Book Review: From the Emerald Isle to the Cream City – A History of the Irish in Milwaukee

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Seasons Greetings and Happy Holidays from Tenacious Genealogy!

This month has been super crazy with preparing for the holidays and winding down from 2018. That said, I wanted to post one last time before 2019 and show off a book that I finished reading recently. I’m a sucker for local history and local history books.  Whether the ‘locale’ is near or far, it’s always fun to find out more about a place, the people who lived there and how it got to where it is now. So when I was offered the opportunity to read a new book about the Irish in Milwaukee, I took it up.

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for writing this book review.

Before I jump into this book review, I’ll explain why I was so excited to read From the Emerald Isle to the Cream City.

First off, I’ve always found Irish history in America to be interesting. They are an ethnic group that has gone through a lot  – both in Ireland and in the United States. While today many people proudly claim Irish heritage, that wasn’t always the case. As I’ve read up on Irish American history, I’ve seen a lot of parallels between how the Irish were treated in the 19th century and how many minority groups are treated now.

Second, I have genealogical connections to both the Irish and to Milwaukee. My husband (as of AncestryDNA’s most recent algorithm update) is about 1/2 Irish. We knew this already through the paper genealogy that we have for that part of the family, but with the DNA backing it up, it reinforces the fact that Irish history is now part of our family history. As for Milwaukee, my mother’s family is from there and the surrounding areas in Wisconsin and Michigan. While they were primarily French and German, even reading about their Irish neighbors was able to give me insight into their lives and culture.

So withot further ado, here is my review of From Emerald Isle to the Cream City: A History of the Irish in Milwaukee.

Author: Carl Baehr
Imprint: Everything Goes Media
ISBN: 978-1893121-39-3
Price: $19.95
Page Count: 275
Pub Date: November 2018
Format: Trade paperback, 6″ x 9″ 

This book focuses mainly on the Irish and Irish American experience in Milwaukee during the 19th century. From Milwaukee’s humble beginnings in 1835 to the dawn of the 20th century, Mr. Baehr dedicates seven of the eight chapters to the 19th century – roughly one per decade. Which, given the amount of information packed into each chapter, he could have easily done a book on each decade dedicated just to what the Irish were doing in Milwaukee during the 19th century.

It is an engaging read that I found hard to put down and found myself flipping back and forth between chapters, reading about famous Irish (and Irish American) Milwaukeeans make their mark on the city and on the world. Everyone from Robert B. Lynch (who was a scoundrel to both family and friends, and convicted of treason against Britain for his part in the Fenian Brotherhood’s invasion of Canada, but never executed) to the Cudahy family (a family who made their fortune in meatpacking and for whom several places, including Cudahy, California, are named for,) and Thomas Shaughnessy Junior (an early president of the Canadian Pacific Railway who was influential in the development of Canada and later knighted by the King of England).

Some of the fascinating facts that I learned from this book were:

  • Wisconsin threatened to secede from the United States of America in 1860 – if the federal government didn’t abolish slavery ASAP
  • While Wisconsin was generally for the abolition of slavery, the Irish were, for the most, against it – for primarily economic reasons. Since many Irish were at the bottom of the economic scale, newly freed slaves would be competition for the jobs that they had and vied for.
  • That said, many Irish fought valiantly for the Union Army (and some in the Confederate Army, as well).
  • For a good portion of the 19th century, the Irish were the immigrant minority that everyone loved to hate and NINA (No Irish Need Apply) caveats existed even in cities with sizable Irish populations like Milwaukee.
  • The Irish in Milwaukee suffered no less than four major tragedies in less than fifty years (Cholera outbreaks in 1849/50, the Lady Elgin disaster in 1860, the Newhall Hotel disaster in 1883, and the destruction of the Third Ward in 1892.)
  • Irish Milwaukeeans were part of a military force that invaded Canada in 1866 (as an attempt to wrest control of Ireland out of English control by the Fenian Brotherhood).

Overall, this was really good book and I would highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in Irish American history, local Milwaukee history or has ancestors who may have lived in the area during the 19th century. A couple things that I found informative in the book and useful for those who may be doing genealogy research were the appendices at the end of the book. In particular, there are lists of the people who perished in both the Lady Elgin disaster and the Newhall House hotel fire. There are also detailed endnotes at the back of the book. I liked that Mr. Baehr took the time to mention the historic names of various roads and streets in Milwaukee as well as their modern names. This kind of research is immensely helpful when researching records and wanting to find exactly where one’s ancestors may have lived.

Questions? Comments?

Questions or comments about this book? Do you know of other great local or family history books that I should review? Let me know in the comments! And if you like what you’ve been seeing here on Tenacious Genealogy – please subscribe to our email list. Not only will you stay up to date with the latest blog posts, but you’ll also get access to freebies such as ’10 Tips for Starting Your Genealogy’ and other fun ‘subscriber only’ items!

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