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The History of the Irish in Indianapolis

The Impact of Irish Immigrants on Indy


The history of the Irish people in Indianapolis is a colorful one. Irish immigrants played a major role in the development of Indianapolis during the 1800s, and their population continues to represent a significant percentage of Indy residents today.

Looking for Work

Many Irish came to Indy from east coast cities in search of work. In 1832, an Indianapolis newspaper called the Indiana Journal advertised for Irish workers to come work for the Wabash and Erie Canal, offering wages of $10 a month and cheap land. In the mid 19th century, several projects were undertaken to make the city of Indianapolis more accessible, including

  • The construction of the Central Canal in 1836
  • The completion of the National Road to Indianapolis in 1838
  • The arrival of the first railroad in 1847

These projects required laborers, and many Irish filled the bill.

In 1863, Kingan and Company, a meat-packing company that originated in Belfast, Ireland, located a plant on the banks of the White River. The company enticed workers from their homeland in Ireland to Indianapolis with the promise of a steady job in America. A supplier of meat to the Union Army, by 1880 Kingan was the third largest pork-packing center in the world, ranking behind Chicago and Cincinnati.

Settling In

The Irish originally settled along the Central Canal northwest and southwest of the Circle in the heart of Indianapolis. During the 1840s, they formed small communities in the same poor areas that freed blacks typically lived in. The Irish gradually moved east as Indy’s first streetcar system, built in 1864, made living in one neighborhood and working in another feasible.

The settlement of Irish Hill, considered one of the country’s major Irish-American communities, developed in the 1850s and earned a reputation for being the toughest neighborhood in town. The neighborhood today is known as Fountain Square.

Irish Institutions in Indy

The Irish celebrated their first Catholic Mass in 1837 at a tavern on West Washington Street, and founded what would become St. John Catholic Church in 1840.

The Irish sought to preserve their culture through the organization of several other institutions in the 1870s, including the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the St. Patrick’s Total Abstinence (Temperance) Society, and the Indianapolis Circle of the Fenian Brotherhood. In 1866, the latter rounded up 150 Irish veterans to invade Canada from Buffalo, New York, in an effort to help Canada gain its independence from Great Britain. All 150 were subsequently arrested by order of President Andrew Johnson.

The Irish in the Civil War

The Irish of Indianapolis formed the 35th Regiment, which was also called the 1st Irish Regiment. Members were recruited at the parish school of St. John’s. They were later combined with the 61st Regiment/2nd Irish Regiment.

The Irish in Indianapolis Politics

By 1870, the Irish population in Marion County was 3,760, and the Irish had gained significant political clout. John Caven, born of Scotch-Irish and Scotch-English parentage in Pennsylvania in 1824, moved to Indianapolis in 1845 and was elected mayor in 1863. He was reelected in 1865, and served two more terms from 1875 to 1881. Daniel Macauley, born of Irish ancestry in New York City in 1839, succeeded Caven in 1867 and served three consecutive terms. Macauley moved to Indianapolis in 1860. A Civil War hero, he was brevetted brigadier general twice for service in battle.

Both Caven and Macauley were Republicans, but in general, the Irish tended to side with the Democrats. Racial tensions played a role: Most blacks at the time were Republican, and the Irish and the blacks did not see eye-to-eye.

The City’s Worst Race Riot

The worst race riot Indianapolis has seen erupted on May 3, 1876, when Irish democrats began intimidating black voters, and the blacks responded by taking up hockey sticks and attacking their intimidators. Gunfire ensued, several blacks were reportedly injured, and one died in the course of the riot.

The Irish Population

  • In 1910: 12,225 Irish people resided in Indianapolis, with 3,255 of them having been born in Ireland. The Irish made up 5 percent of the total population of Indianapolis, and accounted for 15 percent of the city’s immigrant population.
  • In 1970: The Irish were the third largest ethnic group of European descent in Indianapolis, behind the German and the British.
  • In 1980: A survey in which Indianapolis residents were asked to identify their ancestry revealed that 4.4 percent considered themselves 100 percent Irish.

    Irish Celebrations in Indianapolis Today

    The Irish continue to celebrate their heritage in Indianapolis today. Main events are

    • The St. Patrick's Day Parade: The parade has taken place downtown in Indianapolis for the past 29 years, featuring bag pipers, Irish dancers, Catholic schools, Irish family clans, and many Irish organizations.
    • Shamrock Run and Walk: For the past 14 years, this event has been the official race of the St. Patrick's Day parade. Held on a weekend, the 4-mile run/walk begins on Monument Circle and proceeds to Fountain Square, the home of Irish Hill.
    • The Greening of the Canal: Before dawn on St. Patrick's Day, green dye is poured into the downtown canal, turning both the water and a fountain therein a brilliant green.
    • Indy Irish Fest: Celebrating all things Irish, the 14th Annual Indy Irish Fest will take place in Military Park on Sept. 18-20, 2009.

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