St. Patrick’s Day is an old holiday in Knoxville.
Irish immigrants and their families have played a major role in Knoxville history. Several of the city’s early founders were Irish immigrants. At least two delegates to the Constitutional Convention that formed the state of Tennessee in 1796 were Irish immigrants, as were at least three of the first seven members of Knoxville’s Board of Aldermen in 1816.
Many but not all Irish immigrants to Knoxville were the Scots-Irish Presbyterians from the part of Northern Ireland known as Ulster. Presbyterians are rarely associated with Irish nationalism today, but they were the largest part of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, a revolt against the British crown led by Protestant leader Wolfe Tone.
The British repressed the rebellion violently, forcing some revolutionaries from the country. One of those exiles made it to Knoxville. Captain John Nevin, a leader of the Society of United Irishmen, was celebrated in an Irish ballad. According to a slightly erroneous tribute on a large clay memorial jug on display in Ballymoney, Northern Ireland, near the famous Bushmill’s Distillery, Nevin “was by the Foes of Reform Banish’d from his Native home in June 1798. He lived in a state of Exile…and departed this life in Knoxfield Tennissee ye 19th of May 1806.” Although local records do refer to Nevin, the site of his Knoxville grave is unknown.
Several of Knoxville’s early Irish were were Catholics, including original Alderman James Dardis. However, because East Tennessee lacked a Catholic church, and saw only occasional visits from a priest, many moved away.
Irish Catholics began arriving in Knoxville in larger numbers after the potato famine of the 1840s. Hundreds helped build the new railroad into town. Largely to serve the mostly new Irish immigrant population, Immaculate Conception Church opened in 1855, the first Catholic church in East Tennessee, on a hilltop overlooking the railroad.
Knoxville’s most famous Irish immigrant was John Mitchel (1815-1875). A Irish nationalist journalist, he was charged with sedition and treason, and sent to the penal colony at Tasmania. After escaping, Mitchel settled for a time in Knoxville, living on First Creek, just east of the Old City. Here he became, surprisingly, Knoxville’s most famous pro-slavery secessionist, editor or a journal called the Southern Citizen. Eventually moving to Richmond, Mitchel supported the Confederacy. After the Civil War, he returned to Ireland, when it was still a part of Great Britain. Still famous as an Irish nationalist, Mitchel was elected to Parliament, to represent Tiperrary. However, the former Knoxvillian died unexpectedly, at age 59, before he could take his seat.
Irish immigrants began celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Knoxville as early as the 1850s, often with late-night balls at the Lamar House, the hotel building that now houses the Bistro at the Bijou.
By 1869, St. Patrick’s Day was a significant local public holiday. The Irish nationalist group known as the Fenians organized a small chapter here, and on Mar. 17, they marched around downtown Knoxville with red caps and green jackets, bearing a banner emblazoned “God Save Ireland.” Also parading with them was the larger St. Patrick’s Benevolent Society. Despite some anxiety that it might stir violence, the local paper, the Press & Messenger, reported, “Nothing calculated to mar the pleasure and harmony of the day occurred…. Our Irish fellow citizens will long have reason to remember with pleasure the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, 1869.”
By the 1880s, the Irish were a major part of Knoxville society, and had settled in large numbers on the north side of downtown, along what’s now Fifth and Park (now Magnolia) Avenues, the main part of what became known as Irish Town. In late 1887, as immigrant Patrick Sullivan was building his grand new saloon at Jackson and Central, Knoxville elected an Irish Catholic named Martin Condon to be mayor.
In years to come, the Knoxville chapter of the Hibernian Society would plan St. Patrick’s Day parades and dances, which remained a tradition until the early 20th century, when many of the original immigrants were dying off. In 1949, newspaper columnist Lucy Templeton interviewed widow Kate Leahy Ammons. She lived on what’s now the 200 block of Magnolia, and was believed to be the last resident of Irish Town.