Holyoke's Irish Heart
I arrived in Holyoke, three and a half hours north of New York City, at noon-time on Saturday, just as the 10k road race was ending. I had barely put a foot down when I was met by a welcoming party of Fred Sullivan and Jack O’Neill, who soon had me off and running to a whirlwind of engagements.
As we went along, Fred, a labor lawyer with offices in New York and Holyoke, and Jack, a pharmacist of long standing, filled me in on the city’s colorful history.
Holyoke was known as Ireland Parish back in the 1800s, when it was a way station on the road between Springfield and Northampton – a place for weary travelers to refresh themselves at one of the taverns in the area. The first post office, called “Ireland,” was established on June 3, 1822. Another post office called Ireland Depot was opened on February 26, 1847.
By that time, Boston entrepreneurs had seen the potential of the broad plain and the 57-foot drop in the Connecticut River at South Hadley Falls, and devised a plan to dam the river and turn the area into America’s first planned industrial city.
Irish workers began construction on the dam, which was completed on November 16, 1848. (There’s an old saying, “To build a canal all you need is a pick, a shovel, a wheelbarrow and an Irishman.”) The wooden structure proved no match for the mighty river and less than a day after it opened the dam was swept away to the famous words, “Dam gone to hell by way of Willimansett.” Undeterred, construction began on a second dam. This time engineers put an apron in place for support, and the dam held.
One of the laborers on the dam was Irish immigrant Daniel O’Connell who died soon afterwards in a cholera epidemic. His son, also Daniel, a water boy on the same river project, became the family’s sole support. Daniel went on to found Daniel O’Connell & Sons Contractors which is still in operation today.
“Of course, lives were lost,” Bob Loughrey, uncle of Joe Loughrey, J.F.K. Award recipient, said of the building of the dam and the four and a half miles of canals that followed.
Bob’s grandmother, Margaret Friel from Buncrana, Donegal, was fourteen when she arrived in Holyoke in 1878. She found work in the mills, which sprang up once the dam was in place, and later as a domestic in the house of William Skinner whose Skinner Silk Mills had thousands of workers. A woman of great fortitude and family loyalty, Margaret saved her money, returned to Ireland, collected her parents, her four brothers and sisters, a new husband, Constantine Loughrey, and brought them all back to Holyoke.
The new opportunities in Holyoke soon began to attract other immigrant groups, particularly French Canadians and Polish workers. The mill owners provided housing close to their factories “so that there would be no excuse for them being late for their twelve-hour shifts,” Bob says.