Tourists visit the "Irish Potato Famine" memorial in Dublin, Ireland. The famine in the 1840s saw the nation's population drop from roughly 8 million to 4 million, largely due to starvation. About 1 million fled to the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Flickr/informatique)
By Beth Whisman
BLOOMINGTON-NORMAL - St. Patrick's Day and its celebration of Irish heritage has deep roots in McLean County.
Saturday's third annual "Sharin' of the Green" parade and fundraiser is just the latest version of local celebrations. Greg Koos, historian and director of the McLean County Museum of History, said Sunday the local Irish population has celebrated St. Patrick's Day in public since the 1860s.
"Organized parades appear right after the Civil War, organzied by Fenian organizations. The Fenians were a group of Irish revolutionaries who had every intention of seeing Ireland a free and independent state," said Koos.
Koos said the Fenians used their military experience and training from the Civil War to continue to organize for Irish independence. At one point, he said they tried to organize an invasion of Canada to force England to give up its control of the Emerald Isle. The plan failed.
From Rails to Rows
Why is Irish heritage so strong in the Prairie State? The answer boils down to the railroad and farming.
The McLean County Museum of History has documented the so-called "Greening of the Prairie" as a million Irish emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1800s. Koos said many people know the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s drove a million people to flee their homeland. But few realize how hard it was to survive the sea voyage if they were lucky enough to escape starvation that almost cut Ireland's population in half.
"The mortality rate of the trip for many of these ships was worse than what African slaves had experienced in terms of shipping Africans like lumber," said Koos.
Koos said the Irish began to populate the U. S. just as the iron horse began to make its way across the Midwest.
"There was a great demand for labor because the United States was engaging in the industrialization (of the nation) based upon rail," said Koos. "The rail networks needed to be built, and at that point in time, that stuff was built by hand. Having literally hundreds of thousands of Irish laborers was a way of getting that job done."
Specifically, Koos said the Chicago and Alton Railroad was built by Irish contractors and laborers. It was hard work and laborers weren't privy to quality health care, food or water supplies. It wasn't uncommon for laborers who died along the railroad routes to be buried in mass graves. A modern stone Celtic cross marks an old mass grave of Irish and Native American workers at Funk's Grove today.
Koos said the railroad might have brought the Irish to McLean County, but it was agriculture that made them stay.
"Essentially as they were doing this work, these folks were looking for a better situation. They were looking for a place to land," Koos explained.
"I like to say if you're digging your way across Central Illinois, you're going to realize that you're digging through some pretty decent dirt."
Dig Up Your Irish Roots
Millions will celebrate their Irish heritage Sunday, perhaps more in the U.S. than in Ireland itself. According to the Census, there are 34.5 million Americans who claim their heritage as Irish. That number is seven times larger than the population of Ireland. Irish is the second-most common ancestry shared among Americans, following German.
The history museum in downtown Bloomington will host an Irish geneaology workshop on Saturday, March 23 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with the Irish Heritage Society and McLean County Geneological Society. You can also learn more about Irish Heritage in Central Illinois at the museum's "Greening of the Prairie" exhibit.
Beth Whisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.