Articles of Interest

THE IRISH IN RHODE ISLAND: A Long Struggle to Enter the Mainstream

By Scott Malloy

On the North side of St.Francis Cemetery in Pawtucket stands an impressive Celtic cross. This Irish tombstone marks the resting place of Patrick J. McCarthy, the only foreign-born mayor of Providence. A large bronze plaque, fitted into the monument, provides McCarthy’s County Sligo genealogy as well as a page from local Irish-American history. McCarthy’s parents, like tens of thousands of their compatriots, abandoned their Irish homeland in the late 1840s. A combination of rottenness — a lingering potato blight and vicious English misrule — forced these simple people into exile. After a brutal voyage, the indigent family arrived in 1848 at Deer Island in Boston harbor only to be quarantined because of typhus.

Patrick McCarthy painfully remembered that when he was four years old, his father announced the death of his wife. On the following day, the youngster stared bewilderedly at his deceased mother’s dress hanging on a clothesline, waiting for her to claim the familiar garment. Another detainee finally took it down to spare the boy the torment, and kept the threadbare dress for herself. Tragedy continued, as his father and brothers died soon after. The remaining five siblings scattered into orphanages, adoption agencies and the homes of relatives throughout New England.

By the dawn of the 20th century the Irish finally edged ahead. Transitional political figures stood on the shoulders of their common Irish comrades to bring power, patronage, and toleration to the state's urban corridors. Edwin McGuiness, George West, Charles Gorman, Hugh Carroll, John Fitzgerald, James Higgins, Patrick Boyle and P. J. McCarthy drew the blue print for a 1930s Democratic takeover. A new Hibernian constellation of political figures, weaned on the legend of the Irish diaspora but trained in American ways, broke the final barriers and eventually filled every political office in the state at one time or another.

Today most Irish-Americans’grasp of their ancestry revolves around their surname or a glossy Providence again, he became a prominent Democratic lawyer, serving elected terms on the City Council and the state House of Representatives in the 1890s.

By 1906, McCarthy had emerged, out of the cauldron of Irish-American politics, as a long-shot, progressive candidate for mayor. He won with support from privileged and poor alike. He was re-elected to a second term but a split in the party cost him a third nomination. Pee Jay (P.J.), as he liked to he called, stayed active in the cause of political reform and Irish freedom. The once-aspiring actor, now a brilliant orator, often ended his talks with a poignant rendition of “The Wearing of the Green.”

P.J. McCarthy died in 1921. The Yankee elite lionized him as an example of what American freedom could provide Irish refugees, if only the “shanty” would follow the mayor’s “lace-curtain” ascendancy.

The assimilation of the Famine generation into society’s mainstream was not as easy as the “pluck and luck” which P.J. McCarthy’s death notices indicated. Irish integration was a punishing journey that did not formally end until the election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency in 1960.

Although some Protestant Irish had migrated to the Ocean State in the 1600s, the Catholic majority arrived during the upheavals on the Emerald Isle during the 19th Century. By 1870, Providence had the sixth greatest concentration of Irish in the United States, and 15 years later, a third of all Rhode Islanders had at least one Irish parent. Currently, the Irish continue as a foundation for the state’s ethnic pyramid, numbering over 200,000 of the state’s population.

There were, however, no brass bands for the original settlers who came before the Famine. The defining moment for these immigrants came during the state’s constitutional crisis — the Dorr War of 1842. Combatants squared off over the right to vote. Eliziah Potter, a South County politician, remarked that his constituents “would rather have the Negroes vote than the damned Irish.” When the forces of law and order triumphed, the victors opened the franchise to blacks and poor native-born whites but, in general, kept the Irish and some other immigrants from the polling place.

The Dorr War was re-enacted as farce a year later when an Irish saloon-keeper was charged with the infamous murder of Cranston textile baron William Sprague. The trial was as much an indictment of the Irish as of the defendant, John Gordon. Prior to his client’s conviction on circumstantial evidence, Gordon’s lawyer said to a jury, “There may be those among you, who think there is little difference between taking the life of a dog and that of an Irishman.”

In 1845, Gordon would be the last person executed in Rhode Island. The Catholic priest who accompanied him to the gallows promised him everlasting life among Ireland’s martyrs.Although Rhode Island formally abolished the death penalty several years later because of lingering uncertainty about Gordon’s guilt, discrimination continued unchecked.

After the Civil War, during which two local Irish-American soldiers won the Congressional Medal of Honor, voters repeatedly refused to give naturalized veterans the franchise. Not until the Bourn amendment to the state constitution in 1888 did the Republican political machine cynically liberalize voting laws.

Despite the new status, poverty remained widespread. ”Help wanted” ads in local newspapers still carried the sting of “No Irish Need Apply.” Under relentless attack, [the Irish] banded together — only to be further denigrated for their “tribal instincts.”

To escape religious bias in public schools they founded a string of parochial academies. Politically, with nowhere else to go, Irish-Americans gravitated to the discredited, formerly pro-slavery, Democratic Party, transforming it into an effective competitor against the corrupt Republican machine. By the dawn of the 20th Century, the Irish finally edged ahead.

A new Hibernian constellation of political figures, weaned on the legend of the Irish diaspora but trained in American ways, broke the final barriers and eventually filled every political office in the state at one time or another.

Today most Irish-Americans’ grasp of their ancestry revolves around their surname or a glossy coat-of-arms. We Irish have been homogenized and sanitized, becoming part of the establishment that once rejected us as alien. Now we’ve forgotten our own roots. And that’s a shame!

On his Celtic headstone, P.J. McCarthy recounted the family’s plebian flight: “forced from home by landlordism and the penal laws.” He thanked the United States for accepting immigrants such as himself but pleaded: “May their history be written that future generations may learn of the heroic efforts and suffering of Irish Catholics at home and abroad for faith and fatherland.”

To truly dignify our past we must resolve to keep our heritage alive as Mayor McCarthy wished.

(Note: Dr. Scott Malloy is a professor at the University of Rhode Island ’s Labor Research Center. The original, full-length version of this essay appeared on page B 5 in the March 17, 1997 edition of the Providence Journal. (The article was edited, with the author’s permission, by Dr. Donald D. Deignan.)

Mayor McCarthy