I’ve never been to Kansas City. Driven past a couple times on my way to Denver.
Those sound like song lyrics from the 1970s. Wait, that was Please Come To Boston, voted by me to be the 14th wimpiest song ever on the John Belushi guitar-smashing scale.
But over Labor Day weekend the town will be hosting its 12rh Irish Fest (www.kcirishfest.com), which event organizers say draws a crowd of 80,000 – 90,000 during its three days.
The 2014 lineup includes The Elders, Gaelic Storm, Seamus Kennedy, Eddie Delahunt, Flannigan’s Right Hook, Mundy, Carbon Leaf, Fullset, The Hot Sprockets, Cold Comfort and Van Morrison’s daughter, Shana Morrison.
There’s even an Irish night beforehand Aug. 27 at Kaufman Stadium at a Royals game (www.royals.com/irish).
Intrigued, I emailed the folks putting on the event, who put me in touch with Pat O’Neill, whose written a book about the Irish in Kansas City (www.amazon.com/From-Bottom-Up-Story-Kansas/dp/0967637503).
Pat was kind enough to answer some questions about the Irish in Kansas City and about the fest.
Here’s what he had to say:
What are some of the area’s best and/or most popular Irish pubs?
Kelly’s Westport Inn in Westport (www.kellyswestportinn.com/); O’Dowd’s Little Dublin on the Plaza (odowdslittledublin.com/); O’Neill’s Pub & Restaurant in Leawood (www.kconeills.com); O’Malley’s Pub in Weston (www.westonirish.com/); The Dubliner (thedublinerkc.com/) in the Power & Light District; and Walsh’s Corner Cocktails in Waldo (cornercocktails.com/).
What is the Irish history of Kansas City?
The following is excerpted from my book, “From the Bottom Up; The Story of the Irish in Kansas City”.
Between 1840 and 1860, nearly two million Irish left their homes for the United States.
They arrived in the U.S. weak in spirit, lonely, homesick, poor, filthy and ignorant of the dangers of city life. Millions never made it farther than the ethnic ghettos of New York, Boston and Philadelphia, working as throwaway laborers building streets, sewers, canals, bridges and tunnels. But many of the more ambitious–or merely friend- and familyless–moved on, following the rivers and railroads to Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City. In the wide-open and largely accepting Town of Kansas, Irish men and women saved pennies from whatever 50-cents-a-day job they found, and mailed money back home with a letter inviting the next brother, sister, mom, da or cousin to come join them, in the emerging Midwestern city that few Irish back home had ever heard of.
According to the 1990 U.S. Census, one out of every 10 people in the Kansas City area is blessed with at least a pint or two of Irish blood. In fact, the Irish were the city’s largest immigrant group ever. Ironic, especially considering many of our ancestors came here … by accident. With no intent whatsoever of staying.
For thousands of Irish men and women who stepped off the steamboats, stages and trains during the heyday of western migration, Kansas City, Missouri, was meant to be simply a stopover. A place to rest for a few days, to inquire about provisions or find employment with the rapidly expanding railroads.
Kansas City captured more than its share of the footloose, many of them undereducated but with clear and bitter memories of working tiny hardscrabble farms for indifferent and often absent landlords in Erin. The not-so-glamorous but easygoing town appealed to landless immigrants who just wanted a steady job, a roof and a wee bit of respect.
In the mid-19th century, the outfitting center at the intersection of the Missouri and Kaw rivers was growing faster than the steep river bluffs would allow, so strong-backed micks with shovels and picks were most welcome. With encouragement and spiritual support from Father Bernard Donnelly, pastor of Kansas City’s church atop the hill, the greenhorns whittled away at the limestone bluffs, dug cisterns and latrines, cut and hauled stones for foundations, worked as maids in the mansions of Pearl Street and later Quality Hill, hauled buckets to put out fires, cut the throats of a million cattle, served carloads of steaks and whiskey, kept and disturbed the peace, laid the bricks and rails, drove the streetcars, organized the working poor and kicked down the ethnic barriers at City Hall and the courthouse for themselves and many generations and nationalities to come. By the mid-1870s, 9 percent of Kansas City’s population was Irish-born.
Irish clergy, beginning with Father Donnelly and Bishops Hogan and Lillis, built a social and educational network that literally created Kansas City’s best and strongest neighborhoods and catapulted the sons and daughters of immigrants past their public school peers, into Oakhurst, Notre Dame and Boston College–and careers in medicine, law, labor and sciences.
Hard work and high expectations produced generations of achievers for Kansas City, and a deep sense of what the old Irish called “coheir”–the tradition of loyalty to their race and of giving back to the community.
Kansas City is known for its steaks and barbecue. If you wanted to do a combo of Irish, beef and bib, does such a place exist in Kansas City?
The Irish born transplants take a while to get used to KC-style beef sandwiches that are typically resemble a one pound peat log slathered with an orange or fire-red bib sauce.
Upon seeing his first Bryant’s sandwich, Dublin Native Calm Delahunt was terrified by the size. “The bleepin’ thing is gonna eat ME!,” he cried.
But for a great beef sandwich or lamb-based Shepherd’s pie and the homey feel and hospitality of true Irish crossroads pub, you go to Browne’s Irish Market and Deli. (www.brownesmarket.com/). Formerly a neighborhood grocery store with a fresh meats counter, Browne’s is one of the oldest continually operated Irish businesses west of the Mississippi. And it’s been operated by the same family for more than 120 years.
What makes the Kansas City Irish Fest unique?
A lot of qualities merged to make Kansas City’s Irish Fest one of the fastest growing events of its kind in the country.
Number 1: Great music – and not just “dilly-di-shamrocks-and- shillelagh “music, but Celtic influenced music from all over the world.
Number 2: The comfortable, convenient and attractive setting among the fountains and trees in Hallmark’s urban Crown Center Campus and in the adjacent Washington Square Park.
Number 3: The fest falls on a little used 3-day weekend (the Labor Day weekend is many people’s last hurrah of summer).
Number 4: It’s a Kansas City-style fest, in that the ticket prices are affordable and there are lots of family friendly things to do, including the area’s largest outdoor Catholic Mass on Sunday morning, on the Terrace Music Stage – we move aside the drum kits and other band equipment to accommodate the altar.
What may surprise people from Chicago or other places who don’t get out much to other Midwestern cities about Kansas City?
Surprise – there are hills here! Big hills. And trees. And green spaces. And art and gorgeous fountains all over the place.
And the fact that the Irish in many ways built and ruled this city for decades. Their fingerprints are everywhere – beside at the police department, which, at one time, of course, was dominated by officers from the auld sod – in the stonework, in the old county and municipal buildings, the neighborhoods, pubs and churches .
Are there any other Irish-related events in the area in the next few months?
Kansas City’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 17th is one of the biggest and loudest in the country.
Is there a good place to go in Kansas City to learn more about the Irish and their role in the community and in settling the region?
(THE FOLLOWING WAS TAKEN FROM THE KANSAS CITY IRISH CENTER AT UNION STATION WEB SITE (www.irishcenterkc.org) Kansas City.
Several years ago a group of Kansas Citians articulated a vision to create a place that would support, honor, preserve and celebrate the Irish and Celtic heritage of our community, families, and individuals year-round.
After much discussion, Kansas City’s historic Union Station was chosen as the location for the newly established Irish Center. Union Station and the Irish have a strong historical link. From the Irish immigrants who provided much of the workforce that built the railroads, to later immigrants coming through Union Station to start a new life in the Midwest, to the thousands of Irish-American soldiers who shipped out and came home through Union Station, to the Irish-American workers who dug the coal and butchered the livestock transported across the country from Union Station. The Irish Center’s partnership with Union Station continues to honor this history.
The Irish Center opened in Union Station St. Patrick’s Day 2007. Today, the Center is a hub of Kansas City Irish activities, programs, music, and educational opportunities. The Irish Center includes a modest permanent exhibit on Kansas City’s Irish heritage, online and printed genealogy resources, an Irish resource library, educational and cultural programs and classes, space for traveling exhibits, a “wee” gift shop, a conference room that can accommodate 25 and a space for speakers, small concerts, and special events.
Hours are Wed – Sat 10 am – 4 pm, Sun noon – 4 pm. Admission is only charged for special events and select programs. However, donations are gratefully appreciated and support the many programs, activities and resources available through The Center.