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Feeney: Irish Vermont

When a book I wrote on the Irish in Vermont was published a few years ago a reviewer in Boston said "when you think of the Irish in America you don't think of Vermont." How true. Even most Vermonters don't think of the Green Mountain State as a place that had a large Irish population. But at one time it did.

Back in the mid-nineteenth century, when famine forced thousands to flee Ireland, many caught boats to Canada and then made their way into the United States - the Reichlieu River/Champlain waterway being a favored route. For hundreds and even thousands of these refugees, the first time they set foot on American soil was at the docks in Burlington.

By 1870, there were a little more than 14,000 Irish-born residents in Vermont and another 21,000 second-generation Irish-Americans. Taken together they totaled about 11% of the state's population. But they were not spread out evenly across the state: they clustered where there were jobs. This made some places heavily Irish.

Burlington, with its fast growing lumber industry and numerous manufacturers , had a large Irish community: 20% of the city's population in 1870. They came to control Burlington politics from the turn of the century into the 1960s.

And long before Italians came to dominate the Vermont marble industry in the 1880s and 1890s, Rutland, West Rutland and Proctor were overwhelmingly Irish. In 1870, first and second generation Irish-Americans constituted 35% of the residents of Rutland town.

There were similar numbers in the slate quarrying towns of Poultney and Castleton in the 1870 census: the former was 22% Irish and the latter a whopping 33%. Towns with textile mills, like Bennington, also had large concentrations.

So, what happened? Where did the Irish go? Many simply found success, working their way up and out of back-breaking quarry and mill work and then moving elsewhere, being replaced by newer immigrants : French Canadians, Lebanese, Scots and Italians.

Then too, since the 1960s, Vermont's population has almost doubled, with much of that growth coming from people moving here from other states, and, in a sense, obscuring by their sheer numbers the identities of the older inhabitants.

So on this St. Patrick's Day, I’ll be thinking of Vermont's Irish connection, and celebrating one of the strands in our multi-ethnic heritage.

Vincent Feeney is an author, historian and educator. He was Adjunct Professor of History at the UVM from 1977 to 2006, and since 2003 he has been a lecturer for the Vt. Humanities Council. He is also a member of the Vt. Historical Society, the Center for Research on Vermont, the Chittenden County Historical Society and the Winooski Historical Society. He now lives with his wife in Montpelier.
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