The cities of Kilkenny in Ireland and Kilkenny in Minnesota couldn’t be more different from each other in many respects.
Kilkenny City, which sits on the banks of the River Nore in south east Ireland, has a population of 24,423. Its development from a monastic center to a town began in the 1100s, and Kilkenny became a city in 1609. Its streets contain many important Irish landmarks and cultural centers, including Kilkenny Castle, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Kilkenny Design and the annual Kilkenny Arts Festival.
Kilkenny, Minnesota was settled in 1856 and was officially incorporated in 1883. Its boom time came in the early 1900s, when its railroad depot was bustling. Its population, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, is 134.
Despite their differences, Kilkenny in Ireland and Kikenny in Minnesota are full of mutual appreciation for each other. In 2013, they officially twinned after a series of happy coincidences brought the two cities together.
Kilkenny, MN is named for Kilkenny in Ireland. It was settled in the 1850s by emigrants from County Kilkenny who named their new home after their old one. Among them was a man named Dennis Doyle, who had left Ireland for America in 1851, during the Famine years. Doyle worked as a teacher while in Ireland, and one of his pupils was John Ireland, who would go on to become the first Catholic archbishop of St. Paul, and who helped to establish much of rural Minnesota with the Irish Catholic Colonization association, which brought Irish emigrants from poverty-stricken urban centers and resettled them on land purchased by the association.
According to an article in the Twin Cities’ Pioneer Press, Doyle came to Minnesota with the aim of making sure that the Irish children there would receive a proper education. As Kilkenny’s mayor Kevin Taaffe, Jr. explained, during Doyle’s travels through the Minnesota countryside he found one spot that reminded him the most of home.
"When he came to Minnesota, he traveled on Dodd Road where it crosses the railroad…The rolling green hills reminded him of home. He was one of a group of Irish settlers who settled on one of those hills and named it Kilkenny."
Doyle was a Kilkenny pioneer in many other respects. He was the first person in Kilkenny to wed, marrying the French-born Catherine Raway. He ran a general store out of his home, taught in Kilkenny’s first school, served as its first postmaster, township clerk and, later, state legislator.
He passed away in 1902 at the age of 84, but there are many who shared and continued his passion for Kilkenny. In 1979 resident named Mae Zellmer Mach published a book called "Remember When - A History Of Kilkenny, Minnesota." Kilkenny’s official website offers a few choice quotes from Mach’s book, including:
"Kilkenny cannot be compared to any other city in America, as there is only one Kilkenny in Ireland and there is only one Kilkenny in the United States."
"Kilkenny has never been much larger than 300 in population (so I've been told). If you say the name to a stranger they never heard of it and if you give directions you say so far from the neighboring towns, but when the late President Kennedy went to Ireland he extended greetings to the people of Kilkenny, Ireland from the people in Kilkenny, Minnesota."
Kevin Taaffe, Jr., Kilkenny’s mayor, is Mach’s grandson. He is by all accounts incredibly passionate about his little city, but, as he told the Pioneer Press, he was surprised to see that same passion from Kilkenny in Ireland.
As he explained, the groundwork for the relationship between the two cities was laid in 1997, when Joe Hennessy and Paddy Ryan, two Irishmen from County Kilkenny were attending a trade show in Minneapolis. By sheer coincidence, the driver of a taxi they hailed was Irish. He didn’t just tell them about Kilkenny, MN – he took them there, where they met Mae Zellmer Mach, who gave them a copy of her book to take back with them.
Sixteen years later, one of Hennessy’s sons, Eoin, traveled to Minnesota. As Taaffe recalled, "One day, a young man walked into the service station I run with my uncle, a business that my grandfather started in 1952," Taaffe says. "He leaned against the pop machine and I said, 'What can I do for you?' -- thinking he was looking for directions.
"And then, in his fine Irish brogue, he said, 'My name is Eoin Hennessy and I come from Kilkenny.”
“He asked if he could meet with my grandma. I said, 'Unfortunately, she passed away in 2005.'
"He said, 'Is there any way I could meet with your mayor?' I said, 'You're looking at him.'"
The relationship blossomed from there, with Eoin connecting Taaffe with Irish elected officials. For St. Patrick’s Day 2013, Mayor Taaffe was invited to Ireland, where the two Kilkennys signed a twinning agreement declaring them sister cities.
Taaffe was blown away by the reception, telling the Pioneer Press “What I thought would be a simple ceremony turned into a grand affair at a castle, attended by guests like the ambassadors from Spain, Portugal, France and Russia, and the charges d'affaires from the U.S. embassy . . . "They really rolled out the red carpet for me, which was amazing, because I'm just a small-town mayor."
Along with the mayor of Kilkenny at the time, Seán Ó hArgáin, Taaffe appeared on the “Late Late Show.” Among the guests that night? President Michael D. Higgins. Watch them here.
That September, Kilkenny celebrated its first-ever Half-Way to St. Paddy’s Day, bringing a delegation of Irish officials to Minnesota, and Mayor Taaffe was invited back to Ireland for St. Patrick’s Day 2014.
He said that the connection with Kilkenny, Ireland has empowered his city of 134.
"They don't look at us as a dying city," he told the Pioneer Press. "They look at us and see potential. And that has helped us see potential, too."
If you live in or know of a city, town, or even a street with a distinctly Irish name and history, let us know in the comment section! There’s so much Irish influence to be explored.