KINGSTON, R.I. – November 1, 2007 –The Irish who fled their homeland in the wake of the Great Famine poured into Rhode Island from the 1840s through 1850s. But Rhode Island, like other parts of the country, might as well have erected a tall brick wall to keep them out, so great was the hostility to their arrival and burgeoning numbers. “No Irish Need Apply” signs were rampant on workplaces throughout the state.
Their emotions raw from the ravages of the famine, poverty, disease, starvation and the deaths of family members, they persevered in the new land, taking the worst, most difficult jobs. By 1885, Providence had the sixth largest Irish population of any city in the country.
To mark the struggles and victories of the Irish in Rhode Island, the Irish Famine Memorial will be unveiled Saturday, Nov. 17 at noon near the Heritage Harbor Museum on the Riverwalk in Providence on Point Street. The memorial is across the street from Capriccio.
Scott Molloy, University of Rhode Island professor of Labor and Industrial Relations at the Schmidt Labor Research Center and member of the memorial committee, said it was a 12-year project involving many dedicated people. “I think I must have attended 200 meetings in those 12 years, many focused on fund-raising, many on plans for the memorial and some to make sure we covered any loose ends. Since we began, four members of the committee have died.”
The group raised $500,000 for a sculpture, a small park with benches, a brick walkway that honors donors and two granite monuments that tell the story of the Irish in their homeland and here in Rhode Island. Molloy, a nationally renowned labor and Irish historian, wrote the story of the Irish in Rhode Island. The sculpture by Bob Shure, who also created the Boston monument of the famine, is of an Irish refugee family–a mother, father and child.
Molloy said interest in a permanent memorial grew out of a Mass in 1995 at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of S.S. Peter and Paul that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the famine, which led to the deaths of about 1 million Irish.
One of the key leaders, Anne M. Burns, president of the Rhode Island Irish Historical/Genealogical Society, read a poem during the program entitled, “Lament for the Famine Victims.”
“It was after this Mass that Anne and a group of us decided to find a way to commemorate this horrible event in a permanent way,” Molloy said.
“I was very naïve when we started this process; I didn’t know anything about sculptures, fund-raising, but we had some great support,” said the West Kingston resident. We’re very proud of what we have accomplished, especially since union workers were involved in nearly every aspect of the project. That’s important because that is how our ancestors climbed the ladder of success. They were the bricklayers, the masons and carpenters. The Irish built the place, Fort Adams (in Newport), the Arcade (in Providence) and the railroads.”
Twenty-five members served on the group’s executive committee and many others deserve thanks, Molloy said. He is especially grateful to former Gov. J. Joseph Garrahy, Congressman Patrick Kennedy, William and Nancy Gilbane of the Gilbane Building Co. and Patrick and Gail Conley. Patrick Conley was Molloy’s mentor when he was pursuing his doctorate at Providence College.
“Joe (Garrahy) was so gracious; he lent his name to the effort at the very beginning, and Patrick hosted the Irish consul general from Boston for one of our events,” Molloy said. “Without the assistance of Bill and Nancy Gilbane, the memorial would have been nothing more than a 3-foot Irish Cross that no one would have been able to get to.”
He also singled out Ken Castellucci who completed the stonework containing the historic record, and the Rev. Daniel Trainor, who has been with the project from the beginning and will bless the statue during the Nov. 17 ceremonies.
Cora McAuliffe will sing the national anthems of the United States and Ireland; the latter in Gaelic, while Rhode Island State Police Lts. Darren Delaney and Thomas Underhill raise the two countries’ flags. Delaney and Underhill will also sing later in the program. The famine memorial group will also present a check to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.
Molloy knows the Irish immigrant story well. His grandfather Henry W. Molloy Sr. immigrated to Rhode Island from Ireland in 1900 at age 10 with his mother and siblings. As a conductor for the United Electric Railways in Providence, Henry Molloy worked at of the same Providence garage that much later housed the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority buses driven by his grandson Scott.
When Henry Molloy was just 17, he saw the first and only immigrant ever to be elected to the mayor’s seat in Providence, Patrick McCarthy. “Patrick McCarthy came out of the famine as a little kid when half of his family died.
The inscription on McCarthy’s headstone in St. Francis Cemetery in Pawtucket reads: “May their history be written that future generations may learn of the heroic efforts and suffering of Irish Catholics at home and abroad for faith and fatherland.”
“It’s ironic that in this day we talk so much about illegal immigrants, especially from old-timers who said they and their ancestors came in legally. “Well, at the time of the Great Famine in Ireland, there were no illegal immigrants; everyone was legal. The only ones who were sent back were those with communicable diseases or those who were known to have committed a crime.”
In his message on the stone monument at the memorial, Molloy closes with—“The greater the glory to the Irish-Americans in Rhode Island today, who, in the name of their forebears, stand against intolerance, discrimination, and hunger suffered by the latest immigrants to our shores.”