IRISH SETTLEMENT, IOWA - The Famine Irish came to this forsaken land in their thousands. They were lured from their East Coast hovels by promises of 160 acres of land, which they could homestead if they stayed longer than five years. For men and women who had endured unimaginable suffering, Iowa must have sounded like El Dorado.
It was an extraordinary promise and thousands came west. The life they left behind was hard, but the land they came to conquer was vast and difficult. The treeless plains stretched to the horizon, the winters were harsh and extreme, the summers full of heat, tornados and occasionally plagues of locusts like in biblical times.
A local historian tells their tale. "Irish farmers settled first south and west of Des Moines in Polk County. Then, in 1853, Reverend Timothy N. Mullen brought a number of Irish families 15 miles southwest of Des Moines to form the 'Irish Settlement' and 'Churchville.' The first group came from Wisconsin in covered wagons drawn by ox-teams. Good land was the attraction.
"Among the early arrivals was Felix McManus, who operated a general variety store in Bevington. He came from County Down. Patrick Dowd was a native of County Roscommon; James Gillespie and William Kennedy were from County Derry and Patrick Smith from County Cavan. All arrived in 1856."
Somehow the Irish arrivals endured, and their legacy is everywhere in this state today. In the little church and graveyard of St. Patrick's, high on a windswept hill overlooking the settlement, the Irish of the period met, married and were buried.
In June of 1979 Pope John Paul II came to this spot, and a crowd of over 250,000 greeted him in the same pastures where the Irish immigrants had toiled so long and hard. They would no doubt have been speechless that the Pope himself had come to see their final resting place.
Their graves are well tended even today. Most died young, having endured lives of hardship and hardscrabble existence. What they endured we can only imagine.
In some cases families can be traced from the very first settler to the names of family members who have died in this century. The Irish here are still a living, breathing community.
I was made aware of that a few miles west at the Historical Museum in Winterset in Madison County on Friday night. About three dozen Irish American residents had gathered to watch a film of President Bill and Hillary Clinton's visit to Ireland in November 1995, and to hear a pitch by Clinton campaign manager Terry McAuliffe for their vote in the upcoming caucus.
Madison County, of course, has become world famous because of The Bridges of Madison County bestseller and movie starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. Even now, as winter closes in, thousands of tourists make the trek to the handful of covered bridges, usually situated miles from the main highways, and down gravel covered roads.
Stella O'Leary, head of Irish American Democrats, had decided that an event in the Irish settlement area was a unique way to tap into the strong Irish presence still in the state. I was happy for the opportunity to travel and speak to the group, as well as to fill them in on what the Clintons had accomplished for Ireland.
It was a fascinating evening. Most traced their ancestry back to those original settlers and clearly retained the hard work ethic and plain speaking that their ancestors enjoyed.
The questions for Terry McAuliffe were always to the point, and you got a renewed sense of how it is a huge positive that grassroots politics in Iowa helps determine who the next leader of the Free World will be.
That may be no bad thing. Better to have the candidates face the real people of this state and hear their concerns than conduct their campaigns through attack ads on television in large states where personal campaigning of this type in Iowa is meaningless.
The road to the White House runs through the Hawkeye State, and having experienced it for the first time I believe that is no bad thing.
Irish Iowans too represent a slice of middle America that is critical for politicians to understand. Their ancestors would be proud of them.