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A look back at Detroit's Irish past

Mar 17, 2015

 In the spirit of the Irish on this St. Patrick’s Day, let’s peek back through their history in Detroit, where the Corktown neighborhood wears its Irish heritage proudly.

Detroit has celebrated St. Patrick's Day with parades since what might have been as early as 1808.
Credit FLICKR USER 21INNOVATE / FLICKR

In an article for the Detroit News entitled, Irish helped form Detroit for centuries, Bill Loomis sifts through the several “waves” of Irish immigrants to Detroit, the first of which came in the early 1800s.

By the time Irish immigrants began thinking of Detroit as a potential final destination, the city had already been Catholic for 100 years or more.

“That was a big draw for a lot of Irish who were getting some pushback from Protestants on the East Coast,” Loomis said.

While 1808 marks the first recorded St. Patrick’s celebration in Detroit, Irish soldiers were in Michigan even before that – representing the British at Fort Detroit, “during the colonial days, as they call it.”

"... it wasn't until 1832 that this day was officially christened "St. Patrick's Day."

Loomis said many of the immigrants arriving in the first colonial wave were well-educated professionals, though a smaller percentage also brought common laborers.

Celebrations of St. Patrick in these days “was as much church as it was celebration,” Loomis said. And it wasn’t until 1832 that this day was officially christened “St. Patrick’s Day.”

The years 1845-1852 brought the potato famine to Ireland. It killed a million people in the motherland and sent another million to the seas, as immigrants.

“Here you had people that were close to peasantry and they were coming over mainly as laborers, and they were in terrible shape,” Loomis said. “That was hard to read. A lot of newspaper articles about what they were going through not only over in Ireland, but in what they call the ‘coffin ships’ coming back to America. It was just a mass exodus.”

The imminent arrival of so many Catholic Irish made people “fearful,” Loomis said. He attributes that nervousness to a “fear of strangers” and a worry that the new Catholics would listen mainly to priests and less to the established democratic system.

“But still they had the St. Patrick’s Day celebration,” Loomis said. “They had the parades, there were French Detroiters and Germans who went to the parades and even Polish that marched in the parades.”

A bit later in history, particularly during Ireland’s second famine in the 1880s, St. Patrick’s Day took on a new tone.

“There was a lot of money raising that went on in Detroit with these celebrations as well," Loomis said. "It wasn’t all just for fun. Many times it was to raise money to help people overseas.”

But what of more recent immigrants from Ireland to Detroit? Turns out they are faced with an interesting reality on St. Patrick’s Day.

“The American version of a lot of these celebrations, not just Irish, but also Day of the Dead and some of these, tends to be more fun than serious,” Loomis said.

-Lindsey Scullen, Michigan Radio Newsroom