Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
A cold morning in March, 1849. The angry Irish laborers marched from Hartford to East Hartford across the covered bridge that spanned the Connecticut River. They converged at the home of their boss. As a contractor he hired the immigrants to help build the Hartford/Providence railroad. The Irish had finished their work and they expected to be paid. But without warning, the contractor declared he was bankrupt and closed his business without paying the men he hired.
When the workers arrived at the contractor’s home they demanded their back pay. The boss had nothing to say. He would wait them out, sure that the police would come soon. They didn’t.
The workers surrounded the house. If the boss wouldn’t come out to them, he wouldn’t be allowed to leave at all. Finally, after three days, the police escorted the contractor from his home.
History does not record the end result of this siege. Take into account, however, that it took three days before the authorities arrived. They were clearly in no hurry to interfere with the laborers’ cause. When the sheriff finally showed up, he removed the boss without a fight from the men who had formed the blockade. Most certainly, some sort of deal had been struck for the workers’ wages.
No, these Hartford laborers would not be starved again.
Widespread ethnic and religious prejudice taught the Hartford Irish to rely on themselves. That prejudice ran from Connecticut’s “Know Nothing” party which actually elected a governor in 1855 based on hatred of the Irish, to the Hartford Courant which for fifty years called the Irish neighborhood on the east side “Pigville.”
Just as they built their churches, schools and social clubs in Hartford, the transplanted Irish also formed their own unions. A week-long strike of journeymen horseshoers, dominated by Irish blacksmiths, took place in 1906. The strike affected 17 shops in the city. Their demand was a nine-hour work day and a minimum daily wage of three dollars. The master horseshoers finally submitted to the new wage and hour standards and agreed to hire union men when there were vacancies.
“We Irish are a working race,” Michael Scanlon told Connecticut’s Irish in 1874. “Labor is our pride and privilege.” Scanlon, a poet and Irish nationalist, exemplified the link between the Irish American working class and their homeland. For Hartford’s Irish immigrants, the first priority was feeding the family, but running a close second was the liberation of Ireland from British domination.
In the 1880’s tenant farmers in Ireland formed the Land League to wrest control of farms from the landlord class. The League’s primary founder (along with Charles Stewart Parnell) was Michael Davitt from County Mayo. Davitt was born at the height of the Great Hunger. His family was evicted when he was four years old. At age nine he worked in a cotton mill where his right arm was mangled in a machine, resulting in an amputation.
In 1882 Davitt spoke to an enthusiastic Hartford crowd of 1,200 at the Opera House. He was wildly popular in Hartford and well known to Irish communities across the country. Hartford could boast that at the time of Davitt’s public appearance, the Ladies Land League had 2000 members and 3 branches. The British had effectively suppressed the male-dominated League. The women soon won the reputation for running bigger, more effective, and more militant boycotts and protests on behalf of their people back home.
Slowly, methodically, the Irish worked their way into leadership positions in Hartford’s labor unions and in politics. In 1902, with a third party called the Economic League, they elected the union man Ignatius Sullivan as mayor of Hartford.