Omaha’s Irish history runs deeper than you think

Omaha's Irish roots are much deeper than you think.
Published: Mar. 17, 2023 at 10:20 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day -- but there’s more green blood in Omaha veins than one might realize.

Jack Barrett-Jeffery’s family moved to Nebraska from Ireland last century, and they’ve been celebrating the feast of St. Patrick ever since, espoecially at his family’s Irish bar on Leavenworth in Omaha.

“The Irish runs deep here in Omaha and you can see it today,” the Barrett’s Barleycorn Pub & Grill co-owner said. “I still think from the pandemic, they haven’t had a party like this in a while, so everybody’s here and they’re having fun.”

Those with Irish heritage make up the second-largest group of Omahans who reported their ancestry in the last census. Creighton University’s founding family was Irish, initially with the name McRaren.

Irish immigrants opened the first Catholic church here, and in 1904, Fr. Edward J. Flanagan arrived from Roscommon, Ireland. His first parish assignment was at St. Patrick’s in O’Neill. He would open his boys’ home -- now known as Boys Town -- in 1917.

Brett Fowler’s Irish blood runs deep, as he showed with his full Irish regalia at Barrett’s, starting with his kilt.

”You got your Sporran, then you have your Sgian Dubh, which is your knife, this is a traditional Irish shirt, shoes tied up.. and this thing, someone just randomly gave me that, so I’ll take it,” he said.

History barely remembers the first Irish neighborhood in Omaha -- no photos exist. Dennis Dee and a couple of fellow immigrants built homes into the side of hills in what is now Miller Park in 1857. It came to be known as Gophertown. In a map provided by the Douglas County Historical Society showing historic ethnic neighborhoods in Omaha, the area roughly encompasses an area from Redick Avenue on the north to Sorensen Parkway on the south, between 24th and 30th Streets today.

The Irish were also the first folks to populate what was known as Sheelytown in the 1860s. The rise of Union Pacific, an industrial boom and the stockyards put it in the center of one of Omaha’s first great melting pots. That area is bisected today by the 480 freeway, starting with Ed Creighton Avenue/Martha Street to the north, down to Vinton Street, between 24th to the east and 35th to the west.

Amelia Rosser named her business Sheelytown Market as a tribute to the area’s multi-ethnic roots.

“The thing that I was most surprised by was how many people in this area definitely still have memories of Sheelytown, the neighborhood,” she said. “There was a woman right around when we first opened, and she said, ‘Oh my gosh, my first house I owned was in Sheelytown’. And I was blown away that it wasn’t that distant of a past.”

"Historic Omaha Neighborhoods" , courtesy Douglas County Historical Society.
"Historic Omaha Neighborhoods" , courtesy Douglas County Historical Society.(Douglas County Historical Society)