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Irish Omaha history goes deeper than you think

OMAHA, Nebraska (Nebraska) – Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, but Omaha has more green blood in its veins than you might think.

The Jack Barrett-Jeffery family moved to Nebraska from Ireland in the last century and have been celebrating St. Patrick’s Day ever since.

“The Irish here in Omaha live deep and you can see that today,” he said. “I still think they haven’t had a party like this in a long time because of the pandemic, so everyone is here and they’re having fun.”

Those with Irish ancestry make up the second largest group of Omahanis to report their ancestry in the last census. The founding family of Creighton University was Irish, originally named MacRaren.

Irish immigrants opened the first church here, and in 1904 Fr. Edward J. Flanagan arrived from Roscommon, Ireland. His first parish assignment was at St. Patrick’s Church, O’Neill. In 1917 he opened an orphanage for his boys, now known as Boys Town.

Brett Fowler’s Irish blood runs deep.

“You got your Sporran, then you have the Sgian Dubh, your knife, it’s a traditional Irish shirt, knotted shoes… and this thing, someone accidentally gave it to me, so I’ll take it,” he said.

History hardly remembers the first Irish neighborhood in Omaha – photographs do not exist. Dennis Dee and a couple of other immigrants built houses on the hillside in what is now Miller Park in 1857. It became known as Gophertown.

The Irish were also the first people to inhabit what was known as Shilytown in the 1860s. The rise of the Union Pacific, industrial boom, and stockyards made it the center of one of Omaha’s first large melting pots.

Amelia Rosser named her business Sheelytown Market after the area’s multi-ethnic roots.

“What surprised me the most was how many people in the area definitely still remember Shilytown, the area,” she said. “When we first opened, there was a woman next to me and she said, ‘My God, my first home that I owned was in Sheelytown.’ And I was shocked that it wasn’t all that far in the past.”

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