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How the Irish found their place in St. Louis — and helped shape the city

031722_LibraryofCongress_KerryPatchnewsboys.jpg Undated photo from the Library of Congress shows newsboys at 10th Street and Cass, part of the long-gone St. Louis neighborhood of Kerry Patch.
Library of Congress
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Reedy Press
The north St. Louis neighborhood of Kerry Patch, shown in an undated photo, became home to many Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Potato Famine in the 1840s.

In 1819, an Irishman who’d settled in St. Louis sent a letter to his brother back in County Wexford. Anthony Doyle had invested in a lime quarry and a grocery store. He was feeling bullish about the New World — and the Gateway City.

“Chances [are] here every day for men of foresight,” Doyle wrote.

031722_ReedyPress_IrishinStLouis.jpg
Reedy Press
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Patrick Murphy's new book tells the story of Irish assimilation in St. Louis.

As author Patrick Murphy reports in his new book from Reedy Press, it wasn’t just Doyle who saw great potential in what was then a frontier city. In “The Irish in St. Louis: From Shanty to Lace Curtain” Murphy writes that by the time of Doyle’s missive, one in seven St. Louisans was native-born Irish.

“They liked St. Louis, because it was mostly French,” Murphy explained on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. “And the French didn't like the English either.”

For a while, St. Louis was good to the Irish. Then came the Great Potato Famine — and a much bigger, much more destitute wave of newcomers. Unlike the first wave, these were almost entirely Catholic. “And St. Louis had just never seen poverty on the scale of the starving people who were coming by the thousands,” he said. “Although we romanticize our Irish ancestors, I think if we were to see them, we might be a little bit surprised.”

Many of the newcomers, including Murphy’s own ancestors, came from County Kerry, and the north St. Louis neighborhood they settled in was quickly christened Kerry Patch. It was a hardscrabble place; Murphy quotes an 1878 city guide that described the residents as “a poor, but independent, folk whose chief amusements consist of punching each other's eyes.”

As Murphy details, the prejudice was real. In the warped scientific theories of the day, the Irish were considered not fully white. And in the decade before the Civil War, the Know-Nothing Party stirred up anti-immigrant hatred, with particular animosity for Catholics.

Patrick Murphy on the Irish in St. Louis

In St. Louis, the Irish suffered the brunt of nativist anger.

“They were blamed for everything,” Murphy said. “They were blamed for the 1849 fire. They were blamed for the 1849 cholera epidemic.”

In 1854, he reports, a nativist mob of 5,000 people (including local police officers) attacked Irish residents in the neighborhood that’s now Laclede’s Landing. Ten people were killed, 30 were injured and close to 100 Irish homes and businesses were destroyed after three days of fighting. The Old Cathedral was spared only when the Irish mounted a cannon at its front door.

“The Hibernians, which are kind of a nice club today, they started out in St. Louis and other places as a militia group to defend Irish neighborhoods,” Murphy said.

Despite the bloodshed, within a few generations the Irish had fully assimilated into St. Louis. The language gave them an advantage over other immigrant groups, Murphy notes, as did the fact that despite the pseudoscience of the day, they could easily blend with other Europeans. Now the stories about their struggles in St. Louis are just that: stories.

And Murphy, for one, loves to tell them.

“Everybody loves a survivor,” he said.

Related Event
What: “The Irish in St. Louis” presentation and book signing
When: 1-3 p.m. March 19
Where: The Pat Connolly Tavern, 6400 Oakland Ave., St. Louis, MO 63139

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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