The story of the Irish in America is unique in immigrant history—white, English-speaking people discriminated against merely by their nationality. They once made up a substantial part of Melrose’s population. First a bit of background: You have probably heard that many Irish left their green and lovely land because of the great potato famine of 1845-48, and this is true. But actually the famine was the proverbial last straw. In 1171 Henry II of England proclaimed himself King of Ireland, and trouble ensued for centuries, as the English made laws that went against Irish tradition, damaged the agriculture, and destroyed the old clan system.
By the mid-17th century, Ireland was ruled by Oliver Cromwell, who held a terrible massacre at Drogheda. Protestant Cromwell forbade Irish Catholics to carry weapons, hold military posts or public offices, receive an education, or worship as they wanted. At one point Irish were not allowed to export manufactured goods such as linens, wool sweaters, or Wexford china. By the late 18th century, Irish Protestants and Catholics were spending a lot of time attacking each other. They did not take advantage of the Industrial Revolution sweeping over Europe, and whether this was because the English wouldn’t let them or just plain pigheadedness has been debated for years. The real victims, of course, were the Irish economy, agriculture, and ultimately people. And so in 1845 a great potato blight struck the tenant farmers of Ireland, reducing to rot the one crop most of them grew. There was nothing to be done about it, and nothing else to eat. Furthermore, the English began taking back some of the farms to graze sheep and cattle. Many farmers had their homes destroyed and were free to wander the roads and starve. Those who didn’t starve died of fever and dysentery from eating diseased potatoes, or of cholera or typhus. Most of these victims were the very young and very old. The logical solution was to go elsewhere. Some went to England, but a great number headed across the Atlantic, as had many of their countrymen before them. By 1840, the Irish constituted half the immigrants entering the U.S. Many were healthy young men, and they found work building roads, canals and railways. But the starving potato famine victims who came later were frequently too weak to do manual labor, and they knew no craft or trade. In many places, signs reading “No Irish Need Apply” were common. They arrived in crowded “coffin ships,” where some 20 percent of them died, and lived in crowded slums. Women supported some households as housemaids, cooks and nannies. Most of the Irish who came to Minnesota and to Stearns County arrived on the railroad, figuratively and literally. The railroad was built right through Melrose in 1872, and with it came many Irish to make the town their home and the railroad their occupation. Others worked in shops or had other jobs in town. Apparently they had had enough of farming to last a lifetime, because they did not claim farm land like their German and Polish neighbors. The removal of the railroad division point in 1923 had devastating results for all of Melrose, but especially for the Irish, many of whom lost their jobs and departed. By the 1970s there was still a core group of Irish in town who held glorious St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, complete with parades, speeches, and song, the wearin’o’ the green and the dancin’ o’ the jig. Today only a few Irish families can be found in Melrose.