The Ghost of Knoxville's Irish Town

Our bit of the Old Sod, and the St. Patrick's puzzle

Everybody's got some kind of St. Patrick's Day special going on. Even my friend Jeffrey Nash, who about four years ago was nostalgic about the London locals of his youth and very earnestly set about to open an English pub. I bet he's puzzled that the most popular day at the Crown and Goose each year is St. Patrick's Day. Then again, St. George's Day, April 23, just isn't that big a deal. Nor is Nov. 30, St. Andrew's Day, the Scottish national holiday. And, like most London pubs, the Crown and Goose does serve Guinness.

I know of no other specific country's ethnic group that is so much celebrated in my home town.

But here's the thing. How often do you encounter Irish people? I know a few English people who live here, several Scottish people and French people. I know local Italians, Germans, Scots, Spaniards, Mexicans, Greeks, some Chinese, and quite a few Arabs, a Venezuelan or two. Right now I can't call to mind any Irish. Over the years I've known a few Irish immigrants who lived in Knoxville, but I think I could count them on one hand, and as far as I know they've all gone home.

Of course, many of us do claim Irish ancestry. As I calculate it, I'm at least one 256th Irish. But maybe because that sliver happened to be the Neely who immigrated 300 years ago, my parents wear green and serve corned beef and cabbage on March 17. We don't honor those ancestors who make up the balance of our DNA, the Scots, English, Germans, and Unknowns in any comparable fashion.

Celebrating the Irish might on the surface seem pretty unlikely. The Irish were much ridiculed, and often dreaded and despised, for most of our nation's first century. They were seen as lazy, violent, noisy, drunk, and sneaky. They were discriminated against, banned from boarding houses. And even in Ireland, they were repeatedly subjugated by the British.

Maybe it's the shadow side of the globally dominant American, something in us that wants to identify with a downtrodden, not-quite vanquished minority. Cherokees and Confederates alike fascinate disproportionately compared to other cultural groups who weren't so thoroughly trounced. Defeat is romantic, and offers unassailable images of what might have been.

I'm not sure this is obvious, but the Irish, however you define Irish, have been a major part of Knoxville history. The Scots Irish, who thought of themselves as Irish, considering many of them had never lived anywhere else before coming to America, were among our earliest settlers. Knoxville's second—and fourth—mayor was Irish immigrant James Park, the elder. The guy who built the Lamar House, now the front portion of the Bijou Theatre, was Thomas Humes, the elder, also an Irishman. John Adair, of what would later be known as Fountain City, was the only immigrant to sign the Tennessee constitution in 1796.

They were mostly Presbyterians, which is not to say they weren't really Irish. Presbyterians had led one of the early Irish nationalist rebellions against English rule, in 1798. At least a couple of beaten refugees of that British victory made their way to Knoxville, and lived the rest of their lives here.

Half a century later, Knoxville harbored another, famous Irish revolutionary named John Mitchel. How Europe's revolutions of 1848 had an effect on Irish nationalism is something I never quite understood until watching the news of the Arabic revolts of 2011. They have different enemies, different goals, but they seem to inspire each other across borders. In 1848, the incendiary editor John Mitchel was in the thick of it. Imprisoned for promoting violence against the crown, the escapee from a Tasmanian penal colony lived in Knoxville, perhaps somewhere in the vicinity of what's now Caswell Park, for several years in the 1850s. Here, he co-founded a secessionist journal called the Southern Citizen. He seems to have hated abolitionism, in large part, because it was associated with England and he hated English things. He often lectured here, and later returned to Ireland, and shortly before his death, was elected to Parliament.

While he was here, the post-famine Irish community was just beginning to coalesce, around the railroad and the new Catholic church.

Almost, perhaps entirely, forgotten today is Knoxville's Irish Town. Located on the northern fringe of downtown, within walking distance of the Catholic church as well as the Southern Railyards where many of the original Irish worked, this dense residential community been described as thriving mainly along what's now Magnolia, between Broadway and Morgan, taking in a couple of blocks on either side. It could be said to have stretched a few blocks south down Central, because that noisy lane was dominated by Irish-run saloons.

In the 1880s and '90s, Irish Town was famous for its characters, like Timothy Spillane, the saloon storyteller and Union veteran, and Mike O'Connor, who could play tunes on a train's steam whistle. Alderman John Murphy was known as the "Mayor of Irish Town," always taking its side in Council—which, from 1880 to 1911, he sometimes dominated. And John T. "Punch" O'Connor, boxer and union organizer, was later elected mayor of Knoxville.

During those years, St. Patrick's Day was a very big deal, sometimes entailing a big parade down Gay Street, sometimes involving a late-night ball at the Lamar House. It was the immigrants who were most interested in celebrating the holiday, which by the 1920s seemed to dwindle to a few elderly widows singing choruses of "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" at the old Market House.

In the 20th century, Irish descendents became prosperous, suburban, and invisible. In 1949, columnist Lucy Templeton remarked that old Irish Town's only survivor was a widow, Kate Leahy Ammons. Then the highway ran through it. There's not a single architectural trace of Irish Town today. But you can sit right in the middle of it, at the Public House, say, and enjoy something Irish until you can hear the saints singing to you in Irish brogue.