Since the very fledgling years of America’s existence as an independent nation, the presence of the Irish—“from sea to shining sea”—has been a tangible one. Some of these early Irish inhabitants, like Hercules Mulligan, the Irish tailor and spy who played a critical role in the American Revolution, did their work quietly; it was only with the immense popularity of the 2015 Broadway musical Hamilton that his contributions were recognized by the mainstream. Others, like John Shields, the founder of Dublin, Ohio (see below!) were more upfront about the size of the emerald-colored mark they intended to leave on this new, exciting country.
In manners both big and blatant, subtle and small, the people of Ireland have made an indelible contribution to the shaping of the United States up until this point, and will surely continue to do so in the years to come. Below, read on to get the lowdown on some of the most unmistakably Irish locations in America, and the fascinating stories they have to tell.
It’s a well-known fact that people of Irish descent make up the single largest ethnic group in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, making up a grand total of 15.8% of the population as of 2013. Many of their ancestors arrived on American shores during the Great Irish Famine, seeking out a better life for themselves and their families. Little did they know that as time progressed, the city would become one of the most famous Irish enclaves in the world.
But, for the Boston Irish, the path wouldn’t be an easy one. Discrimination was rampant (think “No Irish Need Apply” signs in their dozens posted up around the city), and it was not until the American Civil War that their reputation began to improve. Before long, the Boston Irish had effectively re-shaped the electoral politics of the city. In 1914, David Ignatius Walsh became the first Irish Catholic Governor of Massachusetts, and so began a long tradition of Irish American public figures that characterized much of its history. Today, Boston Irish heritage sites include the Irish Famine Memorial, Bunker Hill Catholic Cemetery, and Hibernian Hall, an early hub of Irish American life in Boston that now serves as an arts center in Roxbury.
Films with a notable Boston Irish theme include Good Will Hunting (1997), Boondock Saints (1999), and The Departed (2010). Famous Irish Americans born and raised in the city of Boston include actor and filmmaker Ben Affleck; Marvel superstar Chris Evans; celebrated television host Conan O’Brien; Ken Casey, the bass guitarist and principal songwriter of American Celtic punk band the Dropkick Murphys; and, of course, Lucky the Leprechaun, the beloved mascot of the Boston Celtics basketball team.
BREEZY POINT, NEW YORK
With 60.3% of the population of Breezy Point, Queens claiming Irish ancestry, it’s little surprise that this area (along with the surrounding Rockaways) has come to be known as the “Irish Riviera” of New York. Less urbanized than the rest of the city by far, this neighborhood was used for years as secluded summer getaway for many permanent residents of the Big Apple.
Then, on October 29, 2012, disaster struck—and the area’s name became the cruelest of ironies. Breezy Point was completely overtaken by the gales of Hurricane Sandy, suffering some of the worst damage the storm dealt out over the course of its week-long rampage. Sandwiched between Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, its land was badly flooded, and most local residences ranged from severely damaged to completely destroyed by the force of the raging water.
Even in this dark time, however, the indomitable Irish spirit of the population was quick to rear its head. The Emerald Guild, a New York City-based group of Irish builders and superintendents, acted quickly and expertly, distributing life-saving supplies through Long Island. A group of Irish construction workers from Navillus Contracting Company were also among the first to respond to the emergency, helping over 100 families in the two days that followed the storm. Two weeks after the disaster, they had dug out a grand total of 300 homes—and in doing so, providing a fine example of the dauntless community care for which the Irish people are known.
Located in Silver Bow County, the town of Butte was initially established as a small mining camp in the north of the Rocky Mountains. However, in the late nineteenth century, it developed at exponential speed to become Montana’s first major industrial city, and one of the biggest copper “boomtowns” of the old American West. The wealth of employment opportunities in Butte’s many mines made it an attractive destination for Asian and European immigrants, and, as you might have guessed by now, a significant chunk of those fortune-seekers were Irish in origin. It wasn’t long before their families joined them, and, before long, the Irish population swelled impressively. As of 2017, Butte has the largest population of Irish Americans of any city in the United States: over one quarter of the city claims Irish descent!
As a direct result of the massive Irish and Irish American population in Butte today, its community is known for hosting raucous St. Patrick’s Day celebrations every year since 1882. The parade, led by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, is attended annually by some 30,000 locals, and draws many more beyond the city’s reaches by sheer virtue of its exuberance!
A city located in (and serving as the county seat of) Houston County, Tennessee, Erin is often referred to by its nickname of “Irish Town, Tennessee” for a very good reason. Though no one knows who chose the settlement’s name when it was first established, there’s a more than good chance that they hailed from that small, fruitful island across the ocean, for “Erin” refers to the old, poetic word used interchangeably with “Ireland” in Hiberno-English. But its cultural resonance doesn’t stop there.
In many old nationalist texts, Erin is the name associated with the female personification of Ireland, and it is said that it was originally given to the country by the Milesians, the final race to settle in there. Legend has it that they named it as such in honor of the ancient sovereignty goddess, Ériu.
Hearing the name of this lively Tennessee town might also bring to many minds the unmistakable slogan, “Erin go bragh!” This phrase was used by the rebel forces in the 1798 revolution for Ireland’s independence from England. Given that the saying translates to “Ireland forever,” it’s little wonder this southern city brings a warm tinge to the heart of any and all visitors from the Emerald Isle, particularly on the day of the Erin Irish Day Parade, traditionally held on the third Saturday of every March.
Platted in 1874, the town of O’Neill, Nebraska keeps its proud Irish history crystallized in that single telltale apostrophe. The town was named after its founder, John Charles O’Neill, a soldier who served in the American Civil War as a member of the First Cavalry, and, later, the Fifth Indiana Cavalry.
O’Neill was credited as an incredibly brave officer, and the details of his life are well-documented. Before he took to the battlefields of the United States, he was born to an education-loving family in Drumgallon, County Monaghan. O’Neill emigrated to New Jersey at the tender age of 14, when the Great Famine began to ravish his homeland, and determinedly continued his education there, while working odd local jobs to keep himself afloat. It wasn’t until years later, long after the war, that he would use his schooling to create the community now deemed the official Irish capital of Nebraska.
Delightfully, the town of O’Neill reinforces its Irish connection with a painting of the world’s largest permanent shamrock on record. The gigantic art piece, made from bright green concrete, was installed in the year 2000.
IRISH CHANNEL, NEW ORLEANS
The Irish Channel, or Manche irlandaise, is a neighborhood in the vibrant city of New Orleans, Louisiana. The largely working-class area was originally settled in the early 19th century by Irish immigrants, though German, Italian, and African American families were soon to follow, all living in close quarters in peace.
The precise reason that the area was given the “Irish Channel” as its name is uncertain, for though there were Irish aplenty in the area, there wasn’t a channel to be had. One going theory is that the Irish community “channeled” into the area; another is that when the torrential Southern summer rains fell, the rain would settle into the streets of this locality more generously than those that surrounded it.
Located in Franklin, Delaware and Union counties in the U.S. state of Ohio, it’s only natural that the city of Dublin would earn a spot as one of the top Irish locations in America. Sharing a name with the beautiful capital of Ireland across the Atlantic, how could it go overlooked?
Though it was first settled in the incredibly early year of 1802, the village that was to become Dublin did not begin to take its current form until a family by the name of Sells arrived from Huddington, Pennsylvania. Two of the family’s brothers, Peter and Benjamin, pooled money together to purchase 400 acres of land for their brother, John. By 1810, John had acquired himself a business partner, John Shields, with whom he began to plan a township. The name of the town was chosen by Shields, who hailed, unsurprisingly, from Ireland. He wrote, “If I have the honor conferred upon me to name your village, with the brightness of the morn, and the gleaming of the sun on the hills and dales surrounding this beautiful valley, it would give me great pleasure to name your new town after my birthplace, Dublin, Ireland.”
Today, Dublin, Ohio is the proud host of the annual Dublin Irish Festival, the largest three-day festival of Irish culture in the world.
In the city of Chicago, the Irish population is well-represented in many public-facing positions, such as the fire and police departments. In particular, though, the influence they have held in Chicago government roles has been unforgettable: for a straight 80 year period, the city elected 12 Irish American mayors.
It was also the Irish community who founded two of the city’s most prominent colleges, Loyola University Chicago and DePaul University. In the arts, it goes without saying that the most significant Irish American to hail from this ever-so-green city is Irish dancer Michael Flatley, of Riverdance fame.
In 1979, members of the Irish community began to congregate for the city’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade. Today, the South Side Irish is one of the largest and most prominent ethnic communities in Chicago, and the city celebrates its ties to the Emerald Isle each year by dying the Chicago River itself a deep, emerald green. Talk about dedication!
ST. PATRICK, MISSOURI
Renamed in 1857 for Ireland’s patron saint, St. Patrick, Missouri was originally founded under the name of North Santa Fe. Originally settled by Irish immigrants, the strong Catholic faith they brought with them on their journey overseas remains the dominant faith in the town.
Today, it is widely known as the home of the Shrine of St. Patrick, a medieval-inspired Catholic church. The story goes that homemade bricks were made for the church in a kiln located east of the local cemetery. The brick masons deemed them too soft, refusing to use them in construction, and so the bricks were purchased by the clergy for the church. The new rectory was built from humble homemade bricks in 1861, and stood tall for nearly one hundred years before rebuilding was necessary.
Additionally, the post office of St. Patrick, Missouri is unique in that it issues a postage stamp that’s not available for sale anywhere else in the world. It bears a green shamrock symbol, an Irish-style hat and pipe, and the words “St. Patrick, Missouri: The Only One in the World.” Now that’s local pride!
WOODSIDE, NEW YORK
Circling back around to Queens, New York, our final Irish hub of the hour is the neighborhood of Woodside, which lies to the western side of the borough. Beginning at the end of the 19th century and going on right up through the 20th, the area’s growing Irish population earned it the nickname of “Irishtown.” One of the biggest telltale signs that the Irish had come to stay was in 1901, when the Greater New York Irish Athletic Association opened a large athletic complex, named, appropriately, Celtic Park. By the early 1930s, the area was 80% Irish.
Of course, in the true spirit of New York, the area has become more of a cultural melting pot over time (in 1999, Woodsiders spoke 34 different language and hailed from about 49 countries), a trait which lends itself well to a multitude of festivals and street fairs held there on an annual basis. Its St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, however, are among the most significant of all—Woodside hosts the only St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York that welcomes members of the LGBT community to march. The event is known as the St. Pat’s for All Parade, and has attracted many prominent figures to join in the festivities down through the years, including former New York City mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, and former U.S. senator and secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.