The trouble had been brewing for some time.
There was great division among Irish settlers in Lowell’s Acre neighborhood. Those who had come from western Ireland settled along Lowell (now Market) and Lewis Streets. Those who had come from southern Ireland could be found on the other side of the Western Canal, along Fenwick and Suffolk Streets.
The animosity boiled over on Sunday November 8, 1849 as bricks, stones and bullets cut through the autumn air.
“The windows of many homes were almost entirely demolished,” reported the Lowell Courier, adding five and six pound rocks were thrown through windows and a teenaged boy, Patrick Kelley, had been shot.
“Women were seen working like beavers, lugging rocks and stones in their aprons for the contending parties,” the Courier reported.
“The Irish were often their own worst enemies,” said Dave McKean, author of the newly published book “Lowell Irish.” “Irish versus Irish was a giant problem.”
McKean’s 126-page book chronicles the history of Lowell’s Irish from the day in the spring of 1822 when Charlestown labor leader Hugh Cummiskey led 30 Irishmen on a 27-mile hike to Lowell, lifted a pint with industrialist Kirk Boott and then began digging the city’s canals, through their ascension into the city’s upper and middle classes as politicians, businessmen, police officers, firefighters and teachers.
It was not an easy path. The Irish overcame the squalor of the “paddy camps,” violence amongst themselves and prejudice from some outsiders to build churches, schools and a lasting community.
McKean, 62, a teacher, former park ranger and archivist for St. Patrick’s Church, grew up in a tenement at the corner of Broadway and Walker Streets, the product of a mixed marriage (his mother French-Canadian, his father Scotch and Irish) at a time when which parish you belonged to was a person’s most identifiable factor.
He attended St. Patrick School and church, but occasionally his mother would take him to the French mass at St. Joseph’s. Then she would write a note to the nuns at St. Patrick’s to explain why he was not in attendance at their services; this led to an extra trip to the confessional for “missing mass”; if it wasn’t in Latin it didn’t count.
McKean’s father was also raised in the Acre and returned there to die. It was important for him to return home before being called home.
“Being an Acre kid is something really ingrained in you,” McKean said.
As a young man, he recalls being locked in a trailer with the old men to count the money from the St. Patrick’s carnival.
“At first I cursed being in the trailer with those guys, but as I listened I realized someone needed to keep and tell their stories,” he said. “Now I’m an old man telling the stories. I was an old man ever since I was young.”
The book is the result of 60 years of collecting stories, photos, newspaper clippings and mementos from the city’s Irish past. It became a reality when he received a phone call from editors at History Press, who had been following his LowellIrish blog and were interested in making it into a book.
McKean sees the book as a piece of a bigger project that includes the work of historian Walter Hickey and the ongoing archeological dig in the front lawn of St. Patrick’s Church conducted by Dr. Colm Donnelly of Queen’s University Belfast and UMass Lowell’s Center for Irish Partnerships that is “adding a newer, clearer chapter to the story of the Irish of Lowell.”
“The story of the Irish in the Acre repeats and repeats itself with every new immigrant group,” he said, adding that is what makes the neighborhood so special.
In the 1980’s when Southeast Asian immigrants began settling in Lowell, McKean recalls seeing Buddhist monks strolling in their flowing saffron-colored robes through the Acre.
“As they walked by St. Pat’s they stopped and they bowed and I thought, jeez that is just fantastic,” he said.
“Lowell Irish” can be purchased by contacting McKean at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble. A portion of the proceeds from the book will be donated to St. Patrick School.
McKean will lead the Irish and the Acre tour on Saturday June 25 at 10 a.m. as part of the Lowell Walks series. Fore a full schedule of this year’s Lowell Walks visit: http://www.richardhowe.com/events/