EDITORIAL: Irish played a significant role in local history

The influence of early Irish immigrants and the contributions they brought to the area were recently given their due.

In the early 1800s, many Irish workers found employment with the Farmington Canal Co., and provided the backbreaking labor needed to create the canal. It’s a compelling story.

“It took five years to build the canal,” according to Jeanne Chesanow, Cheshire’s town historian, who spoke with Cheshire Herald reporter Mariah Melendez. “Irish diggers were hired to do the whole canal. While they were in Cheshire, they built this massive hill, called ‘The Great Fill,’ which is an elevated section of the Farmington Canal.”

The hill was made to avoid the time and labor it would have taken to build nine consecutive locks. This particular portion of the canal was notoriously difficult to build and work on, due to Cheshire’s landscape at the time, which was mainly swampland.

Equipped with only hand tools, these laborers filled countless wheelbarrows with 200,000 tons of sand, creating a 40-foot-high hill with the canal bed on top.

Two years after the canal had closed, the 1850 census listed over 50 names of individuals born in Ireland. In 2016, a sign was erected along the trail to commemorate the diggers and their sacrifice.

Now a more prominent memorial has been installed. On Oct. 13, Cheshire unveiled a commemorative bench, near 490 W. Main St., with a plaque to honor the Irish men who dug out the historic canal.

Members of the Connecticut Irish-American Historical Society attended the event.

“Irish women who came over were mostly servants, while the men worked as miners — in this case, diggers,” said Neil Hogan, the group’s historian. “Roughly 150 men worked on the mine, and they we’re not well received in town. The Irish got a bad name from many of the other people who lived here at the time.”

According to Hogan, many Irish diggers are buried in the cemetery next to the Cheshire Library. “These people had families, lives outside of just digging and being exploited for their work … I am glad we can honor them here today.”

A presentation at St. Thomas Beckett Church earlier this fall discussed the history of Catholicism in Cheshire and in doing so brought the influence of the Irish community into the story.  

Patti Flynn-Harris, president of the St. Bridget of Sweden Women’s Society, spoke about how, in the early 1800s the local Irish community spurred the growth of Catholicism in Cheshire as they wanted to attend Mass and the closest option was in New Haven. In 1843, that changed with a local service held at the Booth House which would become the site of the first Catholic church in town, St. Bridget Mission Church. Eventually, Cheshire would support three Catholic churches (one has since closed, in 2017.)

Flynn-Harris said Irish workers sowed “the seeds of our (Catholic) faith” and deserve gratitude for their many contributions.

As appreciation of our multicultural society continues to expand, these tributes to Irish immigrants rightly take a place alongside the many different populations that helped build our communities and that are starting to gain belated recognition for their roles.

The Irish people who came and made America their home changed the landscape in tangible ways. Their influence also shaped the local surroundings in less visible ways. These tributes bring those contributions into the light to be respectfully remembered. 

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