1854: An Irish Sojourner Visits Providence, Rhode Island


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Father James Donnelly, courtesy of Clogher Record.

One of the most fascinating characters to grace the Irish community in Providence was James Donnelly, a priest from County Monaghan who would one day be anointed Bishop of Clogher, the diocese that includes Monaghan and parts of southern County Tyrone.* Donnelly lived in Providence for about several months in 1854. His observations while in Providence, as well as other East Coast cities, offer rare insight into the the clannishness of that first famine generation, their social mores, their health and their working conditions.

Opinionated and passionate, Donnelly was not slow to sling an insult, nor heap praise on one he respected, nor to revel in his passion for food and drink. A favorite term for people who found unnecessarily ignorant was “blockhead,” a term also favored by this writer.

As biting as he could be, in reading the pages of his diary, his compassion and love for his fellow man comes through. One sees it in the kind words he has for fellow Truagh/Clogher folk, and especially in his relationshop with his friend, Anne Murray (Sister Teresa).

Donnelly was born in Scotstown, County Monaghan, in 1823. Prior to coming to the States, he taught at St. Macartan’s College in Monaghan. In 1853, he was assigned to raise funds for the new Catholic University of Ireland in Dublin. Just one generation removed from the heinous period when the education of Irish Catholics was illegal, the University was seen as a way to prepare Irish Catholics for leadership roles in their country.

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The Plan for the Catholic University of Ireland.

It was no mistake that Donnelly spent most of his time in communities that represented a significant part of the Clogher Diocese diaspora. Providence likely had the the highest concentration by percentage of Clogher folk of all cities in America. New York and Boston, being major entry ports, likely had the largest numbers of Clogher folk. Philadelphia, a major port, was also a major magnet for Clogher folk.

James Donnelly loved Providence, at least in the beginning, but he was less enthusiastic about the leadership of the Irish community there.

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Market Square in Providence 1844.

Donnelly’s Providence was “fine city, clean, (with) no squalid poverty.” With its “many public clocks, number of churches, spires,” it was “Yankeedom in earnest.” (3/15/54). He said of the city that it was “beautiful and healthy. Fifty thousand people. Fine residences of the wealthy.” Of the Cove, both the playground and the cesspool of the city, he called it a “great ornament and so useful. Sea-water and constantly changes.” (3/31/54).

Noting the fashionable anti-bellum style of exposing the gable side of houses to the street, he wrote of “So many houses in Providence & churches with gables to road and street.” (3/21/54).

From an 1869 advertisement in the Providence City Directory.
From an 1869 advertisement in the Providence City Directory.

He seemed startled by the independence of the woman. He noted “several cases of females driving buggies here.” And perhaps because he hailed from a land where textiles were a traditional part of so many families’ livelihoods, seeing the “head-dress of woolen hosiery for all the little girls here” made a deep impression on him. (3/14/54).

In 1854, Providence was far from the sprawling city that we know today. With forests and farmlands bordering the city and with his love of walking, he spoke of the beautiful countryside surrounding the city. (3/14/54). He also praised the “fine roads about Providence,” saying there were “plenty of them.” On one of his long walks he remarked about the great view of Providence harbor. (4/3/54).

From the 1869 Providence City Directory.
From the 1869 Providence City Directory.

James Donnelly’s enormous passion for food and drink will be the subject of a follow-up essay. But something he saw while walking in the city deserves inclusion in this essay. He was delighted to see a “house floating at anchor in Providence Bay – an oyster saloon & boats call on it. Curious affair.” An avid fisherman, when he wasn’t eating oysters, they made for “great oyster bait on my poles.” (5/12/54).

While he has very little to say about the sanitary conditions of the Irish working class, he does write of treating cholera patients, if not in Providence, in nearby cities. The “Year of Cholera,” is how 1854 was remembered in Providence for years afterwards. While he does not mention encountering cholera victims in the city, on trips outside Providence he often attended to the afflicted.

The disease, which came upon the victim without warning, caused diarrhea,  violent vomiting and severe cramps. While some survived, many died within hours or days of contracting the disease. In Providence, cholera hit the immigrant population, almost all Irish, particularly brutally. The numbers of internments in St. Patrick’s Cemetery that year say it all. In that one year, internments increased eighty-one percent, from 322 to 583.

A contemporary image - the Fear of Cholera.
A contemporary image – the Fear of Cholera.cramps. While some survived, many died within hours or days of contracting the disease.

In  nearby New Haven, Donnelly attended “a cholera case (and) heard confessions (of those afflicted).” (7/22/54).

During an earlier visit to New York and New Haven, he recorded that “cholera rages about New York yet no one seems concerned, (they are) case-hardened.” (7/27/54).

In New Haven he made “many cholera calls (and) attended a Kerry woman in it myself.” (7/30/54).

That Autumn, it was typhus with which Donnelly came in contact. On the morning of November 12, 1854, he was called at 4 a.m. to attend to a sufferer. “Typhus fever, deaf, awful.” (11/12/54).

On a trip to Portland, Maine he saw the red flags throughout the city that indicated the residence of a small pox victim. “Red flags by law, Yankees fear much pox. (they’d prefer to face) death rather than (be) pock mocked.” (12/6/54).

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Home for the poor, mentally ill, elderly. Courtesy R.I.H.S.

Disease was not the only thing to poison Irish immigrants. Horrible working and living conditions in a new and unfriendly country resulted in violence and mental illness. While he does not talk of Dexter Asylum, the institution in Providence that housed the poor, the elderly and the mentally insane, he does report on a detention center for boys in Roxbury, Massachusetts. “(I) visited Angel Guardian Institution, (where there were “one hundred incorrigibles, picked (wicked?) vagabond boys.” (10/29/54).

Deep Fissures in the Community

For his host, Bishop Bernard O’Reilly, Donnelly had criticism and praise. Of a sermon that O’Reilly gave on March 15th, Donnelly described the bishop as a “”windbag – no argument at all – all words and not order. Still smart man. Great about rubrics.” (3/15/54).

On St. Patrick’s Day, he witnessed mass at the cathedral. “Sang High Mass in St. Patrick’s. Hymn to the air of “Tara’ Hall” at Mass. Wept long and bitterly at and after that hymn. Whole scene affecting. After dinner drowned my shamrock.” Donnelly seemed to be very good at “drowning his shamrock.” In his journeys he found wine, cider and rum to his liking. (3/17/54).

However, when the bishop chose to say high mass again at midnight on St. Patrick’s Day, Donnelly was not amused. O’Reilly used his sermon to discuss discord between Bishop John Hughes of New York and Bishop Francis Kenrick of Philadelphia. “Poor affair on such an occasion.” (3/17). Hughes and Kenrick were in the midst of a public spat, played out in the newspapers of both their cities.

Of the bitter factions within the Providence Irish community, Donnelly’s observations reflected the later writing of Father Robert Hayman. Donnelly noted that there was, “something wrong in this diocese, rather everything wrong. Bishop must be taking wrong courses. Bickering, uncharitableness, meanness, grumbling. Even laity discontented. Never saw the like before. Wish I were done with this awful diocese.” (5/24/54).

Robert Hayman has suggested that at the root was a conflict between the people of Ulster (mostly Truagh/Clogher folk) and those from the south and west of Ireland. This could very well be true.

On the Irish and Their Backwardness

Donnelly’s view of Irish folk mirrored that of most immigrants. Fierce loyalty to one’s barony and county turned Ulster against Connaught against Leinster against Munster. An American priest whom Donnelly met had “such a Connaught brogue and (was) so ignorant in all respects.”(11/26/53).

In Philadelphia, Donnelley spoke with “McLoughlin an honest Irishman, (but with a) desperate Derry accent.” (8/20/53). In the Lackawanna Valley of Pennsylvania, he found “almost none but Mayo and Sligo people. Mean, craven-hearted.” (1/14/54).

And yet he seemed to find Tipperary folk “fine fellows, Prendergast and Carew (are) very honest.” And “Burns (was a) fine, honest, warm-hearted Tipperary man.!” (2/12/54). And then there was Ryan, living in New London, “a gallant-hearted Tipperary man.” (4/4/54).

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The popular press, here and in England, relentlessly offered images that portrayed Irish as sub-human.

Like the clerical leadership at home, James Donnelly could not abide Irish men and women acting in ways that re-enforced English and Yankee prejudice towards them. His concern was that Yankee prejudices would be reinforced by the poor actions of Irish folk. On August 5, 1854,  he witnesses two Irish men fighting with Yankees looking on and laughing. “Sundered two Irishmen fighting, oh shame! Yankees laughing.” (8/4/54)

In June of that year, Donnelly remarked on the very public moaning and crying of Irish women at a funeral. “Daughter of (a) California widow

Keening is a tradition recorded as early as the thirteenth century. Great pressure was put on the Irish to suppress their cultural traditions.
Keening’, the very public crying over the dead, is a tradition recorded as early as the thirteenth century. Great pressure was put on the Irish to suppress their cultural traditions.

(was) dead opposite Ryan’s house. Mother “keening” in old Irish fashion. Yankees listening. Remember large number of coaches, buggies, etc. at funeral. Poor. This common practice. Will the Irish never have sense?” (6/4/54).

This common embarrassment of being Irish is something many brought down into modern times. This writer, for one, was raised being told “we are mutts, a little of this and a little of that.”

In Cambria County, in the Alleghenies, he noted, “descendants of Irish in this county hate the mention of Irishman. Strange this!” (2/22/54). Again, that embarrassment at manifesting Irish characteristics.

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Banshees followed this writer’s family from Roscommon to Rhode Island.

In spite of his own superstitious leanings, he was critical of the old superstitions. He described some Catholics as “behind the age. Slow in improving. Fear ghosts. Miracles and cures, blessing salt.”(2/23/54). Still when it suited his purposes, an old superstition served him well. He relates the story of one Devin Reilly. Reilly’s wife saw a specter (banshee) two nights before Devin’s death. In the house of a dead woman, Miss Murray, Devin talked about a priest. As the priest entered the house, Devin was struck down and died. (4/11/54). In my own family, my great great grandmother claimed to witness banshees coming across the bridge in Harrisville, Rhode Island, where she lived. This would have been as early as the 1870’s or as late as the early 1900’s.

Truagh Folk in Rhode Island and Elsewhere

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 7.21.22 AMJames Donnelly loved seeing his fellow Truagh/Clogher natives. In his travels along the east coast, and especially in Rhode Island and Philadelphia, the Truagh/Clogher names pile up. There was Bogue from Fivemiletown (Tyrone), Campbell of “Errigle” (Truagh), Carager (Truagh), Connelly of Killibroan (Truagh), Donnelly from Keady (bordering Truagh in Armagh), Duffy, Egan, Farrell, Flood, Kelly (Mary Kelly -blind of an eye-, a cousin of Donnelly’s mother), Lynn of Clogher, Lynch of Clones (Monaghan), McCarron, McCulloch, McCusker, McElherne, McEvoy, McGeough, McGinnis of Tyholland (Monaghan), McGloughlin, McKenna, Pat McQuaid from near Ballinode (Monaghan), Mullen, Murray (from Adrumsee, Fermanagh, bordering Truagh), Neeson of Clones, Sheridan, Sheil, Tague, Pat Tierney (from Formass, Errigal Kerrogue, Tyrone), Traynor, John Treanor of Truagh, and many more.

Archbishop John Hughes, son of a McKenna and grandson of two.
Archbishop John Hughes, son of a McKenna and grandson of two.

And certainly, the most famous and influential native of Truagh at the time, John Hughes, played a big role in Donnelly’s stay in America. John Hughes, born in Clogher of Truagh parents (and two McKenna grandparents), was Archbishop of New York at the time of Donnelly’s sojourn. When James Donnelly was in New York, it was as a guest of Archbishop Hughes.

In Providence, James Donnelly “saw lots of people from Treugh (sic), Clogher.” “So good a people, especially the girls, God bless them.” It appears the girls were much more willing to fill his coffers than the boys. (3/19/54).

The workhouse served Clogher in Tyrone and the northwest part of Monaghan. It was here that Donnelly worked with the sick and insane, and where he knew McCahy.
The workhouse served Clogher in Tyrone and the northwest part of Monaghan. It was here that Donnelly worked with the sick and insane, and where he knew McCahy. Photo from 2003, courtesy of www.workhouses.org.uk.

On March 21st, “three Treugh girls and one boy called to see me.” (3/21/54). The following month he “visited McCahy the pedlar from Clogher” and chatted with Pat Donnelly the junk man.” He knew McCahy as one who helped him  at the Clogher workhouse and “was at confession with me two or three times there.” (4/1/54). Workhouses were set up in Ireland during the famine to give people places to live and eat. Most turned out to be disease traps.

Three days later, on his way to New London, he met with “music master, Lowry. His father was a tanner in Enniskillen (not far from Truagh, in Fermanagh). The common belief is that once these immigrants came to America, they were too poor to ever return home. While this was the case for most, Donnelly tells us that Lowry “was home last year.” (4/4/54).

St. Mary's, built in 1844, was a largely Monaghan parish.
St. Mary’s, built in 1844, was a largely Monaghan parish.

A the end of April he walked fourteen miles to the village of Crompton (today a part of West Warwick) to where there were “nearly Monaghan people all, many from Treugh. McCarthys, Duffys, McKennas, Carrolls, etc. Long chat about home, etc., etc.” (4/23/54). In addition to Truagh, some of these Monaghan folk had come from Ballybay (Monaghan), to the south of Truagh.

Two months later, in Providence, Donnelly met with another Monaghan acquaintance, John Smyth. Smyth was “once journeyman to John Connolly and washed clothes in my father’s (house in Scotstown, Monaghan).” (6/23/54).

Juan Mackenna

Juan MacKenna 1771 - 1814.
Juan M Mackenna 1771 – 1814.
Benjamin Vicuña MacKenna, grandson.
Benjamin Vicuña M Mackenna grandson.

Surprisingly, his diary reveals that his generation of Clogher folk were still in contact with the the family of John McKenna (Juan Mackenna), the hero of Chilean independence. McKenna, a descendent of the last chief of the McKenna clan, had gone to study in Spain seventy years earlier. Later, he and Bernardo O’Higgins, helped create an independent state of Chile.

James Donnelly and others in Truagh were still corresponding with the McKenna’s family all these years later. During a political crisis in Chile, McKenna’s grandson, Benjamin Vicuña Mackenna, wrote to Donnelly concerning an “affair smashed.” Donnelly was concerned for Vicuña Mackenna’s family and thought that “John McKenna must come now to America (and) live with him.”(7/13/54).

On Factories and Working Conditions

Fales & Gray disaster in Hartford.
Fales & Gray disaster in Hartford 1854. Courtesy of the Hartford Courant.

James Donnelly was rightfully critical of industrial working conditions of the Irish working class. On a visit to Hartford he learned of the horrendous explosion that tore through the Fales and Gray Car Works. (see the Hartford Courant, September 15, 2014). A steam engine, newly employed, exploded, killing as many as twenty-one (the exact number is not known, perhaps because the dead were mostly worthless Irishmen) and injuring another fifty. “Irishmen killed. Awful country,” is Donnelly’s journal entry. (5/26/54). An Irishman killed in the blast, John McCune, was blamed for the accident. This disaster, which the city was incapable of handling, led directly to the creation of Hartford Hospital, today one of the city’s most important institutions.

New England Butt Co. employed numerous Truagh & Clogher folk at its Iron works. Today the building is a condominium complex.
New England Butt Co. employed numerous Truagh & Clogher folk at its Iron works. Today the building is a condominium complex.

On a trip to Pennsylvania, he reported that “Irish killed in Pittston (coal mines) when I was there. “One Irish dead, two injured.” (1/12/54). Other disasters were to await those miners in Pittston. Nearly a year later, on December 12, Thomas Lynn and Samuel Hines, both Irishmen, died there.(Pittston Gazette, Dec 22, 1854, p.2). In 1893, an even greater disaster happened when fifty-eight people lost their lives in Pittston’s mines.

On another occasion in Pennsylvania, Donnelly wrote of an Irish carpenter working on a railroad bridge. The worker fell off, striking his head and dying. “The poor Irish,” was his empathetic response. (12/15/53) “Met six Irish carrying (the dead man) in a crib, poor fellow. Carpenter fallen off railroad bridge construction into river striking head on abutment.”

Father Donnelly made a point of visiting work places wherever he traveled. In Providence, he visited a file shop where he “saw all the processes of the steel from bar to a finished file.”

Philip Allen was employer and protector of the Irish workingman.
Philip Allen was employer and protector of the Irish workingman.

Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 6.53.36 AMOn a visit to Allen’s Print Works, perhaps the city’s largest employer of Irish immigrants, including a great many from Truagh, he was highly impressed. “Saw all 12 colors at once – bleaching, stretching & rolling up webs. … colouring stuffs. Designing patterns – cutting designs on steel to indent the copper rollers to put on colours. Saw all – an immense concern.” (4/1/54) from diary.

Later Years

After two years working in America, James Donnelly went back to County Monaghan where he had a distinguished career, becoming the Bishop of Clogher in 1866. As bishop he worked relentlessly on behalf of the “little people,” the tenant farmers whose lives, even years after the Great Famine were still economically tenuous. He championed the farmers right to tenancy and to land ownership. It was during his tenure that much of the land in the diocese was turned over to the men and women who actually did the farming. He was also instrumental in expanding the right to vote to Catholic citizens. Finally, he oversaw the building of St. Macartan’s Cathedral in Monaghan Town. To this day, St. Macartan’s dominates the skyline for miles around.

James Donnelly died December 28, 1893, having witnessed the Great Famine, the Clogher diaspora to the American East Coast, and the slow and painful progress of human rights in his homeland over nearly half a century. For those of us who seek our ancestry in Providence and Truagh/Clogher, Father Donnelly offers a rare eyewitness to the early years of our people in their new home.

* Clogher, Truagh, Monaghan, Tyrone, Armagh and Fermanagh all refer to parts, some overlapping, of a contiguous land from which approximately thirty to forty percent of all Irish in nineteenth century Providence County, Rhode Island, were originated.  Clogher: both the diocese that includes all of Monaghan, some of southern Tyrone and part of Fermanagh. Truagh: The ancient barony that today includes the two northern parishes, Errigal Truagh and Donagh, in County Monaghan, as well as Errigal Truagh in County Tyrone. Blackwater River: marks the border between Monaghan and Tyrone. Armagh: the county immediate  to the east of Truagh. Fermanagh: County bordering Monaghan to the west.

Sources: Duffy, Joseph, The Amerian Journal of James Donnelly, Clogher Record, v. 8, no. 3 (1975), pages 109-152.

The journal of James Donnelly.

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A friend who drives from Dublin to Donegal every summer tells me that the view of St. Macartan’s is a highlight of her drive. Courtesy of Jorge Flório.
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The interior of St. Macartan’s, James Donnelly’s legacy to his ancestral home. Courtesy of Tony Murphy, Chasing Light.


  1. Ronan Mackey said:

    Can you tell me anything about the bishops family

    December 3, 2015
    • federalhillirish said:

      What are you exactly looking for? The Clogher Historical Record has excepts from his diary. I have access to his diary during his time spent in America. There is biographical information readily available. Happy to help if I can.

      December 18, 2015

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