How the Irish Found Gold in St. Louis

17, March 2017

Unlike the experiences of Irish immigrants in nearly every other major U.S. city, the Irish who settled in St. Louis in the mid-1800s were embraced—and they thrived. The following is adapted from Rev. William Barnaby Faherty’s 2001 book The St. Louis Irish: An Unmatched Celtic Community, published by the Missouri Historical Society Press.

Color postcard featuring Irish woman and the words "Erin Go Bragh"Portion of St. Patrick's Day postcard, ca. 1910. Missouri History Museum.

Even experts of Irish American history have largely ignored the story of the Irish in St. Louis. Here, the Celtic experience stood in striking contrast to the widespread view of the Irish who had been called “despised aliens,” “an unassimiable menace,” “agents of . . . . ignorance and superstition,” and “refugees . . . . from destitution and oppression” who “pioneered the American ghetto.”

Along with waves of Scots, Scotch Irish, and Anglo Americans, the Irish who reached St. Louis in the early 19th century arrived in a French Catholic city at a time when it was coming into its own as an American one. Historian David March called St. Louis “the chief Irish settlement in the United States,” and the immigrants who came intended to stay, having no regrets about leaving Cork or Kildare.

Color painting of John MullanphyJohn Mullanphy, St. Louis's first millionaire. Watercolor by C. Ruder. Missouri History Museum.

By 1850 the city had a population of 77,860, but by 1860 that number had more than doubled to 160,773—with Irish immigrants accounting for nearly 20 percent. Though most of them were unaccustomed to city living and had few urban skills, they brought energy, resourcefulness, a willingness to learn, and—unique among immigrants of the time—they spoke English. Many established themselves in manufacturing and merchandising, as well as working at sawmills, railroads, and refineries. Some even prospered financially, such as John Mullanphy, who built his fortune through merchandising and real estate—and shared his wealth with local churches and the poor.

Where did these incoming Irish find homes? Some of the track workers settled on the hill to the north of the railroad in Cheltenham—part of the neighborhood now known as Dogtown—which was famous for its rich deposits of clay. There they formed St. James Parish, the first west of Kingshighway. But the largest group of Irish—made up of small shopkeepers and workers, skilled and unskilled—settled around St. Patrick’s Church at Sixth and Biddle streets on the near north side. Gradually, the Irish area spread westward between Carr and Cass avenues. Central to this new section was St. Lawrence O’Toole Church at 14th and O’Fallon streets. By 1860 others had settled west beyond the old Kerry Patch to St. Bridget of Erin Parish, founded by Cork native Fr. Christopher Fitnam. Twenty years later, St. Lawrence O’Toole had 6,000 parishioners, and St. Bridget’s totaled 5,000.

Portion of the third-ever edition of the "Missouri Gazette" newspaperJoseph Charless, a native of County Westmeath, started St. Louis's first newspaper in 1808. His Missouri Gazette was also the first newspaper west of the Mississippi River. Missouri History Museum.

The Irish were at home in St. Louis from the earliest days as in no other city in the country, and they benefitted from the splendid cooperative spirit that existed between the Anglo American newcomers and the established French residents. They found kinship among the original French inhabitants by their identity of faith and country—some of them had served in the French army or had even lived in France. (There was a dispute over which language should be used in the cathedral sermons, but it was short lived.) In fact, the Irish and the French frequently intermarried: Fr. John Verdin, a Jesuit priest, was the son of a French-Irish marriage and was the first native St. Louisan to become president of Saint Louis University. 

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