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Six Irish Landmarks in New England

Irish landmarks commemorate the history of Irish immigrants in places you might not expect throughout New England.

There’s more to Irish-American history than the Great Hunger, the Kennedys and ‘No Irish Need Apply.’ Irish Catholics came to New England along with the Puritans, who encouraged the Scots-Irish to settle along the frontier.

They fished off the New England coast when New Hampshire and Maine belonged to Massachusetts. They built Catholic churches when Paul Revere was making bells, and they carved canals when John Quincy Adams was president. They ran the gamut of social class, from household servants to one of Ireland’s greatest philosophers, who lived in Rhode Island.

Between 1815 and 1845, as many as 1 million Irish immigrants came to ‘Amerikay,’ looking for opportunity.

Today Irish-Americans are concentrated in the Northeast, where one in five New Englanders claims Irish ancestry. Boston is the most Irish city in the country, and nearly half the residents of Scituate, Mass., along Boston’s South Shore, are of Irish descent.

Here, then, are six Irish landmarks, one for each New England state. If you know of an interesting Irish landmark, please note it in the comments section.

Isles of Shoals, N.H.

Detail from Isles of Shoals painting by Childe Hassam

Detail from Isles of Shoals painting by Childe Hassam

Before England destroyed her merchant marine, Ireland traded with the American colonies as early as the 1630s. Irish fishermen from Galway and Waterford were known to have settled the Isles of Shoals, an archipelago of tiny islands nine miles from the coast of Maine and New Hampshire.

By 1653 there was a permanent settlement on the Isles of Shoals, a thriving entropot where fish was caught, salted and sold on the world market. Fishermen named Kelley, Haley and McKenna lived on the islands with their families.

By 1645 as many as 600 residents lived on Hog (now Appledore) and Smuttynose Islands in Maine. When Massachusetts annexed Maine and tried to tax the Shoalers, most of them floated their homes over to Star Island in New Hampshire.

"For many years the Islands were a little kingdom and government of themselves and had a constantly increasing prosperity," according to Michael J. O’Brien in the Journal of the American Irish Historical Society. They were a hard-drinking lot, and John Winthrop took a dim view of them.

BY 1680, Roger Kelley was chief magistrate and described as "King of the Isles" and "Captain of the Isles." Andrew Haley was described in 1680 as "King of the Shoals."

The islands were abandoned during the American Revolution, and developed into a summer colony for artists and writers. Childe Hassam frequently painted them.

There are no manmade Irish landmarks on the islands, but on a summer’s day a trip to the Isles of Shoals is a rare delight that evokes the fishermen’s past. The Isles of Shoals Steamship Co. offers several kinds of tours of the island.

Whitehall, Middletown, R.I.

Whitehall today

Whitehall today

Bishop George Berkeley was a famous Anglo-Irish philosopher by the time he stepped onto dry land in Newport, R.I., on Jan. 23, 1729. He came to America because he intended to open a college in Bermuda. He believed the Protestant religion had lost ground, and America was the likeliest place to make up for what was lost in Europe.

Berkeley was born in his family castle in County Kilkenny. By the time he arrived in Rhode Island, he had already established a lasting reputation as a philosopher, taken holy orders in the Church of Ireland and been named Dean of Derry.

Berkeley and his new wife bought a farmhouse in what is now Middletown, R.I. When he enlarged the home he called Whitehall, he remodeled the door case in Palladian style, introducing Palladianism to America.

While Berkeley awaited funds for his college to arrive, his wife gave birth to a son, who survived, and a daughter, who didn’t. Lucia Berkeley is buried in the Trinity Church yard in Newport.

While in America, Berkeley wrote a book, preached at nearby churches and founded the Philosophical Society, which became the Redwood Library. Fittingly, he also wrote the poem, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way.

The money for his college never arrived, so he departed for England in September 1731. He gave his library and Whitehall to Yale College, stipulating the income from the property be used to support three Yale scholars.

Yale rented the building as an inn for many years. It was run by the portrait painter Gilbert Stuart’s grandfather and visited by Dr. Alexander Hamilton.

Whitehall was long neglected until 1899, when the Colonial Dames of America got a 999-year lease on it. They commissioned Norman Isham to restore two rooms. Today it is the Whitehall Museum House, at 311 Berkeley Ave.

For information about visiting hours in the summer, call 401 846-3116 or email info@whitehallmuseumhouse.org.

And yes, Berkeley, Calif., was named after Rhode Island’s prominent visitor.

Lockwood-Mathews Mansion, Norwalk, Conn.

Lockwood-Mathews Mansion

Lockwood-Mathews Mansion

Irish were scattered throughout Connecticut well before the Great Hunger and even before the American Revolution. Some came as convicts or redemptioners -- indentured servants. Amos Richardson, an early settler of Stonington, Conn., in 1653 wrote that a ship bringing Irish servants to Connecticut arrived in Boston. He bought four.

Irish women outnumbered Irish men. With few skills and little money, many of them became domestic servants. The money was better than in the mills, preferred by native Protestant girls who didn’t want to work in other people’s homes.

There were thousands of Irish servants in Connecticut. In 1880, the census showed 4,789 Irish-born women domestics in Connecticut; that grew to 5,571 in 1900. Almost half were younger than 25.

In 1876, a wealthy New York family named Mathews was looking for a country retreat in Connecticut. They bought a 48,000-square-foot mansion in Norwalk because they knew they could find enough servants to maintain the home. That’s because Norwalk had a Catholic Church, St. Mary’s, which attracted many Irish parishioners. St. Mary’s had been burned by Know Nothings in 1854.

The Mathews family had 10 Irish servants by 1880. They worked 10-hour days with only Sunday mornings and an afternoon off. They cleaned the floors and walls, polished silver, lit gaslights, tended the fireplaces.

The Lockwood-Mathews Mansion is now a house museum that includes renovated servants’ quarters.

The Lockwood-Mathews Mansion is at 295 West Ave., in Mathews Park, near the Stepping Stones Museum for Children.

Millville, Mass.

The Millville lock

The Millville lock

Irish stonemasons first came to the Blackstone River Valley around 1825 to build the Blackstone Canal, which linked Worcester with Providence. The last of the big New England canals, it was 45 miles long with 49 locks. By 1827, 1,000 Irish canal builders cut granite for locks, dug the trench and built the tow path.

It was Joseph Banigan who created Millville’s Irish identity. Banigan was an eight-year-old refugee from the Irish potato famine when he arrived in Rhode Island in 1847. He left school at the age of nine, and before he was 30 he raised enough money to found the Woonsocket Rubber Co., which made boots and shoes.

In 1877, he bought some rundown mills and water rights in Millville across the border in Massachusetts.  He turned the complex into a state-of-the art mill, adding 80 new houses for workers and a schoolhouse – known as Banigan City and Banigan City School. He hired hundreds of Irishmen to work at the mill.

By some estimates, Millville was 98 percent Irish from the late 19th century to the 1980s.

By 1893 Joseph Banigan was the leading importer of rubber in the United States – and Rhode Island’s first Irish-Catholic millionaire. He sold his rubber company to the U.S. Rubber Co. cartel and became president, but didn’t last long. He started the Banigan Rubber Co. in Millville.

Banigan was ruthless toward his mostly Irish labor unions, but donated millions to orphanages, hospitals, nursing homes, schools and churches. He built Providence’s first skyscraper, the Banigan Building. Banigan died unexpectedly in 1898.

Shortly after his eldest son was born in 1900, an Irish worker named Fred Hartnett moved from Woonsocket to Millville to work at the Banigan mill. The son, Charles Leo, grew up to become a Hall of Fame catcher for the Chicago Cubs. He was better known as Gabby Hartnett.

Today, some of Millville’s worker housing can be found in the Main Street Historic District of Millville, which encompasses the village center of the town. You can hike and cross country ski to the Millville Lock along the 3.7 mile Blackstone River Greenway.  A section of Rte. 122 from Millville to Blackstone is dedicated to Charles Leo "Gabby" Hartnett.

Arthur Birthplace, Fairfield, Vt.

Chester A. Arthur birthplace

Chester A. Arthur birthplace

Many Irish came to the United States via Canada. They’re called two boaters, and the inspired the first presidential birther controversy.

Britain had imposed tariffs to the United States, not to Canada, to encourage immigrants to populate the commonwealth. Empty boats that brought lumber to Britain from Canada offered cheap fares on the return trip. But there weren’t many jobs in Canada and business was booming in America.

The Irish came from St. Jeans by steamboat to Burlington, Plattsburg and Whitehall. Some moved on to Fairfield, Underhill, Moretown, Middlebury and Castleton.

Nathaniel Hawthorne described the Irish in Burlington in a travel sketch in 1835. They were everywhere lounging around the wharves, "swarming in huts and mean dwellings near the lake,' and 'elbow[ing] the native citizens' out of work.

Fairfield, Vt., was a farming community with an unusually large Irish population. Chester A. Arthur’s father was Irish, born in Dreen, Cullybackey in County Antrim.

After the War of 1812, Fairfield lost its people to Genesee or Ohio 'fever.’ Yankees gave up their rocky, hilly farms for the flat, rich land of western New York and the upper Midwest. They left behind cheap land, which the Irish had craved since the English had made it nearly impossible for Catholics to own land in Ireland. Fairfield was also near Catholic churches in southern Quebec, only two towns away.

By 1840, Fairfield’s population was 11.5 percent Irish.

Arthur, the first president to inspire a birther conspiracy, was born in Fairfield in 1829. Opponents accused him of being secretly Canadian.

Click here for visiting hours to the Chester A. Arthur birthplace.

Neal Dow House, Portland, Maine

Neal Dow house

Neal Dow house

The waves of Irish who fled the Great Hunger in the mid-19th century faced poverty, disease and discrimination. In Portland, Maine, Mayor Neal Dow didn’t just discriminate, he attacked. Dow's temperance crusade was a war against the Irish – he had, after all, called them ‘rum-swilling foreigners.’

Dow famously feuded with an Irish bootlegger and brothel owner named Mrs. Margaret Landrigan, who called herself Kitty Kentuck. She was a two-boater from County Cork who arrived in Portland in the 1840s. Her husband left her with two sons, and she began selling liquor illegally.

Kitty Kentuck bought property in Portland, but she was convicted for repeated liquor offenses from 1846-1851. Neal Dow’s estranged cousin John Neal defended her, and the two men attacked each other in the newspaper. Neal called her ‘a poor, but generous, kind-hearted Irish woman.’ Dow countered she was the keeper of ‘a notorious groggery’ that caused police more trouble than any other.

Kitty remarried, continued to bootleg and ran a sailor’s boardinghouse and brothel. It was said that every deep-sea sailor knew the lyrics to a song about the pleasures one could find at Kitty’s. She spent time in the county jail for prostitution. Her building was burned in the Portland fire of 1866. She built a shanty where she was found dead, presumably murdered. Kitty’s son Michael was suspected of killing her but never charged.

Neal Dow’s house is on the Portland Irish Heritage Trail at 714 Congress St. Now a house museum (click here for information), it’s one of 58 Irish landmarks along the trail in Portland.

Images: Whitehall PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21354546; modern Whitehall, By JERRYE & ROY KLOTZ MD - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23611134; Lockwood Mathews Mansion By Noroton at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6199774; Millville Lock courtesy Library of Congress. 

3 comments

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