Once upon a time, so many years ago, St. Patrick’s Day in Norwich was celebrated with the same gusto as it was in Dublin. There is something about the Irish, and once a year, on the 17th of March, everyone wants to be Irish, if only for a day.
The history of the Irish is so tragic. That great senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, once said to the effect, “To be Irish, you have to know how to cry.” But isn’t that true of the Polish as well, whose history has been so hard and whose people have suffered, and the blacks with slavery?
Perhaps it is their attitude as well as their history that sets the Irish apart. We never think of the Irish as slaves. So often, we think of slavery only as our own in America with the southern plantations, but there were many forms of slavery down through the years. The Scots and Irish suffered slavery under the thumb of the British Empire.
In the 1840s, a potato famine struck, and the great migration to America by the Irish brought a new kind of slavery. It was called indentured servitude. The Irish sailed mostly from Cork and Waterford on what were known as coffin ships. So many died en route. They were like the slave ships that sailed from Africa. When the Irish arrived, they were sold on the docks in Boston, New York and New Orleans to those who could pay their transportation, and then the Irishmen belonged to whomever paid their passage.
The history of slavery in America does not belong to one race or one people. During the American Revolution and before, children would be sold by their parents to pay off debts. The girls would work as cooks and housekeepers, and the boys would work in the fields or in the stables. The great invasion of America by the Irish began because of the cruelty of the British and the great hunger caused by the potato famine.
James Stanley was the first of my family to come to America from Ireland in the 1840s, and he married Sarah Moore, also from Ireland. They lived on Happy Street on Jail Hill. Like so many Irish, he volunteered to fight in the Civil War and fought in seven battles and was wounded. How many in America today realize how much Irish blood was shed during the great Civil War that saved our nation? More than 50 percent of those who died in the Civil War were Irish immigrants, and they fought on both sides. One southern general was heard to say to his northern counterpart, “The only reason you won is because you had more Irish than we did.”
Talking about the fight in the Irish, from the legends of Notre Dame football to the battlefields and the barrooms, there is an old saying that asks the question, “What do you have when you have two Irishmen?” The answer is, “A fight,” and if you have four Irishmen, there is always a fifth. Who was it that said, “God allowed man to invent whiskey so that the Irish wouldn’t take over the world?” And on and on it goes.
The frontiersmen, before the American Revolution, were Irish, but they were Ulster Irish from Northern Ireland. Many of them had escaped Scotland, became Irish, and then moved to America. Old log cabins that so represented the frontier in America are identical in design to the Irish cottages from whence they came. In Ireland they were of stone, and in America, they were log cabins.
One third of George Washington’s army was Irish. They were Protestant Ulster Irish to be sure, and they fought with such fierceness. I guess they loved liberty, but they hated the British more than we did. It was an Irishman, Timothy Murphy, a rifleman, who shot Gen. Simon Fraser at Saratoga, and then, with the men from Norwich and New London, under Benedict Arnold, they turned the tide and won the greatest battle of the American Revolution.
There was a time in Norwich when Pat Sullivan walked the beat along Main Street. Romeo Kane was the legman for the Chamber of Commerce. “Big John” Donovan was chief of police, and Congressman Billy FitzGerald hailed from Norwich. There were the Shannons: Philip as 25-year chairman of the Democratic Town Committee and “Big Jim” Shannon before him, who built the Shannon Building and was a power in business, government and politics. Kelly Junior High School was named after Kelly, chairman of the Board of Education, and Dr. Cassidy, the first Irish doctor in Norwich. Down through the years, all of these great Irishmen were a part of Norwich’s rich heritage.
After the Civil War, my great-grandfather became a policeman. Didn’t every Irishman? After his retirement, Jim Stanley, in the 1870s, became a hack and carriage driver. In fact, I have in my office his license, which was a gift from one of the many readers of my Sunday column, Michael Ezell, of Preston. He discovered it at a yard sale and presented me this very precious family treasure.
The Irish built the Norwich and Worcester Railroad, which made Norwich a boomtown as the seaport for Worcester. Building the railroad, they had to cut the first tunnel in America through solid rock in Lisbon along the Quinebaug River. The Irish built the Ponemah Mill and were the first to work there until they tried to form a union.
The Irish settled in shanties along the railroad tracks in Greeneville and built the first Catholic church in Eastern Connecticut. It was St. Mary’s. It’s structure still stands today and houses Savage Supply. It was the Irish, led by Dr. Cassidy, who marched from Greeneville, 1,700 strong, through downtown, up Broadway, and on Good Friday, April 7, 1871, began to dig the foundation for what is today St. Patrick’s Cathedral. By Easter Sunday morning, the job was done. The foundation was dug, and a cathedral would rise on the 10 cents a week the Irish gave to build their majestic, Gothic, House of God.
My Irish grandmother lived with us when I was a young boy. She spoke Gaelic to her sisters, which provoked my wonderful Canadian French mother. She taught my brother, Jim, and I to dance the jig and so much Irish history. She was a Collins and always told us we were related to the great Michael Collins who was Ireland’s equivalent of George Washington.
I remember the Irish wakes that seemed to be parties where everyone drank and danced. The wakes were held at home. As a small boy, I remember one such wake when my Uncle Chick died a young man. While everyone was singing, dancing and drinking in the kitchen, I remember my grandmother sitting alone with her dead son in the living room. She buried all three of her boys, and, in a real sense, as Senator Moynihan said, “To be Irish you have to know how to cry.”
So much of the Irish tradition is gone. They don’t dance the jig much anymore. There are no Irish wakes as I remember them. St. Patrick’s Day this Wednesday will be a gathering of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, and they dine and they have a toast to the patron saint. There is always a great speaker, and as wonderful as it is today, in my mind, St. Patrick’s Day will never be what it was when I was a boy.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!