Once upon a time, and for a very long time, not a single Roman Catholic or Irishman lived in Norwich.
During the 1600s, when Norwich was established and incorporated, into the 1700s, when Samuel Huntington and Benedict Arnold walked the byways of our town as the American Revolution was fought and won, not one Catholic lived in Norwich.
The United States was born. George Washington was elected, and still no Irishman lived in Norwich. The world entered the 1800s, and our nation fought the War of 1812, and not until 1824 did the first Irish Catholic take up residence in Norwich — Edward Murphy.
Thursday is St. Patrick’s Day. Today thousands of Irish live in Norwich and Eastern Connecticut.
It was the Irish who arrived in the 1830s who established the Irish population, some 3,500 strong. Many of them were Scotch-Irish Protestants, but the majority were Irish Roman Catholics.
The Irish built the Norwich-Worcester Railroad and cut a tunnel in Lisbon, through solid granite, the first of its kind in America. The railroad, begun in 1835, was completed in 1840, and Norwich became a boom town.
The Norwich harbor, because of the railroad, became the second busiest harbor in New England — Boston was first. As it happened, we became the harbor for Worcester because of the railroad. Coming to Norwich by boat and taking the train to Worcester was two days shorter than going around Cape Cod through Boston.
In the mid-1840s, as the Irish potato famine struck, my ancestors, and most of the Catholic Irish, migrated to America. Those Irish built the Ponemah Mill and, for a while, worked there until some smart aleck thought they should have a union.
The Irish were all fired. It was the importation of the French Canadians to work in the mills that brought the other side of my family, the Buteaus, to Baltic.
In 1824, there was but one Irishman. In the 1840s, there were more than 4,000 Irishmen in Norwich. Many of them lived in shanties along the railroad tracks in an Irish settlement known as Greeneville with an “e.” It was then that the need for the first Catholic church became apparent.
An Irishman, Father James Fitton, was the first priest to establish a Catholic church, and the Mass was celebrated at St. Mary’s in Greeneville on Christmas Day in 1844. The dedication was, appropriately, on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. That first church is still there, but now is Savage Supply.
Those Irish also established St. Mary Cemetery and would later build a mill to be run by the man Greeneville is named for. More important than the first church was the Irish building a new church on Broadway by each family contributing 10 cents a week.
The plan started in 1853, when St. Mary’s became too small for the Irish Catholics. It was on Good Friday, April 7, 1871, that the work began. The Irish from Greeneville marched 1,700 strong, led by Dr. Patrick Cassidy, to the present site of St. Patrick Cathedral, preceded by the Norwich City Band with horses and carts filled with picks and shovels. Those Irishmen worked endlessly from Good Friday until Easter morning. That army dug the complete foundation, by hand, in slightly more than three days.
It was during that time they first realized they were building not a simple, wooden church but a majestic, stone Gothic, spired cathedral. Father Mullins had led his flock, but died after 10 years of extraordinary dedication on March 3, 1878.
It is said that on St. Patrick’s Day everyone is Irish. My dear wife used to get so angry when I would call her a “wannabe,” but at her insistence, Peggy and I have traveled to Ireland nine times during the past 20 years.
I wondered, as I motored around Ireland, where it was that my great-grandfather and great-grandmother came from. It was County Meech where Jim Stanley was born and raised, and Sarah Collins was born and raised in County Cork.
They both sailed to America from Cork, and my great-grandmother served five years of indentured servitude for the Slaters. She was literally sold on the Boston docks for her fare to America. She settled in Norwich because she worked for the Slaters and later married my great-grandfather, James Stanley. They lived on Happy Street. He was a hack driver, and during the Civil War fought in seven battles and was wounded several times. Upon being honorably discharged, he became a Norwich policeman. He had a long beard, and his beat was the waterfront — a tough beat in its day.
My grandmother, Mary (who we all called Mame), had two sisters: Katherine (Kate) McDonough and Beth Carey. It was quite a house, the Stanley house. My mother, having invited my grandmother to live with us, later would tell anyone who would listen that there was no house big enough for two women. Growing up with a French Canadian mother and an Irish Catholic grandmother, both fighting for the love of the same man, presented a liberal education in managing opinions and tempers.
My grandmother and her sisters spoke Gaelic, and they would sit on the porch on summer afternoons. My mother would say to me, “They are talking about me, you know,” and I am sure she was right.
On St. Patrick’s Day, they would dance the jig in the kitchen and sing Irish songs all night, or until the majority passed out.
The deceased Irish of my childhood never went to undertakers. The wake was held in the home, and the mourners stayed up all night, but they sang, and they danced, and they celebrated the fact that the deceased was going to heaven.
It is said, though I doubt it is true, that one Irish wake went on for a week because they hid the body, and the celebration continued until it was found.
The Irish are a very good people. There are certain traits with all ethnic groups. The quiz about the Irish goes like this: What do you have when you have two Irishmen? Of course, the answer is a fight … and where there are four Irishmen, there is always a fifth.
The curse of the Irish is they drink and fight too much. On his deathbed, my father, knowing his faults, made me promise I would take care of my mother and never drink. To this day, I have kept both promises.
But on St. Patrick’s Day, I, like all Irishmen, am proud of my heritage and the many wonderful things the Irish have done here in Norwich and throughout America.
To everyone, Irish and non-Irish alike — Erin go bragh. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.