On “St. Paddy’s Day,” while people wear the green and act silly and self-congratulatory, it is worth remembering the sacrifices and the challenges that the earliest Irish immigrants faced in making their lives, and their new country, a success.
On Monday evening, March 17, 1839, 175 years ago to the day, one hundred and twenty Irish immigrants and their English, Scottish and Yankee friends gathered at the City Hotel in Providence, Rhode Island, to celebrate how far they and their kinsmen had come, and to take measure of how far they had yet to go.
A review of the speeches from that night offers insight into what was on the minds of these men who held allegiance to two lands, one of their birth and one of their children’s births.
In an age of fervent anti-Irish sentiment, the Republican Herald described those gathered as “a numerous and respectable company of natives of the ‘Emerald Isle.'”
And they were gathered in a spectacular setting. Built as the “magnificent mansion” of Charles Dyer, it was converted into the city’s most prestigious hotel in 1831. With Robert Earl as proprietor, the guests that night were served up a “sumptuous entertainment.”
“A great number of toasts were given, of a spirited and patriotic character, several addresses were delivered, and a number of excellent songs sung.” The American Brass Band, a beloved Rhode Island institution, offered up many a Celtic and American patriotic aire.
In a description that would not have been necessary for the rich shippers and industrialists of Providence, this group was described as “a company more respectable and orderly in its appearance and department (than) has ever assembled at one of our public hotels on a festive occasion. Perfect decorum reigned throughout; and after the company had kept their seats for hours, and drank a great number of toasts, a single call from the President was sufficient to arrest conversation and to restore perfect silence. We have been thus particular, because there are many persons who suffer their prejudices to absorb or counter their better feelings, and suppose that a company of Irishmen is but another name for a drunken bout.”
|Patrick O’Connell’s Signature on the Cemetery
Petition November 26, 1841.
The master of ceremonies and their president, was Patrick O’Connell, a block-printer, from the city’s North End and likely employee of Allen’s Print Works. O’Connell was a leader of the Hibernian Orphans Society and in two years would caste his vote for the People’s Convention supporting the cause of Thomas W. Dorr and expanded emancipation.
|Henry J. Duff’s Signature, November 26, 1841.
Henry J. Duff, perhaps the state’s most important Irish leader in the years before the Great Famine, assisted him. That same year, Henry was instrumental in getting a city charter for the Hibernian Orphans Society.
In the future, Henry was to play a key role in the fight to secure the same rights for his fellow Irish-Americans as offered to all citizens of Rhode Island and the United States.
Also assisting were William Kelly, another block-printer at Allen’s Print Works, and Jeremiah Baggott, a grocer. Both men were active in the cause of furthering the legal and political rights of naturalized citizens.
|Fabric label. Many of the men gathered that
evening were responsible for Allen’s beautiful cloth.
|Fabric labels courtesy of Russ DeSimone.
Patrick O’Connell began by praising Daniel
O’Connell for shaking Britain “to her centre,” and quoting the great man in declaring,
“Those who would be free,
Themselves must strike to blow.”
Toast followed song and song followed toast. One such toast to America, stated, “while she offers us asylum,” reminds one that for many of these Irish, dreams of a return to Ireland to live remained real.
Thomas Bogue and James Connelly spoke out against British aggression in northern Maine, where their eternal adversary, England, was attempting to take land from the United States.
William Kelly and Jeremiah Baggott also spoke of the great Daniel O’Connell. O’Connell, one of Ireland’s great leaders, was just then at the height of his powers.
|Daniel O’Connell 1775 – 1847.
When the men present had been born on Irish soil, their parents had almost no religious, economic or political rights. It was illegal for Roman Catholics to practice their religion, Catholics couldn’t own land and all farmers were tithed to pay for the Church of Ireland (Anglican), the church of their oppressor. Daniel O’Connell was their knight, fighting to make the lives of those they left behind humane.
While Patrick Darden spoke to the memory of Emmet. William Gillin recalled Charles Carroll, an Irishman-American and signatory to the Declaration of Independence who “thereby secured for foreigners as well as native Americans, the blessings of civil and religious liberty.” John Hart reached back nearly a thousand years to sing the praises of Brian Boru.
|Andrew Jackson’s father was from County Antrim.
Peter Lee embraced President Jackson, as “the son of
an Irish Exile,” and that Irish Americans need to “imitate his heroic actions.”
|Theobald Wolf Tone 1763-1798
Hero of ’98.
References were made to the patriots of 1798, who with the help of a French invasion force, tried and
failed to free Ireland. Some of the men at the City Hotel that night had been boys in Ireland in 1798, and their fathers soldiers in the cause. John Flemming said of those great heroes, “may their sons ere long restore to Ireland that liberty and freedom in the pursuit of which they so nobly died.”
James Bunton rightly declared the Irish, “the bone and sinew of the physical industry of America. They have dug our canals, constructed our railroads, and built our factories.”
As one might expect with a gathering of Irishmen, poetry and story telling was the order of the day.
Henry J. Duff, spoke of Ireland thus,
Land of ancient and modern Bards-
for seven long centuries calumniated, spurned and oppressed-
All she wants to set her right,
Are men with souls, like Moore and White.
The above referenced P. Frederick White, described in the Republican Herald as “the popular Irish Melodist,” recited Thomas Moore’s poem, Love’s Young Dream:
Oh! the days are gone when Beauty bright
|Thomas Moore 1779 – 1852
My heart’s chain wove,
When my dream of life from morn till night
Was love, still love.
New hope may bloom,
And days may come
Of milder, calmer beam,
But there’s nothing half so sweet in life
As love’s young dream:
No, there’s nothing half so sweet in life
As love’s young dream.
Tho’ the bard to purer fame may soar,
When wild youth’s past;
Tho’ he win the wise, who frown’d before,
To smile at last;
He’ll never meet
A joy so sweet,
In all his noon of fame,
As when first he sung to woman’s ear
His soul-felt flame,
And, at every close, she blush’d to hear
The one lov’d name!
No, — that hallow’d form is ne’er forgot
Which first love trac’d!
Still it lingering haunts the greenest spot
Of memory’s waste.
‘Twas odour fled
As soon as shed:
‘Twas morning’s wingéd dream:
‘Twas a light, that ne’er can shine again
On life’s dull stream!
Oh! ’twas light that ne’er can shine again
On life’s dull stream!
White also spoke of a childhood in which he was often filled with “strange emotions,… in reading the patriotic sentiment expressed by my countrymen on Patrick’s day in America.”
White went on to say, “But little did I know that in 1839, I would find himself in this land of freedom, thus surrounded, by Englishmen, Irishmen, Scotchmen, Frenchmen and Americans, altogether united, and animated as it were, by one soul, in celebrating the anniversary of St. Patrick.
Later in the evening, perhaps with a glass or two of cheer, Mr. White returned to the stage and sang one of his own “beautiful melodies,” in exquisite style.
Just as song and poetry were embroidered into the evening’s events, so was humor. In the words of Rufus Reed:
Beer a year old,
Roast beef, hot and cold,
And a wife that will never scold-
To every honest Irishman.
Among the guests of honor were Philip Allen and his son, Philip, Jr. More than a
|Philip Allen, friend of the Irish.
few of the men attending the dinner that night were among the three hundred Irishmen employed by the Allens at their Allen’s Print Works in the north end of the city. For those men and all Irish immigrants in the state, Philip Allen was their protector and their friend.
Again, Henry J. Duff again took to the floor to toast the health of Philip Allen and his son, Philip Allen, Jr., “who, by their liberality towards the Catholics of Providence, and Irishmen generally, merit our esteem and confidence, and,
Whose fame what tongue more plain can tell,
Than that of Spain’s imported bell.”
The latter was in reference to the contribution that the Allen’s made to the new St. Patrick’s Church, which was under construction in the Spring of 1839. The Allen’s donated a new Spanish-made bell to the church.
|Irish Gateway to America: The Allens employed hundreds
of Irish, from the time they arrived on dock.
Philip Jr., spoke for himself and his father in saying, “Ireland and Irishmen, may they forever prosper.”
James Wood rose next, a spokesman for Amasa Sprague. Sprague, a textile mill owner and employer of many Irish workers, was the brother of the United States Senator, William Sprague. James Wood delivered this message from Mr. Sprague:
“The merchants, manufacturers and mechanics of the United States – the employers and the employed – like Siamese twins, they stand or fall together.”
The sad irony is that it was Sprague’s murder, less than three years later, would lead to horrible recriminations against the Irish, and especially against one young man who was hanged for the offence he did not commit.
Amasa Sprague was murdered. The police focused on three Irish-born brothers: Nicholas, John and William Gordon. Sprague had recently seen to it that Nicolas’s liquor license in the town of Cranston was not renewed. This led the authorities to suspect the brothers. William was found not guilty and the jury was hung in the case of Nicholas. But John was found guilty and hanged. His real crime was being Irish at a time when the Irish were hated.
But all that was in the future. Returning to the event of the evening of March 17, 1839, the next speaker added was Nicholas Gordon, brother of John Gordon, convicted for Sprague’s murder. Although not listed as speakers that evening, it is likely that both John and William Gordon were present that evening to hear their brother speak.
|An 1860’s Illustration of the Irish-American patriotism.
Thomas Byrne summed up the mood of the evening poetically in calling for the “Harp of Ireland surmounted with the Eagle, the Shamrock and the cap of Liberty, in place of the
Unicorn, Lion and Crown.”
Little did he or his fellow Hibernians realize, but it would be many years before Irish immigrants would have the rights of their native neighbors in the land of Roger Williams.
Sláinte to the memory of these brave men and women who, through their successes and failures, helped make America a more welcome place for new-comers from everywhere.
|An Anachronistic Nineteenth Century Illustration of the Irish Embrace of American Culture.
Sources: The Republican Herald, March 20 and March 23, 1839. Thank you, Scott Molloy.
Conley, Patrick T., and Matthew J. Smith, Catholicism in the Formative Era. Providence: Diocese of Providence, 1976.
Hayman, Robert W., Catholicism in Rhode Island and the Diocese of Providence 1780-1886. Providence: Diocese of Providence, 1983.
City Council Records 1841, courtesy of the City of Providence Archives.