Refugees in America: Tyrone Famine Victims Find A New Home

Her cry was barely audible over the moaning and weeping of the other inmates in the fetid hold of the ship Shananga. Five weeks out from Liverpool found Mary McKenna in labor. Her delivery bed was a wooden bunk in a dark, dank and odiferous hell among 160 exhausted and ill fellow travelers. Forty-one-year-old Mary was aided by her daughters, Betsy and Sally, as her husband, Barney stood by her, worrying how he would raise their nine children on his own should Mary die. Mary survived, as did the new baby boy, Little Barney.

Two weeks later, Sandy Hook, New Jersey, came into sight and these poor wretches, in their tired and sickened way, celebrated their relatively safe arrival in America. After nearly two months at sea, living in the putrid hold of the three-masted sailing ship, not one of these impoverished and sickly Irish immigrants had lost his or her life. They were in the country of their hoped-for salvation. And here it was, the first day of summer in the Irish calendar.

May 1, 1846, the Feast of Beltane saw this desperate group of Irish and English speakers arrive at the piers of lower Manhattan. The average age of the passengers, twenty-one, was not unusual, given that most Irish famine refugees were young. They were the healthy ones. A significant number of these men and women were from the parishes at the confluence of counties Tyrone and Monaghan. No fewer than eighty-eight of them were continuing on to Providence, where south Ulster folks had been making a home for nearly fifty years. In a few days they would be joining friends and relatives in Rhode Island.

The McKennas were as lucky as their situation was unusual. Unlike most Irish immigrants, Mary and Bernard were able to travel with eight of their children, in addition to young Barney. Whether it was money they had saved, their landlord’s desire to rid tenants by paying passage or a remittance from relatives in Rhode Island, they had the where-with-all to join relatives in the North End of Providence. Theirs was a large and lucky family. While most émigrés were separated from family members, Barney and Mary kept most of their family together.

Young Barney was not the only one born at sea. Two other mothers gave birth during the voyage. Eighteen-year-old Ann Martin gave birth to Mary, while baby Matilda was born to thirty-eight-year-old Mary Barry. Clearly, this was not a well-planned trip, but rather a desperate flight from horror.


The McKennas were from the parish of Clogher, as was Owen Burke, who became an iron molder and eventually bought a house on Federal Hill. Other Tyrone natives included Patrick Sherry and Alice Barlow, who sought refuge for her three young sons in the city of Roger Williams. And there were the children. Two-year-old Katie Pierce was with her mother and her grandparents, Owen and Catherine McGrath. Once in Providence, they were reunited with Katie’s father, Henry. Eight-year-old Ann Campbell prayed to see her father in Providence. Likewise, eight-year-old James McGrath and his three-year-old sister, Katie, were going to be reunited with their father. Other south Ulster families onboard the Shananga included those named Cassidy, McCabe, McElroy, Murray and Hart.

The Shanunga passenger list is symbolic of something that was taking place in South Ulster and Providence at least since the 1820’s, and continued well into the twentieth century. That is, the most significant migration of Irish to Providence, in fact at least a third of all Irish immigrants to the city during and after the famine came from that small patch of land known as “McKenna Country.”

In Rhode Island, they made their homes in Pawtucket, North Providence, Cranston, Johnston, Warwick, and especially in Providence.

Barney McKenna quickly found work at Allen’s Print Works, a calico printing company that employed hundreds of Irish workers. Perhaps it was Anthony McKenna, a long time employee of Allen’s, who sponsored Barney.

While Barney and Mary made their home near his place of employment in the north of the city, a new neighborhood to the west of the city was becoming a “Little Ulster.” For the next eighty years, hundreds, perhaps thousands followed these early Ulster settlers in making Federal Hill home.

Life was not easy for these newcomers. Barney and Mary lost three of their boys, including young Barney, to disease in the first few years in American. Daughter Sarah gave them a granddaughter, but died when young Mary, named for her grandmother, was barely two. And on more then one occasion they shared their Sexton Street flat with as many as thirteen other people representing two other families. Barney, who survived Mary by eleven years, was still working a fourteen-hour day as an unskilled laborer at the time of his death at age eighty-three.

Some of what befell the Tyrone refugees 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 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,, 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. His blogs at

Presented for publication to the Tyrone Constitution in Omagh, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland.

A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Providence Journal, March 17, 2017.





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