Before Italian Mandolins, Irish Bagpipes on Federal Hill

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“I was very agreeably entertained in an evening walk last week by the strains of music which proceeded from the romantic cottage of Mr. Davis on the West side. The minstrel is a native of the land of Erin, and he discoursed most eloquent music with the Irish bagpipe and the violin; upon which instruments he played with fine effect, some of the wild airs of his native land.“

-From a letter to the editor in the Providence Gazette, June 20, 1821

The author, who identified himself only as “Amateur,” went on to recommend that those out for an evening stroll should stop by to hear the beautiful music that is “a stranger in this part of our land.” In Providence, then a town of barely 12,000 residents, all but a few were of English descent. Irish men and women were exotic. But within a few years that “strange” music would become part of the fabric of the city.

If the author could have returned like Rip Van Winkle just a generation later, he would have been surprised to see that much of the west side of the city had become a “Little Erin.” In fact, within thirty years, the farmland that was Federal Hill in 1821, was transformed into a vibrant Irish neighborhood.

Perhaps our musician might have been John Davis, a ship’s carpenter living on Eddy Street in 1824. Like many of the early Irish arrivals, he was a skilled worker. Providence was in the throes of an industrial revolution that was transforming the city, the state and the country. Skilled labor was in great demand and Ulster, in the north of Ireland where Ireland’s textile factories were located, provided a prime source. And so, in 1827, John McKenna, a textile worker from County Armagh in Ulster, was recruited to come to Providence to work on and repair machines with which he was familiar.

McKenna made his home at the bottom of Atwells Avenue where his son, James, was born the following year. James might have been the first Irish-American born on Federal Hill, but he would not be the last.

The few skilled workers who came to Providence in McKenna’s generation were followed by thousands of mostly unskilled workers in the wake of the Great Famine of 1845 to 1852. When famine and disease struck, they followed their relatives, friends and acquaintances to Providence. They arrived to fill the unskilled jobs that new factories were creating. And many made Federal Hill home.

What had been a high plateau for grazing animals became a bustling community of mostly South Ulster immigrants. They built roads and houses, and soon Atwells Avenue was lined with new one and two story clapboard houses. Federal Hill was dotted with these houses, which then gave way to the iconic triple-decker houses that arose with the next big wave of immigrants at the end of the century.

Before long, men like Charles McCaughey and Patrick McEvey had construction companies building housing for the newly arrived. And as Irish folks prospered they bought up land on the Hill. By the 1870’s, there were more than a few Irish landlords.

At the same time, the neighborhood was in constant transition. Thirty-three years after the arrival of McKenna, eight Italian men from Tuscany were living on Acorn Street. Like the first Irish arrivals, these were skilled workers. In their case, they were fresco painters brought in to decorate the walls of new Roman Catholic churches being built to accommodate a mostly Irish population.

When economic hardships hit southern Italy in the 1880’s, a new surge of immigrants came to Providence. Unskilled, like those who arrived during the Irish famine and who were still arriving, these new immigrants would start at the bottom and work their way up. And like the Irish before them, they made Federal Hill their home.

The Irish bagpipe that entranced our 1821 letter writer gave way to the Italian mandolin by the end of the century. Providence had become a culturally diversified and enriched city.

Ray McKenna (mckenna.raymond1@gmail.com) will be speaking at Holy Ghost Church on December fifth, on Federal Hill’s Irish history.

From the Providence Journal, Sunday, December 4, 2016

2 Comments

  1. This is so well written and so informative, Ray. Thanks for sharing your stories.
    What opportunities those hard working, brave immigrants gave us. I would love to chat more. Are you up for lunch at Venda one day?
    And… when is your book coming?
    Ed

    January 2, 2017
    Reply
    • federalhillirish said:

      Thank you, Ed. I will reply by email.
      Ray

      January 3, 2017
      Reply

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