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As Irish Fest Kicks Off, Explore The Historic Irish Connection To Milwaukee's Third Ward

Corey Coyle
Wikimedia Commons
Irish Fest at Summeriest Grounds

After a year off due to the coronavirus pandemic, Irish Fest is returning to the Summerfest grounds this weekend. Since 1981, Milwaukee Irish Fest has been the world’s largest celebration of Irish, Irish American and Celtic heritage, music and culture.

One big part of the festival is of course celebrating the history of Milwaukee’s Irish population, who first arrived during the city’s very founding in the Third Ward. Carl Baehr, author of From the Emerald Isle to the Cream City: A History of the Irish in Milwaukee, says, "I think it’s just so appropriate that the world’s largest Irish festival takes place in what was Milwaukee’s largest Irish neighborhood. Many people come back to the Third Ward that their ancestors lived in."

Courtesy of Carl Baehr
From the Emerald Isle to the Cream City: A History of the Irish In Milwaukee
This early Milwaukee map of 1840 shows the three villages of Juneautown, Kilbourntown and Walker’s Point, as well as the two Irish neighborhoods, the Third Ward and Tory Hill.

There were about 1,000 Irishmen in Milwaukee by 1845 according to Baehr, brought to the city because of the need for laborers to knock down the tall bluffs along the rivers. Much of the land along the base of the cliffs were marshes, especially the Third Ward.

"The fill went in to fill in the marshes and the most marshy area was the Third Ward, and because the Irish were right at the bottom of the economic ladder they got the marshy land," notes Baehr. "It took several decades before the Third Ward was totally filled in."

The Irish community had a hard time thriving in the Third Ward, especially during the cholera epidemic of the 1840s.

Baehr describes, "And because the Irish lived right on Lake Michigan, a lot of the ships just threw their waste over them, ... overboard into the lake. And so the Irish suffered mostly more than any other ethnicity from the cholera epidemic."

Other hardships the Irish encountered in the Third Ward, he says, include the the Newhall House fire of 1883, the Third Ward Fire of 1892 and the Sinking of Lady Elgin in which 300 people drowned — most of them Irish, and most were upper class professionals from the Third Ward.

"So the Third Ward suffered economically for decades after that because more or less the economic and political leaders, many of them died on the Lady Elgin," notes Baehr.

READ: 'Damn The Old Tinderbox!' Tells The Story Of Milwaukee's Historic Newhall House Fire

Despite having a turbulent legacy in the Third Ward, Baehr says it didn't stop the Irish from finding their home in Milwaukee. As the Irish spread out into the city, he says, they came in contact with and married people from other ethnic groups. "So many people in Milwaukee are Irish and German, are Irish and Polish, or Irish and something else. And being put in these other neighborhoods, they were no longer in an Irish community — so they became Milwaukeeans," Baehr says.

Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.
Kobe Brown is WUWM's Eric Von fellow.
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