Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ghosts of Newport Past - Irish Spirits in Newport

[I published this article on Gather.com last September. I've edited a little to fit Blogger and to fill in some extra information I've come across since then.]

In honor of St. Patrick's Day I'm going to take you on a tour of the two Irish immigrant cemeteries in Newport. The Irish first came to Newport in the 1820s, as laborers building fort Adams and as miners in the coal mines (long ago played out) in Portsmouth on the north end of the island.

The first Catholic parish in Newport was St. Joseph's, located at the corner of Barney and Mt. Vernon Streets. Let the plaque at the cemetery on that spot tell the story:

The cemetery, which was located behind the wooden church, is the oldest Irish cemetery in Newport. By the time I'd come to Newport in 1974 this cemetery had almost literally disappeared. My girlfriend at the time lived right across Mt. Vernon St. from it, and we never knew it was there. The stones had all fallen flat and the grass had grown over them. Nancy and I used to picnic on the vacant lot without ever knowing tha Newport's oldest Irish cemetery was under us.

In the 1990s a young man on his way to earning the rank of Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts learned of the cemetery and adopted it as his community service project required for the rank. He gathered a team, and they cleaned the lot, found the stones and started work on returning the cemetery to a more respectable presence. Many of the stones had to be repaired, and local agencies donated the materials and work to create the fence around the cemetery. The current St. Mary's Parish commissioned the Irish Cross which became the centerpiece of the plot. And here's how it looks today:

And here are some of the stones in the cemetery:

This stone is very poignant - the infant children of John and Margaret Calahan, who only lived to 10 and 15 months.

These stones are very much like Quaker stones - very simple. They're adorned with symbols and have actual inscriptions on them, which the Quaker stones didn't have, but there's a simplicity to the carving. These were the working poor, and they had no money for fancy stones. In most cases the parish paid for the stones and their carving.

In the late 1840s the potato blight hit Ireland, and the resulting famine brought great waves of Irish immigrants to the US, and Newport was where a great many of them came. By this time there were two parishes in Newport, St. Mary's (now on Spring St.) and St. Joseph's. It had been part of the Diocese of Boston but had been transferred to the Diocese of Hartford, as Boston had more than enough new parishoners to take care of, while Hartford a few in comparison. From 1850 to 1856 the Bishop of the Diocese of Hartford was Bernard O'Reilley, and his brother - Msgr. William O'Reilly - was his Vicar General for all of Rhode Island.

Of course, with this new influx of Irish immigrants, the cemetery on Barney St. would no longer suffice, and a new plot of land was purchased on Warner St. at Kingston Ave. The cemetery today is known as St. Mary's Cemetery:

By now the Irish were well established in Newport, and as you can see the gravestones are much richer and there are many actual monuments.

This triple cross caught my eye; the three Adams sisters.

And this stone for John and Esther Eagan has a feature, shared with many other Irish gravestones, that I found fascinating, the inclusion of the interred's birth parish and county in Ireland.

The showpiece of the cemetery is Msgr. William O'Reilley's monument. There are no dates, just the spire and its carved ornaments, and his name. For being the Vicar General of Rhode Island he's unusually undocumented. He was Vicar General under his brother, bishop Bernard O'Reilley, was interim administrator for the whole Diocese of Hartford on his brother's death at sea in 1856 (Bernard had gone to Ireland to recruit priests) until the appointment of Bishop McFarland in 1858, and remained Bishop McFarland's Vicar General for Rhode Island. But there's no record of him after that; he's not mentioned at all in the records of the creation of the Diocese of Providence under Bishop Hendricken. But he certainly has an impressive monument in the St. Mary's Cemetery.

There are Irish graves in many of the other cemeteries in Newport, but these two are the only specifically Irish Catholic plots in the city. As such they serve as monuments to the Irish presence in Newport.

© 2008 & 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

And a St. Patrick's Day treat!

St. Patrick's Day is never complete without music and dancing, so here's a great video of The Chieftains with the Corrs, dancers, and even some Henson-style big puppets in a wild Irish whoopdedoo that only Paddy and the boys can pull off with such energy and panache!


  1. Amazing that all of those headstones were buried. I wonder what else is below us at any given moment of the day's travels.

  2. Bravo to the young scout.

    Thanks for The Chieftans, they are another great favorite of mine...

    Happy St Patrick's Day!

  3. A hearty congratulations for the scouts who cleaned that parcel of land so well. I often hear of lame Eagle project; this one is worthy of a hail hail!

  4. ...wonderful post. Enjoyed the history and thank goodness the scouts stepped up. One person can make a difference. The music was really fun!! ...just a wee bit of Irish in me ;-)

  5. belated happy st. patrick's day!

    that triple cross marker is something...never encountered that in all my wanders in cemeteries!

  6. Both are beautiful, but I'm impressed with the scout's initiative and find the tiny graveyard the most charming.

    I don't believe I've ever used the word "charming" to describe a graveyard before.

  7. Love your take on St Paddy's.

    Come see your crow at my blog...