Irish in Massachusetts History Conference

Congratulations to UMass Lowell which teamed up this past week with Queen’s College Belfast for a world-class history conference at the Inn & Conference Center.  Called “The Irish in Massachusetts: Historical Significance, Lasting Legacy,” the conference began on Wednesday night and ended Saturday morning with a tour of St. Patrick’s Cemetery.  In between, attendees heard from scholars, authors and political figures who discussed the latest research in Irish American history, especially as seen in Massachusetts and in Lowell.  I’ll address the political comments elsewhere.  Below I’ve tried to capture some of the major historical themes that were explored during the conference.

Irish in Massachusetts history conference

Irish in Massachusetts history conference

The Keynote Address was given on Wednesday night by Dr. Timothy Meagher, Associate Professor and University Archivist, the Catholic University of America.  Dr. Meagher, who Brian Mitchell (the author of The Paddy Camps”) described as “one of the best thinkers on Irish-American history” opened the conference on Wednesday night with a sweeping talk that took us from the Revolutionary War up through today.  Two things stuck with me: the story of the Irish in America is very complex; and this is a very dynamic field in history with constantly changing interpretations.  Some of the things Dr. Meagher emphasized were that the first big migration of Irish to Massachusetts began in 1815 when the end of the Napoleonic Wars triggered a recession in Ireland.  Many of the first Irish to come to America were Presbyterians who felt persecuted by the established Church of Ireland (which was closely affiliated with the Church of England, not the Catholic Church).  The reaction to the established population of Massachusetts (i.e., the Yankees) varied.  In Boston, it was hostile.  In Lowell and Worcester there were more efforts at accommodation.  Big changes occurred after 1845 with the arrival of the Famine Irish which caused the Irish population in Massachusetts to skyrocket.  Even though the Famine Irish didn’t do well in Massachusetts, they kept coming anyway because of established contacts.  Also, women were able to find work in the mills or as “domestics.”  Prejudice against the Irish became very intense at this point.  Second generation Irish tended towards accomodationist policies that de-emphasized their Irishness and highlighted their Americanness.  The 1930s saw a revival of the image of the Boston Irish as backward.  This was partly because of the bad economy but also because of a rise of anti-semitisim.  After World War Two, there was increasing friction between liberals and Catholics.  In much of the rest of the country, Irish Catholics were much quicker to switch to the Republican Party than was the case in Massachusetts.  This was partly due to the Kennedys who gave the Democratic Party some cache and glamour.  Dr. Meagher closed with references to recent popular movies like The Town and The Fighter which depict the Irish of Massachusetts as working class guys living in tough neighborhoods they are constantly trying to escape.  It’s all very complicated, he said.

Thursday opened with presentations by Professor Audrey Horning, Head of the School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology at Queen’s University Belfast and by Dr. William Roulston, Research Director of the Ulster Historical Foundation.  Both talked of the relationship between England, Ireland, and North America from the 1550s through the end of the American Revolution.  One prevailing notion in North Atlantic history has been that the Englishmen who settled the plantations in Ireland in the 16th century used the experience they gained there to help settle North America.  The two speakers here did confirm that it was the same group of men who settled both places, but they argued that the settlements happened simultaneously and that many who tried life in the New World retreated to Ireland because it was much easier there than it was in early Virginia.  Two other interesting points were the extent to which early American settlers coming from Ireland were Presbyterians who were driven out by religious persecution.  Also, in both America and in Ireland, archeological evidence is proving that the English and Native Irish and Native Americans lived in a much closer and cooperative manner than the popularly accepted narratives would suggest.

The next speaker was Luke Pecorara, the Assistant Director For Archeological Research at Mount Vernon.  His subject was Daniel Gookin who came to America in 1625, first to Virginia and then to Massachusetts.  I was especially interested in this talk since Gookin’s name is found throughout the earliest records at the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds.  In other words, he bought and sold a lot of property in this vicinity during the 17th century.  Next came an interesting talk on the Irish in Maine, 1760 to 1820, by Dr. Ed McCarron, a Stonehill College historian.

Dr. Mary Kelly, a History Professor at Franklin Pierce University spoke on the Great Famine.  She said the legacy of the hunger – aside from the fact that it caused 1.5 million people to leave Ireland for America – is still not well understood.  That’s partly because the Irish had such a hard time being accepted in America that they feared that any discussion of the famine (i.e., blaming it on the British) would raise doubts among Americans of the “political reliability” of the Irish who had come to America.  For this reason, remembrances of the famine receded to the background in America for several generations.  Dr. Kelly argued that it was only with the 150th anniversary of the famine in the 1990s that “Irishness became a heritage worth celebrating.”  With the Irish in America fully assimilated, the famine could finally be recognized and discussed as the “deep scar” it was.

Dr. Ian Delahanty of the Boston College History Department spoke on “The Union, Slavery, and Irish Americans in the Civil War.”  He argued that the prevailing narrative of the Irish in the Civil War – that they were adamant in their support of the union but were just as likely to blame the war on northern abolitionists as they were southern slave owners was “too simple.”  His point was that more Irish than we think saw the benefits of abolition to the effort to win the war.  The Irish were quick to enlist to show their support for their new country.  There was also some interest in using the military skills learned during the war to assist the cause of Irish independence.  Opposition to the draft was intertwined with opposition to the Emancipation Proclamation.  The generally poor Irish opposed a draft system that allowed people with enough money to buy their way out of military service and they saw Emancipation as a threat to the value of their labor since freed slaves would likely move to northern cities and compete with the Irish for low paying jobs.

On Friday morning, Lowell native Brian Mitchell, author of The Paddy Camps, spoke on the historical context of the Irish in Lowell.  He identified two distinct periods: pre and post famine.  Pre-famine, the Irish in Lowell reached many accommodations with the Yankees and relations weren’t that bad.  The arrival of the Famine Irish after 1846 was a different story.  That’s partly because Lowell was already beginning to fade as an industrial center by this point because of a technological shift from water power to steam power in manufacturing.  This early erosion exacerbated anxieties about the newcomers.  Dr. Mitchell closed by describing the great need for further investigation of the Irish in Lowell in the years after the Civil War, especially from 1865 to 1890.

One Response to Irish in Massachusetts History Conference

  1. Marie says:

    I agree that it was a world-class conference. Speakers explored topics with fresh eyes. Context and chronology was helpful to frame what I already knew. I hope this is the beginning of a series of conferences. The literary and “political” panels were outstanding! Kudos to the Chancellor and all from UMass Lowell, Queens University and the presenters – a job well-done.