When the Irish Refugees Came to Maine
Poverty, Discrimination & Bitter Struggle -
Thursday, March 12, 2015 5:13 AM
Painting of the burning of Old South Church by anti-Catholic Know Nothing gangs in Bath, 1854, by artist John Hilling (Photo Courtesy Maine Historical Society)
Maine's people are diverse," wrote former Senator George Mitchell in the preface to "They Change Their Sky: The Irish in Maine," a collection of essays edited by Maine historian Michael Connolly: "Some trace their origins back thousands of years to this region's aboriginal settlers. Others stake their claim to be among its original European settlers, the English and mainly Protestant ancestors of our dominant ethnic group and the source of the stereotypical 'Downeast Yankee'.... The story of Maine's people, of course, does not end there. The southward migration of thousands of French Canadians in the 19th and early 20th centuries forever changed the face of Maine and that of all of New England. And the story continues with the late 20th century and current arrivals of refugees from Asia and Africa, especially in Maine's largest cities."
But it's the Irish who made up the largest mass migration of refugees the state has ever seen. Escaping famine and oppression by a tyrannical colonial power, the Irish arrived weak from hunger and often with disease. They were seen as "clannish," "superstitious," and beyond hope of assimilation. They endured backbreaking labor as well as political and religious persecution on the streets of many Maine towns. But like the Irish across America, later generations rose to become a powerful social and political force. Yet the story of Maine's Irish was largely ignored by local historians up until very recently.
The Early Pioneers of the Midcoast
The first wave of Irish immigrants to Maine came in the early 1700s, when wealthy land barons known as the "Great Proprietors" encouraged the Scotch Irish of Northern Ireland to colonize the midcoast Maine frontier and fight off hostile native tribes who defended their territory from encroachment.
As R. Stuart Wallace wrote in "They Change Their Sky," the large landholders saw the Native Americans as "non-Christian savages without title because they hadn't 'improved the land.'" And for speculators like Samuel Waldo, the native people were also standing in the way of valuable timber as well as lime deposits on the banks of the St. George River. For the Great Proprietors, the bellicose Ulstermen, battle-hardened from years of colonial wars, were the perfect force to conquer the wild lands of Maine. As Wallace notes, this expansion into the American frontier was also part of a colonization effort that began many years earlier in Ireland, the first colony of the Crown.
"As English attitudes toward the Gaelic Irish hardened in the late 16th century, it became easier to justify brutality," wrote Wallace. "The native Irish were seen as heathens and barbarians, deserving subjugation or worse. Efforts to colonize Ireland were soon followed by colonial ventures in North America. Veterans of Irish colonial wars came to America determined to displace another native people. By the 17th century, Native Americans were being described in language previously used for the Gaelic Irish."
In 1718, large numbers of Presbyterian Ulstermen arrived in Boston seeking freedom from religious discrimination and rising land rents from absentee landlords. With the promise of land and freedom, they later settled Brunswick, "Cork" (present-day Dresden), Bristol, Bremen, Boothbay, Warren, Thomaston and, of course, Belfast. By the turn of the century, Irish Catholic merchants had also settled in many of the coastal towns of Lincoln County up to North Whitefield, as the Kavanagh and Cottrill clans built powerful business empires building ships and shipping timber to Ireland, Liverpool and the West Indies. It was these wealthy Irishmen who helped build St. Patrick's in Newcastle, the oldest standing Catholic church in New England.
Edward Kavanagh achieved recognition for his pleas to include an article for official religious toleration in the Maine Constitution. He went on to become the first Irish Catholic Congressman from New England and the first Irish Catholic governor of Maine. He died in 1844, just as disaster was about to hit millions of his fellow Irish nearly 3,000 miles across the ocean.
"An Gorta Mor" ("The Great Hunger")
My son, I loved our native land with energy and pride
Until a blight fell on the land and sheep and cattle died,
The rents and taxes were to pay, I could not them redeem,
And that's the cruel reason why I left Old Skibbereen.
-19th-century Irish folk ballad
By the 1840s, famine was no stranger to Ireland, as the post-feudal peasants had suffered hunger for decades as a result of oppressive land and food policies, overpopulation and over-reliance on the potato. It's been estimated that a third of Ireland's population depended on potatoes for nourishment, while wheat, barley, poultry, pork and beef were often sold to pay rent to the absentee landlords in England. As the population of Ireland doubled from 4 to 8 million between 1780 and 1845, the increased demand for land required families to subdivide plots into smaller and smaller parcels to accommodate new generations. The potato became the only crop that could produce a significant yield in such limited acreage. While the potato has been credited with helping Ireland's population boom, it also led to the demise of about one million people who starved after the potato blight hit in 1845.
As potatoes rotted in the fields, Irish peasants began starving en masse, dying in their homes, on the roads and on the beaches, scrounging for any bit of nourishment they could find. As famine ravaged the town of Skibbereen in the County Cork, food was exported by armed guards, as the peasants had no money to buy it.
"I entered some of the hovels ... and the scenes that presented themselves were such as no tongue or pen can convey the slightest idea of," wrote Nicholas Cummins, a justice of the peace, of the scene in Skibbereen in December 1846. "In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearance dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw.... I approached in horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive - they were in fever, four children, a woman, and what once had been a man. It is impossible to go through the detail. Suffice it to say, that in a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200 of such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe. By far the greater number were delirious either from famine or from fever. Their demonic yells are still ringing in my ears, and their horrible images are fixed on my brain."
As the historian Thomas Gallagher writes in "Paddy's Lament," at the height of the famine in 1846-47, while nearly 400,000 Irish peasants starved to death, landlords exported 17 million pounds sterling of food that could have prevented the deaths.
"Revenge for Skibbereen would become a war cry for Irish nationalists," wrote James H. Mundy in "Hard Times, Hard Men, Maine and the Irish": "A great hatred was nurtured here that would become part of the baggage of the Irish diaspora."
As Mundy points out, the English political elite "stubbornly refused" to alleviate much of the suffering in Ireland due to their ideological opposition to government interference in private enterprise, the Protestant evangelical belief in divine Providence, and the "deep-dyed ethnic prejudice against the Catholic Irish."
Charles Edward Trevelyan, the much-despised British colonial administrator for Ireland, described the famine as the "judgement of God" and an "effective mechanism for reducing surplus population."
Like conservative politicians of today, the 19th-century English political class had an unbending faith in laissez-faire capitalism and the power of markets to solve social problems. Feeding starving people or assisting peasants to emigrate would have betrayed cherished economic orthodoxy.
"The influence of laissez faire on the treatment of Ireland during the famine is impossible to exaggerate," wrote Cecil Woodham Smith in "The Great Hunger": "Almost without exception, the high officials and politicians responsible for Ireland were fervent believers in non-interference by Government, and the behavior of the British authorities only becomes explicable when their fanatical belief in private enterprise and their suspicions of any action which might be considered Government intervention are borne in mind.... The loss of the potato crop was therefore to be made good ... by the operations of private enterprise and private firms, using normal channels of commerce ... there was to be 'no disturbance of the ordinary course of trade.'"
At the time, the main public assistance program was the workhouse, where, in an effort to keep down expenses and promote greater self-reliance, impoverished Irish endured miserable conditions. According to Irish historian James Donnelly, applicants for relief were means-tested and holders of even a quarter acre of land could not receive assistance unless they gave up their land. He writes that in order for landlords to "rid their estates of pauperized farmers and labourers" at least 500,000 people were evicted from their homes between 1846 and 1854. And as the famine wore on, an atmosphere of "famine fatigue" fell over England.
"Great Britain cannot continue to throw her hard-won millions into the bottomless pit of Celtic pauperism," wrote The Illustrated London News in March 1849.
It's estimated that between 1845 and 1855, 1.5 million people fled Ireland. By 1901, the population was half what it once was. The most desperate of emigrants were sent off to North America by landlords who found it cheaper to clear the land of the impoverished peasants than to give them relief. Hundreds of emigrants were packed into the ballasts of ships bound for Canada in cramped holds with no light or proper ventilation. Typhoid, dysentery, tuberculosis and cholera were rampant in the "coffin ships" during the eight- to ten-week voyages to the new world. Most would arrive in Quebec and the Maritimes, where many made the trek on foot or by steamship to Maine.
As David H. Bennett writes in "The Party of Fear," in 1847 "of the 89,738 embarking for St Lawrence ports, 5,293 died en route and more than 10,000 more were quarantined aboard ships or in desolate shore stations at Grosse Island, Quebec, where there was no shelter or food, and stone and wooden benches received the dead and dying." On Grosse Isle, an inscription in Gaelic on a monument below a Celtic cross reads:
"Children of the Gael died in their thousands on this island having fled from the laws of the foreign tyrants and an artificial famine in the years 1847-48. God's loyal blessing upon them. Let this monument be a token to their name and honour from the Gaels of America. God Save Ireland."
Poor Paddy Works on the Railway
In eighteen hundred and sixty-three,
I came across the stormy sea.
My dung'ree breeches I put on
To work upon the railway, the railway,
To work up-on the railway.
Oh, poor Paddy come work on the railway.
- 19th-century Irish folk song
Although 80 percent of the famine refugees originated from rural areas, very few Irish went into farming. As Bennett writes, "Unlike many of the German emigres, the Irish settlers had neither the capital nor the training to manage large-scale prairie farms of the American interior." Having farmed mainly potatoes and root crops on tiny tenant plots, the Irish peasants had been confined to an "ancient term of land tenure offering few rewards for initiative and no way of learning skills necessary to handle cash-crop enterprises of one hundred acres or more, the typical western farm." With nothing to sell but their labor, the Irish set out for the emerging industrial towns of Maine.
"Paddy" came in 1827 to build the new state capitol building in Augusta, to Bangor for the timber boom and later to the Portland waterfront and the mills of Lewiston, Biddeford and Saco. Irish gangs built Maine's railroads and arrived in the Rockland area to cut stones in the quarries and toil in the lime kilns. Meanwhile their wives and daughters took jobs as domestic helpers for well-to-do families in the cities and much later for rusticators summering on the islands of Penobscot Bay.
Nineteenth-century workers endured 14-hour days of backbreaking, repetitive drudgery until their bodies wore out. Newspapers from the time are full of stories of worker deaths and maimings. As the labor activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn recalled in her autobiography "Rebel Girl," like many Irish laborers, her father Tom Flynn became radicalized while working in the quarries of Vinalhaven in the 1870s and '80s.
"My father was determined to leave the quarry," wrote Flynn. "All but one of his male relatives had died as a result of working there."
In 1878, Flynn worked to elect Granite Cutters' International Association of America Secretary and Greenback Party member Thompson Murch, who became one of the first trade unionists in Congress. Murch introduced the Eight Hour Day law, mandating an eight-hour working day for employees on government contracts. Flynn later joined the Knights of Labor, the largest and most powerful labor union at the time.
As Mundy notes, if a wife lost an income-producing husband, there was no workers' compensation or survivor benefits at the time. A widow might take in boarders or find domestic work and occasionally resort to prostitution or even "Irish suicide" with an overdose of the "Old rot gut."
A foreman on the Brunswick Canal excavation in Georgia that employed Irish migrant workers once said, "The n-- are worth too much to be risked here; if the Paddies are knocked overboard or get their backs broke, nobody loses anything." Mundy dryly added, "A good Maine abolitionist would never have made such a statement. He would have been offended about placing a monetary value on the life of a black man."
An Immigrant Explosion Let Loose in the Land
"Animosity, to say the least, had existed between the Celt and the Anglo-Saxon for seven hundred years," wrote Maine Irish historian Matthew Jude Barker in "They Change Their Sky": "Periodically, in America, the Americans could digest small groups of Irish people, as they had before the 1820s. However, when hordes of Irish people, bringing with them disease, vice, filth, hostility, and crime, as Yankees claimed, began pouring into the United States in unprecedented numbers, especially after 1845, 'real' Americans had had enough."
During the mid-19th century, as the industrial revolution demanded a mass mobile workforce for the new factories of the Northeast, immigration exploded, leading to massive social upheaval in a land where 90 percent of people had previously lived on the land. As Bennett writes, in just eight years in the 1840s and '50s, nearly 2.75 million new Americans had arrived, most of them Irish.
"Slums and pauperism, drunkenness and illiteracy, crime and illness were facts of migrant life," he wrote. "And nativists who saw an ignorant, diseased, disordered mob growing in the ethnic slums saw them as destructive forces let loose in the land."
He added that according to the 1850 census, 50 percent of the indigent were foreigners, though they represented 10 percent of the population. Like the English, Americans too had a belief rooted in the Protestant work ethic that welfare programs would only encourage sloth and indolence and make people dependent on the state.
"For those upon whose generosity and responsibility relief depended, the attitude was still Calvinist in nature," wrote Mundy. "The concept that economic success was an indication of character and moral rectitude was brought to America by the followers of John Calvin and has been reinforced by the tenets of capitalism. It was very much a commandment of New England Protestantism in 1850s Maine. Poverty was more often than not viewed as a weakness of character. It was idleness, immorality and intemperance that caused poverty."
"The condition of many of the newcomers was so bad that, in 1849, the [Portland] city council made a special appropriation to the overseers of the poor, specifically earmarked for 'destitute Irishmen,'" wrote Mundy. "In 1852, the Mayor complained that Irish, who made up only one-eighth of the city's population, accounted for more than half the inmates in the Alms House. The city was, however, able to pass one expense on to the state." Anyone who fell ill was the responsibility of the municipality, writes Mundy, but foreigners and non-residents who were declared insane were the responsibility of the state. Taking advantage of the policy, municipalities would send any Irishmen "who fit or could be fit into that category" into the Insane Asylum of Augusta.
And the new immigrants brought crime. Bennett found that in 1850, of the 744 criminal convictions, 460 were foreigners. In 1857, of the 1,517 arrests made in Portland, 1,031 were for drunkenness and 814 of those arrested were Irish.
"Many an Irishman had survived starvation and sickness and the loss of family and friends to eke out an existence in the promised land," wrote Mundy. "These people had 'seen the elephant,' and death held no special mystery for them. These were men and of action, not words, and more often than not the violence they perpetrated was on each other."
Local newspapers began demanding an end to the flood of immigration, which they argued was bringing crime and pestilence and straining welfare budgets. It was also becoming evident that as the Irish became more established, they were quickly becoming a threat to the conservative Yankee political order. Originally, the Irish flocked to the Jeffersonian Democrats due to the anti-Irish prejudice of the Federalist Party and their Whig successors. Irishmen also identified with the anti-elitist, egalitarian values of the Jacksonian Democrats and opposed the prohibition policies of the temperance Whigs. In addition, they found themselves in direct competition with blacks for jobs and many became fervently opposed to the free soilers and abolitionists who threatened to flood the labor market with freed slaves. Gradually, the urban Irish became part of Democratic political machines, such as New York City's Tammany Hall.
Loudly sounding the alarm of a new boatload of immigrants, as Mundy noted, the New Haven Journal blustered, "1,124 Democrats just imported! England and other European powers are landing the refuse of their populations in hordes upon our shores."
The Know-Nothings and Anti-Catholic Violence
For many Maine mechanics, farmers and artisans, the Irish factory laborer also represented a threat to their way of life, as the industrial revolution was quickly displacing the small, independent workshop and family farm.
"As America moved toward civil conflict, many natives moved restlessly about the country, caught up in painful mobility of a society in the early stages of industrialization," wrote Bennett. "Americans sensed, through this turmoil, an increasing gap between the rhetoric of American opportunity and the realities of their social and economic lives."
At the same time, Yankee Protestants feared that this mysterious religion Catholicism, or as nativists called it, "The Whore of Babylon," would lead to a papal state ruled by the pope in Rome. In the 1850s, anti-Catholic secret societies like the Order of the Star Spangled Banner emerged. They were labeled "Know Nothings," as the Order was oath-bound to secrecy and members would respond that they "knew nothing" when asked questions about the group.
Know-Nothing groups soon sprung up across Maine, and in 1855 they helped elect Governor Anson P. Morrill, who appealed to the nativist cause and the emerging temperance movement. Anti-Catholic mob violence exploded in the 1850s, fueled by religious zealots, demagoguing newspaper editors and opportunistic politicians.
"These nativists looked on America as a threatened paradise," wrote Bennett. "But the struggle in which they had enlisted would decide more than the fate of the nation. It would determine whether true freedom could be preserved anywhere. . . . It was a battle to preserve the cherished past and to secure the future of the United States."
As early as the 1830s, anti-Irish riots swept through Maine towns. After one violent eruption in Bangor in 1833, the Belfast Republican Journal (quoted by Mundy) wrote:
"Nothing would appease the sailors until they had torn down all the Irish houses and thrashed the inmates. We understand further that the Irish people were all driven from town; but this we doubt. Bangor has become a young New York - they have their riots and ever and anon kill an Irishman or a sailor with as little a ceremony as real New Yorkers. Oh, the beauties of Bangor!"
In 1854, two days of anti-Catholic mob violence erupted in Bath, which resulted in the burning of the meeting house where local Catholics held mass. As it was reported at the time, the crowd marched to the church in the late afternoon and began smashing windows and pews, hoisted an American flag from the belfry, rang the bell and then burned the church to the ground. They then set out on the town, terrorizing Irish residents and evicting them from their shanties.
"The Bath riot showed above all that the cancer of nativism had become not only politically institutionalized in Maine," wrote Mundy. "Once again, the politicos failed to grasp that the mob genie is easier to let out of the bottle than to get it back in. Allowing the rabble to do your dirty work can shake the delicate matrix of the social order to the point of disintegration."
In Newcastle, a Know-Nothing gang plotted to burn St. Patrick's, but were reportedly thwarted by the High Sheriff of Lincoln County, who stationed guards to stave off the rowdy mob.
The most notorious case of nativist violence occurred in Ellsworth in 1854, when a mob dragged Father John Bapst, a Swiss Catholic Jesuit, from a local home, stripped him, smeared him in hot tar and feathers and ran him out of town on a rail. At the time, Mundy describes Ellsworth as in a state of anarchy with uniformed gangs of Know Nothings, like the Cast Iron Gang, the White Caps and the Rough and Readies, roaming the streets and taunting the Irish on "Paddy Lane." While Bapst is often held up as a martyr, Mundy points out that the assault was in response to Bapst circulating a petition denouncing local public schools for using the Protestant King James Bible, which he referred to as the "counterfeit word of God, and the most pernicious of all poisons."
In the end, the Know-Nothing movement eventually faded as the pre-war nativism became eclipsed by the anti-slavery politics of the emerging Republican Party in the lead-up to the Civil War. But nativism and anti-Catholic movements would continue to flare up in the decades following the Civil War, most notably in the 1920s when the fiery cross of the Ku Klux Klan burned hot in Maine.
"No one said any prayers over nativism, for it was not dead," wrote Mundy. "Deeply ingrained in the American psyche, it only lies in various stages of dormancy, waiting to be kissed awake by political and religious opportunists."
And certainly the Irish were not immune to the pull of nativism. As they became more established in their new home, many would transfer the bigotry they experienced toward later immigrants like the French-Canadians. Still, while bigotry exists, so does tolerance and compassion.
"Not everyone hated to see the Irish come and not everyone treated them with contempt," wrote Mundy. "Along the road from Eastport to Ellsworth and then to Bangor, some rural Maine Yankees opened up their doors and shared their food with ragged and starving refugees. Not because they approved of their religion or welcomed their appearance, but because a lot of rural Maine Protestants didn't turn the hungry away from their doors unfed or deny them shelter in their hour of need. In a story filled with bigotry and violence it is well to remember these people, many Irishmen did - for the remainder of their lives."
"The Napoleon of Temperance"
During the 1840s and 50s, Portland Mayor Neal Dow, known as the "Father of Prohibition" and the "Napoleon of Temperance," developed a nativist following as he waged a crusade to end the sale and manufacture of intoxicating spirits, shepherding in the country's first prohibition law in 1851. For the hard-drinking Irish, Dow was "a curse on Irishmen's lips," wrote Mundy.
There's no question that what became known as the "Maine Law" was aimed at the poor and working class.
"If you could afford to drink and not be a burden on society, that was your business," wrote Mundy. "If you were poor, drinking was evidence of your depraved and idle nature and therefore immoral. The wealthy still imported often, with assistance of local authorities. To some, temperance was a moral crusade for a better society; for the cynical enactors of the Maine Law it was a vehicle to keep down pauper expenses. They should have known better. Neal Dow was a capitalist and he of all people should have understood the law of supply and demand."
For an entrepreneurial young immigrant, the Maine Law paved the way for a lucrative business. Bootlegging became rampant, and turf wars broke out between rival gangs of "wild Irish" wielding shillelaghs on the streets of Maine towns. However, under the Maine Law, liquor was still legal for "medicinal purposes" and could be purchased through a city-run agency. On June 2, 1855, hundreds of mostly Irishmen mobbed Portland City Hall denouncing the mayor as a hypocrite after Dow authorized a shipment of $1,600 worth of "medicinal and mechanical alcohol."
As Matthew Jude Barker wrote, the mob hurled rocks and tried to break into the basement, shouting, "The liquor we will have!" With local police unable to control the rioters, Dow called out the militia, who eventually fired on the mob, killing a sailor from Deer Isle and wounding seven others. Dow was later acquitted of any wrongdoing in what many saw as heavy-handed tactics, but the riot was seen as a contributing factor in the Maine Law's repeal in 1856, and Dow's political career never fully recovered.
He lost his re-election bid in 1854, narrowly won the office back a year later, but only served one more term. Like Republican politicians in recent years trumpeting unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, as the historian Frank Byrne wrote in "Prophet of Prohibition: Neal Dow and His Crusade," Dow was convinced that voter malfeasance had occurred and he repeatedly called for "measures to restrain the right of suffrage, now exercised by the foreign population."
Irish Nationalism & The Fenian Brotherhood
Twas down by the glenside, I met an old woman
A-plucking young nettles, she ne'er saw me coming
I listened a while to the song she was humming
Glory O, Glory O, to the bold Fenian men.
- 19th-century Irish rebel ballad
Having suffered the devastation of famine, displacement from their homeland, and alienation in the face of anti-immigrant discrimination, many Irish immigrants bonded closely together in the spirit of a common purpose - the liberation of Ireland.
In the 1860s some Maine Irishmen joined the Fenian movement, known officially as the Irish Republican Brotherhood, to launch a series of raids on British Canada, which they believed would force the British government to negotiate an independent Irish state. The first Fenian Circle in Maine was founded on Vinalhaven, likely by Irish stone cutters.
In April 1866, about 700 Irishmen arrived in Eastport with the intention of storming Campobello Island in Canada. In her autobiography, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn wrote that her grandfather Tom Flynn, a quarryman (likely on Vinalhaven) who came from a long line of Irish revolutionaries, was among the Fenians at Eastport.
"He was ever a fighter for freedom, in the spirit of his father," wrote Flynn. "Dissatisfied with the bad living and working conditions, the lack of education for his children, and the prejudice and discrimination against the Irish, he at one time joined the expedition to overthrow the Canadian government and set up a republic there. They captured an armory from the surprised Canadian militia and then got drunk to celebrate. But when they had to return across the border for lack of supplies, their leaders were arrested by the American authorities."
After the British dispatched a warship and Civil War veteran General George Meade was sent to disperse the rebels, the Fenians backed down.
Through their labor unions and societies, Maine Irish continued the struggle for the liberation of Ireland and for worker rights and dignity in their new home.
"The Irish learned that with unity there is strength, and it just made sense to become active politically," says Michael Connolly. "So whether it was labor unions, political parties, religious and other social organizations, they were always manifesting what power they could find."
The Flynns would later move to New Hampshire and then New York, where the younger Tom Flynn helped found the Irish Socialist Club with the famed Irish nationalist, labor organizer and socialist James Connolly. Flynn's teenage daughter Elizabeth Gurley-Flynn became a labor actvist with the Industrial Workers of the World, organizing strikes across the U.S. and later fighting for women's rights, birth control and the right of women to vote. James Connolly eventually returned to Ireland and helped lead the Eastern Rising of 1916 with the Fenians. For his role in the armed insurrection, he was executed by the British and became a martyr in the eyes of many Irish nationalists. It was years of violence and bloodshed before the Irish finally gained an independent state and the Republic of Ireland was declared in 1949.
Back in Maine, the Irish gradually made their way into local politics, first through municipal alderman and city council elections and later at the state and national level. Maine Senator George Mitchell, a descendent of Irish immigrants, woulkd go on to help broker the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, finally bringing lasting peace to Northern Ireland.
"Irish immigrants, especially those of the famine years, became with rare exceptions what their transatlantic environment made them - children of the slums, rebuffed, scorned by respectable citizens and exploited by the less respectable," wrote Woodham-Smith in "The Great Hunger." "The Irish were the most unfortunate emigrants and the poorest. They took the longest to be accepted, longest to become genuinely assimilated and they waited the longest before the opportunities of the United States were freely available to them.... The story of the Irish in the New World is not a romantic story of liberty and success, but the history of a bitter struggle, as bitter and as painful, though not as long drawn out, as the struggle by which the Irish at last won the right to be a nation."
The struggles of the Maine Irish, though dim now in memory, are not unlike that of other new Mainers. Like the Irish before them, asylum seekers from Central Africa and the Middle East are showing up on Maine's doorstep, seeking peace, security and opportunity. With their arrival, the same age-old prejudices and resentments from so-called "native Mainers" have again bubbled to the surface. But just as the Irish helped shape and build the state we know today, so too will a new generation of refugees.