By Michael Patrick Feighan
“Just imported from Dublin in the Brig Darby, A Parcel of Irish Servants, both men + women, to be sold cheap by Israel Boardman, at Stamford.”
—Connecticut Gazette, January 5, 1764
Few note that this was the lot of the Irish in the 18th century, that English Lords kidnapped Irishmen and sold them into slavery in the colonies.
This anti-Irish sentiment was also anti-Catholic. In order to own property or to have a vote in the Colony of Connecticut, one had to swear a public oath renouncing the Catholic Church and her tenets. The celebration of Mass was prohibited by law, as was the presence of priests. As the independence movement grew and the idea of men being created equal, endowed with inalienable rights—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—took hold, this atmosphere began to wither.
Before 1840, the population of Stamford was less than 4,000. It was just a sleepy village, although it did have a thriving economy: 21 general stores, 12 shoemaker shops, four carpenter shops and three iron-rolling mills. There were copper and tinware factories; a gristmill, tannery, carriage maker, silversmith, millinery, a bakery, leather shop, three lumber yards and a coal yard.
The early Irish were the immigrant workers of the day and were the first immigrant group in Stamford. Many came to help build the canals and railroads of the country. The railroad industry brought its first train to stop in Stamford in 1848, and in 1849, Stamford became a stop on the railroad line between New York City and New Haven.
By 1850, Stamford’s population was 5,000, and a large part of that was Irish. With the Great Hunger in Ireland, a large number left looking for a better life. The railroad allowed them to come to Stamford from the ports of Boston and New York to work in the mills and factories.
By 1860 the population of Stamford was over 7,000 and the census reveals that by 1870, 28 percent of the adult males had been born in Ireland.
As the community blossomed, the Irish immigrants settled into tenements built along the rail lines. The first ethnic enclave “Dublin” was by the old railroad roundhouse just east of the canal. Just west of the Mill River became another Irish enclave “Kerrytown,” so named because so many laborers were from County Kerry in Ireland. In the Cove area, around the Stamford Manufacturing Company (also known as Cove Mills), boarding houses were built and the need for more housing was apparent.
George Hoyt built blocks of apartments in “Hoytville”, the Cottage-Pacific Street back area of Atlantic Square. The Irish were also employed at the Rippowam Iron Works, the Stillwater & Roxbury Iron Mills, the Stamford Gas Light Company and Hoyt, Getman & Judd.
Yale & Town Lock Manufacturing Company, built in 1869, was to provide the primary place of employment for Stamford’s Irish, as well as later ethnic groups.
Central to the Irish was their Church. The first Mass celebrated in Stamford was in 1842, at the house of Patrick Drew for the three resident Catholic families.
As the congregation swelled to 200 in 1848, there was the need for a “real” church building. In 1870, monies were raised and the present Atlantic Street site was purchased for St. John’s Church. Work on the site began in 1871. Work on the basement was completed by 1875 and the first Mass was celebrated on Thanksgiving Day, 1875. Parishioners numbered around 300. The church was completed and dedicated on May 30, 1886.
Politics played a large role for Irish immigrants. This too, was a struggle for equality and representation. The Know-Nothing Party, formed in Connecticut in 1853, had as its goal the prevention of Irish American political participation and office holding.
The platform of the party standard-bearer, William T. Minor, Governor of Connecticut in 1855 and 1856 was:
1) To protect every American citizen in the legal and proper exercise of all his civil and religious rights and privileges;
2) To resist the insidious policy of the Church of Rome, and all other foreign influences against our republican institutions;
3) To place in all offices of honor, trust or profit…none but native-born Protestant citizens; and
4) To protect, preserve and uphold the union of these states and the Constitution of the same.
But the Irish were not to be deterred. Men with names like Duffy, Hanrahan, Rogers, Bolster, and Ennis managed to get elected to local and State offices. The election of attorney William Bohannan, of Dublin (the city, not the neighborhood), as mayor of Stamford in 1897 set the Irish Democratic team in motion. We have had a few Irish mayors since then; not to mention several Governors.
This brings us to the present.
Michael Patrick Feighan is President of the Irish-American Cultural Society of Stamford, a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and a parishioner of St. Maurice Parish in Stamford.