If you find yourself in north-central Iowa, staring at a statue of Robert Emmet in front of a courthouse, you’re probably there by choice. At 50 miles from the nearest interstate exit, Emmetsburg, Iowa isn’t exactly a regular stop for tourists or cross-country road trippers. But the town has a long Irish history that hibernophiles will admire.
If the statue of Robert Emmet strikes you as familiar, it may be because you have seen it before. It is in fact one of four copies of the same bronze cast. The original, by sculptor Jerome Connor, was erected in St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin in 1916. Another was cast and donated to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. in 1917, then Eamon de Valera dedicated one in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in 1919. The Robert Emmet in Court House square, Emmetsburg, was also cast in 1919 and is the centerpiece of this patch of Iowa, which used to be known simply as the “Irish Colony,” before it was officially incorporated as Emmetsburg on November 17, 1877.
Settled in 1855 by pioneers who left the crowded Atlantic cities for prairie land, the initial Irish colony, on the southern shores of Five Island Lake, was occupied by a number of Irish families, including the Nolans, Laughlins, Nearys and Hickeys.
By 1858, a steady flow of Irish settlers had arrived and talk turned to drawing out a proper town and renaming the Irish Colony. “Emmetsburg” was proposed in remembrance of the famed nationalist turned martyr who, at just 25, was executed on charges of high treason for staging a rising in 1803. The name was easily approved, and though the town wasn’t officially planned out and the name was declared only on a hand-painted sign, the city’s relationship with Irish culture and tradition was cemented.
After the Civil War the railroad was expanding as Americans moved westward. In June, 1874, executives from the railroad company drafted a route through Emmetsburg that would dislocate nearly all the existing businesses. As a compromise, the railroad executives also mapped a new town and made an agreement with the local businessmen – if they moved out of the way of the railroad, they would have their pick of new locations. By December 1874, the old haphazard Emmetsburg was completely transformed and once the railroad was completed, the town boomed, and went on to become the seat of government for Palo Alto County.
In 2007 and 2009, Emmetsburg, population, 3904, was named one of the Top 100 Places to Live in the U.S. by Relocate-America.com.
Irish culture still dominates this prairie town which has produced its share of NFL players over the years. St. Patrick’s Day is the largest celebration of the year. On March 17, 1962, the Lord Mayor of Dublin and the Mayor of Emmetsburg signed a proclamation declaring their two cities sister cities, and “as such shall join in rejoicing and properly celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day.” Since then, a member of the Irish government has been invited to Emmetsburg each St. Patrick’s Day weekend to oversee the three-day-long festivities, and so far, they’ve never turned the invitation down.
Situated next to the Robert Emmet statue is the Blarney Stone, given to Emmetsburg in 1965 by the people of Dublin in recognition of the town’s Irish heritage.
But it’s not just solemn monuments to heritage in Emmetsburg; visitors can take some Irish blarney home with them. The town operates the Blarney Cannery Co., which sells non-perishable, 100 percent pure, canned Irish Blarney and Blarney Repellent, which the company claims is “especially good for long-winded neighbors, relatives, and door-to-door salesmen and is particularly effective during political conventions and campaigns.”
As part of the annual St. Patrick’s Day festivities, a pot of gold coins “magically” appears at the headquarters of the St. Patrick’s Association on the morning of the celebration. The coins always feature Robert Emmet, but every year the pose is altered, making them very popular among green-blooded numismatists.
It’s easy to see why Emmetsburg considers itself the preserver of Irish culture in the Midwest. Indeed, the current mayor offers a hearty “Céad Mile Fáilte” in her message to visitors and citizens on the town’s website. And considering that the town actually has a self-described “Welcome Wagon” that delivers a welcoming basket of household items and gifts from local businesses to all new residents, it’s not hard to see why Irish Parliamentarians keep coming back each St. Patrick’s Day. ♦
More photos from Emmetsburg, IA:
More from Irish America’s “Irish Place Names” series: