Father Francis Lally with altar boys, St. Gabriel’s, c.1915. WHS collections 1989.24.1, gift of Frances Kernan Endee.
Everyone pretends to be a wee bit Irish on March 17, but Windsor has a stronger connection to the Emerald Isle than one day of shamrocks and green attire. In fact, Irish immigrants flocked to Windsor during the 19th century looking for work and a safe place to raise their families. Twenty percent of Windsor’s population was first or second-generation Irish by 1860. Many of these newcomers stayed in Windsor and became vital members of the community.
Irish immigrants first came to Windsor in the 1820s to build the Windsor Locks Canal. Most were men between the ages of 20 and 40 who lived in temporary boarding houses along the canal. In Historical Sketches, Jabez Hayden recalls the workers’ hard labor: “they dug and removed the earth with wheelbarrows on plank runs of the width of a single plank, and when near the bottom of the excavation it required a run of steep grade, and strong muscles to dump the barrow on the tow-path”. While many of the original Irish workers left Windsor when the canal was complete, a small number settled permanently and worked in the mills that opened along the canal. The first Catholic mass was performed for the Irish canal builders in 1827, and a traveling Catholic priest continued to visit the Irish community until St. Mary’s Catholic Church was constructed in 1853.
Windsor’s Irish population skyrocketed after a potato famine drove millions of Irish from their homeland in the mid-1840s. According to census records, residents of Irish ancestry made up thirteen percent of the total Windsor population in 1850 and twenty percent in 1860. Unlike the canal workers, many of the Irish who arrived after 1840 became permanent Windsor residents. A majority of the newcomers settled in Poquonock, Rainbow, and Windsor Locks where both men and women found work in the mills. Many of the mills offered accommodations for their employees. The Congress Mill in Poquonock had nine dwelling houses containing nineteen apartments and a large boarding house with eighty-four rooms. Other early Irish settlers worked as farm laborers and domestic servants, residing near or with their employers. The Eliphalet Ladd household in Poquonock employed and housed at least two Irish servants in 1860, including a 23-year-old woman named Mary Costello. Thomas Garvan, formerly a mill worker in Rockville, CT, worked on the Lovell farm in the mid-nineteenth century. Garvan was so enterprising that he later bought the Alvan Fenton farm on North Meadow Road, and that property remained in the Garvan family for nearly a century.
Early Irish settlers were not always welcomed by their Windsor neighbors. Newspaper editorials labeled them as dirty and complained that they were stealing American jobs. These stereotypes, though highly inaccurate, were pervasive and continued into the twentieth century. As a result, the Irish built localized communities based on family and religion. St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Windsor Locks was the first Catholic congregation in the area and quickly became a center of Irish life. Poquonock’s St. Joseph’s Catholic Church began as a mission of St. Mary’s in 1886 and became independent in 1892. St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church in Windsor Center began as another mission of St. Mary’s in 1845 and separated in 1921. All three churches had deep roots in the Irish community, although later immigrant groups would also join the congregations. Most notably, while Poquonock’s Irish community founded St. Joseph’s in 1886, the parish became the spiritual home of Poquonock’s Lithuanian settlers around 1900.
Windsor’s Irish community contributed to their town and their country. They served as soldiers and volunteers in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and all other national conflicts. On the home front, the Irish community bought war bonds, grew victory gardens, and participated in fund-raising and materials drives. Others served in the military where some, like infantry soldier Harry Gilligan, sacrificed their lives. Gilligan served in World War I and became a founding member of Windsor’s Gray-Dickinson post of the American Legion before dying of lung damage sustained from mustard gas exposure on a French battlefield.
Second, third, and fourth-generation Irish continued to contribute to Windsor’s growing community. M. D. Murphy and Lawrence Mullaley opened successful grocery stores in Windsor Center around 1870, beginning a tradition of Irish-owned groceries that included the Gilligan, Garvan, and Dillon families. Many Windsorites who grew up in the mid-20th century have vivid memories of Inez Searle, a second-generation Irish-American, who gained a reputation as a strict teacher at the Roger Ludlow School. As Windsor’s constable, dog warden, and enforcer of Prohibition in the 1920s, Maurice Kennedy may have been Windsor’s best-known citizen with Irish roots.
Windsor’s early Irish community created a lasting legacy. The descendants of the Garvans, Gilligans, Murphys, Kennedys and other early Irish families still live and work in Windsor. Roads, ponds, and businesses bear Irish names. (Kennedy Road was named for Windsor’s Kennedy family long before President John F. Kennedy took office.) Irish-Americans taught generations of Windsor children, sold Windsorites their daily bread, participated with their fellow townspeople in local and national issues, and helped build several of Windsor’s religious, civic, and social organizations. From the Windsor Locks Canal to the town’s many Irish-American families, Windsor has plenty to celebrate on St. Patrick’s Day!
By Erin Stevic, curator, 2007