Emmetsburg, Iowa, Celebrates Irish Heritage

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on March 2, 2003

It’s hard to tell when Mickey Conlon is pulling your leg.

Conlon, president of the Emmetsburg St. Patrick’s Association, swears, for example, that St. Patrick’s Day is a bigger deal than Thanksgiving. Then he’s spinning yarns about a strike at the world’s only Blarney factory—which doesn’t really exist.

Yet, despite all the jokes, people in Emmetsburg, Iowa, (pop. 3,958) take their Irish heritage seriously.

The town was founded by Irish immigrants in the 1850s and named for one of their homeland’s greatest patriots, Robert Emmet. He was hanged in 1803 for leading a Dublin rebellion, and today, his statue stands in front of the Palo Alto County Courthouse as a reminder of the city’s roots. At least half the town’s residents can trace their history back to the old country.

People may not associate Iowa with Ireland, but immigrants flocked there in search of fertile farmland after the Irish potato famine began in 1845. Over the next half-century, the Irish left their mark, and Americans with Irish heritage make up about 20 percent of the state’s population today.

Emmetsburg’s Irish enthusiasm is never more evident than on St. Patrick’s Day, when a green line is painted down the middle of Main Street and the town hosts a weeklong celebration that draws visitors from as far away as the Emerald Isle itself.

“Come expecting to have fun!” says Conlon, who looks like an overgrown leprechaun in the white-and-green suit he wears each March 17.

At least his hair’s not green anymore. He once dyed it bright green—with permanent ink, it turned out—as a teenager back in 1961, when Emmetsburg held its first organized St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Today, the festival includes members of Ireland’s Parliament and green beer is served at the Shamrock, the town pub.

And the town’s teens still dye their locks the color of clover.

“Everybody does it,” says Abby Morey, 16, whose normally blond pigtails are, for the moment, shocking green. “It’s just a fun thing, even if you’re not Irish.”

The green hair may be temporary, but Emmetsburg’s wicked wit is evident year-round. Perhaps that’s due to the local Blarney Stone, purportedly a chip off of Ireland’s original rock, which promises the gift of gab to anyone who kisses it. The stone—actually a small boulder donated by an Irish visitor, not a chunk of the real stone—rests next to Emmet’s statue. And more than a few people have stopped to give it a buss.

The town also is home to the Blarney Canning Co., an imaginary firm whose website blarneycanning.com boasts that it churns out cans of Blarney, Blarney Lite, and Blarney Repellent, with distributors worldwide. Don’t tell Conlon it’s imaginary, though. He’s worries that if he admits there’s no factory, the employees will strike, just like they did back in 1993. And what do made-up workers go on strike for? Better wages, he says with a smile.

Even the statue of Robert Emmet bears a lighthearted story at its base. The life-size bronze sculpture was commissioned in 1918 by the local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a fraternal Irish group. Artist Jerome Connor made four copies—the other three now stand beside Emmet’s historic home in Dublin, in San Francisco, and in Washington, D.C. But people in Emmetsburg couldn’t agree where to put their statue, so it languished for years in the basement of a local grocery store until a fed-up shopkeeper sold it for $35 to a family in St. Paul, Minn., where it ended up in their garden.

There it stood until 1958, when a few Emmetsburg men decided to “rescue” the statue for the town’s centennial celebration.

“They swiped the statue and anchored it in the courthouse—they used cement this time,” says local history buff Liz Culligan, a member of the St. Patrick’s Day Association. Later, the town paid for the statue to keep things legal. “This is where he stayed, this is his rightful home.”

All this kidding around makes life worth living, Conlon says with a mischievous grin.

“I think you have to have a sense of humor,” he says, “to live in this world today.”