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Retired SUNY Potsdam professor discussses history of Irish in north country

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POTSDAM - It was the 1840s and life was not good in Ireland. The Great Famine had taken hold, causing mass starvation and disease and killing more than a million of the poorest Irish.

It also brought emigration and, by the time it was over, many of those who fled Ireland found new homes in the Northern New York area.

Between 1845 and 1850 more than half a million Irish arrived in American trying to escape the potato famine. Most of them who eventually settled in Northern New York area came from New York City or Montreal. Great Britain subsidized the trips to Canada, making it less costly to travel to Quebec, where many of them arrived.

“The Irish influx begins particularly after the famine of the 1840s. Some came before. The South Adirondacks had a number of Protestant Irish farmers. In the north they began coming through Montreal. They would immigrate through Montreal and move down to the states,” said Arthur L. Johnson, a retired SUNY Potsdam history professor.

In fact, Mr. Johnson said, many Irish and French who now call Upstate New York their home came from north of the border and crossed south in many cases for the prospect of jobs.

“It’s really I’d say the 1820s and 1830s (when the influx began),” Mr. Johnson said. “Most of the north country Irish trace to Canada. They didn’t want to remain under the Union Jack. Many were anxious to get away from it.”

He said what drove other people south was the land system in Quebec, where some of the immigrants had settled.

“Land was divided up among sons. There was not enough to go around. People began to look for jobs in Montreal. They had to come over the border seasonally to work at lumber camps. Some stayed; some had businesses. They ran ferry boats and various things,” he said.

That led many of them to settle in the area, according to Mr. Johnson.

“We began to get a permanent population along with seasonal comings and goings. Part of it was getting away from land and (finding) jobs. Many worked for the railways,” he said.

As they moved to the north country, most Irish Catholic immigrants settled in groups around the area, preferring to create their own communities, he said. In many communities, Irish Catholics established their own churches, parochial schools, hospitals and orphanages.

“A number of Irish Settlement Roads pass in the back country. There were clots of them. They settled in groups,” Mr. Johnson said.

Today there are Irish Settlement Roads in Canton, Heuvelton, Oswegatchie, Waddington and Pierrepont. In addition, there is an Ireland Road in the towns of Potsdam, Hammond and Morristown, and the town of Fine has an Irish Hill Road.

There’s also an Ireland Road in the towns of Potsdam, Hammond and Morristown. The town of Fine has an Irish Hill Road.

In addition to the Irish, There was also a large influx of French to the north country.

“When they came to places like Potsdam, they were poor. They got the least desirable housing area like down by the tracks, which was not a place to be in the steam days. They were dirty and noisy. The French village was down by the tracks,” Mr. Johnson said.

“The Irish and the French didn’t like each other. A French priest in Ogdensburg wasn’t sure you could be Catholic if you spoke English. There were two churches, Notre Dame and St. Mary’s for the Irish. That happened in a lot of larger towns. There were two Catholic churches. Now there’s very little French spoken anymore,” he said.

At a recent presentation for the St. Lawrence County Historical Association, Mr. Johnson said he learned that today there is still a large contingent of individuals who can trace their family roots back to the Ireland and France.

“(The crowd) was overflowing. I took a poll and most had either Irish or French ancestry,” he said.

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