The Truth is Powerful

Our Hidden History: How Irish immigrants learned politics in Rhode Island

Guest columnist Patrick J. McCarthy was born in County Sligo, Ireland, in 1848 at the peak of the potato famine. He emigrated at age two, only to lose both parents to typhus shortly after they arrived in Boston. McCarthy spent his early years shuffling between relatives and orphanages and working in a variety of blue-collar jobs. But he also took the initiative to act in dramatic societies and attend night school, eventually gaining a law degree from Harvard University.

In 1868 McCarthy moved to Providence to live with his brother John. Benefiting from his extensive network as an active Catholic, he ascended Rhode Island’s political ladder.

He served three terms on the city council, followed by two terms in the General Assembly. But his crowning achievement came when he was elected Providence’s first foreign-born mayor in 1906. His success would have been notable under any circumstances but was particularly impressive in Rhode Island, where harsh voting restrictions had long undermined ethnic political power.

Native Protestants had deemed Catholics poor Americans because, the thinking went, they were members of a hierarchical church that discouraged free thought and answered to a pontiff with designs on the U.S. government. As described by Patrick Conley in […]

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