Bishop Ireland’s Efforts to Colonize Minnesota with Irish Catholics, a Doctrine of Discovery Story

Archbishop John Ireland is a well known name in St. Paul. He was the first Archbishop of St. Paul and held that post for 30 years (1888–1918). The John Ireland Boulevard runs between the state Capitol and the St. Paul Cathedral.

A little know part of Ireland’s story was his successful effort to colonize parts of western Minnesota with Irish Catholics. He created the Catholic Colonization Bureau of St. Paul in 1876, just after he became a bishop here.

Taking a broader lens, Ireland’s story is about one aspect of how the Doctrine of Discovery played out in Minnesota. The Doctrine of Discovery is the forerunner of Manifest Destiny. It refers to the religious and legal justification used by Europe’s monarchs to claim and colonize lands occupied by indigenous peoples, seize their property and forcibly, convert, enslave, or remove them. The Doctrine has its roots in 15th century papal edicts.

In this 19th Century story, Minnesota lands had been cleared of indigenous people after the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862. The land was now ready for colonization, and Ireland had a plan.

Archbishop John Ireland. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

I learned about this story from a 1957 article in Minnesota History titled Bishop Ireland’s Connemara Experiment by James P. Shannon, a former St. Thomas University President.

The Connemara Experiment refers to the one big failure among Bishop John Ireland’s colonizing efforts. While it was the exception, it got a lot of press at the time and it’s better known than his successes.

In 1880, as the famine hit Ireland, Irish leaders appealed to Bishop Ireland to relocate families from Connemara in Galway to Minnesota to relieve the pressure on their local food supply.

Ireland agreed, and set in motion efforts to relocate 309 people to western Minnesota. Ireland provided small homes and land to farm, with the intention the money would be paid back. Yet as the Connemarans had no experience with large scale farming and were ill prepared for Minnesota winters, it didn’t work out. They soon relocated to St. Paul to get labor jobs. They moved into a swampy neighborhood below Dayton’s Bluff that became known as Connemara Patch, a neighborhood taken out by a freeway in the 1950s.

Shannon praised Bishop Ireland’s broader colonization efforts, writing:

Ireland’s colonization program “was the most extensive and successful wholesale Catholic colonization effort in American history and deserves comparison with the more famous Mormon project in Utah …”

Ireland wanted to alleviate the suffering of poor Irish, those already in the United States and working in dangerous mines or living in deplorable industrial slums in the East. He wanted to provide them farmland and opportunity and build Minnesota’s Catholic community.

As with the 15th Century Doctrine of Discovery, this colonization effort represented a marriage of business and religious interests. Railroad owners needed towns and development along their lines to succeed economically.  Ireland became a sole land agent for several railroads, according to the book Irish in Minnesota:

Because Ireland never bought land from the railroads, he assumed little risk. … And since he was sole agent from these tracts, he could prevent speculators from buying up the land within the colony … Between 1876 and 1879, Ireland contracted for a total of 369,000 acres in southwestern and west-central Minnesota. The towns of DeGraff and Clontarf in Swift County; Adrian in Nobles County; Avoca, Iona, and Fulda in Murray County; Graceville in Big Stone County; and Minneota and Ghent in Lyon County became the business centers for his colonies.

As an aside, Ireland established Clontarf in 1877, as a “Catholic colony on the prairie,” according to MNopedia. “Early arrivals named Clontarf for the site of the eleventh-century victory of the Irish king Brian Boru over Viking invaders.”

According to the book Irish in Minnesota, the area had few Irish residents prior to Ireland’s colonization effort. By 1880, 3,281residents in the five-county area were either Irish born or born of Irish parents, or 15 percent of the population.

[Ireland’s] colonization scheme offered something valuable to all parties. Settlers bought fertile farms close to churches at reasonable rates. The railroads gained the money from the land sales and customers for their services. The Catholic Colonization Bureau got the usual agent’s fee of 10% on all sales and the satisfaction of seeing Catholic settlers enter the mainstream of American life.

Unfortunately, the poor urban Irish didn’t benefit from this effort, but instead those with more means and farming skills, the book said. The poor couldn’t afford the $400 stake needed to survive the first year of farming.

As much as the Irish suffered in the 19th Century, missing in such narratives is an awareness or acknowledgement of the extreme suffering and genocide of the Dakota, Minnesota’s indigenous people.

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