Lively as an Irish reel, the story of Irish Detroit is fundamental to an understanding of the city’s earliest history Filled with prejudice, poverty and final triumph, the story of Irish Detroit is in many ways a metaphor for the later experiences of all immigrants to Detroit, but being longer, it’s filled with the additional twists and turns that the additional years have brought.
More than half a million Detroiters claim an Irish heritage, many tracing roots back two centuries. The potato famine of the mid-1800s drove many Irish to seek a new life in Detroit, where they settled in the Corktown region just west of downtown, quickly assimilating and strengthening Detroit's Catholic underpinning. Another wave followed the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922, great numbers of people left Ireland in bitter disappointment at the fate of a nation torn by civil war and partitioned, and many wound up in Detroit. This exodus continued until the Great Depression as between1922 to 1932, 310,000 people left Ireland. Again, many that came to Detroit landed among clansmen in Corktown.
Named for County Cork in Ireland, Corktown is Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, whose roots run to the 1830's when the Cass and Woodbridge families began to sell off their ribbon farms west of downtown for development. This area was quickly filled by the hundreds of Irish immigrants newly arriving in the city. A working class neighborhood to this day, Corktown has been one of the most successful neighborhoods in preserving its architectural heritage in spite of bisecting freeways and numerous urban renewal projects.
Detroit's Corktown by Armando Delicato and Julio Demerly (Arcadia Publishing) is a must-read for lovers of early Detroit history. In words and numerous archival photos, the book examines the fabric that has held this neighborhood together through its many ups and downs.
The Gaelic League and Irish American Club of Detroit remain organizations that preserve the heritage of the Irish throughout Detroit. Thanks to their tireless work, along with United Irish
Societies throughout Detroit, St. Patrick's Day remains a huge tradition in Detroit and 2008 saw the 50th anniversary of the annual parade that winds through Corktown along Michigan Avenue.
From Gus O’Connor’s in Novi, to Mt. Clemens’ Mangan’s Irish Hut, to John Cowley & Sons Coolhenry Irish Pub in Farmington, to the old standbys downtown, Gaelic League, The Old Shillelagh, Dunleavy’s and Baile Corcaigh in the heart of Corktown, Irish Detroit is often associated with pubs and bars. But the roster of Irish names from Detroit’s political history, and the rich tradition in the professional arts and the business world, pay perhaps greater tribute to a remarkable race and the quality of enrichment they’ve brought to our city.