Rhode Ireland: Irish immigrants’ influence abounds in our fair state

Of all the stories in Irish legend, few have captured more imaginations than the mystical kingdom of Tír na nÓg. It is said that beyond the western horizon lies a magical land of youth and opportunity, and for a thousand generations voices across Ireland have echoed this tale to the eager ears of enchanted youth. Some old timers say that the first Irishmen to set foot in the lands to the west were fifth century monks and – true or not – from that moment on, Tír na nÓg and the New World were inextricably linked; the lines between myth and reality blurred just enough for Irishmen to believe that cresting the horizon might just be possible. When Europeans eventually did move in large numbers across the Atlantic in the colonial period, many of those early adventurers were from Ireland.

But few found the Tír na nÓg of legend. The colonies were not immediately welcoming of the Irish, and many found themselves living on the frontier to act as an unofficial barrier between the coastal settlements and Indian country. In the 1820s, what was once a trickle of Emerald emigrants grew into a flood, and Rhode Island became a magnet for young men seeking guaranteed work, which frequently meant hard labor. Many of those who dug the Blacktstone Valley channel were immigrants from Ireland; the diggers weren’t plucky adventurers seeking a brave new world, however, but veterans of canal projects in Ireland and England following a career. One such professional digger was Michael Reddy, a young Catholic laborer who settled in Woonsocket in 1826. But Reddy, like so many others, faced discrimination, largely in part to the Catholic faith shared by many of his fellow countrymen. Reddy pushed for acceptance and inclusion, and through his efforts and those like him, Woonsocket became a stronghold for Irish immigrants, with 2,300 of the town’s 8,000 residents coming from Ireland by 1859. But Woonsocket was not alone. Irish immigration to Rhode Island skyrocketed in the 1840s and 1850s, largely in part to the Great Hunger of 1845 – 1849, a tragedy of untold devastation that cut Ireland’s population by 25%. Again, the reception was a frosty one, with IRISH NEED NOT APPLY signs scattered the length and breadth of the state. But the Irish persevered, and over the years established numerous literary and temperance societies, all the while buttressing the state’s Democrat party. Irish women also made a mark in a time when it was difficult to do so, securing jobs that ranged from seamstresses to textile mill operatives and teachers, with both genders joining and establishing labor unions. By the dawn of the 20th century, the Irish had become the largest ethnic group in the state, and Rhode Island became the first in the nation with a Catholic majority.

Upon this solidly green foundation have been built the careers of many Irish luminaries. Joseph Banigan arrived in Rhode Island in the late 1880s and became a leading industrialist and philanthropist. As the first Irish Catholic millionaire in Providence, Banigan used his influence for good, working first with the Little Sisters of the Poor and later establishing St. Maria’s home for Working Girls to support young women employed by the mills. Bishop Thomas Hendricken was born in Kilkenny in 1827 and was ordained the first bishop of Providence in April 1872. It was Hendricken who oversaw construction on the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in downtown Providence, and on Thanksgiving 1878, a slab of Kilkenny marble was laid as its cornerstone. More recently, Rhode Island can point to runner John Treacy, a native of County Waterford and resident of Providence who claimed a silver medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. And then you have their descendants. Providence-born J. Joseph Garrahy was Rhody’s “people’s governor” in the 1970s, perhaps most fondly remembered for guiding the state through the devastating blizzard of 1978, while ass-kicking Florence Kerins Murray was a force for anyone to reckon with. Not only was she appointed a Superior Court judge in 1956, but became chief justice in 1978. Still unconvinced? Just the following year, Murray became Rhode Island’s first female state Supreme Court justice.

The conclusion? Give immigrants a chance … and as Rhody’s latest blow-in from the Emerald Isle, I’ve got a lot to live up to.