Feeney: Irish Vermont

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(HOST)  With a tip o’ the hat to Saint Patrick, commentator and historian Vince Feeney tells us about Vermont’s surprisingly large Irish population.

(FEENEY) On St. Patrick’s Day, as we observe the festivities in places like Boston, New York and Chicago, it’s easy to overlook the fact that at one time the Irish had a large presence in Vermont.   Scots Irish settled Londonderry.  Bethel representative Michael Flynn voted in 1791 to accept the U.S. Constitution and thereby participated in the convention that made Vermont part of the federal union. And Irishman Matthew Lyon was our infamous congressman in the late 1790s.  From the days of the New Hampshire Grants, Irish men and women have been present in the Green Mountains.
Their numbers grew after 1815 as Irish emigration principally to Canada picked up, and many of those transplants eventually made their way to Vermont, following the waterways of the Richlieu River and Lake Champlain.   With the great potato famine of the late 1840s, what had been a steady stream became a flood, as refugees from that disaster surged into northern Vermont. For many Irish emigrants, the first time they stepped on to American soil was on the shore in Burlington.
So how many came to the Green Mountain State? U.S. Census records give us a fairly accurate picture.  The 1870 Census shows us that over 14,000 people born in Ireland resided in Vermont, and their American or Canadian born children accounted for at least another 21,000 inhabitants.  This was roughly 11% of Vermont’s total population at the time.
But in some localities the percentage was higher, much higher. Rutland Town, which in the latter part of the nineteenth century was the largest source of marble in the United States, hired hundreds of Irishmen to work in its quarries and finishing shops. One historian estimated that 6 out of every 10 marble workers were Irish. In 1870, fully 35% of Rutland’s population was Irish born or the children of Irish immigrants.  What a St. Patrick’s Day parade they could have had – and at times in the 1860s did have.
And what was true of the marble producing towns was also true of the towns in Vermont’s slate valley: Castleton was 33% Irish in 1870 and nearby Poultney’s Irish population constituted 22% of the town’s inhabitants.
As for the Queen City, through which so many Irish entered Vermont, in1850, when it was still a relatively small town of a little over 7,000 inhabitants, an estimated 31% of them were Irish. Interestingly, this percentage dropped to 21% by 1870, not because there were fewer Irish than before but because Burlington’s population grew dramatically in the Civil War decade of the 1860s, many of the newest arrivals Canadians from Quebec.
So, on this St. Patrick’s Day, we Vermonter’s can join with the rest of America in celebrating the contributions of the sons and daughters of Erin to the great salad mix of cultures which is the United States.

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