And the Irish Immigrants
The potato famine that ravaged Ireland in the late 1840s brought poverty and starvation to the Irish people. To survive, more than a million Irish fled their home coming to America on vessels so crowded and disease-ridden that they were termed "coffin ships."
Hundreds of Irish immigrants came to Middletown. Many of the men took back-breaking, dangerous jobs in the brownstone quarries across the river in Portland, while the women often became domestic servants or took in laundry. Most of the Irish families settled in Middletown's North End.
The famine Irish were the first large group of non-English, non-Protestant immigrants to arrive in Connecticut, and many local people were suspicious of the newcomers who were for the most part illiterate, malnourished, desperately poor and Catholic.
By 1850, Middletown was home to nearly 700 Irish-born residents (almost eight percent of the city's population), and their numbers continued to grow. In spite of their poverty, Middletown's Irish immigrants were able to build a majestic Catholic church. St. John Church opened in 1852 with seating for a thousand worshippers - testimony to its members' faith and determination. Many of the parishioners were stone workers who volunteered their labor to build the church out of brownstone donated by owners of the
quarries in which they worked.
Architect Patrick Keely, himself an Irish immigrant, designed St. John Church. In 1872 the church erected a convent just east of here, and in 1888 opened the parochial school before you.
A stone's throw down Main Street stands the Fire Department headquarters, built in 1899. At the turn of the 20th century children gathered there every evening to watch an exciting spectacle, the nightly fire drill. At the blast of the fire whistle, two teams of enormous horses thundered out, pulling the brass pumper and the long hook-and-ladder. As firefighters urged them on, the horses galloped down Main Street, with bells clanging and pedestrians dashing out of the way.
Old St. John's Cemetery
The poignant stories of many of Middletown's earliest Irish families can be read on the gravestones of Old Cemetery, just behind the church. John and Mary Hennessey's family monument reveals the deaths of seven of their children, six of whom died before their sixth birthdays. The stone of 18 year-old Dennis Deegan, the son of Irish immigrants, records his death while a Union drummer in the Civil War.
Most of those who came here to escape the "Great Hunger," as the potato famine was known, never returned to their homeland. But their affection for Ireland remained strong, as indicated by the many that list counties,
towns and even parishes in which the immigrants were born. In a strange twist, many of Middletown's Irish came from Middleton in County Cork.
A Neighborhood of Immigrants
Middletown's first immigrants - English colonists who arrived in the 1650s - established their settlement in this vicinity, laying out their homelots and building their first meetinghouse nearby. Two centuries later, Middletown's North End again became home to immigrants when Irish and Scottish families moved into the area.
By the early 1900s, a thriving Italian community filled the Green Street, Rapallo Avenue and Ferry Street neighborhoods. Tenements housed recent immigrants and Italian-owned businesses soon flourished. People of Italian descent continue to be a strong presence in Middletown's North End, which in recent decades also has become home to new arrivals of Latino and Southeast Asian ancestry.
Six days a week, laborers descended on long ladders into Portland's brownstone quarries, cutting the stone that was in great demand for elegant townhouses, churches and public buildings from New York to San Francisco. Beginning in the 1840s, hundreds of Irish immigrants became quarry workers, enduring constant danger and eleven-hour days of back-breaking labor for low pay.