Fraternal Organizations and Celebration

The local militias were not the only avenue for the Irish to congregate and socialize with their fellow countrymen and  women. A bevy of other organizations were established throughout the state during the nineteenth century, these occupying a variety of niches ranging from social welfare and cultural pride, to sporting and leisure activities.

Among the earliest were the state’s first Catholic total abstinence society, organized in Hartford in 1841, and New Haven’s first Irish social organization, the Hibernian Provident Society, founded in that city in 1842. As Hogan notes, the latter was particularly important as it was the first to offer valuable financial services to a population primarily comprised of the economically vulnerable working classes – including providing insurance against unexpected medical and death expenses – in addition to providing assistance to newly arrived immigrants and serving as a social, cultural, and civic hub.

A similar organization, the St. Patrick’s Society, was established in Hartford a year later, while another group, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, founded its first of a number of chapters in Connecticut in Bridgeport in 1869.96

Perhaps the most well known social organization associated with Connecticut’s Irish-American population, however, is the Knights of Columbus, today the world’s largest Catholic fraternal society. The Knights of Columbus were initially established as both a religious and mutual benefit society, this following a gathering of men from St. Mary’s parish in New Haven (See Inventory Index) on October 2, 1881. The group was led by the Irish-American priest, Michael J. McGivney (1852-1890), an assistant pastor at St.

Mary’s, who eventually oversaw incorporation of the organization under state law on March 29, 1882. Born to poor Irish immigrant parents in Waterbury, Connecticut, McGivney was allegedly inspired to establish a benefit society after his father’s untimely death in June 1873 had forced him to abandon studies at St. Mary’s College in Montreal and return home in order to help support his family. This personal exposure to the vulnerable position that many working-class families were placed in following the death of a breadwinner led McGivney to create an organization that would assist widows and orphans in need, this while simultaneously working to strengthen the faith of its members. While McGivney succumbed to pneumonia at the untimely age of 38, the group he was central in founding would go on to spread throughout New England and the United States. By 1899, there were 300 established councils and 40,000 Knights of Columbus, this expanding to 230,000 members in 1300 councils by 1909.97

In naming the Knights of Columbus, McGivney and his other founding members were careful and deliberate in addressing the anti-Catholic and nativist fears related to the presence of religious fraternal organizations largely comprised of immigrant members. The choice of Christopher Columbus as their patron meant that the Knights had both an American hero and Catholic as their namesake. Such was a testament that, “allegiance to their country did not conflict with allegiance to their faith,” and in practice the Knights of Columbus would prove to be a deeply patriotic organization that promoted assimilation over ethnic seclusion. This factor undoubtedly contributed to the group’s success, particularly as the second and third generations of immigrant populations increasingly associated primarily with the culture of their adopted country, rather than that of their ethnic homeland. 98

While assimilation was certainly a common method of dealing with the stresses of immigration, it was impossible for most immigrants – particularly first-generation arrivals – to abandon all vestiges of their culture. Being transplants in a foreign land, the Irish and others like them were naturally drawn to forms of entertainment and times of celebration that reflected their cultural roots.

Included among these were a number of Irish musicians, comedians, and lecturers who toured the United States once the Irish became an established minority population. Advertisements for one such example were posted in Hartford newspapers in May 1849 and announced two shows by a “Mr. Collins, the Irish comedian and vocalist,” whose performances at the city’s American Hall were to include “some of the most popular Irish, Scotch, English and American Songs, interspersed with Irish stories and Anecdotes.” Hogan cites a write-up of Collins’ performance in New Haven, which noted, “The furor of applause that greeted his songs of the ‘Widow Machree,’ ‘The Bowld Soger Boy,’ and ‘A man’s a man for a’ that,’ is sufficient proof without a word from us of his great popularity as a vocalist. Besides a man with his acknowledged position upon the state, as the only true representative of the Irish character, need but to be announced to ensure him a crowded room.” The Waterbury American reviewed a similar performer, “Mr. Mooney, the Irish minstrel,” writing that “We venture to say that his equal in giving expression to Irish character as developed in its native music, never appeared in our village… It is too much of the fashion to caricature poor Ireland, but Mr. Mooney avoided this extravagance and gave those exquisite melodies with a touching and felicitous effect. We were glad to see that his countrymen highly appreciated his songs and illustrations ... Indeed we have rarely seen an audience better pleased.”99

Irish holidays and other special occasions were also important in drawing the immigrant community together. It should be of no surprise that St. Patrick’s Day was foremost among them, with the first celebration in New Haven taking place in 1842 with a public procession, Mass, and lecture. By the late 1840s, the popularity of the holiday had grown to such a degree so as to include a parade complete with local militia groups and marching bands, this attended by both the Irish and natives alike. As the size of a number of Connecticut’s Irish communities grew, so too did the notoriety of many of the speakers who traveled to the state to deliver oratories on the St. Patrick’s Day holiday. Among them were several well-known Young Irelanders, including Thomas Darcy Magee, who was the headline speaker at New Haven’s Exchange hall in 1849, and Michael Donheny, who delivered the address at the Montgomery Society in New Haven in 1851. Counted among local speakers were men such as William Downes, who spoke of England’s role in the Famine before New Haven’s Hibernian Provident Society on St. Patrick’s Day in 1848.100

Many of the aforementioned social events took place in social clubs acquired by or specifically built by the Irish groups who organized them. One such group, the Cathedral Lyceum Society, was a club formed by members of the parish of St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hartford in 1894. In 1895, the society moved to construct a social hall on Lawrence Street (See Inventory Index), which would provide space for a ballroom, reading room, gymnasium, library, and billiard room, among other resources. The building, designed by notable local Irish architect, John J. Dwyer, hosted a variety of social events before it was sold by the society in 1920.

This included entertainment of both a religious and secular nature, ranging from a lecture on America’s debt to the Roman Catholic Church delivered in April 1896, to a performance of Frances Hodgson Burnett and William Hooker Gillette’s comedy drama “Esmeralda” presented in May 1905.101


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