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Discover Mid-America — March 2009

A wee bit of Midwestern Irish imprints
by Terri Baumgardner

As March winds breeze past the Midwest landscape, thoughts turn to all things Irish.

The immigrants, the roads they traveled and the places they settled. Their journeys, the things they brought to America and the things they left behind.

Browne's Irish Market one recent St. Patrick's Day.

And the historical imprints they left across the plains: Irish and Celtic traditions, and the Catholic faith.

In the mid-1800s, Ireland was beset with a legendary famine that left potato crops utterly destroyed. Nearly one million starved to death, and more still fled the island to better lands, including America.

Ireland's immigrants began to land on the East Coast in the mid-to-late 1840s. But it wasn't until about 1857 that Irish folks readily arrived in the Midwest with little more than the clothes they wore.

"The women sewed cash into the hems of their dresses and the shoulders of men's jackets," said Pat O'Neill, an Irish descendent who wrote a historical account of the Midwest migration in his book, From the Bottom Up: The Story of the Irish in Kansas City".

O'Neill's 1999 book is a wee bit of a collector's item, printed in a limited edition of 5,000 copies and about as rare as Irish antiques — both elusive as leprechauns. The book can be found at Kansas City's Irish Museum, at public libraries and universities in the Midwest.

Irish antiques, pieces of Ireland's renowned Belleek china, can be discovered at Blackthorn Trading Company in Lexington, Missouri and at B&J Antique Mall in Topeka, KS.

"My wife and I are Irish," said Steve Wallace from Blackthorn. "We look for it because people of Irish heritage are interested in getting things of Irish origin."

Wallace's collection of the opalescent porcelain includes vases, bowls, cream and sugar sets.

"It's all most like egg-shell," Wallace said. "It's very beautiful. You can all most see through it when you hold it up to the light."

So too, if you shine a light upon the Midwest landscape, you will discover a rich source of historic tourism destinations.


Kansas City...

As history reveals in O'Neill's book, many Irish immigrants settled in the Midwest city. Even still, Kansas City is home to an array of all things Irish.

A Belleek vase from Blackthorn Trading Company in Lexington, MO.

One of Kansas City's Power and Light Entertainment District's emeralds is Raglan Road Irish Restaurant and Pub. Only one of two eatery's in the United States, Raglan Road is owned and operated by Irish entrepreneurs, John Cooke and Paul Nolan, who still live in Ireland.

The Irish eatery showcases antiques imported from Dublin, such as a Victorian fireplace, cash registers, oil burners, and teapots. Old photographs dating back to the 1900s adorn the restaurants walls.

And then there are The Elders.

In 1987, Ian Byrne left his native County Wicklow for Kansas City and formed a band of musicians who write and perform songs reminiscent of traditional Celtic music. Although The Elders host performances across the United States and Ireland, they are most regarded for their annual March Hoolie in Kansas City. And Byrne plays Irish antique instruments - fiddles, Elian pipes and a Bodhra'n.

"A Bodhra'n is a drum, a circle of wood about four inches deep and eight inches in diameter with goat skin," Byrne said. "Ladies used to use it to separate grain, and it became a drum."

Every February, The Elders host a trip to Ireland with tours of historical castles, antique shops and the Dublin Museum.

...And The Irish Market

In 1887, Ireland immigrants from County Kerry opened a market in Kansas City.

The plaque in front of Browne's Irish Market in Kansas City, MO.

Today, Ed and Mary Flavin's shop is cited by the Irish Trade Board as the oldest Irish business in North America, said Kerry Browne, who currently owns and operates Browne's Irish Market with her husband, John McClain.

"The floors are original," said Browne. "The original oak case displays the deli food. I have worked there my whole life. Our two boys are there most every day, my nieces and nephews too. The 5th generation — all see a future in it so it has a future as well as a past."

The Irish shop features an array of imports, clothing includes authentic Irish wear such as sweaters, tweeds and ruanas or capes along with jewelry such as Rovada watches. Stained glass items and Mullingar pewter line the shelves of home goods.

Browne's is highly regarded for its traditional Irish menu with dishes such as potato soup or Shepherd's pie. And its Saturday breakfasts held February through St. Patrick's Day, where Browne's serves bangers or sausage, and rashers or bacon with scrambled eggs, fried potatoes and beans.


Father Flanagan

Edward Flanagan was born in Roscommon County, Ireland, in 1886, and grew up to be America's beloved Father Flanagan who founded Boys Town.

"Father Flanagan is considered in Ireland as one of the major figures that contributed to America, and the world," said Tom Lynch, director of Boys Town's Hall of History. "Japan and Germany, President Truman asked him to help children there, and Korea, Asia. He was considered the authority on child care."

The Catholic priest immigrated to the United States in 1908, and landed in O'Neill, Nebraska where his brother Patrick served as a priest. Nine years later, in 1917, Father Flanagan founded Boys Town.

Dowd Memorial Chapel of Immaculate Conception in Boys Town, NE.

"We are a national historic landmark," Lynch said. "When people come here, they learn of Father Flanagan's mission. A lot of it is based on the tenants of his Irish mother — to help others, to give assistance to anyone in need, and never to discriminate against anyone, race or religion.

The Village of Boys Town, which is surrounded by Omaha, still bears testament to Flanagan's Irish beliefs.

"It was a home for kids that needed help," said Dave Bartholet, director of Boys Town's Visitor Center. "Today, it is a leading not-for-profit organization dealing with at-risk youth with 12 sites across the United States. We are (still) here to change the way America treats youth."

Boys Town features historic sites of interest for Midwestern tourists seeking an Irish flavor.

The Hall of History Museum preserves the Boys Town mission, depicting the story of Father Flanagan and his Irish heritage.

"We have a cross, a copy of the Cross of Cong, a famous cross that goes back to the age of Saint Patrick in Ireland," Lynch said. "It was presented to Father Flanagan by the Lord Mayor of Dublin. It's covered with Celtic designs."

Built in 1927, the historic Father Flanagan House is rich in Irish heirlooms.

"His older sister was his housekeeper, so the home had an Irish flavor," Lynch said. "So, they have Irish pictures on the wall that they brought back from Ireland. They didn't have many items themselves. But as adults, they would go over and people would present them with gifts that they would bring back."

Built in 1941, Dowd Memorial Chapel of Immaculate Conception features a stained glass window bearing Saint Patrick's image and a bronze vault that entombs Father Flanagan.

"He based the design on chapels from Ireland," Lynch said. "It's a Gothic design."


Murray-Lindsay Mansion

Built in 1880 by Frank and Alvira Murray, the Oklahoma estate is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as The Erin Springs Mansion or The Frank Murray House in Erin Springs.

Situated on Highway 76 in south-central Oklahoma near Lindsay, the historic site tells the story of an Irish immigrant and a Native America woman.

Murray, who emigrated from Ireland in the mid-1800s, arrived in America in New Orleans.

"He came penniless," said Jo Ann Wilson, a member of the Lindsay Community Historical Society. "His first job was burying people. It was in the middle of a plague ... He came from a prominent family in Ireland, he was the youngest of three sons; the eldest son inherited all the wealth. He had been working on his father's ranch, he had been sent to buy cattle, and he did that. And, put them on a boat to send to his father, but kept enough money to come to America."

Murray married Alvira McCaughey, a member of the Choctaw Nation. The mansion was built on land bordering or inside the reservation of the Chickasaw Nation. The marriage and the mansion are symbolic of inter-racial marriages.

"(Murray) was able to accumulate his wealth here, through Alvira, this was the Chickasaw Nation," Wilson said. "They traded their land in Mississippi for land in Oklahoma, which was Indian Territory. Oklahoma didn't become a state until 1907. This is really something that came from her heritage."

Noted as one of the most elaborate homes built on the tribal lands of the Chickasaw Nation, the 15-room mansion features two bathrooms and four fireplaces.

"Around the front door is cut glass that came from Sweden," Wilson said. "The four fireplaces, the tile came from Italy, a mosaic tile of tan color. The parlor, cherubs are hand-carved on the fireplace. All the fireplaces have carvings."

The house also pays homage to Murray's Irish-Catholic faith.

"There are wonderful stories of priests coming to the house and holding Mass," Wilson said. "Families came from all around, held weddings, funerals. There weren't many Catholics here. We do have a room in the mansion called The Bishop's room. Bishop McGuiness, he would come, spend the night and have Mass."


St. Bridget Church

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the church is thought to be only one of three or four Gothic-style churches in Kansas.

The 152-year-old church draws tourists from Ireland and Scotland. St. Bridget's historical records are meticulous, recording the name, date of service, photograph and date of death of every priest and bishop ever to serve there.

St. Bridget Church is located near Axtell, about an hour and a half north of Topeka. It is open to the public by appointment only.

St. Bridget Church in Axtell, KS.

"It's a historical building, it is not an open parish," said Norma Stallbaumer, the church caretaker. "You can be buried or married there if you were from St. Bridget. It closed in 1970, and there's only been one funeral."

A neighboring priest does hold Mass at the church two times a year, Memorial Day Weekend and in November for All Souls Day.

In 1857, Irish immigrants in Marshall County constructed a lob cabin Catholic Church in the cemetery. Eventually, the Irish settlement would replace the log cabin with another structure. Curiously, that church was moved in the dark of the night.

"The Northern Irish wanted the church moved north so they didn't have to travel," said Stallbaumer. "So, they moved it with oxen. The skids broke So, instead of moving it back, they left it where it was."

The Irish Catholics would eventually replace that church with three more structures, with the final steeple constructed in 1902.

St. Bridget Church's vaulted ceiling appears to be a bit of an architectural miracle in that the gothic-style ceiling has no visible support.

"There are no supporter pillars," Stallbaumer said. "It's amazing, you wonder what holds it up."

Another wonder envelops St. Bridget's eight stained glass windows. The works of art are referenced in the church's historical files along with Father Patrick O'Sullivan, who was noted for his love of dogs. O'Sullivan presided over the Tragedy of March 28, 1897 when a family was besieged in a creek by a flash flood. Five children were buried in the church's cemetery. Shortly thereafter, Father O'Sullivan moved to a church in Lillis, Kansas.

The story reads that Father O'Sullivan's legacy was resumed by Reverend Patrick McNamara, who oversaw the transference of "the exquisite stained glass windows from the old church to the new building."

Designed for the third church built in 1871, each window portrays a saint or biblical subject — Mary, Jesus, Saint Margaret, Saint Martin, Saint Francis and Saint Patrick.

"We have no idea where they came from," Stallbaumer said. "We do have one window with a stamp on it from Minnesota, Saint Patrick's window must have got broken."

Contact Info

Blackthorn Trading Company
115 Main Street, Lexington, MO

Browne's Irish Market
3300 Pennsylvania Avenue, Kansas City, MO

The Elders
Kansas City, MO
For more information about the Elders, or the historic tour of Ireland, call Ian Byrne at 816-665-3058. For more information on The Elders concert schedule, call 816-591-8440.

Raglan Road Irish Restaurant and Pub
170 East 14th Street, Kansas City, MO

The Irish Museum and Cultural Center
Union Station
30 W. Pershing Road, Kansas City, MO

Village of Boys Town
Visitors' Center
13628 Flanagan Blvd., Boys Town, NE

Murray-Lindsay Mansion
Highway 76 South, Lindsay, OK

St. Bridget Church
341 30th Road, Axtell, KS

B&J Antique Mall
1949 Gage Blvd., Topeka, KS

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