Afton resident Leslie Thomas has spent years researching her family’s Irish roots.
She’s scoured genealogy sites, traveled to Ireland more than 10 times, and is one of the founders of a Facebook group called “Connemara to Minnesota in the 1880s: The Families and Their Stories.”
According to Thomas’ research, 32 of her family members emigrated to St. Paul from Connemara, Ireland, in 1883 as part of Quaker philanthropist James Hack Tuke’s assisted-emigration program, which Tuke started to provide relief during the 1879-1882 famine.
Many of Thomas’ relatives settled in Connemara Patch on St. Paul’s East Side, where another group of Irish immigrants — brought to Minnesota by Bishop John Ireland — had already settled along Lower Phalen Creek.
“My great-great-uncle Patrick Stewart emigrated in 1883, and he lived right in here,” Thomas said during a recent tour of the snow-covered site, now part of Swede Hollow Park.
There’s not much to see now. The homes are long gone, the streets have disappeared, there are no people, and a busy freeway roars nearby.
But — thanks to Thomas and others — there is a sign that marks the spot.
Installed last summer, the interpretive sign tells the history of the Irish neighborhood through text and photos.
“They left Ireland to escape starvation during the 1879 famine and arrived in Minnesota in June 1880,” the sign states. “Bishop John Ireland of the Diocese of St. Paul and English philanthropist Fr. James Nugent sponsored their emigration. The immigrants first farmed land near Graceville. Their late arrival and lack of prairie farming experience and the severe winter of 1880-1881 forced most to leave their farms and relocate along Phalen Creek in St. Paul in the spring of 1881. … By 1885, newspapers dubbed the area ‘Connemara Patch.’”
The sign, located next to the Bruce Vento Regional Bike Trail, just south of the historic Seventh Street arches, includes a background photograph of Connemara taken by Thomas Roach lll, whose family came to Graceville with Bishop Ireland, Thomas said. An historic photo of 1880s Connemara was a gift from the Galway Council Heritage Office.
A quotation from Éamon a Búrc, an Irish storyteller who grew up in Connemara Patch, runs across the bottom of the sign: “The dear blessings of God and the Church on the souls of the dead! And may we be 17 hundred thousand times better off a year from tonight — ourselves and all who are listening to me.”
The Irish immigrants who settled in St. Paul “belonged to the poorest class of early Minnesota society, and many spoke only Irish,” Thomas said. “The sign is important because our families did not have a voice. We wanted to create something that was both honest and honored our families’ memory.”
Another sign in Connemara
At the same time the sign was being dedicated at Connemara Patch in St. Paul, relatives of those who immigrated to Minnesota were dedicating a sign at the Carna Emigrants Centre in Connemara, Ireland. “It’s international,” Thomas said. “There is this wonderful linkage between St. Paul and Connemara now — that’s a rich part of this story. The signs honor our families who left — and those who stayed.”
Bridie Conneely Kineavy, who lives in Rosmuc in Connemara, was at the sign dedication in Carna. She joined the “Connemara to Minnesota” Facebook group in February 2021, just a few months after the group was founded, in the hopes of learning more about her great-great-uncle Anthony Conneely, who was born and raised on the island of Inis Treabhair.
“We had documentation that he had been on the island until about 1880, and then he just seemed to disappear off the records,” Kineavy said during a recent Zoom interview. “As they say in genealogy terms, he was a brick wall. We just couldn’t figure out where we went.”
Kineavy left a message on the Facebook page asking if anyone in the group knew anything about Anthony Conneely, “and I turned off the computer and went to sleep,” she said. “The next morning, all the information was there.”
Michael Carlson, another founding member of the Facebook page, explained that Conneely’s last name had been recorded incorrectly as “Coyne” on the manifest of the ship he sailed on from Galway to Boston, she said. “I saw his wife’s name was Nora, which is what we had for them, and he had something like nine or 10 children, and five of those ages and names were the same as what I had on record here, so that was when we knew we had found him.”
The ship — the S.S. Austrian — was called the “ship of paupers,” and had more than 300 passengers being relocated from Connemara to Graceville by Bishop Ireland.
“They had a last Mass at St. Nicholas in Galway city before they left, but the priest decided not to give his sermon in the church,” Kineavy said. “He said he would give it on the boat, so he and some other people who were organizing the trip went on the boat and spoke to them one last time. This was all recorded in the Irish papers and in the Boston and New York papers at the time. He said to them that this was probably the last time they would hear a priest speak to them in their native language. He told them not to forget their backgrounds, not to forget their language, not to forget their religion, and not to get involved in making moonshine.”
Through the Facebook page, Kineavy met former St. Paul resident Ray Flaherty of Bellevue, Wash., who turned out to be her third cousin once removed. Kineavy’s grandfather’s first cousin Katherine Conneely — Passenger No. 200 — met Flaherty’s great-grandfather Pat Flaherty — Passenger No. 175 — on the S.S. Austrian, and the two later married.
“We descend from two brothers,” Kineavy said. “I descend from Val Conneely, and Ray descends from Val’s brother Anthony Conneely.”
The two “cousins” met virtually via a Zoom call last week. They will meet for the first time in person this summer in Washington.
Graceville, Minn., aka ‘Disgraceville’
The Conneelys were among those sent to Graceville, a farming town near Morris, Minn., in what Pioneer Press columnist Don Boxmeyer described in 2007 as “a disastrous social-engineering experiment.”
Bishop Ireland, who became archbishop in 1888, brought “more than 300 Irish paupers from the region of Connemara with the intention of turning them into being farmers on the lush plains of western Minnesota,” Boxmeyer wrote in his column. “As part of a land-development venture by Ireland and his partner, (railroad baron) James J. Hill — who was interested in developing land along his railroad track — each of the prospective farm families received 160 acres near Morris, a bagful of seed and one cow. This was Graceville, and it was to be a new beginning for these Irish hillbillies.”
Boxmeyer reported: “The Connemaras, who were unskilled at any trade, were used to temperatures that never went below 45 degrees in Ireland. They were thrust woefully unprepared into a Minnesota winter that reached 45 degrees below zero without adequate food or heat. A few of the strong ones survived the winter to later flourish on their property. Others came to St. Paul, stripped of their land, scorned by the archbishop and exiled to the Elba at the lowest point in town that would become known as the Connemara Patch.”
According to an account published in “The Saint Paul Daily Globe” on Dec. 21, 1880, Anthony Conneely, whose last name was changed to Connolly when he arrived in the U.S., nearly died in Graceville: “Anthony Connolly, wife and nine children. Connolly very sick, apparently beyond recovery, sick eight weeks. Nothing to eat except what the Morris people gave. Ten small sticks of cord wood. A sad case and needs instant relief. It is beyond my power to convey an adequate idea of the hopelessness and despair of these poor people. The saddest and most pressing case yet found.”
Pioneer Press columnist Nick Coleman wrote about Graceville in 2003. “In December, a visitor from Morris reported he had visited 20 families and found them in a ‘terrible state of destitution, filth and suffering’ and said he had counted 137 children, most ‘barefooted and nearly naked,’” Coleman wrote. “Charge and counter-charge ensued, with the story of ‘Disgraceville, Minn.,’ making national headlines. In Minnesota, newspapers slugged it out over the scandal, with the Minneapolis papers reporting details of the suffering while the St. Paul papers highlighted an embarrassed Bishop Ireland’s vow that if the Connemaras were willing to work, there would be food and shelter enough for all.”
Kineavy said her great-great-uncle had no choice but to leave Ireland. “It would have been traumatic, but they also would have seen it as a way of having a new life and a way to afford nine children,” Kineavy said. “They were living on a tiny holding of land on an island in Connemara, paying rent to English landlords. There was a famine. They probably felt that they would never have been able to survive, and they got this opportunity to make a new life, but the only thing was it didn’t turn out that good when they got to Graceville.”
Before visiting Flaherty in Washington, Kineavy plans to travel to St. Paul to see Connemara Patch. “It gives me great pride to know that almost 150 years later, our Connemara heritage still lives on in St. Paul,” she said.
Swede Hollow signage
The Connemara Patch sign is one of 13 interpretive signs installed last summer in Swede Hollow Park to commemorate Dakota Homelands and the many immigrants who once called the area home, said Michael-jon Pease, executive director of Saint Paul Parks Conservancy, a St. Paul-based private advocacy group for the city’s municipal parks.
“The park has a unique human story to tell in Minnesota, but if you went to the park before the signs, the park didn’t have anything to tell you,” Pease said.
The nonprofit group was in the early planning stages of creating the signs for the park — a $57,000 project — when they were approached by Connemara descendants, he said.
“It’s a great example of the importance of community engagement,” Pease said. “Without the connection to the Connemara Patch descendants, a vital part of the story of this land might have been missed.”
The Irish community largely stretched between East Seventh Street and East Third Street in St. Paul, an area which today forms parts of both Swede Hollow Park and Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. Other Irish immigrants lived in sections of St. Paul’s West Side Flats neighborhood across the Mississippi River.
“You have to understand, in 1880 in St. Paul, we were sort of the leading edge of the Western frontier,” Thomas said. “The railroads were being developed, and so there was a massive demand for labor, and once people started, they just kept coming.”
Many inhabitants worked for the railroad, served as domestics in local hotels, and made lace, according to the sign posted in Swede Hollow Park.
“By the late 1880s as their circumstances improved, the Irish in the Connemara Patch began to leave the area for other parts of the city, state, and regions of the United States,” the sign states. Within three years of arriving in Minnesota, Thomas’ great-great-grandfather William Flaherty was living in the West Side Flats neighborhood and working as a street sweeper for the city of St. Paul, she said.
“He was living on State Street, and he had a small lot — a small home built and paid for within three years of emigrating,” she said. “It just shows you that if you give people a chance, they can make it.”
By the early 1900s, the Irish were mostly replaced by other ethnic groups at Connemara Patch. The area was abandoned and structures demolished to make way for freeway construction in the 1950s. “Because it was destroyed, there was nothing to mark that our families had had a presence here,” Thomas said.
The sign is a “tangible” marker of those who came before. “This is us,” she said. “This tells our story. It’s a story not only about people here in St. Paul; it’s a story about people who stayed (in Ireland) and whose families were broken apart and left. They called them funerals when they left. They were never going to see these family members again. Our friends and family in Ireland are looking for their lost family members, too.”
Thomas, a writer, said she wishes she could talk to her ancestors and tell them that their sacrifices were not in vain.
“If I could, I’d say this, ‘You endured unimaginable hardship. Thank you for not losing hope,’” she said. “‘Because of you, your descendants were able to ascend the arduous hill out of poverty. Rest assured, we made it. Today we honor your courage, resilience and memory. You will not be forgotten.’ They were resilient. I’m living proof of that.”