Detroit’s Irish Past

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Whether you’re Irish all year long or just today, you can agree that this is one of the nation’s best holidays. It means green beer, tacky t-shirts, and (for some) an excuse to drink in an Irish pub during the wee hours of the morning. Like many holidays, the meaning behind St. Patrick’s Day has changed from a religious dedication to a cultural celebration. A main reason why St. Paddy’s (not Patty’s) is so beloved in the U.S. is because of the rapid growth of Irish immigrants in the states after the potato famine. More than 200,000 people were forced to leave Ireland in the mid-19th century and many of those women and men found safety in Michigan. Detroit is one of the major cities that has been shaped by generations of hardworking Irish immigrants. A drive through Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood will show just how much Irish pride there is in our city. In honor of today, I thought it would be fun to list a few things you may not know about lower Michigan’s Irish past.

  1. The year 1808 – first recorded St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Detroit’s history.
  2. French, German, and Polish Detroiters marched in early St. Paddy’s Day parades. There was a “stranger danger” fear of early Irish immigrants, because politicians feared that those citizens would pay more attention to what the pope had to say than elected officials.
  3. The main focus of the Detroit St. Patrick’s Day parade was to raise money for people overseas – not to party and celebrate.
  4. The majority of Irish settlers in Detroit were from County Cork, which explains how the midtown neighborhood came to be known as “Corktown.”
  5. Just over 10% of Michigan’s population is from Irish descent.
  6. Detroit’s The Old Shillelagh is an iconic bar (really an institution) that everyone should visit at least once. Former owner John Brady, a retired Detroit police officer raised in Dublin, opened the bar in 1975. Fun fact: The bar offers free shuttles to all downtown concerts and sporting events.
  7. One of Detroit’s most influential citizens with Irish descent was Alexander Macomb – Macomb County’s namesake. His family owned much of Detroit in the late 18th century (some examples: Belle Isle, Grosse Ile, Cass Corridor). He went on to be a military hero.
  8. Detroit has a rich tradition of trying to keep Irish music alive. The Detroit Irish Music Association  is a non-profit organization that is a branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, headquartered in Dublin, Ireland. If you’re ever interested in learning to play, check out their site for more information.

Have a safe and happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone!

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