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Irish in Vt. tome a story that ‘needed to be told’

The Bennington Banner
Saturday April 10, 2010

BENNINGTON -- Vincent E. Feeney, author of "Finnigans, Slaters and Stonepeggers: A History of Irish in Vermont," said he wrote the book because it was a story that needed to be told.

"It needed to be done. From my yearsteaching modern Irish history at the University of Vermont I knew many of the Vermont Irish families, and I knew there was a great story there that had not yet been tapped," he said in a recent e-mail interview. "In general, this is also the case with other ethnic groups in Vermont."

Someone needs to write similar ethnic histories of French-Canadians, Italians, Lebanese and Jews in Vermont, he said.

The 242-page book draws on primary source documents and interviews or correspondence with more than 30 people. It follows the Irish in Vermont from the pre-Revolutionary War era to the 1950s, with a short epilogue about later decades. Bennington publisher Images from the Past produced the book.

Feeney holds a doctorate in history from the University of Washington. He was an adjunct professor of history at the University of Vermont from 1977 to 2006. On Sunday, April 18, Feeney will speak at the 10 a.m. meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Bennington on "The Making of a Humanist: Giovanni Costigan."

Costigan was a human rights activist, a staunch opponent of Senator Joe McCarthy, and an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. Later that day, Feeney will discuss "Finnigans, Slaters and Stonepeggers"
at a meeting of the Bennington Historical Society at 2 p.m. The program, held in the Ada Paresky Education Center located on the second floor of the Bennington Museum, is free and open to the public.

Feeney said many things he learned when researching the book surprised him. "For example, I was never really aware of how many Irish were involved in slate quarrying in western Rutland county, and I was really surprised to stumble across the little slate quarrying village of West Castleton that was almost exclusively Irish," he said.

These are the "slaters" of the book’s title. Feeney writes that historians tended to describe workers in Vermont’s slate industry as predominantly Welsh. "This is an oversimplification and overlooks the important role played by the Irish," he writes.

In writing about the Irish in Vermont, Feeney details what drew them to the state and what occupations they undertook. "The earliest Irish found in Vermont generally came alone, as isolated individuals, part of the Irish flotsam and jetsam that was found everywhere in the English speaking world in the beginning of the 17th century," he writes. However, the original families that settled and named Londonderry were Presbyterians seeking religious freedom.

Many of the first Irish in Vermont came because of war. Feeney notes that because of Ireland’s extreme poverty, British recruiters began in the 18th century to see it as a fertile ground for recruiting new soldiers. Those Irish who fled the Great Famine in the 1840s arrived as Vermont was undergoing a mini-Industrial Revolution based on railroad construction, textile production and quarrying.

Due to the influx caused by the Great Famine, "the Irish constituted the largest ethnic minority in the state, slightly ahead of French Canadians. In places like Burlington and Rutland they were an overwhelming presence. They could be found in most of the state’s industrial centers, building railroads, quarrying stone, and manning looms; but they also worked the land on farms in Fairfield, Underhill and Moretown."

For many ethnic groups, war has been the crucible where their citizenship finds acceptance, and so it was with the Irish and the Civil War (1861-65). At times there was real opposition to military service among the Irish, especially with the introduction of conscription in 1863. For the Conscription Act made all men age 20 to 45 eligible for service but exempted those who paid $300 or could provide a substitute willing to serve for three years. This meant that military service fell on the shoulders of the poor, including the Irish.

Opposition to the draft might be at the origin of the term "stonepeggers" of the book’s title. Locals referred to the Irish in the marble quarrying district of West Rutland as stonepeggers. Feeney writes, "The origin of this appellation is obscure, but apparently it is either related to the antidraft incident of 1863 when quarrymen chased off recruiters by pegging (throwing) stones at them, or to a fracas at a baseball game when West Rutland fans pelted a visiting baseball club with marble chips."

However, "Despite widespread hostility to the draft, hundreds of Vermonters from Irish backgrounds served in the war effort," Feeney writes. "For many Irishmen it would be a defining experience, marking a transformation from emigrant greenhorn to red-blooded American."

One of these was John Lonergan, whose family fled from Tipperary and settled in Burlington. He opened a grocery store in Winooski, catering to the Irish who worked in the textile mills. With the outbreak of the Civil War he became a military man. A captain in a predominately Irish unit, he won the Medal of Honor at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Like many Irish of that era, Lonergan maintained strong devotion to his mother country. After the war, he became leader of the Fenian movement in Vermont. The "finnigans" of the book’s title, this secret organization was born in 1858 of intense bitterness against England after the Great Famine, and was dedicated to the violent overthrow of British rule in Ireland.

In the mid-1860s, the American section of this group set its sights on attacking from the northern U.S. the British in Canada "and in essence hold it hostage for Irish independence." Two brief, almost comic, incursions of Fenian militants into Canada in 1866 and 1870 did little serious damage -- other than two Fenians killed in the 1870 invasion; those involved were largely unpunished, apparently because they were mostly U.S. Civil War veterans.

The Irish nationalist fervor soon diminished in the U.S. After a turbulent decade of conflict, Irish veterans of the Civil War, even the Fenians among them, were eager to get on with their lives, Feeney writes.

Feeney said he was surprised to learn how quickly the Irish came to political power in Vermont’s urban centers, and he details this in his book. In 1859, Michael McQueeney, was elected at town meeting to be a selectman in Fairfield, likely the first Irish Catholic so honored in Vermont. Other prominent Irish-American politicians included Thomas Moloney, who was a leading politician in Rutland at the turn of the 20th century and represented Rutland in the state legislature and later was an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for governor and U.S. senator. Edward James Burke served seven terms of mayor of Burlington, first elected in 1903.

Today, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy is the grandson of an Irish immigrant to Vermont; and Congressman Peter Welch, a transplant from Massachusetts, is also of Irish descent.

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