June 15, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Towards Gallows Hill: Baltimore's Irish in the 1850's

Baltimore's Wards, 1856. Ward 9 is Baltimore Town and today's "Inner Harbor"; Ward 4 is Jonestown, where the "Shot Tower" still is; and Ward 2 is Fell's Point. Ward 8, known as "Old Limerick", is above.

From Scott's Map, 1856 (courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Baltimore’s dramatic growth in the mid 19th century was due in no small part to its two deep harbors and active waterfronts, known as The Basin (in Baltimore Town) and Fell's Point, to the east. Each had their own measure of salty characters who labored in the shipyards and piers.

Fell’s Point was an especially active shipping center, and thousands did the physical work required on the waterfront. These were often immigrant Irish, and St. Patrick Catholic Church, established in 1792, was their spiritual home.

Baltimore’s Roman Catholic community established its presence in Jonestown in 1839, when Bishop Eccleston leased land in order to establish a church, male orphanage and school. Jonestown was a bit of a bedroom community for the successful who made a living in both Baltimore Town and Fell’s Point. It attracted wealthy families such as the McKim, Kelso, Colvin and Pechin families along East Baltimore St., and important churches were built that received them. Among these were St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church and Second Presbyterian Church, pastored by Rev. John Glendy, a native of Ireland and chaplain of the Hibernian Society. St. Vincent de Paul was dedicated in 1841, and served the faithful who lived within the boundaries of the parish. Their male orphanage opened that same year, and provided food, clothing and shelter to boys that would have otherwise been subject to the hardscrabble life found in Baltimore’s streets and alleys. Education was provided at the Churches' neighboring school, which also admitted children that lived in established homes within the community. Over 275 boys were enrolled in 1842, and the success of the boys’ program led to the opening of a girls’ school as well.

Jonestown’s Catholics included Irish families of various means. The “Great Hunger”, more commonly known as the Irish Famine, changed the demographics of the area considerably. Many thousands of poor Irish arrived in Baltimore between 1845-1852, and found their way to this recently established parish. St. Vincent’s baptismal records show that half of the ceremonies performed in 1851 were for families with Irish surnames.

Larger homes were subdivided in order to be rented out to these immigrants, and an abundance of unskilled workers moved in and looked for employment in the surrounding factories and waterfronts, in direct competition with Baltimore’s huge free Black community. Many of Jonestown's upper-class Irish saw these changes and decided to establish new homes in the northern section of town.

St. Patrick Catholic Church, Fell's Point\
St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, Jonestown

Many moved into Baltimore’s 8th Ward (see map at top...courtesy of the Baltimore Sun). It became known as “Old Limerick”. There is some speculation about the basis of the name, but undoubtedly there was a considerable Irish presence in the area bordered by the Penitentiary ("The Castle") to the north, Jones Falls to the west and a point just below Monument St. to the south. This Irish section of town might have had its southern terminus at “Limerick Square”, at the intersection of Front, High and Hillen Streets (near the present-day Main Post Office).

The 8th Ward was known as a Democratic stronghold and a firmly religious district. Carmelite Nuns had an early convent just below Belair Market, one of Baltimore’s many public markets. They received deliveries from Baltimore County truck farms daily and sold to the bustling community (the market is now closed, but was active for over 150 years). Baltimore City Fire Department Engine Company No. 6, at Gay and Ensor Sts., was a showpiece for the 8th Ward, and the building still exists today.

Baltimore was the second largest city in America in 1850, and the increased population swelled neighborhoods towards the north and east. Areas that were once distant, and thought of as ideal spots for cemeteries and the hangman’s noose, became quickly developing sections of the city. Church leaders saw an opportunity to receive and minister to many thousands of immigrants who headed in that direction: especially from Germany and Ireland. Conversations began to form a new parish in an area once known to many as “Gallows Hill” (see map above, top right). It would be known as St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church...more on that huge Irish parish in future writings!

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