EARLY IRISH IN LOWELL
BY DOUG PREBLE
OCTOBER 28, 1999
On a Saturday night in December 1825 a cry of murder was heard by two watchmen in that part of Broad-street occupied by Irish emigrants. As one of them entered the house from where the noise came, he was struck upon the head with an axe and badly wounded. The suspect was an Irishman.1
It is well known that the investors of Lowell’s mills were from the beginning very conscious of maintaining an impeccable image for their enterprise. Bad press was to be carefully avoided. As the Irish community in town expanded through the 1820s and 1830s it increasingly became associated with bad press, both local and regional, affecting both public opinion and public safety. A series of events in fairly rapid succession in the early 1830s forced the Yankee establishment to take concrete actions to maintain not only their investment and image, but also, to some extent, their collective view of the social framework.
In May of 1831 there was a significant confrontation between local Yankees and Irishmen. Whether its source was anger at construction of Lowell’s first Catholic Church as suggested by Mitchell or the theft of some wood by the Irishmen as mentioned in the Lowell Mercury’s account of the riot is not known for certain.2 Perhaps the church construction set the stage, and the theft was the precipitating event. The Weekly Compend of June 14, 1832 contains an account of four Irishmen assaulting one, then another, local Yankee. But the event to receive the most attention came in August of 1832 and was covered in the Weekly Compend, the Lowell Journal, and significantly, the Boston Patriot and Great Falls Journal.3 Though the term Yankee is not specifically mentioned, it is clear that Yankee disgust at the living conditions of the seventy to eighty Irish residents packed into a small dwelling on
1 Chelmsford Phoenix – December 16, 1825.
2 The Paddy Camps, Brian C. Mitchell, p 32; Lowell Mercury – May 28, 1831.
3 Weekly Compend 1832/08/16 1832/11/01; Boston Patriot – August 22, 1832.
Gorham Street was the cause of the event. The resulting melee was more benign than might have been expected given the presence of guns and tossing of stones, and credit was given to the local constables for having prevented a much worse conclusion. Still, local papers fretted that the large number of spectators, estimated at about four-fifths of the crowd of about 400, might be portrayed as an angry, unruly mob.
The Irish community, at one time a small, distant, and transitory part of the town had, by 1830, become very permanent and observable.4 And as the Irish community continued to grow, so did the problems, both perceived and real. Town records reflect the local officials growing concern. As early as 1830 there is indicated a desire to construct a poor farm.5 Education was seen as a source of hope in aiding assimilation. Creating an Irish school district in 1831 helped served this purpose, while at the same time acknowledging the fortunate circumstance of having “them” all “conveniently located in one central area.”6 In March of 1832, less than one year after the 1831 riot, the subject of establishing a poor farm was once again raised, but not acted upon.7 It took the “Inglorious War” three months later, a pivotal point in pushing local leaders to “deal with” the Irish problem, to push the poor farm agenda. Informative about the culture clash occurring in Lowell following the melee of 1832 is an article in the Lowell Journal referring to a “recent meeting” on the subject of what to do about the Irish population. The attendees are not known, but their common viewpoint is discernible. The Irish, filthy, ignorant, and full of vice though they may have been, still had all the rights of every other citizen, and a remedy was to be sought in benevolence (schools, aid societies, etc.), not the likely illegal procedure of procuring land and forcing the “obnoxious Irish” to remove to it. An establishment for the poor received unanimous approbation among the attendees. And not unimportantly, it was noted that the town was already paying one thousand dollars annually to have paupers housed in neighboring Tewksbury.8 Just weeks later, town records show that approval was given to go ahead with the purchase of a poor farm.9
4 The Paddy Camps, p 33
5 Town Records, p 67
6 Town Records, p 69
7 Town Records, p 108
8 Lowell Journal – August 23, 1832
9 Town Records, p 128
The year 1833 was a watershed year for official recognition of the influence and status of the Irish in Lowell. The Joseph Pierce one-hundred-and-fifty acre homestead in Lowell and Chelmsford was purchased as a “work house for the reception and employment of the idle and indigent.”10 Town officials granted the use of a room for the monthly meetings of the newly formed Irish society, the Hibernian Moralizing and Relief Society, which had been organized by “three or four energetic” Irishmen.11 These Irishmen were likely of the middle class, with interests most in concert with those of the factory agents. Also that year, a police court was established, fifteen hundred dollars granted to fund a number of watchmen,12 and health regulations passed to avoid the causes of sickness and sources of filth.13
The “Inglorious War” of 1832 unleashed a flood of social engineering, the motives for which had been building for over a decade. While there were some in the Yankee establishment with wholeheartedly benevolent motives, in the main the Yankee disposition fell into two categories - there were those who commanded a large amount of labor and capital who acted in a fundamentally self-interested manner, and there were those local Yankees who wanted to change the wanton ways of as many Irish as they could not avoid, and avoid or contain all those they could not change. No longer able to contain the Irish threat to the public peace and their profits, the Yankee establishment was guided by strong political ideals and the few forward looking local leaders to devise solutions with the potential to benefit both the Irish and the greater Lowell community.
10 Town Records, p 150, 173
11 The Paddy Camps, p 51-53
12 Town Records, p 173
13 Lowell Advertiser – September 18, 1833.