In Errigal Truagh, James Duggan farmed six acres, but in Providence his family shared a small flat with fourteen other people. When famine and disease upended their lives, James and his wife, Ellen McKenna Duggan, made the decision to leave Dernalosset and make the harrowing voyage to America. Having connections with earlier migrants in Rhode Island, the Duggans and their children traveled separately to their new home. By 1849, the Duggans were reunited with four of their children. But then tragedy struck. Nearly as soon as he arrived in America, their nineteen-year-old son, Patrick, contracted consumption and died. The Duggans were discovering that the life of a refugee in America was not an easy one.
They found a flat in the industrial north end of the city, in a mostly Irish neighborhood. At a time when children as young as eight went to work in factories, the Duggans showed optimism in the future by insisting that their children, John, 11, and Ann, 7, attend school. As for James, who could neither read nor write, the only work open to him was day labor. Even there, he was closed out of the best of that work, city employment. The men of Kerry and Cork seemed to have a hold on those jobs.
On July 4, 1852, their daughter Catherine married a boy from back home, Peter McKenna. Peter had good work at a local foundry and lived in a flat on Federal Hill, the new neighborhood that was quickly becoming the city’s “Little Ulster.” The Duggans moved to be near Catherine and Peter where James tried his luck as a fruit peddler. After a few years, James and Ellen moved in with their children and grandchildren.
The neighborhood was a tough one. The mostly Irish populace was largely uneducated and under-employed. While the city was growing and had a tremendous need for factory help, this brought in income but at a terrible cost. Fourteen-hour days in hot and noisy factories resulted in deafness, anger and depression. Children’s health suffered from the long hours of factory work.
It was not unusual for young children, like ten-year-old Maria Cox, to suffer injury or death, while at work. In the case of Maria, she had fingers ripped from her small hand by an unforgiving machine.
And then there was the frustration from overcrowding and brutal work that manifested itself in husbands beating wives and children being kicked out of homes. In 1847, Mary McKenna sought and received a divorce from her husband. It must have taken a severe situation for an Irish Roman Catholic woman to seek a divorce. Mary was not the only one. And then there were the children living on the street. Eleven-year-old Katie Conly ran away from home on a cold, rainy, night. Other young women, like Ellen Hackett, turned to prostitution.
These horrors were compounded by a police force that resented the dirty poorly-spoken Irish and either didn’t patrol their neighborhoods or did so with a view toward keeping Irish scum in their place.
In the homes of many immigrants things were not necessarily better. Landlords, including Irish landlords like John B. Hennessy, overcharged tenants and allowed severe overcrowding. In the small house rented by the McKennas and the Duggans, a total of twenty people lived, including three other families. Parents had no privacy from their children, or from their neighbors.
In such closed quarters, disease spread quickly. Peter and Catherine lost sixteen-month-old daughter Susan to cholera and two-year-old John to pneumonia. A few years later, Peter would succumb to consumption. While Peter and Catherine insisted that their children be educated in Catholic schools, it still became necessary for the children to work at an early age. Their son, Patrick, named for his uncle Patrick Duggan, was introduced to factory work at age nine.
And yet in spite of such hardships, there were friendships to enjoy and family members to share love. Sundays were a day to join friends in song and dance and to enjoy a dram or two. John McCusker ran one of the many grocery stores on Federal Hill that served as public houses as well as dry goods stores. And when Ellen McKenna Duggan died in 1881 at age 80, her children bought a beautiful and costly granite stone for her, her late husband James, and teenaged son, Patrick, who had died when first arriving in Providence. The stone speaks to the love that John, Ann and Sarah had for their parents and brother. It also identified a long-lost and loved home. The stone reads, “Natives of Co. Monaghan, Ireland.”
Some of what befell the McKennas and Duggans was just the harshness of American life at the time, but not all. Restricted to menial jobs and to marginal neighborhoods, it would take generations for many descendants of Irish famine refugees to share in the American Dream. Their religion marked them as “un-American” and as outsiders who would destroy American civilization. And yet, like today’s refugees, these men and women fleeing persecution became members of the American family and through their labor made a significant contribution to Providence’s industrial life. In the process of taking in immigrants, America became a model of multicultural tolerance for the rest of the world to emulate and admire.
Ray McKenna, firstname.lastname@example.org, who represents the sixth generation of his family in Providence, will be speaking at St. Macartan’s College in Monaghan town at 8 p.m. on April sixth. The talk is sponsored by the Clogher Historical Society and Clann McKenna. He would love to hear from those who have stories of the migration to Providence, Rhode Island. He blogs at federalhillirish.com.
Published in the Northern Standard, Monaghan town, County Monaghan, Ireland, on March 30, 2017.