The Ordeal of a Connemara Famine Family

Thursday, 2 May, 2019
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They were some of the poorest inhabitants of the Connemara region. Over thirty families and dozens of single men and women waited by the Galway city docks on the 11th day of June 1880. Their parish priests had brought them to the city the day before. Five families arrived from County Mayo. From County Galway came 28 families: 13 from Killeen parish, five from Clifden, and ten from the Carna area. One of the ten families from Carna included my great grandfather Stephen Curran, his parents, Michael and Ann Flaherty Curran, a sister, Bridget, and two brothers, Matthew and Patrick. In their hands were tickets to America. New suits of clothes awaited them onboard the steamship. All were bought by Father James Nugent, the Catholic social reformer from Liverpool, England. Their destination was the plains of western Minnesota and a chance to restart their lives on their own 160 acres of farmland near a town called Graceville.

Stephan Curran and Family

By Ireland Reaching Out member Michael Carlson, a direct descendant of Stephen Curran and his family.

We do not know when Michael Curran and his wife Ann Flaherty were born. They probably descended from one or more of a dozen or so Curran and Flaherty families that settled along the rocky shoreline and inhabited the small barren islands from Cuan Chill Chiaráin, or Kilkieran Bay, to Carna, west of the city of Galway, in the Roman Catholic parish of Moyrus. Michael and Ann were married 2nd December 1855 in Cill Chiaráin. The couple had at least four children. In January 1862, Stephen was baptized in the Moyrus parish church which still stands today close by the sea inlet in the heart of Carna. His brother Patrick was born 12th March 1866 in Carna and baptized in the parish church there. No birth or baptism records have been found for their brother Matthew and sister Bridget. Their years of birth are thought to be around 1860 and 1863 respectively.

MASON ISLAND HOUSES

By 1880, the western area of County Galway had been devastated by crop failures. Continual rains sapped the nutrients from what little fertile soil existed there. Economic activity grounded to a halt. Evictions spiked and hunger ravaged the area. We do not know the particular hardships the Michael Curran family faced at this time. Like almost all of the population, Michael probably held a tenancy to a plot of land too small to provide his family with enough food to eat and income to pay the rent. He may have fished or gathered seaweed for drying into fertilizer. But those industries were languishing also at this time. He turned to the Catholic Church and Father Nugent. The social reformer and philanthropist had spent the previous months investigating the disaster unfolding in the county and distributing relief to the poorest of the inhabitants. He also had been in contact with Bishop John Ireland of the Diocese of St Paul, Minnesota, and head of the Irish Catholic Colonization Association. He persuaded the American bishop to help arrange for the resettlement of the most destitute families in one of the settlements the colonization association had sponsored on the prairies of the US Midwest. Nugent believed that much of the distress in the western counties stemmed from too many people occupying too small plots of land. If some of the congestion could be relieved through emigration, then the remaining tenant farmers could farm larger plots and therefore be better able to feed themselves and sell excess crops for income. Bishop Ireland agreed to the scheme and preparations commenced for the resettlement of the most needy families. 

The passengers began boarding the Allan Shipping Line steamship, SS Austrian. Earlier that day the emigrants attended Mass in the Pro-Cathedral of St Nicholas. With Father Nugent, the Reverend Dooley accompanied the passengers on board and delivered a farewell sermon before taking his leave of them. He told them that although they had faced famine and struggled mightily to sustain themselves on the rocky and barren fields of Connemara, they were sadly leaving behind family and friends and the land that was dear to them. In their native tongue, he exhorted them never to forget the Irish language or stray from the Catholic faith of their forebears. Tears flowed freely as the passengers contemplated the uncertainties that lie ahead of them. Before he left the vessel, Father Nugent extracted two promises from the emigrants as they settled into their steerage class quarters: that they later repay the Church for the about six pounds, six shillings per person passage fare, and, being true to his belief in the virtues of a sober life, he made them promise not to make the traditional Irish distilled beverage, poitín, after arriving in Minnesota.

The hopeful immigrants landed in Boston on June 22nd and disembarked the ship the next day. From there they traveled by train to Chicago, then to St Paul, and finally on to their new homes near Graceville. Waiting for them when they arrived was Bishop John Ireland. Bishop Ireland and his colonization association had acquired the right to sell thousands of acres of railroad land in Minnesota to the settlers.The land would be divided into 160 acre parcels and offered to the settlers on favorable financial terms. It was a formula that had worked in the past for other colonization schemes he managed.To make sure the families got started productively, Bishop Ireland had readied for seeding five acres of each parcel of land; partially constructed small frame homes for the newcomers; distributed flour, cornmeal, farming implements and other provisions; and even supplied them with a cow. He found work on the railroads for the able-bodied young men and domestic situations for the young women.

What could possibly go wrong?

The venture started failing almost immediately. The settlers knew little about farming on the prairies of the American Midwest. In Connemara they had lived near the ocean; in Minnesota the ocean was 1,600 miles away. The climate in Connemara was temperate and rainy. It rarely snowed there. Minnesota experienced temperature extremes during the summer and winter and it frequently snowed heavily in the winter. In Connemara, the settlers had toiled as tenants on small three to five acre plots of land barely able to feed themselves. They sometimes harvested seaweed, occasionally fished, and maintained a few farm animals. In Minnesota, they were expected to grow wheat on an industrial scale and maintain herds of livestock on a vast 160 acres of prairie farmland. Understandably, most of the able-bodied men prefered manual labor jobs in St Paul or in the nearby town of Morris.

In October 1880, rain turned to snow and the area was in the grips of record-breaking cold and blanketed with deep snow. By December the colonists were suffering mightily in their cold drafty cottages, some of the structures still unfinished. Their misery did not go unnoticed by the surrounding communities. Minnesota newspapers and eventually newspapers across the country were filled with stories of starvation, frostbite, and deteriorating health conditions among “the Connemaras.” Assistance came from the surrounding towns and the Catholic Church in the form of food and clothing, but most members of the established communities resented the influx of settlers who clearly had difficulties coping with the rigors of farm life and the harsh Minnesota winters. Charges flew back and forth regarding who or what was to blame for the debacle. Delegations of local leaders visited the colonists to investigate the conditions. One respected local civil servant and politician, Leonard B Hodges, reported on the results of his interviews of many of the struggling Connemaras, including Michael Curran, who was coping fairly well at the time:

...we struck south to Michael Curran’s [house]. Wife and four children; have had in all half a cord of wood this winter; burns hay; son works out and sends money home; has had a barrel of corn meal; decent, respectable sort of folks.

But others suffered worse:

...I [Coleman Malone] have a cow, wood for a week, 200 pounds meal, 28 pounds flour, and I am poorly off for bed and bedding; suffered from hunger and want of wood; my boy was frozen coming out from Morris, on his way from St Paul….

By the spring of 1881, the colonists, Bishop Ireland, the Catholic Church, and local community members had had enough. Bishop Ireland released the colonists from their obligations regarding the land and assisted them in acquiring work and homes in the city of St Paul. Most of the Connemaras, including Michael Curran and his family, settled in a small enclave on the east side of St Paul, off Phalen Creek, near the railroad tracks. The community came to be known as the Connemara Patch from the many newly arrived Irish immigrants living there. The area was crowded with a haphazard array of poorly constructed shanties, small businesses and railroad tracks where men worked for minimal pay as industrial laborers and women found employment as domestics in homes of the wealthy and laundry workers in the many hotels that had sprung up in the nearby central business district. The neighborhood layout was so disorderly that house numbers were not needed. The St Paul city directory entry for Michael Curran that first year of 1881 read: Michael Curran, laborer, boards, west side Commercial near Fifth.

Connemara Patch St Paul Minnesota

In May of 1883 the Michael Curran family lived in a small shanty a few yards from the railroad tracks. On the morning of the 24th, Michael went out to gather pieces of wood around the tracks for the morning fire. While standing on a switch track, he failed to hear a freight train coming towards him, despite the warning cries of onlookers. The train struck Michael pulling him under the two lead cars. According to a newspaper report, “...he was horribly mangled and must have been killed instantly.” The tragedy devastated his family. A week later, undoubtedly still upset over the tragic death of his father, Stephen was arrested with two of his cousins, Patrick and Margaret Curran, and another man, for creating a disturbance in the Patch. When the municipal court pronounced his sentence of $100 or 100 days in prison, Stephen, probably unable to pay $100 protested:

...it was only Thursday last his father was run down by the cars and killed, and that by his imprisonment his old mother, whose sole supporter he had become, would be rendered houseless and homeless. 

Ann died of natural causes a mere three years later in November or December 1886 (the exact date is unknown). However, her situation had improved somewhat since the death of her husband. The family had moved out of a cluster of shanties bordering the railroad tracks and into more stable housing a few blocks away from the Connemara Patch. When Ann passed away her estate was thought to be worth $1,000 (roughly $25,000 in 2015 dollars). Patrick, one of her sons, filed papers in probate court seeking to be named administrator of her estate, which apparently consisted almost entirely of real estate. Sadly, despite the additional resources, both Michael and Ann lay buried in unmarked graves in St Paul’s Calvary Cemetery. 

Michael and Ann’s four children all married in St Paul during the mid to late 1880s. Great grandfather Stephen, met Hannah Foley, who worked in the laundry room at the Merchants Hotel, one of the largest and most prominent hotels in downtown St Paul. Hannah went by the name “Annie” as a young woman. Her place of birth, birth date and identity of her parents are not known at this time. She possibly immigrated from County Galway in the late 1870s and early 1880s. As was common during the time, she probably did not know exactly when she was born. United States federal decennial census returns on which her name was found until the time of her death in 1933 variously recorded her birth year as from 1856 to 1860. Stephen and Hannah married at the Cathedral of Saint Paul on 17th November 1885. His brother, Patrick, wed Bridget Burke on 24th May 1887. Matthew Curran married Anne O’Malley on 7th November 1887. Their sister Bridget married Patrick Foley, possibly a relative of Hannah, on 11th June 1889. 

In 1873, the Northern Pacific Railroad had established the small settlement of Tacoma in Washington Territory as its western terminus, and business in the western town had flourished since then. The abundant exploitable resources in the form of trees, minerals, fish, and fertile soil and a sheltered deepwater port from which to ship the resources and finished products made Tacoma and the Puget Sound area in general a lucrative base upon which one could build a fortune or more modestly thrive as a laborer in one of the prosperous industries. By 1890, population in Tacoma had grown from 1,098 to 36,006 in just ten years. Washington Territory would enter the Union as the 42nd state on 11th November 1889. Capitalists from back east, including St Paul, were taking advantage of the opportunities in Tacoma. In 1888, St Paul businessmen, Henry Hewitt, Jr., Charles Hebard Jones, Chauncey Wright Griggs, and A. G. Foster, incorporated the St Paul and Tacoma Lumber Company in 1888. The lumber company bought ninety thousand acres of timberland in the Northwest and began processing their harvested logs on the Tacoma tideflats in 1889. Around the same time, St Paul entrepreneur, Dennis Ryan, established the Tacoma Milling and Smelting Company along the southern shore of Tacoma’s Commencement Bay in 1888. Both companies prospered in Tacoma for the next several decades. 

By the late 1880’s, Stephen Curran and his siblings, all married and in their mid to late twenties, also considered their future. Their years as children in Ireland and young adults in Minnesota had been difficult. Famine, poverty, and personal tragedy had characterized their lives thus far. Stephen and Hannah had two children, Mary Margaret born on 1st May 1886, and Agnes born in May 1888. Sometime after the birth of Agnes but before the birth of their third child Bridget in 1889, Stephen and Hannah, along with Stephen’s three siblings and their families left St Paul and headed for Tacoma. 

Stephen Curran and Family Carna emigrants

The temperate and rainy conditions in western Washington, the seaweed strewn shoreline of the Puget Sound and the mountains looming in the distance must have reminded them of Ireland. They soon found jobs in the booming industries of the area and became United States citizens. Stephen worked as a laborer for the Northern Pacific Railroad. Brothers Matthew and Patrick found jobs in the newly established Tacoma Milling and Smelting Company and rented homes along the waterfront. Bridget’s husband Patrick Foley worked for a timber company. Apparently pleased with their decision to relocate to Tacoma, Stephen and Hannah and their three children paused around 1891 and sat for a photograph taken by an unknown photographer. The photograph showed them proudly seated in front of what was probably their first home in Tacoma wearing their finest clothes and displaying confident and optimistic expressions. 

In time, Stephen and his brother Patrick moved to more stable jobs working as laborers for the Tacoma city government. In the mid-1890s, Stephen and Hannah rented a newly built home in one of burgeoning working class neighborhoods on the hills above the central business district. They purchased the home in 1905 for $600. It was the home in which they raised their seven children and would remain in the family until shortly after the death of my grandmother, Katherine Curran Carlson in 1969.

Matthew and family apparently did not find Tacoma to their liking and returned to St Paul around 1895. Matthew and Anne O’Malley Curran lived the rest of their lives in St Paul, passing away on 30th October 1924 and 1st May 1940 respectively.

Sister Bridget Curran Foley and her husband Patrick had a rocky marriage probably exacerbated by her husband’s excessive use of alcohol. Patrick died of alcohol-related kidney disease on 4th October 1912. Their only child, Martin, became a successful local professional boxer. Known as the “Irish Harp,” the middleweight compiled a record of 28 wins (14 knockouts), 26 losses (7 knockouts) and 15 draws in 70 total bouts over a career that lasted from 1916 until 1927. Bridget lived on as a widow until passing away on 4th August 1930.

Patrick Curran and Bridget Burke Curran raised a large family of at least eleven children on the south side of Tacoma. Patrick worked manual labor jobs for the City of Tacoma and other private businesses in the area. The close knit family threw a celebration party on the occasion of Patrick and Bridget’s fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1937 which was covered by the local newspaper. Bridget Burke Curran passed away on 14th July 1941. The fact that she arrived in Tacoma just before Washington became a state made her a Tacoma pioneer in the words of the local newspaper. Her husband, Patrick’s death, followed on 26th March 1946. He was the last of Michael and Ann’s children to pass away. 

Stephan Curran and family

Stephen Curran and Hannah Foley Curran had seven children. All worked as laborers in local Tacoma industries. The only child to leave the area, John, moved to the Oakland, California, area in the late 1920s. He tragically died in an industrial site accident on 19 April 1938. Hannah died 16th May 1933. After her death, my grandparents Katherine Curran Carlson and Elmer Carlson moved into the Curran home to care for Stephen and raise their two boys, Raymond and William. Stephen passed away on 11th July 1939. His obituary also recognized the extensive length of his residence in his adopted hometown of Tacoma. Grandmother Kate Carlson died in the home on 1st October 1969. With the exception of a few years in the late 1920s and early 1930s when she was newly married, she lived her entire life in the family home.

Carna Emigrant Centre

Today, just a few hundred feet from where Stephen Curran was baptized in the Moyrus parish church of St Mary, perched on the rocks bordering the sea inlet in Carna, sits Ionad Cuimheacháin na nImirceach, also known as the Carna Emigrants Commemorative Centre. Officially opened 12th May 2018, the Centre strives to tell and preserve the stories of Connemara and the Irish diaspora. More information on the Centre and its work may be found at the website www.carnaemigrationcentre.com

Did your Irish ancestors move to Minnesota in the 1880s? Tell us about them by adding their stories to the XO Chronicles.


List of Sources

Parish registers for the Roman Catholic parish of Moyrus as well as most Catholic parishes throughout Ireland may be found on the website of the National Library of Ireland at https://registers.nli.ie/. The bulk of the online Moyrus parish registers begin in 1852 and end in 1874, with a small number of registers covering the mid-1820s.

The civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths are maintained by the Registrar General in the General Register Office in Dublin and online at https://www.irishgenealogy.ie. The indexes extend from 1864 (non-Catholic marriages from 1845). As of 2019, most index entries link to a digital image of the pertinent registration page.

For the passenger manifest of the 11 June 1880 sailing of the SS Austrian, see, Registers of passengers arriving in Massachusetts ports, 1848-1891, Massachusetts Division of Immigration, Passenger List of the SS Austrian, Port of Boston, 23 June 1880, www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CS3L-HQZR-P.

For contemporary news accounts of the economic distress in Connemara, efforts to relieve the hardship of the population, and the June 1880 voyage of the SS Austrian, see the Freeman Journal and the Galway Vindicator, and Connaught Advertiser on Findmypast.com. For contemporary news accounts of the plight of the Connemara settlers in Minnesota and specifically in St Paul, Minnesota, see the Saint Paul Daily Globe. The tragic death of Michael Curran and the aftermath are covered in the Saint Paul Daily Globe issues of 25 May 1883, p2, and 5 June 1883, p2 in Chroniclingamerica.loc.gov. For obituaries and family anniversaries see Tacoma Sunday Ledger, Tacoma News Tribune, and Tacoma Times.

Ancestry.com, Familysearch.com, and Findmypast.com make available digital copies of various government and privately produced records, including: Minnesota Death Records, 1866-1916; Mortuary Register of City of St Paul; Minnesota, Wills and Probate Records, 1801-1999; St Paul, Minnesota, City Directories; 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940 United States Federal Census;  Minnesota, County Marriages, 1860-1949; Washington, County Records, 1856-2009; Minnesota Death Certificates, 1904 to 2001; Washington, Select Death Certificates, 1907-1960

A few of the Connemara families did not leave Graceville and eventually found success farming the land made available to them by Bishop Ireland. Their stories, along with the stories of those who left Graceville and their descendents, are beautifully told by Bridget Connelly in her book, Forgetting Ireland, (St Paul: Borealis Books, 2003).

Other secondary sources include: Gerard Moran, “State Aided Emigration from Ireland to Canada in the 1880s,” The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Dec 1994), pp1-2, digital images, (www.jstor.org, accessed 11 January 2019); Sending Out Ireland’s Poor: Assisted Emigration to North America in the Nineteenth Century, (Dublin: Four Courts Press Ltd reprint, 2013) pp 192-207; James P Shannon, Catholic Colonization on the Western Frontier, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), pp 154-171; “Bishop Ireland’s Connemara Experiment,” Minnesota Historical Society, (http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/35/v35i05p205-213... Murray Morgan, Puget’s Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1979); Professional fighter database, Boxrec.com;