To the truly Irish — whether in America, the old country or the global diaspora of Eire — St. Patrick’s Day is about something quite different than you may find tonight in Fells Point.
“A very traditional affair in Ireland,” said the muralist Patrick John Harnett, 49, who immigrated to Baltimore from County Limerick in 2011. “Religion, heritage and family.”
Of course there is a toast or two at the local pub — a day when children are allowed to run in and out of saloons with little admonishment — but few abide Root Boy Slim’s encouragement to “Boogie ’til You Puke.”
The late Wayne L. Nield II, speaking in 2005 for a documentary about the rosary, said that his parents — Wayne and and the former Frances P. Murray, descendants of Irish immigrants — are buried in the St. Joseph cemetery in Cockeysville.
Around the Nields’ graves are those of 19th and early 20th century immigrants, many of whom worked the Cockeysville quarries that produced the marble for Baltimore’s fabled white steps.
“And with everything that might be said about that person’s life in America,” said Nield, “what was printed on the tombstone is the county in Ireland they came from.”
An artist devoted to reliquary both religious and secular, Nield died at age 70 in April of 2018. He was one of the early contributors — in time, sweat, vision and artifact — to the Irish Workers Railroad Shrine at 918/920 Lemmon Street in the Mount Clare section of southwest Baltimore.
“In an upstairs room, Wayne featured a dresser with a mirror and Catholic images [and rosaries], an altar shrine sort of thing like his grandmother’s but he added a lot of black crepe,” said Luke F. McCusker III, managing director of the museum. “We had to cut the dresser in half to get it up the steps.”
The effect of the room (evoking old school Catholic grandmothers of various ethnicities throughout Baltimore), said McCusker, was a bit too morbid.
“About two years ago we changed the room into a remembrance of the Great Hunger and the Irish who have traveled to Baltimore over the years,” he said. The upstairs memorial now includes a reproduction of a ship’s bunk that immigrants would have slept in on the voyage west.
Opened in 1997 after the houses along the alley — known as “two-story-and-attic” — were saved from demolition by the late preservationist Mary Ellen Hayward (co-author of The Baltimore Rowhouse), deceased Circuit Court Judge Thomas H. Ward and Bill Adler, president of Sowebo Arts.
The Shrine is the former home of James and Sarah Feeley, who crossed the Atlantic for the United States as did more than four million of their countrymen before, during and after the potato famine known as the Great Hunger.
The Feeleys lived at 918 Lemmon Street and together with 920, the Shrine represents the heart of a mid-19th century Irish village in the New World. Generations of Irish and Irish-Americans were employed by the B&O Railroad, whose roundhouse — also a museum — is a block away.
Like many public attractions in the slow and cautious reopening of the city a year after the pandemic shut the nation down, the shrine is not open today.
But a short dip down Poppleton Street off of Lombard opens onto a Harnett mural honoring the determination of families who made their start there in America. It just so happens that the Crabtown upon the Patapsco where they settled is named for one of the same name in County Cork, Ireland.
“I came to Baltimore by accident,” said Harnett, who has painted several other murals in the Sowebo neighborhood as well as a few signs for vendors in the Hollins Street Market. “I was visiting a friend in York [Pennsylvania] and said I wanted to sell my Irish heritage products at festivals. He told me there was an active Irish-American community in Baltimore.”
An outreach program for Irish immigration in Washington, D.C. put Harnett “in touch with the folks on Lemmon Street and for a while I lived next door to the museum, we shared a backyard” he said.
“The building I lived in was very small. I can’t imagine a whole family living in those houses back in the day.”
Maureen Shettle, an Irish museum board member, remembers St. Patrick Day feasts at her grandmother’s house across from what then was St. Bernard’s Catholic Church on Gorsuch Avenue in Waverly.
“My grandmother made the best soda bread and potatoes and coleslaw, I wish I had gotten her recipe,” said Shettle, 67.
Grandmother was “Nana,” born Ella R. Sinnot, a first-generation American daughter of Irish immigrants. She married Howard Shettle (Scotch-Irish) who died young. In the absence of Nana’s recipe for soda bread, Maureen uses one from a long gone St. Patrick’s Day celebration from years gone by.
“I make it every year and it’s a hit,” said Maureen, one of 11 children of the former Evelyn Reisner and David J. Shettle. Her father taught his sons and daughters Irish dance. “I’m not sure if it’s because you soak the raisins in Irish whiskey overnight or the buttermilk but everyone loves it.”
Rafael Alvarez covers West Baltimore for Baltimore Fishbowl. Send story ideas to him via firstname.lastname@example.org