|Thomas G. Bradford Map of Rhode Island 1838|
Rhode Islanders have long prided ourselves on our history of tolerance, going back to the arrival of Roger Williams in 1636. However, in the years after Williams, his generation’s descendants created a society that was answerable to only a few well-off landowners. and when the homogenous yankee society found itself threatened by an influx of Irish Catholic immigrants in the nineteenth century, it restricted the rights of those new neighbors through political, economic and social means. In response a leadership rose up in the Irish community to defend and expand their rights.
One of their first tests of strength proved a failure, but it was the beginning of a long struggle that wouldn’t fully succeed for eight more decades.
Providence’s Irish Catholic community of 1841 was a small one, numbering just over three thousand people, out of a population of twenty-three thousand city residents. As their numbers rose, a number of issues developed that needed resolution. Obtaining sacred land in which to bury their dead was an early challenge. And so, on a cold November night in 1841, a group of men representing their neighbors made a presentation to the city council of Providence.
The timing could not have been worse. The Old Guard of Yandeedom was feeling threatened by an onslaught of the immigrants. In cities like Boston and New York, newly naturalized citizens were finding their way in the circles of power. Rhode Island had an ancient document from the reign of Charles II that was used to keep power in the hands of the few. The outsiders would have to work as one to succeed.
However, the newly arrived folks were themselves divided. On this night, however, the Irish community of Providence united to fight for their community and its dignity.
|Thomas W. Dorr, Champion of Liberty|
The Irish community of Providence was itself made up of two factions. The immigrants from Ulster, and in particular Counties Tyrone and Monaghan, were pitted against those from the south and west of Ireland. While the exact issues are unclear, it seems the abrasive personality of the Reverend John Corry, an Ulster man and the head of the parish, was central to the dissension. According to Henry J. Duff, a community leader, “one-half of his congregation disliked him and he returned their indifference with a cordial hatred.”1
|The text, written by the Rev. Dennis Ryan, said in part, “ We, your petitioners, on behalf of the Roman Catholics of the City of Providence, respectfully approach your honourable body with an appeal to your generosity.”|
Making note of the fact that their community composed “a large proportion” of the citizens of the city (in fact, more than ten percent), they described themselves as “being an industrious, labourious class of your fellow citizens & generally the most indigent; few of us being in affluent circumstances.”
|In 1844, most Irish lived in the North End, near Allen’s Print Works and
other operations. The Calendering company was located just south of the
cove and at the bottom of what would soon be a new Irish enclave: Federal Hill.
They went on to “earnestly pray your honourable body to grant a donation to said Catholics of Providence a lot of land, at the North End of said city.”
|In 1841, Irish immigrants made up
nearly 10% of Providence’s population
Who were these men? Where did they live and what was their place in Providence society? And just as importantly, how did they come together?
|Henry’s signature was second to that of Dennis Ryan,
the priest who wrote the text.
The most socially elevated occupations included James W. Manson, a 42-year-old grocer, John Cosgrove, a clerk, James McCarthy, a designer and Thomas Oldham, an engraver. Of those, Manson was the one most likely to have been able to accumulate some wealth. Being a grocer afforded one a position of respect and some wealth within the community. Grocers offered a place to gather socially, as well as to catch up on the news from Ireland.
|One of the few non-Irish petition signers, Manson was naturalized
in September 1846, no doubt influenced by Henry J. Duff.
The other large-scale employer of the Irish in 1841 was Allen’s Print Works in the North End of the city.
|Already significant by 1841, Allen’s Print Works was a massive
operation by the time this map was published in 1875.
Note: McKenna Street just to the north of the print works.
Philip Allen, the owner and future governor of Rhode Island, was a generous defender of his Irish employees. He promoted Irishmen to management positions, treated his workers fairly and made generous donations to their churches. Those gifts included a Spanish bell for the cathedral and another bell for St. Patrick’s Church on Smith Hill. When a large gathering of Irishmen held Providence’s first St. Patrick’s Day banquet in 1839, Philip Allen and his son, also Philip, were guests of honor.
As governor of Rhode Island in the early 1850’s, Allen tried, unsuccessfully, to extend universal voting rights to all citizens, something that had been at the heart of Thomas W. Dorr’s revolution just ten years earlier. Curiously, in the small world that Rhode Island was and still is today, Philip Allen was the uncle of Thomas Wilson Dorr.
|Edward was born just over the border from County Monaghan, in the
parish of Clogher, County Tyrone.
Edward McKenna, another Tyrone man from the parish of Clogher, was perhaps the same Edward McKenna who died nearly five years to the day after signing the petition. Like many of the signers, Edward worked for the Providence Dyeing, Bleaching and Calendering Company. On Monday, November 23, 1846, a windstorm did great damage throughout the city. Fences were destroyed, roofs blown off houses, and a five-story warehouse owned by the calendering company was leveled. In the ruins of that building the body of twenty-two year old Edward was discovered.3 His brother, Patrick, had him buried and honored in stone, but not in the ground for which Edward had petitioned.
|Edward’s stone in St. Patrick’s Cemetery,
lies on the ground, decaying like so many
in the neglected cemetery.
Edward McKenna was buried in the newly established St. Patrick’s Cemetery. Just two years after the defeat of their petition, an eight acre plot was purchased on Douglas Avenue. The establishment of St. Patrick’s, along with a very successful week-long retreat in March 1844, helped bring the Irish community together in a way that had not been possible just a few years earlier.4
These one hundred and nine men were representative of the Irish immigrants who came to America in the years prior to the Great Famine. Whether educated or not, they were gaining a foothold in America.
Four short years later, their community faced its greatest crisis, as first hundreds and then thousands of their fellow countrymen and women poured into Providence. These poor souls were starving, diseased and truly indigent. The first coffin ships to Providence arrived in the early Spring of 1846.
It was these pre-famine Irish immigrants who became the protectors of their poor suffering brethren. The most devastatingly impoverished immigrant group to ever come to America needed immediate support and it was given, for the most part, by their own kind.
|St. Patrick’s Cemetery 1846 to 1888. Over 21,000 Irish folk found their final resting place in this “Silent City.”|
2 Cemetery Petition to the City Council of the City of Providence, Rhode Island, City Council Boxes, 1841-1841. Providence City Archives.
3 Manufacturers’ & Farmers’ Journal, November 26, 1846. (thank you, Father Hayman).
4 Hayman, p. 49-50.