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Their Own Stories: Voices from Middletown's Melting Pot
Ellen Hanley was struggling to keep her family together in the winter of 1862. Her husband Daniel had died a year earlier, killed in an accident in the brownstone quarry where he worked. Ellen, sick with tuberculosis, desperately fought to support their children, eight-year-old Margaret, five-year-old Johanna, and Patrick, who was just three. For Ellen Hanley, the honeyed promises of America had turned bittersweet.
With over a million others, Daniel and Ellen had fled Ireland's potato famine to come to America. Daniel was 19 when he left his home in Roscommon County about 1847. But the famine Irish who began arriving in the 1840s were the first large group of non-English, non-Protestant immigrants to arrive in Connecticut, and many local people were suspicious of the newcomers who were for the most part illiterate, malnourished, desperately poor, and Catholic. Many of Middletown's Irish families found life in their new country a struggle against discrimination and poverty.
They were not the first people from the land of Eire to settle here. A handful of Irish people had come to Middletown in the 1700s. Among them were Michael Maloney (a sailor, whose son fought for the American army during the Revolutionary War), Timothy Hierlihy (a farmer who actively supported the British in the Revolutionary War), and Philip Mortimer, a well-to-do gentleman whose business making rope for Middletown's maritime trade made him the city's wealthiest resident.
By 1850, Middletown was home to nearly 700 Irish-born residents (almost eight percent of the city's population). Most of the men worked as laborers. Many, like Daniel, took backbreaking, dangerous jobs in the brownstone quarries across the river in Portland. Irish women often became domestic servants or took in laundry. In a strange coincidence, many of Middletown's Irish came from Middleton in County Cork.
Immigrants continued to arrive from Ireland throughout the 1800s and into the 1900s, though their circumstances were not nearly as desperate as those who fled the famine. By the end of the 19th century, Middletown's Irish population was well established here. Many men worked in factories, opened their own businesses, or became firefighters or police officers. Women often took jobs as matrons, launderers, or cooks at the Connecticut Hospital for the Insane. They worshipped together at St. John Church, and created mutual benefit organizations such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
In 1920, Middletown elected as its mayor James F. Connery, the son of Irish immigrants, confirming the Irish community's position in the city.
At seven o'clock in the morning, six days a week, laborers descended into the pits on long ladders screwed into the quarry walls. Sharp explosions and the sound of steel against stone cracked through the air as the workers struggled to free slabs of the rich brownstone that was in great demand for elegant townhouses, churches, and public buildings from Boston to San Francisco.
Irish immigrants formed the bulk of the quarries' labor force beginning in the 1840s. The jobs were low paying, physically exhausting, and dangerous. Accidents were frequent and fatalities not uncommon. Eleven-hour days were the norm.
While the owners of the three quarries grew wealthier and wealthier, few Irish laborers earned enough to buy their own homes.
Old St. John's Cemetery, Middletown
Daniel Hanley was 33 years old when he was killed in a quarry accident in 1861, leaving a wife and three young children. Ironically, the monument that commemorates him is cut from brownstone.
Hanley came from Roscommon County about 1847. In Middletown, his family lived adjacent to St. John Church. His wife Ellen died of tuberculosis less than two years after his death. The fates of their three young children are unknown.
Irish residents opened their first Catholic church here in 1843, but soon outgrew it. Despite their initial poverty, the immigrants soon were able to build a majestic new church. Many of the parishioners were stone workers who volunteered their labor to build the church out of brownstone donated by the owners of the quarries in which they worked. St. John Church opened in 1852 with seating for 1,000 worshippers--testimony to its members' faith and determination.
Architect Patrick Keely, himself an Irish immigrant, designed St. John Church. In 1872 the church erected St. Elizabeth's Convent (right), and in 1888 opened the parochial school (left) which still instructs local children.
The Irish population of this city and vicinity are unanimous in their wish and determination to support the Government. In spite of the prophecies of many to the contrary, we have not heard of a single Irishman who has shown a disposition to prove false to the stars and stripes. They have shown a great readiness to volunteer, and several are enrolled in the company that has just been formed.
In addition to this, there is a prospect that a large company will be formed composed mostly of Irish volunteers.
- The Constitution newspaper, April 31 [sic], 1861
Irish men volunteered for the Union Army from the outset of the Civil War. Although Connecticut had earlier outlawed Irish units in its state militia, Governor Buckingham quickly authorized the formation of Connecticut's Ninth Regiment, to be composed of men of Irish birth or descent. The Ninth began recruiting soldiers in Middletown and Portland in October of 1861.
Twelve men from Middletown enlisted in the "destined to be gallant" unit, whose battle flag sported an image of the Irish harp. Among them was 17-year-old Dennis Deegan, the son of Irish immigrants. Dennis was a drummer in the Ninth Regiment's band, a seemingly safe assignment. Yet musicians often took to the battlefield, playing melodies to inspire the troops in battle.
Not long after Dennis enlisted, his regiment was engaged in battle twice in four days in Louisiana. Undeterred, Dennis went on to re-enlist several months later. But the luck of the Irish failed the young drummer this time: in July of 1864, Dennis succumbed to an unknown disease, dying in camp at the age of 18.
Ancient Order of Hibernians
Parade Photograph, August 22, 1916
Courtesy of Jack Murray
In 1872, saloon owner John F. Nolan organized the Middletown chapter of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, whose purpose was "to promote the Friendship, Unity, and Christian Charity of its members and preserve the spirit of Irish Nationality." Members were required to be "practical Catholics, of Irish blood or descent who love Ireland and revere the Catholic Church." Formed as a mutual aid society, the Hibernians pledged to care for the Irish community's sick, provide for its widows and orphans and contribute toward the burial of its poor.
Membership in the Middletown chapter increased quickly, and a Ladies' Auxiliary was soon established. The Hibernians opened their own club on Spring Street, gathering there for St. Patrick's Day and other celebrations.
In 1916, the Middletown chapter hosted a State Parade and Field Day for the Ancient Order of Hibernians throughout Connecticut. Thousands attended the parade, which was followed by a field day at Crystal Lake, with athletic events, music and dancing. In this photograph, Hibernians line up beside St. John's Church preparing for the parade up Middletown's Main Street.
Most of the Irish immigrants who fled the potato famine in the 1840s and 1850s struggled to earn a living in menial jobs. But the first generation of American-born Irish began to move up the city's economic ladder, landing steady jobs at factories, and sometimes opening their own businesses. They also moved into positions as public servants.
By the end of the 1800s, Middletown's fire department was peppered with employees with names like O'Brien and Daley, and fully half of the city's regular police force claimed Irish ancestry. Clockwise from lower left are Officer Joseph Kincaid, unidentified (probably Officer Thomas Kinsella), Officer Addison Chapman, Officer Patrick Ghent, and Chief A.W. Inglis.
Courtesy of Mrs. Ann Shugrue
Immigrants continued to arrive from Ireland long after the famine had ended. Mary Ann Donovan left Dublin in the early 1880s, while still a teenager, to stay with relatives in Middletown. For several years, she worked as domestic servant; family tradition holds that she was a cook at Wesleyan University.
She returned to Dublin about 1888 and married Thomas Cronin. Just a few years later, in 1892, the Cronins boarded a ship bound for America. Their first child, Ann, was a toddler, and Mary Ann was pregnant with their second child.
The Cronins settled on Railroad Avenue in Portland and raised four children. Like many Irish immigrants, Thomas worked as a laborer. Mary Ann created this colorful "crazy quilt" about a century ago from scraps in her sewing bag. In addition to needlework, she was renowned for her chocolate cake.
Today, 12 decades after Mary Ann Donovan first arrived here as a nervous teenager, her great-great grandchildren are Middletown residents.