Stories of the South - An Irish Colony in Clay County
It's a new year. Time for a new banner! Just wanted to let folks know if you're interested in this series I now have a Facebook page (storiesofthesouthblog) and an Instagram (storiesofthesouth) just for these posts. That a way if you're not interested in reading my rambling thoughts, pictures of my Allie bug, or food you can just follow there. I am so happy to finally have a new post up for this year! I feel like I've been working on this forever! Probably at least since last year I know. Hope you enjoy!
I grew up with the vague stories about Irish Colony in my little corner of Clay County. There’s very little to mark the settlement but an old tumbledown cemetery that probably has not seen an internment in 40 years. Of course if you aren’t a local all you see is a little fenced off cemetery that sits off the road in a cow pasture. Several of these stones are marked with the place of birth as Ireland, unusual in this remote part of Mississippi. The cemetery is not far from Montpelier and also not far from there are roads named McNully, Carty, and Colony. Small little hints that let you know maybe Irish families had settled there at one time.
As with most things I’m curious about there’s little to no information available and I wouldn’t have even pursued this if one day I had not not stumbled on a story in a locally produced magazine, Town & Gown.
Let’s begin with a little background history on how and when Irish settlers may have even come to settle in Clay County. Mississippi was opened to settlement in the 1830’s after treaties were made with the Choctaw Indian nation, including the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek (see a painting of this from my post on the Macon, MS Post Office) which opened up central Mississippi to settlement. In all there were three treaties made with the Indians in Mississippi. And believe it or not the three men who made the treaty with the Choctaws at Dancing Rabbit Creek - John R. Coffee, John Rhea, and John McKee were all Irish. Settlers came to this new land from the Carolinas (including my family), Virginia, and Georgia via the “Three Chop Trail” an old Choctaw trail marked by three tomahawk chops in trees along the way. They also arrived in the port towns of New Orleans and Natchez. Most of the early settlers were Presbyterian and Methodist but the early Irish coming to Mississippi were Catholic coming to this new frontier to escape Religious persecution they faced in other parts of the country. For example in Natchez, Irish immigrants were sought by the Spanish colonial government to help convert the English speaking British settlers to Catholicism.
In other areas of the country where there were large numbers of Irish they would band together to form their own communities set apart from those around them. But in Mississippi their numbers were smaller and they quickly became a part of the overall community. They built roads, railroads, bridges, business, and even grand estates and houses. Stanton hall in Natchez was built by Irish immigrant Frederick Stanton in 1858 and was originally named Belfast. Stanton made a fortune in cotton and owned more than 16,000 acres of cotton plantations.
Back to Clay County and our own Irish Colony. After the Civil War Clay County was created in 1872 originally as Colfax County and in 1876 the Mississippi legislature changed the name to Clay County in honor of statesman Henry Clay. There is no formal documentation I could find that gave a formal date as to when the Irish settlement began, but some time during this period after the Civil War an Irish gentleman named Arthur Murphy from Carlow, Ireland along with his bride Maggie Carty who he married in Alabama moved to the area that would soon be Clay County. So that would be some time after 1865. Several more Murphy family members soon followed. They included Maggie’s brother John Thomas Carty along with her sister and brother in law Mr. and Mrs. Frank McNulty. The families purchased land about 3 ½ miles from Montpelier, MS and built homes there. Ever since then the area they settled has been known as Irish Colony. Soon other Irish families moved to the area - the Meehans, Bowes, Cosgroves, O’Rourkes, and the Seergs along with several other families.
In the Town & Gown article it was noted that this band of Irish settlers was profoundly proud. Their mass was held in Latin and they spoke their native Gaelic and point of fact many refused to speak English period. Without a church in the beginning services were held in local homes when a priest happened to be traveling through from Columbus or from other areas. Most often service was held at the home of Arthur Murphy with the tale told that they would prepare the communion bread on a flat iron skillet in front of the fireplace. On July 12, 1894 Mr. Murphy deeded land to the church for a building and a cemetery. The one thing I hope in doing this research was that Arthur Murphy got to see the finished church building as he passed away September 15, 1895. For almost 50 years mass was celebrated every 5th Sunday of the month. The name of the church was a little point of frustration for me. I found it mentioned by two names - St. Patrick or St. Paul.
I think the problem with finding information has to do with the nature of Irish Colony. Instead of forming a town or a village Irish Colony is simply a name giving to the area that these Irish settlers lived. As the times changed they changed with it and gradually over the generations they lost their autonomy and were absorbed into the community. And when the Catholic church was lost for whatever reason, that significant cultural tie lost, the members slowly faded into the background of local history. An interview with local historian Jack Elliott, Jr. with John Cosgrove and another article about Ruth Agnes Crosthwait were the only first hand accounts I could find about the church. Mr. Cosgrove’s parents were original members of Irish Colony. His father had immigrated to America at 18 due to the Irish Potato famine (1845-1855) and arrived in Mississippi as a farmer and salesman of Irish linen. Cosgrove had missed a lot of the stories from the elders due to the fact he didn’t speak Gaelic. He did remember though when the people of Irish Colony would come together to “dance Irish jigs, sing the old songs, and tell the old tales.” In a 1980 interview Mr. Cosgrove stated that there were not any original Irish left, that WWI had scattered a lot of them, the church was moved, and the settlers slowly just became a part of Mississippi.
An article on www.glenmary.org about Ruth Agnes Carty Crosthwait was the only other article I was able to find online that mentioned the church. Mrs. Costhwait was christened in 1926 by a priest that had come by train from Columbus to Pheba finally arriving by car after driving the 12 or so miles to reach St. Patrick Church. The article mentions the strength and conviction of the members faith. A faith so strong that two members joined the Sisters of Mercy in Vicksburg, MS - Sister Regina Cosgrove and Sister Mary Joseph Cosgrove. maybe a relative of our previously mentioned John Cosgrove? As the close knit community began to disperse when Ruth Agnes was a child, Ruth’s father Joseph Carty decided to make the move to Houston, MS 15 miles away. He sought a better life for his family and decided that the job opportunities and better schools of Houston were what the family needed. The only problem, they were the first Catholics to arrive in Houston and arrived to a not so friendly welcome. The local hardware store owner was the first to welcome them stating that, “any man who wanted a chance for a better future for his family was welcome in Houston.” You can read that article in full HERE.
I know I’ve left many unanswered questions in this article. Number one to me is what is the name of the church? Is is St. Patrick or St. Paul? I found mention of both. When and where was the church moved? Who all was involved in building the church? What caused the church to close? So many more questions. Some we’ll probably never know the answers to. Maybe this will spark some interest or revive a memory. If you have any information on Irish Colony, the families, the church, etc. I would love to hear it! Please either comment below or email me at email@example.com. I would love to cite you and include your information in this post.
Mississippi Irish Heritage
Irish in Natchez
Mississippi church records
Creation of Clay County
Crosthwait memories of church - Irish Colony
Town & Gown
Catholic Cemetery Graves List