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Alberta's Irish Legends: Building and Development

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

Building and Development

The residences and skylines of Alberta’s towns and cities owe a great deal to Irish settlers and entrepreneurs. The modernist skyscrapers funded by the Irish Guinness family remain a distinctive part of the Calgary skyline. On a more modest scale, many of Alberta’s elegant brick and sandstone office blocks, hotels, and apartments were designed and built by Irish settlers. Some of these immigrants first helped build or supply the Canadian Pacific Railway to get here and lived in tents and shacks while they imagined their adopted homes grow and take shape. With increasing prosperity created by agriculture and the railway, citizens began trading wooden buildings for more permanent brick or sandstone edifices that borrowed elegance from settlers’ English, Scottish, or Irish roots while adding local character and innovations. Increasing in size and elegance as farm villages evolved into agricultural and economic hubs, many early Irish-Canadian buildings provided the physical space necessary for business and pleasure in the growing economy of Alberta towns and cities. While some of these buildings fell victim to changing economies, fashions, fire, and demolition, many stately homes and offices remain valued Alberta architectural gems.

The settler community of Olds began with ten homesteading families, but rapidly grew as the railway arrived in Alberta. The Irish-born David Shannon, a section foreman for the Calgary and Edmonton Railway, was one of the first official settlers in the Town of Olds. Establishing squatter’s rights on a quarter section, his first building was a modest “shack” for his family, but he went on to build many of Olds’s early residences. His son Martin helped construct buildings for Olds Agricultural College as well as helping to rebuild the commercial district after a fire in 1922.

Another early settler, J.W. Costello of Calgary, built Costello Block in 1910 at 504 8 Ave. E to house his office when he became a weights and measures inspector for the Canadian government. It also housed his son’s medical practice. While it eventually deteriorated into a nuisance and eyesore until it was demolished in 1964, it was an early sign of economic optimism that was unfortunately cut short by prohibition, World War One, and the depression. In its heyday, the Costello block offered residential and commercial space and was the site of an early Calgary department store, the Geo. H. Roger’s Co. Costello’s son William Alfonse built on his father’s legacy, owing eighty-nine downtown properties, including the Costello block, when he died in 1950.

Hotels in Alberta were often the earliest and most imposing structures on newly built main streets. They provided an essential link in the economic chain between Eastern and Western Canada and metropolitan and rural areas. As museum curator Farley Wuth notes, these elegant and modern prairie hotels were physical symbols of economic optimism, providing “an impressive visual presence…designed to inspire commercial confidence for local pioneers and the travelling public.” They provided space for trade and sales exhibits as well as venues for civic and cultural events. Many hotels prided themselves on offering the most up-to-date amenities, and they lured both locals and travellers with the latest gourmet trends through their innovative and lavish menus.

Not surprisingly, Irish hoteliers helped perpetuate their country’s reputation for sociability and conviviality.Two Irish brothers, Thomas Alfred and Albert Charles Connelly, built Pincher Creek’s first hotel, the “Alberta Hotel,” in 1887. Around the same time in Edmonton, the Irish-born shoemaker, Luke Kelly, made an astute move from footwear to hospitality. Kelly’s Saloon, with its elegant mirrors, woodwork, stuffed birds, and billiard tables provided such a congenial gathering spot that he soon expanded it into another “Alberta Hotel”. Built of Calgary sandstone and brick, it was considered “one of the finest hotels west of Winnipeg” and boasted many Alberta architectural firsts (such as a passenger elevator). It hosted Prime Ministers and was a well-known landmark and treasured heritage building. Carefully moved and reconstructed, it houses CKUA radio today. His humbler saloon also lives on: visitors can refresh themselves in “Kelly’s Saloon,” rebuilt in Fort Edmonton Park. In Edmonton, Calgary, and towns throughout Alberta, Irish settlers left a substantial bricks-and-mortars legacy still used and enjoyed today.

Further Reading

Buckle, Robert. “Town of Olds Heritage Inventory”

“Connelly, Albert Charles,” Pioneer Profiles, Southern Alberta Pioneers and their Descendants,

McCreedy, Jim, “Old Saloon Brought Back to Life,” Edmonton Journal 1 August 1980 F7

Olds Historical Society, “Arriving at the Sixth Siding,” Community Memories

Walters, Judy. “Costello Family Marks Centenary.” Calgary Herald, 8 August 1983, B2.

Wuth, Farley, “Frontier Chronicles of the Arlington Hotel.” Kootenay Brown Pioneer Village,


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