Guest Columnist

On Being Irish in the Corridor on St. Patrick's Day

St. Patrick waves to the crowd during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Cedar Rapids on March 17, 2017. (Liz Martin/Gazette Archives)
St. Patrick waves to the crowd during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Cedar Rapids on March 17, 2017. (Liz Martin/Gazette Archives)

St. Patrick’s Day is a great day to be Irish in the Cultural Corridor! From Cedar Rapids to Iowa City, thousands of Iowans will be celebrating their Irish heritage. They’ll be decked in Kelly Green, marching in the SaPaDaSo Parade, and, of course, hoisting a few at the Irish Democrat, Donnelly or another fine establishment.

But being Irish is more than celebration. It is also about commemoration. We need to acknowledge the sacrifice made by the tens of thousands of immigrants who took a chance on a future in the Hawkeye State. Unfortunately, most Irish Iowans know almost knowing about the pioneers and progressive who help make our state what it is today.

That’s what I learned when I set out to write a book on the Irish of Iowa. If you ask the typical Iowan about the Sullivan Brothers, many will tell you about the sacrifice made by five sailors who gave their lives for their country. But beyond those well-known heroes, most Iowans know precious little about the Irish heritage of our state.

Consider the Irish women who established many of the schools, hospitals and asylums in our state. Tens of thousands of Iowa children were educated by Irish-born women in both public and parochial schools. And many others were nursed back to health by Irish-American nuns and nurses at Mercy hospitals in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and other cities across the state.

How about the thousands of Irish laborers who cut timbers and laid the tracks for the many miles of railroads that cris-crossed the state in the 19th century. The task was so daunting that working on the rails was referred to as “Hell on Wheels.” Those rails tied the corridor together and to the rest of the state.

Independence for Ireland was a passion and a preoccupation for the Irish in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. The Irish in those communities gave thousands of dollars in aid for their native land. Their commitment to the cause was rewarded by visits from Irish patriots such as Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell, for whom the town of Parnell is named.

On a lighter, more refreshing side, let’s hoist one to the memory of Harold Donnelly, the founder of the Iowa City pub that bears his name. The descendant of Irish-American pioneers, Donnelly was a leader in his community who served on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors.

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And let’s not forget Monsignor Maurice Sheehy, a priest who befriended presidents and football coaches and served this country as a three star admiral during World War II. He put his Irish American imprint on Cedar Rapids as the pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish and later St. Pius X Parish.

Finally, let’s salute the Iowans who bring Irish music and dance to Eastern Iowa throughout the year. Recently, Cedar Rapids was host to and Irish Hooley in support of the Parade and the University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium offered a performance by the Irish musical group “Danu.”

Researching and writing Irish Iowa was a real moment of personal pride and satisfaction. To be sure, I was born Irish in Michigan, received an education at Notre Dame, and spent parts of my career in Illinois and Virginia, but it was my move to Iowa that gave this “Irish immigrant” a sense of home.

• Timothy Walch is the director emeritus of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch and the author of “Irish Iowa,” now available in bookstores and via the internet. Comments: Twalch47@gmail.com

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