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St. Patrick's Day: A history of the Irish in Colorado

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Posted at 6:30 AM, Mar 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-17 09:07:54-04

COLORADO SPRINGS — Whether you're Irish or not, everyone is a little bit Irish on St. Patrick's Day. For centuries, the Irish have observed the day of Saint Patrick’s death as a religious holiday, attending church in the morning and celebrating with food and drink in the afternoon, according to the History Channel.

However, the first St. Patrick's Day parade happened in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. New York City celebrated in 1762 with a parade, mostly including Irish soldiers who served in the English military. The parade eventually became an annual event, with President Truman attending in 1948.

Outside of celebrations, the Irish have woven their way to be a prominent part of American culture and society, including here in Colorado.

From 1820 to 1930, at least 4 million Irish people immigrated to the United States. While many settled in hubs like Boston, New York, or Philadelphia, many decided to make the journey west starting in the 1870s.

Many of those heading west came from manual labor backgrounds and were skilled miners, which would prove handy during the mining boom and growing industrial economies in western cities.

While migrating to the west is often thought of as a "mythic" journey in American history, the story of the Irish in Colorado is of a group escaping one hardship, only to be faced with the harsh realities of the American West.

Leadville: Origins of the Irish in Colorado

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The Emmett Mine in Leadville, Colo.

Before coming down south, many Irish miners could be found in Leadville during the silver rush. The town would be the source of the Irish boom in Colorado. At one point, Leadville would have been the most Irish place per capita between the Pacific and the Midwest

Leadville was such an Irish hub it attracted famous Irishmen of the day such as Oscar Wilde, well-known Irish patriot Michael Davet, and bare-knuckle boxing champion of the world John Sullivan, who had two fights in Leadville.

James Walsh, a University of Colorado Denver Associate Professor of Political Science who specializes in Irish history, says that a large percentage of the Irish in Leadville were copper miners from West County Cork who were thrown out of work. Walsh says it's also the reason the most common Irish last name in Colorado is "Sullivan."

"I mean, it's unimaginable. They had to get to New York and then get a train to Denver and then a train to Fairplay, and then walk over Mosquito Pass or take a horse because the railroad hadn't made it yet. So it's a crazy thing that they survived all this," said Walsh.

Walsh says the hardships of the Irish would not end after their long journey to Leadville. He says between harsh mountain weather and dangerous working conditions, the Irish faced epidemics, poverty, and even oppression.

The Irish miners organized unions and launched massive strikes up in Leadville. Irish labor leader Michael Mooney would lead the largest strike in Colorado's history in 1880. However, the strikes would be put down by the Colorado National Guard under martial law.

"There is a narrative in Irish historiography that the farther west the Irish went, the easier life got for them, but that doesn't hold up to the research we've done here," said Walsh.

Walsh says nearly 2,000 unmarked graves were discovered in the Catholic Free Pauper section of the Evergreen Cemetary in Leadville.

"The average age of all the people buried in the cemetery is 23 and half of them are children, 12 and young or younger. That tells you everything you need to know about the lives and struggles of Irish immigrants in early Colorado," said Walsh.

Today, the Irish legacy is still strong in Leadville. Many of the churches and buildings constructed by the Irish still stand, and over the years the town has received visits from the Irish Ambassador and Irish Consular General. The town also hosts not only one, but TWO St. Patrick's Day Parades. The second one is held in September as a "halfway" mark to the actual holiday.

Walsh says that while the fighting Irish have a proud history and their descendants have gone on to live comfortable lives in America, the first generation's history of hardship is largely forgotten. Walsh says it's why a new memorial is being constructed at the cemetery, which will honor the Irish working-class community that helped to build the town of Leadville.

With the harsh conditions, strikes, and the end of the silver rush, the Irish were eventually forced to leave Leadville in the 1890s. However, this would lead them to disperse to other parts of Colorado.

The Irish head to Southern Colorado

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Images of miners in the Ajax Mine in Cripple Creek

Many of the miners leaving Leadville were attracted to the Cripple Creek Gold Rush of 1891. According to Walsh, the Cripple-Creek Victor area is likely the second most Irish place in Colorado.

The Irish diaspora would also disperse to other parts of Southern Colorado, many going to work in the steel mills of Pueblo or joining the working-class force in Colorado Springs as it was operating as an elite health resort destination for the upper class.

"The Irish coming to Colorado Springs or coming to Colorado in the 1870s would've been part of that working class. They would've staffed the hotels, they would've worked on the delivery services, they would've worked on the railroad, they would've worked in the dairies, in the brickyards, at least those first generations," said Leah Davis Witherow, a Curator of History of Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum.

Irish workers would also have been attracted to Pueblo and the job opportunities there. Many of the Irish laborers would work at the steel mill and on the railroad.

News 5 spoke with Steelworks Center of the West Curator, Victoria Miller, who said unlike Colorado Springs, the Irish in Pueblo were living in a much more multi-ethnic community. Miller said that by 1916, there were 42 different languages that were being spoken in the mines and at the Minnequa Steelworks in Pueblo.

Witherow said a struggle with finding Irish history in Colorado is that because many were in the working class, they did not leave many records behind.

While a majority of the Irish immigrants in southern Colorado were in the working class, some Irishmen left their mark in other ways.

General Palmer's business partner, Dr. William Bell, was born in Ireland. He is considered the founder of Manitou Springs and had a large role in the development of Colorado Springs.

"He doesn't really receive the due credit for being an important founder of Colorado Springs," said Witherow. "He was here, he was a partner in all of the ventures and there was a series of companies that are all interrelated to develop Colorado Springs and develop the railroad hand in hand."

Witherow says they have also found a social Irish presence in Southern Colorado. Records show the Irish served on the volunteer firefighting squads and that The Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish-Catholic Fraternal Organization, had an office in Colorado Springs.

Witherow said that the AOH hosted a great St. Patrick's Day dance in 1902 at the Antlers Hotel, right after it opened in 1898.

"It would've been a brand new luxurious antlers hotel, and I am just thinking about what a fun time must have been had at that event," said Witherow.

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