I had intended this column for last week, before St. Patrick’s Day, but my internet service was down for a few days, prohibiting research, so I present it today instead.
St. Patrick’s Day was last Friday, March 17, of course, which makes this a perfect time to touch on Newton and McDonald Counties’ Irish heritage.
Two relatively early settlers of Newton County were James Harr (or Starr) and James Dunn, both of whom were born in Ireland and came to our corner of the Ozarks sometime in the 1840s (Dunn may have settled here even sooner), after first immigrating to the United States as young men in the early 1800s. Both were farmers.
By 1860 there were 21 Irish-born citizens living in Newton County. Most of them were attracted by the Granby lead mines. Some worked in the mines, digging out the ore, while others were smelters, melting it down.
A few others owned part of the mining or smelting operations in some fashion or another. Those who didn’t have anything to do with the mines earned a living as blacksmiths, butchers, household servants, etc. One or two were farmers.
A decade later there were 35 native Irish men and women living in Newton County. In the 1870s, as our area rebuilt after the devastation caused by the War Between the States, Newton County’s population surged by 47 percent due to new business and industry, partially brought on by the coming of the railroads.
At this time, Newton County’s native-born Irish population hit its peak. Among the citizens contributing to the local economy by 1880 were 128 men and women who were born in Ireland and came to this country looking for a fresh start. They eventually found it right here.
By this time, a vast majority of the local Irish were farmers. They had surnames like Brady, Broudrick, Burk, Carroll, Collins, Conway, Cooney, Culkin, Degnan, Delaney, Devany, Divine, Fenton, Finn, Flynn, Gleason, Gorman, Hanley, Hanahan, Higgins, Kearney, Kelly, Kinny, McCabe, McCaffrey, McClary, McMullen, Manley, Meagher, Noble, Norton, O’Brien, O’Connell, O’Connor, Regan, Reed, Riley, Shea, Sullivan, Walsh, and many more.
Around that same period, in the 1880s, the community of Belfast sprang up west of Neosho, with the establishment of a post office there, and according to certain histories is said to be named after the city of Belfast in what is today Northern Ireland.
Then, of course, St. Canera Catholic Church in Neosho is named for an Irish saint, Saint Conaire. I’ve written about that before.
Always having far less than half of Newton County’s population, McDonald County’s Irish-born residents were considerably fewer through the years, never at any given time having more than 10 persons who were actually born in Ireland.
Still, some of those who were born in Ireland and came to McDonald County carried such names as Bowen, Cosgrave, Halliday, Hill, Keenan, McDermott, Neill, Nolan, Wilson and others.
All of these Irish-born men and women of Newton and McDonald Counties had families and passed on that bloodline to their children and their children’s children. Some of these same Irish family names can still be found in the local phone directories.
Also, I have only focused on those men and women were born in Ireland. I have not looked into the people who already had a close Irish bloodline when they came here, those residents whose parents may have been born in Ireland, though they themselves were born in the United States.
Combined with the native-born Irish who settled here, it would make for some strong local Irish flavor in this area I am sure.
Then there are the people like myself whose families didn’t move to Southwest Missouri until later years, but who have Irish roots.
According to the latest estimates from the American Community Survey, slightly more than 10 percent of Newton County residents and a little more than four percent of McDonald County residents claim Irish heritage.
That percentage dwindles a little more every year, but for the time being there are still some proud descendants of Irish immigrants living around these parts.
I’m one of them.
Erin go Bragh!
By Wes Franklin
(Wes can be reached at (417) 658-8443.)