On St. Patrick’s Day, the saying goes, we’re all Irish. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but parts of our area are practically doused in green beer and shamrocks every March 17. St. Paddy’s Day is not necessarily the only day those with Irish pride celebrate one of Wisconsin’s first major immigrant groups.
Most Irish came to Wisconsin between 1840 and 1860. They were the largest English-speaking group to settle in the state. Though fewer in number than some other ethnic groups, the Irish population in Wisconsin increased during the 1845-1855 potato Famine emigration from Ireland.
Most Irish from the East Coast came by way of steamboat through the Great Lakes to Milwaukee, then by oxen team and wagon to their destination. Some Irish came overland by prairie schooner across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois to
reach Wisconsin Territory.
According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, Irish immigrants moved frequently from state to state before locating available land for farming in Wisconsin.
Irish communities and some rural farming settlements sent representatives to the first great St. Patrick's Day parade in Milwaukee on March 17, 1843, sponsored by Milwaukee's Roman Catholic Church. The Irish of the "Bloody Third" Ward, a district in Milwaukee known for its immigrant brawls, were well represented. The Milwaukee Sentinel reported that delegations with banners hailed from localities such as Mineral Point, Madison, Watertown, Geneva, Kenosha, Racine, Franklin, Muskego, Waukesha, Pewaukee, and Cedarburg.
In 1860, Wisconsin's Irish population numbered 49,961; in 1880, 41,907; and in 1900, 23,544. The Irish began to leave Wisconsin in 1860 as German immigrants poured into the state.
Regardless of not having the highest percentage of Irish in living in the state (that medal goes to Massachusetts) Irish roots run deep in the Badger State.
Founded March 17, 1960 in Milwaukee, the Shamrock Club of Wisconsin is the oldest and largest Irish American membership organization in the state. Members of Milwaukee’s Irish community who had been a part of the Milwaukee Holiday Folk Fair’s annual November festival organized the Shamrock Club. After a few years, it would incorporate under Wisconsin corporation laws, and later would receive a federal 501 C (4) as a charitable, social and cultural organization.
The Shamrock Club held notoriety in the Irish community by sponsoring and chartering flights to Ireland multiple times a year. When the chartered flights program started, there were not many direct flights to Ireland, and those that existed were often extremely expensive. Changes in the federal laws would take the Shamrock Club out of the charter business, as more commercial airlines saw the growing interest in Ireland to be a viable money making option for them.
Many organizations sprouted as a result of the Shamrock Club including: Milwaukee Irish Fest, Trinity Irish Dancers and the Conference of Celtic Women.
In 1972, the Shamrock Club developed a scholarship for Irish Studies. Individuals in Irish or Irish-related fields of studies were given the scholarships to study in Ireland.
You do not need to actually be Irish to enjoy traditional Irish fares offered by restaurants throughout the state. Traditional Irish dishes include Irish stew (made with lamb, mutton, or beef), boxty (potato pancake), coddle (sausage, bacon, and potato), colcannon (mashed potato, kale or cabbage, and butter) and of course corned beef and cabbage.
Large St. Paddy’s Day parades take place in New Richmond Webb Lake, Green Bay and Madison, to name a few.
La Crosse hosts an Irish Fest in August, but for St. Patrick’s Day you can expect a parade filled with dancing, singing and Irish foods.
For one week, the town of New London, WI. probably could be renamed New Dublin. The week features a number of events including music and various forms of corned beef and cabbage. The week culminates in a daylong Irish fest complete with downtown New London, er, Dublin parade. Be sure to catch a mock up of a traditional Irish funeral: Finnegan’s Wake.
If ever visiting Milwaukee, head to the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center, which occupies the historic Grand Avenue Congregational Church. Events at the cultural center do not just happen in March, concerts and more are sprinkled throughout the year.