Knoxville historian shares insight into city’s Irish past

Local News

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — There is plenty of Irish heritage in Knoxville. Executive Director of the Knoxville History Project Jack Neely says the Irish community lived in their own world, keeping to themselves with little cultural expansion.

I think the second generation, they were kind of embarrassed about their parents singing and dancing all of the time. They just wanted to be Americans.

Jack Neely

St. Patrick’s Day was once celebrated all day and night at the Lamar House, now the Bijou Theatre, by the first-generation Irish immigrants in the late-19th century. But as the years went on, the second- and third-generation Irish stopped celebrating their culture, and it faded away in the 1900s.

The Catholic Church has been a meeting place for many Irish communities. The potato famine of the 1840s brought more immigrants to Knoxville who were able to build a cathedral for their community.

Neely says in recent years, the Irish population has grown tremendously and having the church downtown along with The Holy Ghost Catholic Church on Central Street helped bring together the Irish of downtown and the Irish of the suburbs.

Knoxville is not populated with Irish the way cities such as Chicago and Boston are, so Neely says he’s under the impression that they left the city to be part of the suburbs, spreading out from one another.

But according the Neely, in the more recent years there has been a push to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Irish heritage. Neely says he thinks Knoxville has just recently discovered it’s own history and people want to have a connection with countries their ancestors are from.

In some ways I think they got too prosperous for all these gatherings they used to have and they just became middle class Americans and almost forgot where they came from.

Jack Neely

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