Outside of Ireland, New England may be one of the best places to explore Irish history. After all, many people of Irish ancestry live here – and we do love our history.
Massachusetts and New Hampshire have special claims on Irish history. More than one in five residents of each state claims Irish ancestry. And about 18 percent of people living in Rhode Island, Maine and Vermont have Irish ancestors. Connecticut may be the least Irish state in New England, with only 16.6 percent of its people claiming Irish ancestors. But still, it’s in the top ten, with only Delaware claiming slightly more.
We have already brought you six Irish landmarks in New England, but many of them are closed in the winter. So in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we bring you six more places where you can learn about Irish history. Even if it’s cold outside.
Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum
Between 1845-52, half of all immigrants to the United States came from Ireland. A potato blight and English oppression caused mass starvation, disease and death.
The Irish came to the U.S. in vessels called famine ships. If they didn’t die of disease or hunger aboard the ships, they crowded into slums when they arrived. At Quinnipiac University, Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum in Hamden claims the largest collection of visual art, artifacts and printed materials about that tragic episode in Irish history.
The exhibit “Making America: The Irish in the Civil War Era” ends on March 17. The work of Irish immigrant John Mulvany, a sketch artist during the Civil War, accompanies the exhibit.
3011 Whitney Ave, Hamden, Conn.
During the American Revolution, some of the most notable fighters on both sides had Irish ancestry. Two – Henry Knox and John Sullivan — served as Washington’s generals. Another, Jeremiah O’Brien, fought the first naval battle of the American Revolution.
On June 12, 1775, Jeremiah O’Brien led a group of Machias men – some armed only with pitchforks — in capturing a British schooner called the Margaretta. They planned the maneuver at the Burnham Tavern, today a National Historic Site. Visitors can learn the history of the battle and see some of the O’Brien family’s belongings.
Should you decide to explore Irish history in Machias, you’ll find a classic, picturesque Downeast town. And you can get the best blueberry pie in Maine and therefore the world at Helen’s.
Main Street, Machias, Maine
James Michael Curley House
James Michael Curley, Boston’s ‘Rascal King,’ personified the big city political boss for the first half of the 20th century. He spent lavishly on parks and hospitals, which not only served his immigrant constituents but created jobs for them.
Curley first won election as mayor in 1914, and went on to win three more times. He also won as Massachusetts governor and congressman. But he went to prison twice, once for sitting in for a friend on a civil service exam and once for mail fraud. Curley embarrassed the Democratic Party, and he couldn’t get elected as a Democratic delegate to the 1932 convention. Somehow he went as a delegate from Puerto Rico.
Curley built a mansion in Jamaica Plain with shamrocks cut out of the shutters at 350 The Jamaicaway. He never quite explained how he managed to build it on a mayor’s salary. Today there are plans to open the house to the public on a regular basis. Until then, you can embrace Irish history by visiting James Michael Curley Park near Faneuil Hall.
1 Union Street, Boston, Mass.
First Parish Church, East Derry
The Scots-Irish arrived in New England at the invitation of the Massachusetts Puritans, who viewed them as a persecuted Protestant minority like themselves.
The Puritans didn’t exactly embrace the poor Scots-Irish who first arrived in five ships in 1718. They strongly encouraged them to push on toward the frontier (Maine and New Hampshire). The Scots-Irish settlers provided a convenient barrier to unfriendly French and Indians.
In 1719, a group of Scots-Irish settled Nutfield, which evolved into the towns of Derry, Londonderry, Windham, and part of Manchester. When they arrived, they planted the first white potato in North America.
A historic marker in front of the First Parish Church in historic East Derry notes the historic planting of the spud:
The marker reads, “In April 1719, sixteen Presbyterian Scotch-Irish families settled here in two rows of cabins along West Running Brook easterly of Beaver Brook. Initially known as Nutfield, the settlement became Londonderry in 1723. The first year, a field was planted, known as the Common Field, where the potato was first grown in North America.”
On April 12, Nutfield kicks off its 300th anniversary celebration, including a strawberry festival, a founders weekend and an old home day.
47 E Derry Rd, East Derry, N.H.
Governor William Sprague Mansion
On New Year’s Eve 1843, Rhode Island textile baron Amasa Sprague went for a walk. His servant later found his body, shot and bludgeoned.
The rich and powerful Sprague owned several textile mills, including the Cranston Print Works and the Slater Mill. he had had a dispute with three Irish brothers who ran a saloon. One of those brothers, John Gordon, was convicted of his murder.
John Gordon’s real crime was to be Irish at a time when hatred of the Irish ran rampant. The judge had actually told the jury to pay more attention to Yankee witnesses than Irish witnesses.
Even though circumstantial evidence showed John Gordon hadn’t committed the crime, the state hanged him. After Gordon’s execution, Rhode Island banned capital punishment. Then in 2011, Gov. Lincoln Chafee pardoned him.
To trace the events in this sad chapter of Irish history, you can visit Cranston to see where Sprague and Gordon lived. Sprague lived in what is now known as the Governor William Sprague Mansion. The house, now a museum, was named for his son who also lived there.
Sprague died on the grounds of St. Mary’s Church in Cranston, a 100-year old building. His Slater Mill is now on the National Register of Historic Places. You can see a video at the mill in March.
And John Gordon lived above a general store and saloon that is now St. George Maronite Catholic Church.
Governor William Sprague Mansion, 1351 Cranston St, Cranston, R.I.
Battery Street Historic District
Nathaniel Hawthorne visited Burlington in 1832 and published a sketch of the young city. He noted “the great number of Irish emigrants” to be found there. They were everywhere: “lounging” around the wharves,” “swarming in huts and mean dwellings near the lake,” and “elbow[ing] the native citizens” out of work. (You can read the whole sketch here.)
Burlington had lots of Irish immigrants – 30 percent in the mid-19th century. They first sailed from Ireland to Canada, then came down Lake Champlain on steamboats. Most settled near the steamboat wharf.
Irish laborers lived and worked along the industrial waterfront. Today, a section of that waterfront is known as the Battery Street Historic District.
You can join Burlington’s celebration of its Irish history on St. Patrick’s Day with an annual Irish Heritage Festival.
Battery Street Historic District: rough boundaries are Main, St. Paul, and Maple Streets, and Lake Champlain.
Irish History End Notes
Images: Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, By Jllm06 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50748374; Burnham Tavern By Unknown photographer – Reproduced from an original postcard published by G. W. Morris, Portland, Maine, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19769449; First Parish Church of East Derry By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24513489; Gov. William Sprague Mansion By Swampyank – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23861004; Battery Street Historic District By Mfwills – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8672750.
This story was updated in 2022.