9 Ways the Irish Influenced Denver

As the city gears up to celebrate the Irish holiday, it seems due time to raise our (naturally colored) Guinness to the Irish communities that influenced Denver.

March 15 2017, 12:30 PM

The scene at the St. Patrick's Day Parade on Saturday, March 11, 2017. Photo by Michael J. Mee

Stories of Irish immigration have been told before, but the tales of those in the West are often forgotten. Many Irish immigrants migrated to Leadville in the 1870s and 1880s, after the discovery of silver. Soon, Leadville was the largest Irish city in the region. When the Silver Boom ended in the 1890s, the Irish began their descent to Denver. “The Irish community here in Colorado, almost from the beginning has played an integral part in the development of the state and the city,” says James Lyons, the honorary consulate general of Ireland.

From philanthropic donations to many Catholic parishes and cultural mainstays to the celebration of Irish-American culture in a number of organizations, here are nine ways that the Irish helped shape our state.

Leadville was known as the Little Ireland of Colorado. The mountain city drew attention from Irish dignitaries and notables, including Dublin-based author Oscar Wilde, who made a trip to the city in 1882, and notorious Irish republican and founder of the Irish National Land League, Michael Davitt, who visited in both 1880 and 1886. More than 3,000 Irish-Americans made the mining town home during the 1870s and 1880s. And now, Denver historian and co-author of Irish Denver, James Walsh, Ph.D., along with the Irish Network Colorado and the Consulate General of Ireland, are leading efforts to call attention to this community’s importance in the West. Among the significant locations and events, recognition would include acres of unmarked, sunken graves in the back of Leadville’s Evergreen Cemetery, where thousands of Irish immigrants and others were reportedly laid to rest.

Molly Brown’s upbringing in an Irish immigrant family inspired her civic duty. The unsinkable Molly Brown is a local legend, and her immense contribution to Colorado’s social, economic, and political landscapes are widely known. But her connection to the Irish culture may fall under the radar. Her Catholic upbringing prioritized helping marginalized groups, such as immigrants and African Americans, and along with her husband, J.J., she made prominent contributions to the community, including a significant fundraising effort to build the Cathedral Basilica of Immaculate Conception. According to historians at the Molly Brown House—a local museum dedicated to her life—Brown strolled up the center aisle of the Basilica every Sunday morning with her walking staff decorated with flowers and ribbons. Her legacy lives on today as the Molly Brown House works to preserve Colorado’s Irish legacy through outreach and cultural programs, such as their engagement in Colorado Irish History Weekend in September.

J.K. Mullen High School and Mount St. Vincent’s Home for Children were both founded with large contributions by Irishman John Kernan Mullen, who moved to Colorado in 1870. Mullen originally immigrated to the U.S. in 1856 at the age of nine from Ballinasloe, Ireland, before settling in the Denver area 14 years later. He helped his fellow Irish transplants, both through the institutions he founded and by providing employment at his wheat and flour mills, alongside support and philanthropic inspiration from his wife, Catherine. In 1920, the couple donated 15 acres of land, on which the Mount St. Vincent’s Home for Children was built. His influence can also be found in the J.K. Mullen Manuscript room at the Denver Public Library, the J.K. Mullen Home for the Aged (known as Little Sisters of the Poor), and of course, J.K. Mullen High School (originally known as the Mullen Home for Boys), which his children oversaw the completion of in 1932 after Mullen’s death.

John Nallen stands outside of Nallen's Irish Pub. Courtesy of the Celtic Connection

Nallen’s Irish Pub is more than just a LoDo bar. This mainstay was opened in 1992 by John and Una Nallen, who moved to Denver in 1982 after immigrating to New York from County Mayo, Ireland in 1972. Pat McCullough, from the Celtic Connection, a bi-weekly Irish paper, says the paper, the Denver Gaels, Colorado Irish Festival, and a number of Irish artists got their start at the pub. McCullough reflects that when The Celtic Connection launched in 1993 as a calendar of events out of Nallen’s, they were able to use the pub as a community center to build their publication. Stop by the pub today for a glimpse into Denver’s Irish culture through concerts and Irish dance—both of which you can find at their St. Paddy’s Day Celebration—or for a perfectly poured Guinness.

The first Denver Gaelic football team stands outside of Nallen's. Courtesy of the Celtic Connection

Perhaps the luck of the Irish propels the Denver Gaels to success, or maybe it’s just their long history. The club got its start in 1996 during a conversation at Nallen’s Pub, where a group of Irish natives wished to form a team for Gaelic Football, a sport similar to soccer, but with crossbars like goalposts in American football. The team created a community for Colorado’s Irish to celebrate their heritage. In fact, many Irish-Americans thanked the team for their contributions in a compilation of memories published in the Celtic Connection to celebrate the team’s 20th anniversary. Today’s team no longer consists solely of Irish nationals, but an array of individuals who participate in many Gaelic games, including football, hurling, camogie, handball, and rounders. The team will host a National Hurling Tournament this fall, in which James Lyons, the Irish honorary Consulate General, says the team will be “serious contenders.”

The first school in Colorado was founded by Irish immigrant Owen Goldrick. The Professor, as Goldrick was nicknamed, arrived in Denver from Dublin in 1859 with 50 cents in his pocket (reportedly they were reinvested in a cigar and whiskey) and soon opened the first school in a small cabin at 12th and Market streets. This was just the beginning of Goldrick’s influence on Denver’s educational system. His legacy lives on today in the Denver institutions that he helped lay the groundwork for. His drive to create Colorado's first library resulted in the founding of the Denver Public Library, his name is dedicated to the Goldrick School, and even Denver Public Schools have that first pioneer schoolhouse to thank for the institution it is today.

Denver’s longest-serving mayor, William Henry McNichols Jr., was Irish. He came from a line of local Irish politicians, and served the most consecutive years in office. McNichols was instrumental in starting a number of projects to improve downtown, such as the 16th Street Mall, the Auraria campus, the Denver Center of Performing Arts, and the Denver Art Museum’s North Building. According Walsh, there is a long-standing tradition of Irish democrats or “machines”—Irish families that used political prowess to put several family members into office—that thrived in Denver and worked to revitalize city centers. Today, you can visit the McNichols Civic Center Building, a hub for art, culture, and events named after the Denver mayor.

Glenarm Street might just be the Mile High City’s most Irish thoroughfare, but there are multiple claims to its namesake. The name Glenarm comes from the Irish phrase “Gleann Arma,” meaning valley of the army, and is a prominent village in Northern Ireland. Denver’s Glenarm Street was reportedly named by William McGaa, a Scottish immigrant, who supposedly named it after his family’s castle in Scotland. While it’s unclear whether or not McGaa’s family actually owned a Glenarm estate in Scotland, Lyons claims that Glenarm is actually an homage to the abbreviation for The Glens of Antrim, a town in Northern Ireland.

A visit from the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Robert Briscoe, in 1962 allegedly kicked off Denver’s modern-day St. Patrick’s Day Parade, after anti-immigrant/Catholic sentiments put the parade on hiatus. The original parade began in Denver in 1889 and was canceled in 1921 for economic reasons and apparent social unrest. Popular legend states that the Lord Mayor visited Denver to meet about the promotion of Irish products and industry in Colorado. While dining at Duffy’s Shamrock Bar, which closed in 2006, the group mourned the loss of the parade and apparently reorganized it for the following year. And indeed, the official St. Patrick’s Day Parade committee was founded in 1963.