When the Irish Refugees Came to Maine

Poverty, Discrimination, and Bitter Struggle [Excerpt]

Painting of the burning of Old South Church by anti-Catholic Know Nothing gangs in Bath, 1854, by artist John Hilling. Photo Courtesy Maine Historical Society.

Maine’s people are diverse,” wrote former Senator George Mitchell in the preface to They Change Their Sky: The Irish in Maine, a collection of essays edited by Maine historian Michael Connolly:

“Some trace their origins back thousands of years to this region’s aboriginal settlers. Others stake their claim to be among its original European settlers, the English and mainly Protestant ancestors of our dominant ethnic group and the source of the stereotypical ‘Downeast Yankee’…. The story of Maine’s people, of course, does not end there. The southward migration of thousands of French Canadians in the 19th and early 20th centuries forever changed the face of Maine and that of all of New England. And the story continues with the late 20th century and current arrivals of refugees from Asia and Africa, especially in Maine’s largest cities.”

But it’s the Irish who made up the largest mass migration of refugees the state has ever seen. Escaping famine and oppression by a tyrannical colonial power, the Irish arrived weak from hunger and often with disease. They were seen as “clannish,” “superstitious,” and beyond hope of assimilation. They endured backbreaking labor as well as political and religious persecution on the streets of many Maine towns.

It’s estimated that between 1845 and 1855, 1.5 million people fled Ireland. By 1901, the population was half what it once was. The most desperate of emigrants were sent off to North America by landlords who found it cheaper to clear the land of the impoverished peasants than to give them relief. Hundreds of emigrants were packed into the ballasts of ships bound for Canada in cramped holds with no light or proper ventilation. Typhoid, dysentery, tuberculosis, and cholera were rampant in the “coffin ships” during the eight- to ten-week voyages to the new world. Most would arrive in Quebec and the Maritimes, where many made the trek on foot or by steamship to Maine.

As David H. Bennett writes in The Party of Fear, in 1847 “of the 89,738 embarking for St Lawrence ports, 5,293 died en route and more than 10,000 more were quarantined aboard ships or in desolate shore stations at Grosse Isle, Quebec, where there was no shelter or food, and stone and wooden benches received the dead and dying.” On Grosse Isle, an inscription in Gaelic on a monument below a Celtic cross reads:

“Children of the Gael died in their thousands on this island having fled from the laws of the foreign tyrants and an artificial famine in the years 1847–48. God’s loyal blessing upon them. Let this monument be a token to their name and honour from the Gaels of America. God Save Ireland.”

Poor Paddy Works on the Railway

In eighteen hundred and sixty-three,
I came across the stormy sea.
My dung’ree breeches I put on
To work upon the railway, the railway,
To work up-on the railway.
Oh, poor Paddy come work on the railway.

—19th-century Irish folk song

Although 80 percent of the famine refugees originated from rural areas, very few Irish went into farming. As Bennett writes, “Unlike many of the German emigres, the Irish settlers had neither the capital nor the training to manage large-scale prairie farms of the American interior.” Having farmed mainly potatoes and root crops on tiny tenant plots, the Irish peasants had been confined to an “ancient term of land tenure offering few rewards for initiative and no way of learning skills necessary to handle cash-crop enterprises of one hundred acres or more, the typical western farm.” With nothing to sell but their labor, the Irish set out for the emerging industrial towns of Maine.

“Paddy” came in 1827 to build the new state capitol building in Augusta, to Bangor for the timber boom, and later to the Portland waterfront and the mills of Lewiston, Biddeford, and Saco. Irish gangs built Maine’s railroads and arrived in the Rockland area to cut stones in the quarries and toil in the lime kilns. Meanwhile their wives and daughters took jobs as domestic helpers for well-to-do families in the cities and much later for rusticators summering on the islands of Penobscot Bay.

Nineteenth-century workers endured 14-hour days of backbreaking, repetitive drudgery until their bodies wore out. Newspapers from the time are full of stories of worker deaths and maimings.

Caption reads “The U.S. Hotel Badly Needs a Bouncer”–the illustration has Uncle Sam and Puck behind the front desk (on the left), with President Chester A. Arthur, center, as the bouncer, clearing the lobby of Irish agitators. A notice on the wall reads “U.S. Hotel–Rules and Regulations–Guest are Required to Preserve Order–No Bomb-Throwing: No Incendiary Talk; No Communism; No Fenianism.” Photo Courtesy Library of Congress.

The Know-Nothings and Anti-Catholic Violence

For many Maine mechanics, farmers, and artisans, the Irish factory laborer represented a threat to their way of life, as the industrial revolution was quickly displacing the small, independent workshop and family farm.

“As America moved toward civil conflict, many natives moved restlessly about the country, caught up in painful mobility of a society in the early stages of industrialization,” wrote Bennett. “Americans sensed, through this turmoil, an increasing gap between the rhetoric of American opportunity and the realities of their social and economic lives.”

At the same time, Yankee Protestants feared that this mysterious religion Catholicism, or as nativists called it, “The Whore of Babylon,” would lead to a papal state ruled by the pope in Rome. In the 1850s, anti-Catholic secret societies like the Order of the Star Spangled Banner emerged. They were labeled “Know Nothings,” as the Order was oath-bound to secrecy and members would respond that they “knew nothing” when asked questions about the group.

Know-Nothing groups soon sprung up across Maine, and in 1855 they helped elect Governor Anson P. Morrill, who appealed to the nativist cause and the emerging temperance movement. Anti-Catholic mob violence exploded in the 1850s, fueled by religious zealots, demagoguing newspaper editors, and opportunistic politicians.

“These nativists looked on America as a threatened paradise,” wrote Bennett. “But the struggle in which they had enlisted would decide more than the fate of the nation. It would determine whether true freedom could be preserved anywhere. . . . It was a battle to preserve the cherished past and to secure the future of the United States.”

As early as the 1830s, anti-Irish riots swept through Maine towns. After one violent eruption in Bangor in 1833, the Belfast Republican Journal (quoted by James H. Mundy, in Hard Times, Hard Men, Maine and the Irish) wrote:

“Nothing would appease the sailors until they had torn down all the Irish houses and thrashed the inmates. We understand further that the Irish people were all driven from town; but this we doubt. Bangor has become a young New York—they have their riots and ever and anon kill an Irishman or a sailor with as little a ceremony as real New Yorkers. Oh, the beauties of Bangor!”

In 1854, two days of anti-Catholic mob violence erupted in Bath, which resulted in the burning of the meeting house where local Catholics held mass. As it was reported at the time, the crowd marched to the church in the late afternoon and began smashing windows and pews, hoisted an American flag from the belfry, rang the bell and then burned the church to the ground. They then set out on the town, terrorizing Irish residents and evicting them from their shanties.

“The Bath riot showed above all that the cancer of nativism had become not only politically institutionalized in Maine,” wrote Mundy. “Once again, the politicos failed to grasp that the mob genie is easier to let out of the bottle than to get it back in. Allowing the rabble to do your dirty work can shake the delicate matrix of the social order to the point of disintegration.”

In Newcastle, a Know-Nothing gang plotted to burn St. Patrick’s, but were reportedly thwarted by the High Sheriff of Lincoln County, who stationed guards to stave off the rowdy mob.

In the end, the Know-Nothing movement eventually faded as the pre-war nativism became eclipsed by the anti-slavery politics of the emerging Republican Party in the lead-up to the Civil War. But nativism and anti-Catholic movements would continue to flare up in the decades following the Civil War, most notably in the 1920s when the fiery cross of the Ku Klux Klan burned hot in Maine.

“No one said any prayers over nativism, for it was not dead,” wrote Mundy. “Deeply ingrained in the American psyche, it only lies in various stages of dormancy, waiting to be kissed awake by political and religious opportunists.”

And certainly the Irish were not immune to the pull of nativism. As they became more established in their new home, many would transfer the bigotry they experienced toward later immigrants like the French-Canadians. Still, while bigotry exists, so does tolerance and compassion.

“Not everyone hated to see the Irish come and not everyone treated them with contempt,” wrote Mundy. “Along the road from Eastport to Ellsworth and then to Bangor, some rural Maine Yankees opened up their doors and shared their food with ragged and starving refugees. Not because they approved of their religion or welcomed their appearance, but because a lot of rural Maine Protestants didn’t turn the hungry away from their doors unfed or deny them shelter in their hour of need. In a story filled with bigotry and violence it is well to remember these people, many Irishmen did—for the remainder of their lives.”

In Maine, the Irish gradually made their way into local politics, first through municipal alderman and city council elections and later at the state and national level. Maine Senator George Mitchell, a descendant of Irish immigrants, would go on to help broker the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, finally bringing lasting peace to Northern Ireland.

For more information, please see the complete article by Andy O’Brien, which appeared in the Free Press, Thursday, March 12, 2015. Reprinted with permission from the Free Press and author.

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