The Kerry Patch
graphic of shamrock There once  was a place in St. Louis, where all of the Irish lived......

I have been studying the Irish in St. Louis for several years now.  Anyone with an Irish background whose family was from St. Louis has heard of the "Kerry Patch".  The Kerry Patch was a name that local people applied to an area of the city of St. Louis, Missouri where most of the early Irish settled.  It never was an actual defined area - it was the Irish neighborhood.  As it grew, everyone knew it was still Kerry Patch.   People who lived in Kerry Patch just called it "The Patch".

A spliced image of portions of Plates 51 and 52 of Pictorial St. Louis The Great Metropolis of the Mississippi Valley - A Topographical Survey drawn in perspective A.D. 1875 by Compton and Dry, shows the location of Kerry Patch in the red colored outline.  The core of the Kerry Patch was roughly bound on the east by Sixteenth street, and the west by Twenty-second street.  The northern boundary was considered to be approximately Cass Avenue and the southern boundary was supposed to be around O'Fallon St. 

Before we get too far with this page, I need to say that I am not an expert on the history of the Kerry Patch.  I have been  studying it within the last twelve years as part of unearthing my family history and genealogy.  As did most of the Irish families in St. Louis, my family started out in "The Patch".

To understand the Kerry Patch, you must learn a little about the Irish in St. Louis before the Patch came into being.  Unlike many other American cities, St. Louis was somewhat tolerant of the Irish and an Irishman who tried, could succeed there.  Some of the early Irish settlers who became successful were  John Mullanphy, who came from Fermanagh and who became the city's first millionaire from his investments in real estate, and from Roscommon, Jeremiah Connor, St. Louis' first sheriff.  John Mullanphy played a prominent role in St. Louis history because he was such a great philanthropist.  He took care of his own - generously building hotels for the homeless, orphanages and hospitals.

During the early years of St. Louis, the population of Ireland was burgeoning.  Warm winters had made full harvests and even those Irish who lived on a rented piece of land only large enough for their tiny thatched roof house ate well from the potato harvest.  Forced to live under the brutality of the English Penal Laws, they worked long and hard to grow crops and care for cattle both of which were exported to England.  Some history books refer to a "famine" in Ireland in the mid to late 1840's, but in fact there was no famine.  There was a potato blight - a fungus that killed the potatoes while they were still in the ground, not only depriving the Irish of an immediate food source, but also robbing them of seed potatoes for the next year's crop.   Ships' cargo records indicate that during the "famine", there was a lot of food in Ireland.  It was exported to England or sold to other countries by absent English landowners who considered their Irish land an investment.  The English allowed the Irish a very tiny plot of ground on which to grow their own food.  These plots were their only food source.  Because the potato was so hardy and grew plentifully in a small area,  the Irish grew mostly potatoes in their assigned plots.  Many potato blights have stricken the Irish, but the blight of 1845-50 was especially brutal.  The year 1847 was dubbed "Black 47" because it was the worst year of the potato blight, turning the potatoes black and resulting in millions of deaths by starvation in Ireland.  Even more difficult was the fact that the English were actively trying to remove the Irish from Ireland entirely.  When they could not pay rents, they were evicted and their homes were burned to the ground so that they could not return.  Donations were collected from some kindly English landowners so that the impoverished Irish could be given the price of "passage"  out of Ireland, but most were left to their own devices.

Naturally, crime among the starving Irish was rampant.  Any Irish person found guilty of a crime was subject to being separated from his/her family and forcibly transported out of Ireland.  Many "crimes" were related to starvation and poverty.   Because the Irish were forced into farming land that was formerly theirs they were familiar with ways to hide food and cattle and because they were starving, they often stole from the crops and falsified crop reports.  One common crime of the times was to "bleed a horse".  The Irish were not allowed to own horses without permission.  Most horses were owned by the English.  Many Irishmen carried a small knife and, at night, would "bleed" a horse and collect the blood so that they could make "soup" for their families.   During the worst year of the "famine"-  1847 -  emigration from Ireland to the US swelled to millions.  Hundreds of "coffin" ships arrived in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore.  Others landed in North Carolina and New Orleans.  In New York, many ships were turned away because of contagious disease and they eventually landed in St. John, Newfoundland.  When the Irish boarded the ships, mostly from Cork, Belfast, and Liverpool,  they knew that many of them would die before they ever reached land.  An average of 25 per-cent died aboard ship and large numbers died after landing.  These were poor, desperate, hungry, determined people launched into the New World by sheer desperation!

Kerry County is in the southwest portion of the island of Ireland.  During the "famine", Kerry was primarily an agricultural county.  It remains agricultural today.  The Irish were good at dairy farming and crop farming.  Many had heard from their transplanted relatives that farmers would do well if they landed in New Orleans.  So, many chose to land there and eventually they worked their way north up the Mississippi to St. Louis.  Steamboats carried the new St. Louisans almost directly from the New Orleans landing to St. Louis.  Others worked their way north by land, stopping along the way to work on farms, the railroad, etc.  The Civil War also gave them a chance to find paid work and the Irish fought in "Irish Brigades" on both sides of the conflict.  Many "mustered out" in St. Louis.

The Irish of the 1840's had never lived in freedom in their homeland.  They had lived in a land where they had been  forbidden to speak their native tongue, to own land, to educate their children and to openly practice their religion since the early 1600's.  So, those who had survived the deprivation in Ireland and lived to step off of steamboats at the St. Louis landing were a hardy, determined, but unprepared lot.  Because the Irish had already begun describing their Irish homes as a "patch" of land and because so many of the Irish in St. Louis came from Kerry, it was natural to call their first homes - "The Kerry Patch". St. Patrick's church was where the Kerry Patch began in the mid 1800's.  St. Patrick's was located at Sixth and Biddle from 1844 to 1975.  The original church was razed in 1973.  In 1981, the "new" St. Patrick's ws built and is located at 1000 North 7th St.  In 1883, it was the most populous parish in the city.    As the number of Irish flooding into St. Louis grew, they overwhelmed the city's ability to house them.  In 1850, 43 percent of the population of St. Louis was Irish.   Many were living in the streets.    Luckily, John Mullanphy, donated a large tract of land for the Irish to settle.  It was located north of Carr Square and extended from N. 9th Street, west between Morgan and Franklin Avenues. The heart of Kerry Patch was considered N. 18th and O'Fallon Streets, but as the Irish population spread north and west, all of it was called "Kerry Patch".  There, the Irish built "clapboard" houses - small, frame homes that often were home to more than one family.  The houses were built at or near the sidewalk line.  During floods, many of the homes filled with mud from the streets.  These were St. Louis' "Shanty Irish".  Life in the Patch was hard. Because the homes were built close together and because of the large number of people who lived there, the neighborhood deteriorated.  The residents had a reputation for drinking, fighting, and arguing over politics and religion. After the Civil War, the Patch degenerated quickly into an Irish slum.   To say that it became a violent, dangerous place is understatement.  Gangs formed in the Patch and as late as 1878 a city guidebook claimed the "chief amusements" of Kerry Patchers "consists of punching out each other's eyes."   In the early 1900's, when the clay mines opened, many of the Irish left the Patch to settle in Cheltenham, around Hampton and Manchester, known as "Dogtown" today.

The heart of the Patch was always its Catholic Churches:  St. Patrick, St. Michael the Archangel, and St. Bridget of Erin on the near north-side, St. John the Apostle, St. Malachy and St. Kevin on the near south-side as well as St. Alphonsus Liguouri (the Rock church) were the backbone of the Catholic community in the Kerry Patch.  St. Lawrence O’Toole parish was founded by Father James Henry in 1855 as a mission from St. Patrick ‘s. The first church was dedicated in December 1855 and was replaced by a later structure across the street at the southwest corner of 14th and O’Fallon Streets in 1865. The neighborhood deteriorated and the church was sold in 1948.  Other Catholic churches that served the Irish  were:  St. Kevin's, St. Leo's, St. Liborius, St. Theresa, St. Malachy's, St. Matthew's, Most Holy Rosary, and St. Cronan's.

In the late 1800's  St. Louis withstood cholera epidemics that killed almost ten percent of the population, the tornado of 1896, smallpox epidemics and rampant political corruption.  The Patch was badly damaged by the tornado, mostly because of the poorly constructed housing.  The tornado struck hardest outside the Patch, but many Irish in the Patch died or were left homeless by it.

In the early 1900s, St. Louis was a thriving metropolis - 4th largest city in the U.S.   In 1900, the population of St. Louis was 575,000. The population of St. Louis as of the year 2000 was 348,189!  Politics, poverty and prohibition combined to create a very lethal atmosphere in the Patch.  Many single shanties had been replaced with tenament housing - boarding houses.  Irish families tended to live in compact single rooms located in boarding houses that carried the names of  famous battles in Ireland as well as in the US Civil War.  One tenament house was called "Vinegar Hill" after the famous Irish battle.  Families tended to move often to avoid paying rent when no rent money was available.  Since they had little in the way of possessions, moving was an easy option and was often done just to get a better "view" or because the food in a different boarding house was better. Tenament houses were crowded places that housed hundreds of people.  There were no sewers and public bath houses were patronized monthly.  Some tenaments were not even built facing a street, but faced each other forming a square in the middle.   By the 1920's non-Irish were fearful of going into the Patch for fear of their lives, but the residents were fiercely loyal to each other. In the Patch, a politician seeking political office could often find a group of men willing to act as "bodyguard" to anyone who would vote for him as well as some who hadn't planned to vote at all!  There were also ruffians who were paid to see that those who weren't going to vote for the paying candidate never made it to the polls.

 The Irish had learned to survive in Ireland by forming secret societies much like "gangs" of today.  Some of the early gangs that formed in the Patch to enforce the will of St. Louis political machines were called "Eagan's Rats" and the "Hogan Gang".  There were many who, despite the squalor, and desperation, climbed the employment ladder and worked in one of the approximately seventy breweries in St. Louis at the turn of the century.  When Prohibition (1920-1933) closed the breweries, the Irish, already skilled in making beer, began home breweries and gangs formed to sell home brew throughout the city.  Gangs with names like:  the Ashley Gang, the Red Hots, The Purple Gang and the Cukoos had hundreds of members from the Kerry Patch.  Some of the more notorious gang members were Dinty Colbeck, Tom and Willie Eagan, Ray Renard and Willie Heeney - my great-uncle.  Gang wars were fought in the streets of the Patch between the Eagan and the Hogan gangs.  Over a two year period, twenty-three men were killed in  bloody gang wars.

The Great Depression (1929-1941) of course, took its toll on St. Louis and on the Patch.  Many of the Irish began to disperse into the surrounding neighborhoods and following World War I, the neighborhood had begun to diversify.  After World War II, the Irish were mostly gone from the Patch.  Government run housing projects were built in the area that had been the Kerry Patch in the hope of revitalizing the neighborhood and reducing crime.  The opposite effect happened.  Crime in the area of the former Kerry Patch is still very high.  The Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, which was built in 1956 was razed in 1972. The Carr Square housing complex of today is right in the heart of the old Kerry Patch.  

Depressing as the end of the story of Kerry Patch is, there are still remnants of the old life there.  In December of 2001,  my husband and I visited one of the homes in which my great-grandparents lived on Gamble St.   We attended noon mass at St. Bridget of Erin's (which is now closed), but the building is still there.   Sitting in the delapidated pew, I looked around the interior of the church and prayed for my great-grandfather and grandmother, James and Margaret (McGoldrick) Heeney who were members of "St. Bridies".  James' father, John Heeney, my great-great-grandfather was a member of St. Alphonsus Liguouri (the Rock) church.  My great, great, grandmother, Ann Keagan Heeney was buried from St. John the Apostle church, another early  Irish parish that was founded by an Irish Jesuit priest,  Fr. John Bannon.   I attend Mass there now and then,  because it is near my place of employment.  I remember my mother telling me to sit in the back of the church because when you do, you sit between St. Patrick and St. Bridget.  Now, when I go there, I never fail to look up at St. Pat and St. Bridget and recognize how much my Irish ancestors depended on their faith for the strength to survive and eventually thrive in St. Louis. 

 In 1845,  John Heeney left Navan,  near Dublin Ireland.  His wife had already died in Ireland and he and two children, James and Mary boarded a ship called the "Arabian" from Dublin to New Orleans.  From there, John took a steamboat to Louisville, Kentucky and remarried to Anne Keagan in 1848. They lived in Louisville for almost ten years but could not endure through the Nativist attacks on Irish that took place in Louisville in the early 1850's.  John worked for the railroad and had been sent to St. Louis to work.  He moved his family to the Kerry Patch in the mid-1850's.  They lived first in St. Patrick's parish and later lived in St. Alphonsus and St. Bridget's parishes.  Their family had members who were nuns, Christian Brothers, early St. Louis Firemen and famous gangsters. Their story is not unlike the stories of the many Irish who lived in the "Kerry Patch". Today, there is nobody living in St. Louis who carries the family name of this particular Heeney family.  They lived and died in the "Patch", leaving a legacy of faith, perservance and resourcefulness.   Like the Patch itself, their story lives mostly in the memories of the Irish in St. Louis.  

Locations of some of the Roman Catholic Parishes that served the Kerry Patch during its heyday:

  • St. Patrick, 6th and Biddle (1844-1975)- In 1883, it was the most populous parish in the city and was located

  • north of downtown.
  • St. Michael the Archangel (1849-1975), 11th and Clinton-Founded as a companion church of St. Patrick's

  • St. Bridget's (1852-present  ) 2401 Carr St.  When constructed in 1860, it was the largest church in the city.

  • Sacred Heart (Most Sacred Heart of Jesus)  1871-1978,  23rd & University.  It was located southeast of Fairgrounds Park.

  •  Diane Shaw

    wee shamrock graphic

    St. Louis:
    Irish in St. Louis (one of my other web pages) - good St. Louis history and genealogy resource
    1879 Map of St. Louis - I have located the heart of Kerry Patch on this link.
    History of St. Matthews and St. Malachy's parishes
    Taille De Noyer House - John Mullanphy's country home still stands on the campus of McCluer High School.
    John Mullanphy Bio - Irish "guardian angel" for famine era, St. Louis Irish.
    Book:  The Irish in St. Louis - by William Barnaby Faherty, S.J.
    Brewing Beer in St. Louis - John Mullanphy once owned the brewing association
    Tom Dooley - member of St. Roch's church in Kerry Patch
    Peopling St. Louis - the Immigrant Experience - describes the melting pot of St. Louis
    Levi Dust - A children's story based on true events that took place in the Patch
    Let Erin Remember - a poem written in the mid to late 1800's about the Patch and its residents.
    The Great St. Louis Fire of 1849
    Cholera in St. Louis - Worst was 1849
    Gangs in St. Louis
    History of Pruit-Igoe Housing Complex
    Carr Square, Village and Vaughn housing complex
    Missouri/St. Louis History - turn of the 20th century-This is really a fascinating article with great photos.
    Lee Meriweather - Prominent St. Louis family in late 1800's. Ran against Col. Butler for mayor and lost.
    St. Louis Political Graveyard - Politicians who were born in St. Louis
    The Search for Carr School - photos of the old Carr School
    1880 Ward Boundaries - see 2nd Ward
    "Dogtown" - Formerly called "Cheltenham", it was another Irish neighborhood - home of St. James Parish.
    History of the Know Nothing party in the U.S. - Political Party that was vehemently anti Irish Catholic-1840's

    Evocative Photos and Drawings of the Famine - painful illustrations and photos
    Sligo's Irish Famine History -from a series of Irish Hunger pages.
    Grosse Île, Canada -about the Irish who emigrated to Grosse Île, Canada during the Famine.
    The Irish Famine 1845-50 - An excellent description with graphics
    Views of the Famine - Excerpts from newspapers that reported the famine.
    Irish Hunger Martyrs - group advocating sainthood for millions of Irish who died of hunger
    History of the Irish Around the World - Thorough site w/ lots of linked info
    Famine Museum-Be sure to see the links at the bottom of the page.
    History of Kerry Co. during the famine - Why folks from Kerry would have been comfortable in St. Louis

    Irish Around the World:
    History of the Irish in the U.S. - Half of all people born in Ireland since 1861 have emigrated-mostly to the US


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    This page was last updated on April 19, 2006.

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