A Tale of Manchester’s Irish Community

By March 15, 2017 Member Insights

A Tale of Manchester’s Irish Community

By Guest Blogger: John Clayton

John Clayton, Executive Director, Manchester Historic Association


Seeing as how it’s nearly St. Patrick’s Day, it seems like the perfect time for a serious, substantive piece about the historical impact of the Irish in Manchester.

Personally, I hope someone writes one soon.

Just kidding. If you want a serious study of the Irish influx into our city, I recommend former School Board Member Kathryn Schofield Staub’s brilliant graduate thesis entitled ”Irish Immigrants and the Catholic Church in Manchester, 1848-1875,” which is on my desk in my office at the Millyard Museum at this very moment.

As for me, I prefer to develop my own warped history of Manchester’s Irish community, which is why I’ve spent the past week hanging out in bars and taverns, generally consorting with my fellow Hibernians – not that this represents a significant break from my normal routine.

Anyway, for historical starters, you should know that it was in the late 1840s, when the Emerald Isle was being ravaged by the Great Hunger – sometimes referred to as the Irish Potato Famine – that the Irish first came to Manchester seeking work in the newly burgeoning mills of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company.

Prevailing historical opinion would have you believe that the Irish were not welcome here. Not true. In fact, the Protestant Yankees of the city were so excited about the prospect of Irish Catholics settling here that they organized a welcoming committee to meet the Irish at the border.

Of course, they were carrying sticks and rocks.

Ultimately, that was a mistake. After centuries perfecting their skills at the game of hurling, the Irish were much better with sticks and rocks, so, after persuading the Yankees to let them in, they settled in an area south of Hanover Street that became known as The Field.

If the Yankees did have a problem with the Irish around here, at least they were discreet. Did they hang ”No Irish Need Apply” signs on the door? No indeed. They hung them in the middle of store front windows.

And the school committee? Did they accuse the Irish of being Pope-worshipping, drunken slackards? No way. They did complain in one annual report about ”foreigners (shorthand for Irish) spending their time in the streets in idleness and incipient dissipation, disturbing the peace of our citizens by their profane, obscene and blasphemous language,” but let’s not get picky.

With that kind of strong, civic leadership, you can see why the Protestants and Catholics got together often. Mostly to fight. They clashed on a regular basis until July 3, 1854, when a riot broke out. Hanover Street in Manchester looked like Falls Road in Belfast, but just as a mob was about to torch the Irish parish at St. Anne, John Maynard stepped into the fray.

Theodore T. Abbot

As the city’s leading building contractor at the time, Maynard was able to disperse the crowd, partly because he held the working future of many Protestants in the palm of his hand. Perhaps more importantly, he held a gun in the palm of his other hand. Unfortunately, not all the residents of Manchester were as enlightened

as John Maynard, because in the election of 1855 – with the national anti-Catholic Know-Nothing political

movement at its peak – voters in this city elected a bigot named Theodore T. Abbot, giving the city its first Know-Nothing Mayor.

Politics being what it is, you have my permission to use that straight line any way you wish.
Abbot’s efforts notwithstanding, over the next 50 year – largely because of the efforts of Father William McDonald and Mother Frances Xavier Warde from the Sisters of Mercy – the Irish began to settle into the fabric of the city. Sure, the rich and powerful altered the weave now and again, like when the voting boundaries were deliberately gerrymandered to isolate the Irish in Ward 5, but that was okay by an aldermanic rascal named Richard J. Barry – the Dan O’Neil of his day – who became known as the voice of the Fightin’ Fifth.

Barry was just one of the hundreds of Hibernians who helped carry the city’s Irish community into the 20th century. I set the date of complete assimilation in 1905, when the Irish – literally taking the torch from the Yankee Welcome Wagon – had a rumble with the next wave of immigrants, the Greeks.

Hey, what’s a city without tradition?

Over the years, the Irish have contributed mightily to the traditions of this city, whether it was the brave volunteers who joined the 10th Regiment during the Civil War (disproving allegations that Irish allegiance was to the Pope) or colorful characters like Bartholomew ”Batty” Manahan, who held the state record for eating three dozen eggs at a sitting before his death in 1896. From heart disease, incidentally.

It was an Irishman (John Sullivan) who first brought baseball to Manchester in 1869 when the Manchester Atlantics played at The Carrot Field, which is now known as Kalivas Park, and another Irishman, lyricist Emmett Duffee, who became Manchester’s own George M. Cohan with songs like ”Dear Old Spruce Street” and ”The Pine Island Park Song.”

John L. Kelly

Support of Irish causes was so great here that celebrity visitors like heavyweight boxing champ ”Gentleman”

Jim Corbett came to Manchester in 1892 and former Irish President Eamonn De Valera stopped by in 1919. Irish solidarity created local heroes as well, such as Martin Dillon, publisher of ”The Emerald,” a local Irish newspaper, and the city’s first Irish mayor, John L. Kelly, whose election in 1879 triggered some serious celebration.

Of course, my high journalistic standards demand that I acknowledge the Irish affinity for celebration. The year Kelly was elected, of the 154 saloons in Manchester, 101 were Irish, which convinced many of the austere city leaders that the only thing in this town that would ever be named after an Irishman was the paddy wagon.

They were wrong, of course, because in the fashion of local lightweight boxing legend Patsy Sweeney, the Irish proved they could take a punch, physical or verbal.

You want proof? In 1844, according to Ms. Staub’s research, there were a handful of Irish in Manchester. By 1848, Father McDonald was greeted by a flock of 600. Come 1850, the count was up to 1,325 out of a city populace of 13,933, which historians would have to regard as one serious demographic trend.

And how far have the Irish come? The embattled minority is now the exalted majority, since the local census shows that Manchester boasts more residents of Irish ancestry than any other ethnic group.

So I guess we’ll be looking for you to join us proud Hibernian types on St. Patrick’s Day, whether it’s at the Raphael Club or The Wild Rover or Shaskeen or Murphy’s or McGarvey’s or the downtown watering hole of your choice.

Like they say, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.