Holyoke's Irish Heart
I first heard of Holyoke from the late, great Eoin McKiernan, who penned The Last Word column for Irish America for many years. Eoin was the first Ambassador Award recipient in 1992 and became an ardent fan of Holyoke, promoting the parade whenever he could. But it was at the urging of Ciaran O’Reilly and Charlotte Moore, founders of New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre who served as last year’s Ambassadors, that I finally made the trip. I’m glad I did.
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.