When the Irish famine ships arrived in Boston in the 1840s, tens if not hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Ireland already made their mark on New England.
By 1790, there were 400,000 Americans of Irish birth or ancestry in America out of a population of 3.9 million. Half were Scots-Irish from Ulster, the other half were Irish Catholic from southern Ireland. Before the American Revolution, the Irish population in America was second in number only to the English, with 70 Irish settlements in the region.
It is far more difficult to find information about the Irish Catholics of Colonial New England than about the Scots-Irish. The Irish Catholics were persecuted; the Scots-Irish were more or less tolerated. But so absent were Irish Catholics from the historical record that some historians – and a Scots-Irish society – claim there were few Irish Catholics in New England before the Revolutionary War.
It isn’t so. Protestant and Catholic Irish immigrants taught the Puritan children, settled the Maine and New Hampshire frontiers, built roads, wharves and warehouses, led armies and became successful merchants. Eight of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were of Irish birth or ancestry, as were seven of the 54 framers of the Constitution. They governed states, wrote laws and fought in the Revolution.
The First Great Migration
The first great migration to New England began in 1628, when King Charles granted a new charter to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Between 1629 and 1640, 20,000 people crossed the Atlantic. They weren’t all Puritans. Immigration fever had caught hold of Anglicans, Irish Catholics and Scots-Irish Protestants. They came to escape religious persecution, high rents, crop failures and poverty.
The Puritans in charge scrutinized the new arrivals. ‘Persons unmeete to inhabit here’ were sent back over the Atlantic. And since the Puritans wrote history from their own intolerant viewpoint, the Anglican and Irish experience of that era is less well – and less accurately – known.
In 1640 the Great Migration ended with the outbreak of the English Civil War, and some of the Massachusetts Bay colonists returned to England to fight with the Parliamentarians. New England fell into an economic depression, and the first wave of immigration was over for at least a decade.
By 1650, a steady stream of Boston-bound ships began to leave Ireland filled with redemptioners – indentured servants who agreed to near-slavery for seven years in exchange for passage, food, shelter and clothing. That stream would become a flood.
King James I had encouraged Scottish Protestants to move to Ulster in the 16th century as a cure for overpopulation and to discourage further rebellion by the Irish. They lived there for generations, where they clashed with the Irish Catholics, but prospered from the manufacture of textiles.
The English government banned the export of wool in 1698, destroying the Ulster wool industry. Crop failures inspired an exodus. The first major migration of Scots-Irish to America was a group that came with Rev. James McGregor from County Londonderry to Boston in 1718. Many of them moved to New Hampshire, establishing the town of Londonderry.
The Puritans accepted the Scots-Irish because they were Protestant and arrived in organized groups, often led by clergy. Plus, the Scots-Irish were useful as pioneers in the forests of New Hampshire and along the Kennebec and Eastern rivers in Maine. There they acted as buffers from Indians. Many place names in Maine and New Hampshire reflect their Scots-Irish roots: Derry, Antrim and Londonderry, N.H.; Belfast and Limerick, Maine; Colrain, Mass.; and Londonderry, Vt. (Maine today ranks seventh in the percentage of residents of Scots-Irish descent. )
As individuals, though, the Scots-Irish weren’t always welcome. Their Presbyterian meetinghouse was burned in Worcester, an early harbinger of Know Nothingism.
The Puritans treated Irish Catholics even worse. They wouldn’t let people own property or carry on a business in Boston unless they took the Oath of Allegiance to some Protestant faith.
In 1723, Boston selectmen issued an order that anyone who came from Ireland within the past three years must register with the town because they might become a town charge or ‘otherwise prejuditial to the well fair and prosperity of the place.’
A notice from a Boston town meeting in 1746 warns that several Catholics reside in the town ‘and it may be very Dangerous for such persons to Reside here in Case we should be attack’d by an Enemy.’ Three days later, after a committee investigation, the selectmen reported they suspected ‘a considerable number of Roman Catholics to be now in Town.’
From the 1740s to the 1760s, rival gangs fought on Nov. 5 over the right to burn the Catholic pope in effigy, Pope Night.
The Catholics kept out of the Puritans’ way and they stayed out of the historical record. Historian Michael O’Brien argues that many Irish Catholics abandoned their faith and became Baptists and Methodists. “There was no alternative for them,” he concluded.
In 1678, the men who took the Oath of Allegiance before the Massachusetts governor had such Irish Catholic names as Murphy, Dempsey, Casey, O’Kelly, Hearn and Collins.
Many of the Irish Catholics came as indentured servants. They sailed from Dublin, Cork and Waterford to Marblehead, Boston, Providence and Piscataqua, Maine. Some came from Galway via Newfoundland, where they fished. Some came by way of Barbados, where Oliver Cromwell had deported 50,000 Irish Catholic peasants as indentured servants in the mid 17th century. Ann Glover was one. She was living in Boston by 1680 and hanged on Nov. 16, 1688 as a witch. The proof: she could only say the Lord’s Prayer in Gaelic.
Another indentured servant from Ireland was Matthew Lyon, who was born in Dublin on July 14, 1749 and emigrated to Woodbury, Conn., in 1764. He fought in the Revolution and was elected to Congress, where he was involved with the first brawl.
Records show early 18th century soldiers and schoolmasters named Kelly, Sullivan, Fitzgerald, Hickey, Murphy, Mooney, Maloney, Lynch and Reilly. And there are plenty of New England towns with Irish Catholic place names, suggesting the Scots-Irish weren’t the only hardy pioneers. There’s Kilkenny, N.H.; the lost town of Cork, Maine; Dublin, N.H., and Dublin, Maine; and three Waterfords – Maine, Vermont and Connecticut.
Half the Rebels
With no love of the English, Irish immigrants and their descendants played major roles in achieving American independence. John Hancock was Scots-Irish; so was George Washington’s trusted adviser, Gen. Henry Knox. A signer of the Declaration of Independence, Matthew Thornton, came from non-Ulster Ireland – in Limerick – though he lived in Londonderry, N.H.
More than 1,200 officers in the American armies were from Ireland, including Gen. John Sullivan, later a New Hampshire governor. And the muster roles of the Continental Army and Navy are filled with Irish names. There are 695 Kellys alone who fought against the British.
So many fought, in fact, that one British general testified at the House of Commons that ‘half the rebel Continental Army were from Ireland.’
The Continental Army also celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. According to an account by Col. McLane:
On the morning of the 17th of March, 1778, some of the Pennsylvania German volunteers made a Paddy and set it up in a conspicuous place in camp, to the great indignation of the Irish. It soon attracted a crowd of the true sons of the Green Isle ; some came with their arms, others with clubs, and all swearing vengeance against the New England troops encamped there, declaring them to be the studied authors of the insult.
The affair soon assumed formidable proportions, and subordinate officers were unable to restore quiet and discipline. The difficulty was promptly reported to headquarters by the Officer of the Day on duty. Washington having hastily ascertained the entire innocence of the New England troops, and not wishing to disclose the mischievous and fun-loving Dutchmen of Pennsylvania, mounted and rode in among the angry and threatening crowd, and reasoned with them, but in vain.
This plan having failed, he tried another, and suddenly seemed to share their feeling, and expressed his displeasure at the violent breach of discipline, and requested the guilty parties to be pointed out and he would direct them to be punished. This they were unable to do.
''Well," said Washington, "I, too, am a lover of St. Patrick's day, and will settle the affair by making all the army keep the day." He therefore directed his commissary to issue the whisky ration to every man of the command, and the day was one of the merriest for the men at Valley Forge, and long remembered by men and officers as a pleasant episode in their monotonous camp life.