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It’s that time of the year when the whole world goes green.
In Chicago, the river runs green. In Dublin, Ohio, where they recently step-danced into the Guinness Book of Records, green duds are de rigueur. The White House will become a Green House with President Obama—who has some Irish genes—donning shamrocks. And in parades in New Haven and even New Canaan, in Sydney, Seoul and Savannah, St. Patrick’s Day features such an outpouring that the Mad Hatter himself might be alarmed.
But what does being even part Irish mean anymore in Connecticut on the other 364 days of the year? The people of this state, where nearly one out of five citizens claims Irish roots, once knew well. “The Land of Steady Habits” was transformed by an Irish population that exploded from 1,000 or so in 1840 to 55,000 by 1860, to perhaps 250,000 (including their offspring) by 1890. The earliest immigrants arrived via filthy “coffin ships,” then crammed together in hovels and tenements to work as chambermaids, factory hands and canal diggers—or simply to beg.
And they were not always welcomed here, what with the Hartford Courant at one point raging against “ignorant, degraded and priest-led foreigners.” “No Irish Need Apply” signs were commonplace.
Being Irish in 19th-century Connecticut involved wrenching feelings of loss—among parents and siblings forever separated, families devastated by infant mortality and a feeling that they’d never see their homeland again.
“The history of the Irish in Connecticut began in anguish,” says John Lahey, president of Quinnipiac University, which recently opened the extraordinary Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, dedicated to the Great Famine and its aftermath of mass migration to America. “They had to scrape for the lowest, most dangerous and backbreaking jobs, and suffered from an incredible sense of disorientation. People used to say, ‘Don’t hire the freed slaves, hire the Irish—they’re cheaper.’”
My own paternal ancestors hailed from a dirt farm in County Monaghan, where 16 children were stuffed into a couple of bedrooms—the common practice then was for children to sleep in dresser drawers. Like so many of his compatriots arriving in Connecticut’s gritty industrial cities, my great-grandfather, John S. Monaghan, a late conscript in the Army of the Republic in the Civil War, moved down from upstate New York and landed a job in a mill—in his case, the inferno of Waterbury’s Scovill Rolling Mill. There, men toiled at belching furnaces, slopped molten fluids and hefted raw copper and bronze into “pickling” vats. The last involved stirring sulfuric and nitric acid to cleanse the raw ore to make a better, brighter button. Molten zinc, lead and antimony in the brew gave off fumes so toxic that delirious tremors were nearly universal. The antidote was whiskey and song:
“They’ll send you to the muffles, boys,
and they’ll say that all is swell,
But just you take a tip from me,
I’d rather be in Hell.
If he gave me a broom to sweep the floor,
I’d do it with a will,
But I’ll be damned if I’ll work at the pickle tub
for Wilcox in the mill.”
The new immigrants, my own ancestors included, somehow adopted dual identities, with one foot in their new land and another still feeling back for its Irish identity, like a trembling vestigial limb. During the Civil War, the primarily Irish “Fighting Ninth Regiment” out of New Haven lost a third of its numbers while battling for the Union at Vicksburg and Baton Rouge. Yet its leaders would soon join in the launching of a star-crossed brigantine called Erin’s Hope to take thousands of guns back to Ireland. In 1883, a submarine called Fenian Ram could get no farther than from New York to New Haven in its hopes of wreaking havoc on British shipping. A similar fiasco beset its Irish-American-engineered predecessor, the Intelligent Whale. Eventually, most of that passion subsided, although in some quarters it never disappeared.