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Highlights Archives

Exploring Irish Culture in Wisconsin

These three "Irishmen," one holding a leprechaun, pose for a Wisconsin State Journal photo that accompanied an article on spring plays and social activities at Madison high schools. Left to right are Tom McManus of Madison Central High, Jo Gilbert and "Rusty" Moran, both of Edgewood High. March 8, 1950

If St. Patrick's Day only calls to mind shamrocks, leprechauns and green beer — which you might think is Wisconsin's main connection to Ireland — think again. As the Wisconsin Historical Society's book, Irish in Wisconsin, makes clear, the Irish have a rich and complicated history in the Badger State. For example, Henry Baird (1800-1875), a Dublin native, came to Green Bay in 1824 and became Wisconsin's first attorney, president of the Territorial Council in 1836, candidate for governor in 1853, and mayor of Green Bay during the Civil War. By then thousands of his fellow countrymen had come to Wisconsin in the great wave of European immigration that broke over the state in the mid-1800s. When a potato famine killed 10 percent of the Irish population between 1845 and 1854, 20 percent of the survivors left the country, most of them for America.

The Formation of Irish Communities

In Wisconsin, Irish immigrants quickly formed communities in Beloit, Fond du Lac, and Sturgeon Bay as well as in rural Trempeauleau County. They worked at day labor, railroad construction, lumbering, fishing and, of course, farming. At the time of the Civil War, a separate Irish regiment was formed, the 17th Infantry, which saw action at the siege of Vicksburg and in the Atlanta Campaign, and took part in Sherman's famous March to the Sea.

Some of those early Irish communities disappeared, like the one at "Irish Coulee" in La Crosse County, while in other places succeeding generations of Irish Americans simply merged into their cities and towns. Some, however, like Margaret O'Grady of Milwaukee and Michael Gainor of Appleton, lived well into the 20th century, their memories laced with scenes and songs from the old country.

:: Posted March 15, 2010

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