The Irish Way: Immigration and Innovation in Kansas City

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Irish influence in Kansas City, timeline, Gully Town, bluff dwelling, Great Potato Famine, Irish immigration, Father Bernard Donnelly 


Kansas City, Mo.’s flourishing culture and history are embedded deep within Irish tradition and innovation. Roughly 10 percent of the city’s current population descend from the Irish or Scot Irish, many the very same blood of immigrants who built this city from the ground up (quite literally) through the bluffs. From the late 1800s through the early 1900s, Kansas City housed the second largest colony of Irish immigrants throughout the state.


Newly-arrived Irish immigrants in Kansas City, early 1900s
Newly-arrived Irish immigrants in Kansas City, early 1900s

During the 19th century in the United States, the Irish born population reached 4,000,000. Mass immigration occurred for many a reason — devastating famine, for example – but let us take a leaf from an old Irish adage: A short visit is best, and not too often. I present the shortened version of this essay – a timeline in regards to Irish and Scot Irish (and a little German) immigration to the United States, and particularly to Kansas City.
1830s and 1840s

German and Irish immigrants, too poor to buy land, started settling in cities and urban areas, employed as menial laborers. The immigrants arrived in droves; in 1845 began the great and terrible potato famine in Ireland. The lack of food – potatoes were the staple of the Irish diet – killed nearly 2,000,000 people. By the latter end of the decade, the country’s residents were being shipped out of the country in attempts to save them from starvation.



The Great Famine memorial in Dublin, Ireland
The Great Famine memorial in Dublin, Ireland


In 1857, one Bernard Donnelly arrived in our little-town-that-could in Missouri, an immigrant from County Cavan, Ireland and the town’s newly appointed resident priest. Because of his education in civil engineering and his experience in stone cutting (bluffs, remember?), Kansas City exists as it does today. He brought to the then-Town of Kansas the immense capability to expand. And expand they did, right up through the limestone, creating our own piece of heaven in Kansas City.



An example of the limestone bluffs to be gouged and settled
An example of the limestone bluffs to be gouged and settled



The United States again witnessed an influx of Irish immigrants as an unfortunate economic depression devastated Ireland. By this point, Kansas City was quite an attractive place for Irish immigrants, who’d become locally influential in numerous arenas such as religion, expansion and government. The Irish had monopolized Kansas City politics over the decades, prompting the Kansas City Times to report in 1872 that “The Irishman is an office seeker by birth.”



The Kansas City Times
The Kansas City Times


The United States census for the year 1880 reported just shy of 50,000 Ireland-natives residing in the state of Missouri. Here’s a fun fact for you: Kansas City was the only place throughout the entire state where German immigrants were significantly outnumbered as the second-largest population – the city’s Irish population was immense. And many were laboring through the intense cutting, grading and paving of the bluffs.



Creating a city from the bottom up -- progress as of 1886
Creating a city from the bottom up — progress as of 1886


The soon-to-be-known-as-“Boss” Tom Pendergast moved to Kansas City (the bustling, rowdy, Wettest Block in the World West Bottoms, ahem — A man takes a drink, the drink takes a drink, and the drink takes the man, say the old Irish) to join his big brother James. They were children of Irish immigrants, and “James had established himself in the West Bottoms,” writes Kathleen Arnold in Contemporary Immigration in America. “The area was home to the city’s warehouses, rail yards, and packinghouses, as well as to the black, immigrant, and poor white workers who toiled in them. It had poor roads and sanitation and the housing was overcrowded and in disrepair.” We all know too well that these good ol’ Irish boys would rise to eventually control the city with machine politics and mafia ties. As the old Irish saying goes, lie down with dogs, and you’ll rise with fleas.


Front and center: "Boss" Tom Pendergast
Front and center: “Boss” Tom Pendergast

Father Bernard Donnelly: this good-natured, good-hearted and quite brilliant man essentially built this city – in its earlier stages, of course.


Father Bernard Donnelly
Father Bernard Donnelly


The West Bottoms (previously known as the French Bottoms) had prior been settled by a group of French immigrants as an area of commerce (a majority were fur trappers) with the Kansa tribe. Railways and stockyards and saloons would severely diminish French influence, thusly, the area was re-dubbed the West Bottoms.



Union Depot
Union Depot

In the 1870s, it was the railways, stockyards, manufacturing plants, warehouses and meat packing plants that encouraged another wave of Irish and German immigrants to Kansas City. Poor, unable to purchase land, unskilled-in urban-trade, immigrants were consequently forced into labor jobs with low wages. Many people like this resided in shanty-towns across the bluffs – some with such horrible living conditions as to actually have been called “Hell’s Half-Acre.” The area merited the name Hell with an abundance of crime and prostitution and a lack of clean water. There was no sanitation of any kind. It was a filthy slum of poverty and delinquency.
But getting up the bluffs! ‘Twas the work of the Irish. We must thank Father Donnelly – not only was he one of the only ordained Catholic priests in town (having come from Ireland, to England, to the United States, to Kansas City, Mo.), but he had the knowledge, as a civil engineer, to build and the know-how to build it. His stone-cutting history was invaluable as to gouging the bluffs, making canyon-esque streets and paving them. The upward expansion of homes and roads and people earned Kansas City the nickname Gully Town for more than 30 years. The Gully Town population on the bluffs consisted mostly of freed slaves come northward and poor immigrants from Italy, Germany and Ireland. These honest working folk eventually fled Gully Town for less-dangerous, cleaner conditions elsewhere in the city.


Yep, they just cut their way up the bluffs.
Yep, they just cut their way up these

Father Donnelly had a slew of an Irish crew (Kansas Citians and 300 immigrants transported from Connaught (Ireland), who established Connaught-Town in Kansas City with his help) carving the way up the bluffs. Streets were dug. Houses were stacked one upon another in a display of determination.



A large home atop a bluff -- stark contrast to the enclaves throughout the bluffs
A large home atop a bluff — stark contrast to the enclaves throughout the bluffs


The priest-of-all-trades was an avid participant in the city’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Through the years, Kansas City’s Irish culture has remained and evolved with the féile surrounding it.
Today, Kansas City’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade through Westport attracts between 300,000 to 500,000 eager attendees (all dressed in green, naturally). The drink is the way of the Irish, and this holiday often involves hooky, lots of green beer at 10:00 a.m. and a guaranteed damn good time. Another applicable adage: It’s the first drop that destroys you — there’s no harm at all in the last!
Kansas City is among the top cities with significant Irish citizenry, alongside Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago. As a result, we’ve got the yearly Irish Fest held in Crown Center, with fountains spewing shamrock-green water and adorable little girls dancing jigs courtesy of the local Irish dance school. We’ve got Browne’s Irish Market, established by Irish immigrants more than a century ago. It’s the longest-running Irish business in North America.


Browne's Irish Market, image courtesy of the Kansas City Business Journal
Browne’s Irish Market, image courtesy of the Kansas City Business Journal


We’ve got a fantastic Danny Boy blend coffee made by the Roasterie in the Westside; a percentage of every sale is donated to yet another thing we’ve got: the Irish Museum and Cultural Center. It opened within Union Station in 2007.

We’ve got Irish newspapers. We’ve got Irish bands. We’ve got Kelly’s, the Irish Westport staple bar and oldest building in the city. We’ve got O’Malley’s pub, an 1840s brewery cellar 55 feet below ground in nearby Weston, Mo.



O'Malley's underground pub
O’Malley’s underground pub


Irish and Kansas City history are tightly entwined. But I’ve made my point! As the old saying goes…

A silent mouth is musical.

*I leave you with a few more Irish proverbs of wit and wisdom for your reading pleasure.

♣ If you want praise, die. If you want blame, marry.


♣ A man cannot grow rich without his wife’s leave.


♣ Who keeps his tongue keeps his friends.


♣ Everyone feels his own wound first.


♣ You must take the little potato with the big potato.


♣ The schoolhouse bell sounds bitter in youth and sweet in old age.


♣ Never bolt your door with a boiled carrot.


♣ A golden ring can tie a man as tight as any chain.


♣ God is good, but never dance in a small boat. 


♣ Never give cherries to pigs or advice to fools.


♣ Pity him who makes his opinions a certainty.


♣ Snuff at a wake is fine — if there’s nobody sneezing over the snuff box.


♣ To be red-haired is better than to be without a head!