. Loras wrote in 1854 to the Pilot:
   "Let good immigrants come in haste to the west of Iowa...they will soon make whole Catholic settlements-some Irish, some German, some French."

For Irish immigrants, the appeals of the area were many; cheap land-wooded areas cost $4 to $8 an acre, a good yoke of oxen could be had for $45 to $55, and for those not inclined to farming, plenty of jobs were to be had in the lead mines.

But there were other attractions. Dubuque's advocates spoke of the low cost of living, the area's intolerance of "robbers and swindlers," and a strong moral, religious and social order.

Some of the inticements included warnings. Michael O'Sullivan of Dubuque wrote to the Pilot in 1850 that Irish settlers "must not be shocked at the idea of living in a log cabin or of wearing rough clothing."

Response to the appeals was swift. In 1830, a group of 51 miners-two thirds of them Irish-settled in Dubuque, and stayed until they were driven out by troops after the return of the Fox Indians. They drew up a set of rules known as the Miner's Compact-believed to be the first code of law in what is now Iowa.

The great influx of Irish to Dubuque started in in about 1833.

In 1838, the Jackson county settlement of Garryowen began getting settlers from the Irish counties Cork and Limerick.

Between 1840 and 1842, the Irish tide spread throughout northeast Iowa, to settlements at Temple Hill in Jones County, and Bellevue and Charleston (now Sabula) in Jackson County.

In 1846, Dubuque's first ward on the south end became known as "Dublin" because it had so many Irish.

By 1850, there were about 1,720 Irish in Dubuque County, out of a total population of 8,230.

The Rev. Terence Donaghue, vicar general of the Diocese of Dubuque, wrote to a priest in County Carlow, Ireland, appealing for more Irish settlers. Donaghue promised to teach the settlers how to grow corn, oats and potatoes, and said the new immigrants must "be smart, for we are get-ahead people here."

Indeed they were. Dubuque's earliest European-born leaders included many of Irish ancestry. And a few of the Irish prospered so that by 1850, their property value amounted to more than one-third of Dubuque County's total value, even though the Irish comprised less than one-fourth of the county's population.

By 1860, 1,800 of Dubuque's 13,000 people were Irish born. They were day laborers, teamsters, draymen, inn and saloon-keepers. many worked in the mines, or on the railroad. There were 15 Irish merchants and 14 grocers. And a further fifteen were professionals-lawyers, printers, teachers, an architect, an editor and an engineer.

The Battle Over St. Patrick's

They called him "Father Matthew Kelly." Though the missionary priest Samuel Mazzuchelli was Italian, and most of the Catholics he served in what is now the tri-state area were Irish, thee was a mutual respect and love that transcended national loyalties.

That happened often in the frontier: a gifted priest could lead Catholics of a different ethnic background from his own.

But Dubuque's first bishop, French-born Mathias Loras, would be the first to say it wasn't easy.

The relationship between Loras and Dubuque area Irish Catholics had its tense moments.

"Loras...often had open conflicts with both Irish and German parishes," wrote Sister Mary Kevin Gallagher, BVM, in Seed/Harvest, the history of the Archdiocese of Dubuque written in 1987.

"To understand these controversies, one must recognized the importance of nationality to these immigrants."

Immigrants to the frontier wanted to preserve the religious and ethnic traditions of their home lands-making it difficult, at first, for Catholics of different backgrounds to find much in common other than their religion.

At the same time, they were ruggedly independent, and not likely to allow a bishop-whom they considered an outsider and a newcomer-to tell them what to do.

The Irish Catholics in Dubuque often accused Loras of favoring French Catholics; when he first arrived in 1839, he understandably preferred worshipping with the French because his English was still heavily accented.

The Irish were incensed when Loras built St. Patrick's Church in 1852, and proposed it remain a mission congregation and not an independent parish.

The Germans had their own church-Holy Trinity-and the Irish wanted theirs, even though the cathedral, St. Raphael, was in an Irish neighborhood and had mostly Irish worshippers.

A battle of wills over St. Patrick's -with irish withholding contributions and Loras threatening repercussions-was waged for years.

And the Irish accused Loras of exacting disproportionate contributions from Irish Catholics for the cathedral.

There was truth, and much misunderstanding, on all sides of all these issues. But on the whole, Loras cared deeply for the Irish Catholics, and went to great lengths to attract Irish priests and religious communities to the area.

The first to arrive were the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a community of teaching sisters founded by an Irish woman, Mary Frances Clarke. The BVMs arrived in Dubuque, by way of Philadelphia, in 1843. Loras invited them to Dubuque personally.

Six years later, Trappist monks from Ireland established the monastery of New Melleray near what is now Peosta, on land Loras gave them.

And Dubuque's third bishop, John Hennessy, traveled to Limerick, Ireland on his way back from the First Vatican Council, and asked Mother Vincent Hennessy to send a group of sisters of the Presentation to Dubuque.  Four years later the Presentation Sisters arrived, and made their first home in a vacant house offered by a pastor in Key West.

The first Irish bishop of Dubuque was Loras' successor-Clement Smyth, a Trappist. When he died suddenly in 1865, he was replaced by the Irish-born Hennessy, who became Dubuque's first archbishop in 1893.




Calkin, Dr. Homer L.  The Palimpsest, "The Irish in Iowa" Published monthly
by the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, February, 1964

Dubuque from the very first had many Irish. As early as 1846, the city was
divided into wards. The First Ward, which made up the southern part of
Dubuque, was called "Dublin" and became well-known as the home of many
Irish. The Dubuque Herald said that nearly all who lived there were guilty
of the crime of being poor. Whiskey was their greatest enemy, the newspaper

Of the 13,045 inhabitants of Dubuque in 1860, 13.9 per cent or 1,800 were
born in Ireland. This included 992 married adults, 317 single women, 183
single men, 98 widows, 18 widowers, and 182 children under sixteen. The 992
married adults represented 535 families.

Among the men there were 305 day laborers, most of whom lived in the First
Ward. In addition, there were fourteen teamsters and twelve draymen. Nine
ran boarding houses or inns while another eleven were saloon keepers.
Sixty-three were following the trades-carpenters, tinners, painters,
bricklayers, plasterers, and stonecutters and masons. As might be expected
near the Dubuque lead mines, fifty-six were miners. River and rail
transportation employed some as mail agents, express drivers, ferrymen,
boatmen and baggage men.

There were fifteen merchants and fourteen grocers. Only one Irishman was a
butcher, grain dealer, druggist, poultry dealer, or confectioner, although
eighteen were shoemakers and sixteen tailors. Only eight were manufacturers
of any kind. Their products included glass, carriages and wagons, stoves and

Most of the single women were servants, 196 in all. Some worked in the
boarding houses and hotels, while many worked for the wealthier families of
Dubuque. Widows were more likely to be washwomen, housekeepers and

Fifteen men could be classed as professionals. They were lawyers, printers,
teachers and an editor, an architect and an engineer. Only two held
government positions.

The Herald was correct in saying many knew only poverty. Only 151 owned real
estate. It was worth $543,950, or 10.8 per cent of the total in Dubuque.
Fully 199 had personal property worth $99,200, or 7.4 per cent of the total.
There were exceptions, of course. Among these were J. SULLIVAN, a mason, who
had property worth $40,000; W.P. YOUNG, glass manufacturer, $155,000; Joseph
P NAGLE, saloon keeper, $20,150; Lawrence MAHONEY, merchant, $117,000;
Matthew CURRAN, day laborer, $7,150; and the widow, Ellen SULLIVAN, worth
more than $50,000 at the age of 35.

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