Celtic Junction Arts Review

Journey to Uncertainty

By Jane Kennedy

In the late 1870s, on Ireland’s western seaboard, people from the Connemara region faced a dire choice: continue to endure the famine that most certainly would lead to death, or opt to travel to a new country where the future was unknown. The Connemaras felt relieved that they at least had a chance; many of their family members and neighbors had already perished from starvation or famine fever.

Connemara Ireland

The rugged topography that today attracts tourists to the Connemara area located in County Galway brought hardship and despair to the Connemaras. By 1870, a confluence of adversities took a toll on those living in the region. 

When James Hack Tuke, an English Quaker who had assisted the Irish during the earlier Great Famine, returned to see how the people were faring, he observed, “The normal state of a population living with their cows and pigs, or horses and asses, is so deplorable that it is impossible to allow them to remain as they are – always on the verge of destitution, and in bad seasons, in an actual state of starvation.”

Emigrants on the road in Connemara

Along with Tuke, Fr. James Nugent of Liverpool, sought assistance from Archbishop John Ireland, of St. Paul, Minnesota, along with other bishops. Initially, Bishop Ireland wrote to Fr. Nugent that it was “contrary to all the rules of successful colonization to accept indigent settlers and doubly dangerous to accept persons who were not accustomed to farm life in America.” Nevertheless, the Bishop reached out to potential contributors, including many of Irish heritage, who contributed generously to helping the starving Connemaras emigrate.

Bishop Ireland directed that 50 sites be set up for the new arrivals on 160 acres of farmland. Each site was to include a small house with modest furnishings and a cow. 

SS Austria, 1857. By Unknown – Public Domain.

A long journey

The Connemaras left Galway on June 11, 1880 on board the SS Austrian and arrived 11 days later in Boston. The Irish emigrants were required to remain on the ship overnight in Boston before departing by train to Minnesota the following day. When the train stopped in Chicago, the new arrivals were warmly greeted by William J. Onahan, secretary of the city’s St. Patrick’s Society, along with many other Irish men and women who were eager to welcome fellow countrymen.  

But Onahan was shocked at the condition of the emigrants. “The famine was visible in their pinched and emaciated faces, and in their shriveled limbs – they could scarcely be called legs and arms – of the children. Their features were quaint, and the entire company was squalid and wretched.” 

After receiving clothing and warm food from the Chicagoans, the Connemaras continued their journey by train into St. Paul. Once they arrived in the Capitol city, about 70 young men and women departed from their families to look for work in St. Paul – mostly as laborers on the railroad or domestic help – so they could send money to their families who would settle in the western part of the state.

The Connemaras reached their “final” destination in Graceville, Minnesota on June 28. They had traveled 3,721 miles by tugboat, steamship, train and wagon to reach their new home. They arrived emaciated from the famine and exhausted from the extensive 17-day journey. Yet, in spite of this, the Connemaras were expected to start right up with farming their new land so they could earn money to support their families and pay back the cost of the farmland.

Graceville, MN circa 1900
Graceville, MN circa 1900. LakesnWoods.com Postcard and Postcard Image Collection

While the new arrivals were allotted farmland and seeds for planting, only five acres of the 160 acres provided to them were “broken” for planting. In Western Minnesota, the soil was so hard that it needed to be broken before it could be used for planting. And breaking the soil was such arduous work that a farmer who broke 20 acres per year was considered to have done very well. 

In addition, given that the emigrants didn’t arrive until late June, they were already a good two months behind the normal growing season.

Discontent and accusations

Despite efforts to regain their strength and adjust to their new environment, it didn’t take long before reports of hardship among the Connemaras surfaced. Residents of Morris, the town 28 miles to the east where the railroad tracks ended, visited the emigrants in Graceville and were concerned by what they saw. They accused Archbishop Ireland of neglecting the new Catholic colony. 

Archbishop John Ireland's St. Paul home.
Bishop John Ireland’s home in St. Paul

In September, Bishop Ireland visited Graceville and talked to some of the Irish families. He judged the emigrants to be doing alright but was irritated about their apparent discontent. During the visit, the Connemaras requested to be sent to St. Paul so they could perform day labor work. This enraged the Archbishop so much that he initiated a system of public works, financed by the dioceses, that would pay the workers $1/day, down from up to $2/day they had been earning. He further threatened that those who couldn’t find employment in the public works program or through farming would have their credit for provisions cut off.

The Long Winter of 1880-81
Photograph by Elmer and Tenney. Snow blockade, Southern Minnesota Division, Chicago, Milwaukee and Saint Paul Railway. Original image from the Minnesota Historical Society, Public Domain.

By the next month, things grew worse when an early blizzard struck the Midwest in mid-October. The winter was strikingly difficult across much of the Plains and the Midwest, impacting transportation, fuel availability, food supplies, and human and livestock health.

It became known as “the hard winter” and was documented in literature. The winter was so bitter that even today it is considered among the top five most severe winters in the country. 

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.
John Ireland, 1887.

As word of the Connemaras’ discontent spread to the Morris newspaper and ultimately newspapers in larger cities both in Minnesota and beyond, the Archbishop had little choice but to dispatch two officials to investigate the situation. One was his friend, Dillon O’Brien and the other, Leonard B. Hodges, a man O’Brien greatly respected. The men met separately with a variety of Connemara families and when they concluded their reports, both were strikingly different.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.
Dillon O’Brien, 1880.

O’Brien wrote about the Connemaras: “Many of them are wholly unreliable, and have all the cunning which a life of pauperism gives.” He accused the emigrants of hiding money they received from their young family members who were working in St. Paul. 

Hodges, on the other hand, accused O’Brien of consorting with Graceville’s priest, Fr. Timothy Ryan. Hodges described women and children as “more or less frozen in their shanties for the want of fuel.”

The contradictory reports made Archbishop Ireland so agitated, it prompted him to pen a letter that was published just before Christmas in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The letter lashed out at the Connemaras. “The parties in the west of Ireland whom Father Nugent requested to select families for the colony, sent us for the most part paupers of long standing totally demoralized and unmannered by years of suffering, and unaccustomed to provide for their own wants.”

Several months later, Archbishop Ireland finally relented and provided funding for the Connemaras to relocate in St. Paul. They settled in what became known as the Connemara Patch on St. Paul’s east side, a desolate stretch of land in a ravine obscured by cliffs with little sunlight. 

Connemara Patch, a painting
scan from 4×5 file transparency on Epson 10000XL

The Connemaras who left Ireland destitute but hopeful continued to experience hardships. Some were eventually able to rise above the ravine and climb out of the poverty that seemed to define one or two of their generations. But some Connemaras were not as fortunate as they continued to face a life of poverty and injustice.

Jane Kennedy

Jane Kennedy is a proud Tuke descendant who lives in St. Paul, MN. She has a B.A. in English and Journalism from St. Catherine University and an M.A. in Business Communications from the University of St. Thomas. Kennedy obtained Irish citizenship in 2016 (dual citizenship) following two visits to her grandfather’s homeland in the Belmullet Peninsula, Co. Mayo, Ireland. She has done considerable research on the Connemaras and James Hack Tuke and manages the Blacksod Bay – Co. Mayo Emigration FB site.