Employment for the Irish

These new arrivals found employment in an assortment of arrangements as diverse as the communities in which they made their new homes. As has been previously outlined, a large percentage of Irish immigrants found work as unskilled laborers providing the backbreaking and low-cost manpower needed to construct new infrastructure projects such as canals, roads, railroads, bridges, and dams that sprouted up throughout the state during the 1840s and 1850s. However, as this work was completed and transportation networks improved, the state’s economy began to shift towards a focus on industry.

The establishment of a rapidly increasing number of new manufacturing entities was accelerated by the development of new sources of power generation and a reduced dependence on water-driven technologies and their associated geographic limitations. In addition, the construction of new factories was facilitated by the substantial number of Irish laborers available to help build what increasingly became expansive industrial complexes. After work on the factories was completed, many of these laborers and their families found work in the very factories they had helped raise. As a Boston Pilot article commented, “Irishmen were called in to dig the deep foundations of huge factories, to blast the rocks, build the dams; and when the great structures arose, the children of Irishmen were called in to tend the spindles or the furnace. The Irish are absolutely necessary to the manufacturing success of the new world. Without them the railroads would be uncut, the canals undug, the factories unbuilt.”62

A prominent example of the above can be found in the manufacturing village of Taftville, located in Norwich, Connecticut, where the large Ponemah Mill complex (See Inventory Index) was erected for the production of high-end cotton cloth during the late 1860s. Built by Irish laborers between 1866 and 1871, the mills became a notable source of employment for immigrants, many of whom resided in the corporation-built housing situated nearby. A similar example can be found along the Shetucket River just two miles south of the Ponemah Mills in the village of Greeneville (See Inventory Index), where a number of paper and cotton mills were established during the 1830s and 1840s. By 1867, the Irish formed the largest ethnic group in Greenville, comprising 51 percent of the village’s 2706 residents.63

Norwich was far from the only area to be impacted in just such a manner. Hogan quotes the Hartford Times, which noted in 1855 that, “The foreign emigration is of incalculable value to this country. Without it, our canals, railroads and other great public works would be seriously retarded… our manufacturers could never compete with foreign labor, and would be compelled to shut up their factories.”64 Supporting this argument, Irish immigrants could be found bolstering the employment rolls of manufacturers throughout the state. Just a small sample include the bell manufactories of East Hampton (See Inventory Index), a woolen and felt mill in Greenwich (See Inventory Index), a rubber factory in Newtown (See Inventory Index), as well as carriage shops in New Haven, rifle manufacturers in Hartford, shoe factories in Norwalk, hat manufacturers in Roxbury and Danbury, and textile mills throughout the northeastern corner of the state in towns such as Stafford and Plainfield. The benefit that low-cost Irish laborers provided Connecticut manufacturers is well documented in the case of the Bigelow-Hartford Carpet Mills (See Inventory Index), where in 1851 the installation of mechanized looms allowed proprietors to replace highly-skilled – and thus expensive – Scottish hand-loom operators with low-skilled Irish laborers who worked as spinners, weavers, dyers, loom cleaners and tenders, knitters, and wool washers.65

When working in manufacturing environments, the Irish were often limited in their job potential as the majority had come to the United States without industrial trades or training. As such, they were often forced to take menial or low-skilled positions such as porters or teamsters. Outside of the factories they faced similar limitations in regards to employment opportunities. Two lines of work frequently accessible, however, was as laborers in mines and quarries. Just as they had helped dig Connecticut’s canals and railroads, so too were Irish immigrants willing to wield pick and shovel in the interest of extracting stone and metals from the landscape.

Notable employers of Irish workmen included a handful of brownstone quarries along the Connecticut River in Portland (See Inventory Index) and an array of iron mines and blast furnaces in Salisbury and Canaan (See Inventory Index). The former saw a majority of their workforces comprised of Irish workers by the early 1870s and such remained the case at their peak during the 1880s when they employed more than 800 men at any given time. Histories of the iron industry in and around Salisbury note that at their apex in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s, upwards of eighty percent of the miners in that area hailed from Ireland, these including around 800 men employed by the Ames Ironworks at Amesville, 200 at the nearby Ore Hill mine, and as many as 1,600 miners working for the Barnum-Richardson Company, which operated the Beckley Furnace in East Canaan and Lime Rock Iron Works in Salisbury.66

Another line of work available to many Irish immigrants was that found along agricultural lines. Although popular belief tends to suggest that immigrants, particularly the Irish, were exclusively funneled into urban areas, many had resided on farms in the old country and sought out just such arrangements upon their arrival in the United States. Some followed their countrymen and women into areas that already had concentrations of Irish farmers, while others blazed their own paths. Either way, the majority lacked the capital to purchase and maintain their own property and thus, at least initially, found work as hired hands on established Yankee farms. Hogan notes that by 1850 almost every farm in the town of Pomfret had at least one Irish farmhand. Illustrating his point he writes, “Noah Perrin employed Michael O'Neal and Francis Fagan; Frederick Perrin employed Bartholomew Maloney and Barney Carroll as well as Honora Carroll as a domestic servant; John Green employed Thomas Rind; Charles Matthewson - James Lehey, James Murphy and Michael Coleman; George Matthewson - Edward Lehey, Patrick Murray and Cormick Doody; William

Sabin - Patrick Doody and John Hennessey; Robert Davis - Edward O'Brien; Charles Burdick - Patrick Caffrey; Elisha Child - James Hughes; L.L. Johnson - Michael Rogers; Job Williams - Cornelius Callahan; John Prentice - Martin and Patrick Galgin and Jeremiah O'Brien.”67

Many of the areas that experienced this influx of Irish farmers still bear evidence in the names of roads and landmarks. One such example can be found in the town of Southbury. Here Dublin Hill Road directs the investigator to an area of town where an 1868 map shows several Irish farmers including a Stephen Collins, Patrick Doolan, and Bartholomew O’Brien. A look at the census records for the period show a number of individuals of Irish birth in town, the vast majority listed as farm laborers or farmers.68 The same scenario can be witnessed along what is now Dublin Road in the Falls Village section of Canaan (See Inventory Index). Although the majority of Irish immigrants in the area during the second half of the nineteenth century were to be found working in the local iron mines and blast furnaces, a map of the area from 1874 shows a concentration of Irish-born farmers living in the area north of the village. Among these were the families of two men by the name of John McGrath, as well as a John Dunn and Mary McCormick. On the other side of the state, South Windsor experienced similar patterns as Irish immigrant laborers came to work in the town’s tobacco fields. King Street – named after Edward King, an Irish immigrant and one of the town’s earliest residents – was known as Cork Lane in the period just before the Civil War due to the concentration of the Irish who lived in the area. An 1869 map of South Windsor shows two Irish-born farmers on Cork Lane, a John McGuire and Dennis Reardon (See Inventory Index), while a number of others, including Laurence Daily, Daniel Kibbe, and Daniel and Thomas Driscoll, can be found residing nearby on census returns from the period.69

Just as Irish men were typically able to find employment as laborers in both urban and rural settings, so too were their female compatriots predominantly inclined towards one profession in particular. While Irish women inherently participated in farm work when living in rural areas, and at times found work in the mills when residing in factory towns or cities, the overall majority took advantage of the opportunity presented by domestic service in all parts of the state. Hogan notes that, “Census returns from 1850 show few, if any, communities in Connecticut in which there were not Irish girls as young as their early teens working as maids in the  homes of well-to-do families. Their numbers were so great that the common Irish name Bridget became almost synonymous with such service.”70 Such records in Norwalk show that in 1850 Irish women outnumbered Irish men 213 to 163, and that of the 58 women whose occupations were identified, 57 were listed as domestic servants. Of the remainder, a large number were listed as residing in the houses of Norwalk’s well-to-do where being unrelated to the owners it is highly likely that they similarly served as domestics.

Comparable situations can be identified in areas as disparate as the industrial center of Waterbury in the western half of the state, and rural Pomfret in the east. A single page of the 1850 census for the former alone bears 25 women listed as domestic servants, while records for the latter list 28 women of Irish birth residing with local farmers. Scans of the census records for other towns throughout Connecticut bear out similar findings of varying concentrations in this period.71

For many of the aforementioned women, the need for employment meant that they must leave their lives and families in Ireland behind, while others were separated from their kin upon arrival in the United States. Either way, many found themselves isolated in a world with which they had little familiarity or support. In addition, domestic work was generally monotonous and without notable recompense. As a history of New York’s Irish highlights, “Domestic work had few rewards… The work was unceasing and drab. Domestics hauled water and firewood, disposed of human and other waste, washed, cleaned floors, and minded children in an atmosphere of hostility and exploitation, at the beck and call of their mistresses.”72 As a result of these conditions, some Irish women found it preferable to work in Connecticut’s mills, a notion that local census records illustrate at various instances.73

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