Holyoke's Irish Heart
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.
The tenements and row houses provided were often small and crowded. According to one 1875 report by the state’s Bureau of Statistics of Labor: “Holyoke has more and worse large tenement houses than any manufacturing town of textile fabrics in the state. One large block, four stories high, has 18 tenements with 90 rooms, occupied by nearly two hundred people; and yet there are only two, three-foot doorways on the front, and none on the back. Our agents visited some tenements having bedrooms into which neither air nor light could penetrate, as there were no windows and no means of ventilation.”
Not only were the living conditions harsh, but the wages were poor – many families were in such dire straits that young children were forced into the workforce. The census of 1880 shows “only” 700 minors between the ages of 10 and 16 years employed in the mills. The following year that figure rose to 1,501.
In 1875, work began on a new building, a huge complex at Maple and Hampden streets, and when it was completed many of the Irish moved there. Built by two brothers from Ballyduff, Co. Kerry, “Dillon’s Block” was often referred to as “Dillon’s Baby Factory” because so many of Holyoke’s new citizens were born there.
One of those citizens was Joseph Loughrey, the eldest of Margaret and Constantine’s twelve children. “My father and two of his sisters were born in Dillon’s Block, and then the family moved to a house. He was one of twelve, one died in infancy and two died with flu when they were three and four,” Bob says.