Way Back When … 1959
Tomorrow, March 17, is St. Patrick’s Day, a day of camaraderie and celebration for those of Irish descent (and plenty others). Today, as locals look forward to corned beef and green beer, let’s take a look back at a bit of Irish history in the area.
In 1790 there were only 1,500 Irish in Connecticut, and many were indentured servants. When a sever blight of the potato crop took place in 1844, the Irish came to America in significant numbers. The voyage via ship took weeks and conditions were terrible. Then, upon arrival, most of the Irish had to find jobs, most often types of unskilled labor. Those who ended up in Connecticut assimilated by embracing politics and becoming involved in the Democratic party. By 1890 all of Connecticut’s major cities had Irish leaders, and Patrick Coughlin was Bridgeport’s first Irish mayor in 1888. The Irish also brought Catholicism with them, and in 1852 St. Thomas Aquinas Church was built in Fairfield. By 1861 there were 82 Catholic churches in the state of Connecticut.
One of Fairfield’s most famous citizens of Irish descent was John J. Sullivan. Sullivan arrived in Fairfield in 1935 and opened a flower shop. He was the first selectman in town for 24 year, from 1959 to 1983. As an Irish-Catholic Democrat, his election in 1959 was a significant departure from the previous Yankee-Protestant leadership. He was once quoted as saying about Fairfield: “The political climate was strictly Republican. This was a Republican town. You could have your friends Republican and your friends Democrat and you could assimilate together and be friends, social and all that. But it was there. When they went to vote that was all there was to it.”
As the arrived in America, the Irish also formed social groups and enjoyed celebrating their culture through Gaelic music, dance and theater. In 1947, the Gaelic American Club was founded in Bridgeport with a few dozen members. The founder and first president was Jimmy Corcoran. In 1993 the club moved to its current location at 74 Beach Road in Fairfield, and membership boomed. There is now a cap of approximately 5,000 members.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
About the Fairfield Museum & History Center: The Fairfield Museum & History Center and Museum Shop, located at 370 Beach Road, are open seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Members of the Museum and children under 5 are admitted free. For more information, call 203-259-1598 or visit Fairfieldhistory.org. The Fairfield Museum relies on funding from individuals, corporations and foundations. The Museum is especially grateful for leadership support from the State of Connecticut, Town of Fairfield and Fairfield County’s Community Foundation.