The Irish in Newport

Fri, 03/17/2017 - 10:28am -- mfarias

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Since 1956, the large Irish population of Newport has celebrated the holiday with a parade through the streets filled with pipe bands, marching bands, and local organizations. This year, marking the 61st annual event, the parade is already behind us, having happened the week before on Saturday March 11, but this is the weekend of St. Patrick’s Day so the celebration is not over.

St. Patrick's Day Parade, Newport RI (Photo Credit: WhatsUpNewp)


View of Newport Harbor and the town by John Collins (1814-1902) & Thomas S. Sinclair (ca. 1805-1881)
From the Redwood Library's Webster Collection      

As noted in a report done by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission on the Fifth Ward, “Newport was Rhode Island’s first community to have a substantial Irish population…. Although Irish settlers had come to Newport by the mid-eighteenth century, the first significant numbers of Irish immigrants arrived during the 1820s. These early Irish immigrants came to work on the construction of Fort Adams, and many settled in the Southern Thames area - the built-up portion of town closest to the construction site.”


 View of US Constitution with Fort Adams to the left of the ship by John Henry Bufford (1810-1870) & John Perry Newell (1831-1898)
   From the Redwood Library's Webster Collection    

Fort Adams was constructed between 1824 and 1857. After the War of 1812, the country realized it needed to focus its efforts on improving its coastal defense systems. To this end, several plans were envisioned for Narragansett Bay by Simon Bernard, an engineer sent from France to the chagrin of several American officers. His plans included fortifications at old Brenton’s Point, the Dumplings, and Rose Island, but work on the second two was never begun. Construction started at old Brenton’s Point in 1824 after receiving an appropriation of fifty thousand dollars from Congress and the name Fort Adams was decided for the new fort. Lieutenant Colonel Totten arrived in 1825 to take charge of the work and became considered America’s undisputed expert on fortifications after the return of Bernard to France in 1831. The Fort was designed to mount 468 cannon and house 2,400 troops and was active through World War II.


Jacqueline Lee Bouvier and John Fitzgerald Kennedy exiting St. Mary's Church (Photo Credit: Providence Journal)

Rhode Island’s first Roman Catholic congregation was established in the city in 1828 to serve the growing Irish-Catholic community. According to the website of the Church now known as St. Mary’s, it was, in fact, the discovery of the numerous Catholics working at Fort Adams that prompted Bishop Benedict Joseph Fenwick to assign the newly ordained Father Robert Woodley to Newport to found a congregation. The land he purchased on Barney St. was the first property held in the name of the Catholic Church of Rhode Island, who still retains ownership of the land. Five years later, in 1833, a wooden structure seating eight hundred was constructed on an adjacent lot named St. Joseph’s. The Church was not incredibly well-built and was considered unsafe shortly after completion so in 1847, land was purchased on Spring St. where St. Mary’s Church currently resides. It was consecrated in 1849 and was most famously the site of a wedding that took place on September 12, 1953 between Jacqueline Lee Bouvier and then-Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy (later the 35th President of the United States).


Men painting the street in Newport's Fifth Ward (Photo Credit: Newport Buzz)

The Fifth Ward in Newport where the majority of the Irish population in Newport set down their roots was named for the neighborhood’s former political affiliation. Today Newport only has three wards, but for anyone hoping to mark the boundaries of the former Fifth Ward, a 1924 Newport, RI Directory published by the Sampson & Murdock Company out of Boston has incredibly specific directions:

“The Fifth Representative District shall consist of all that part of said city bounded by:

  • a line beginning at a point at the intersection of Pope Street and Spring Street,

  • extending southerly through the center of Spring Street to Perry Street;

  • easterly through the center of Perry Street to Bellevue Avenue;

  • southerly and westerly through the center of Bellevue Avenue to the Atlantic Ocean,

  • thence along said Atlantic Ocean, Narragansett Bay, and the Newport harbor line in a general westerly, northerly and easterly direction to the intersection of the Newport harbor line with the line of Pope street;

  • easterly in the line and through the center of Pope Street to the place of beginning.” (Credit: Newport Buzz)

Have a Happy St. Patrick's Day, from the Redwood!