They started arriving in droves after the potato blight obliterated the crop in Ireland for a few years in the middle of the 19th century. They hailed from counties in different parts of that country: Wicklow, Cork, Cavan. They came because of the promise of employment and of a better life in the United States.
One area that proved to be a magnet for many of these Irish immigrants in the mid-1800’s was Mine Hill, which, at that time, was part of Randolph township. With 22 mines spread over a three square mile area, there was more than enough work to go around. Of these, the oldest and largest was the Dickerson mine located off of what is now Canfield Avenue.
A section of town where a large number of these newcomers lived soon came to be known as Irishtown. Ultimately, perhaps due to the influx of other groups in the community and the name’s slightly negative connotation, it faded from use.
In an 1868 map from Beers Atlas, the leading mapmaker of the time, the Irishtown area seems to consist of a cluster of homes along what is now Randolph Avenue. Some more homes appear on adjoining roads.
“[Irishtown] was essentially a neighborhood”, said Mary Ellen Burbridge, the president of the Ferromonte Historical Society of Mine Hill. Burbridge’s husband, John, is a descendant of Bridget Smith who, along with her husband, was among the group of early Irish immigrants to the area.
The house where Smith lived on Randolph Avenue is now the only home from the Irishtown era that has survived. It was originally a two family structure that was redesigned to house a single family in the early 1900’s. Smith continued to live there with her two children, John and Mary, even after her husband died in a mining accident.
Called the Bridget Smith House, it has undergone some restoration since it became the property of the Township of Mine Hill a few years ago. A historical marker outside the dwelling describes it as “typical of worker housing prevalent throughout the North Jersey Highlands during the iron boom that lasted until the 1890’s”.
Houses similar to those Smith lived in dotted the streets of Irishtown. They were built by mining companies to temporarily house workers and their families during the time that mines in the vicinity were in operation. The Beers map which was drawn, according to Elaine Campoli, the Mine Hill Museum Director, as part of a census conducted that year, lists the residents of many of these homes. There is no denying their Irish origins: Mehan, Duffey, O’Grady….
What was life in Irishtown like? Through newspaper accounts, photographs, and other scanty records, it’s possible to derive a hazy picture of the lives of the miners and their families.
Financially, they struggled to get by. In many cases, “it was all they could do to get the money to come over [to the U.S.]”, Burbridge said.
Upon arrival, they lost no time in looking for jobs. But in the face of some local prejudice, it wasn’t always easy to land them. “I think the Irish ran into “no Irish need apply” signs [in some places] and that’s why they ended up in the mines”, said Irene DiGennaro, another member of the Ferromonte Historical Society. DiGennaro’s ancestors also immigrated from Ireland around this time but they settled first in the Hibernia section of Rockaway, moving to Mine Hill later after the mines in Rockaway had been exhausted.
The accomodation provided by the mining companies was not lavish, by any stretch of the imagination. They were small homes, largely intended to serve as makeshift housing. As such, no time or money was spent on their maintenance. With the average miner earning a $1 a day, “who can blame them for not painting [their homes]?”, Campoli asked rhetorically.
And though eventually some of these families and their descendants did stay on in the area, “homesteading” and settling down was not among their main objectives in the initial years, Campoli said. Smith’s children themselves married locals and continued to live in the area.
From all accounts, the celebrated Irish “pub culture” also flourished in town. Though Burbridge and Campoli prefer not to dwell on it for fear of perpetuating some stereotypes, it still seems pretty clear that tavern owners did brisk business in Irishtown. There was only one licensed bar called the Mine Hill Tavern at the corner of Randolph and West Randolph Avenue but there were several unlicensed establishments based in the homes of some of the residents.
Matt Connor is the author of a book called “the Watering Hole” that traces the colorful history of the Mine Hill tavern from its establishment in 1868 to more recent times. In its current form, the place is a restaurant called ‘The Grill” in a quiet suburban setting. But in the early years, Connor said, it was right in the middle of a “bustling community”. Not only did stagecoaches break there before proceeding to neighboring towns but Irishtown’s miners frequently stopped there on their way to and from their work in the Dickerson mine.
Connor writes in his book, “The tavern’s clientele was made up largely of rugged, hard-bitten men who daily risked life and limb under the most hazardous conditions.”.
That the mines were dangerous places to work in seems evident from the many newspaper accounts of accidents and fatalities suffered by workers in them.
Given the amount of financial and physical hardships that the miners endured, it was not surprising, Connor said, that they needed a place to unwind. And more often than not, Irishtown’s drinking joints were the centers of such “unwinding”.
Things sometimes got a little out of hand. Gauging from news clips that Connor unearthed during his research, domestic violence was not uncommon and there were a handful of homicides, including one that made the front page of the New York Times
“It was a pretty tough town”, Connor said. “It probably had a little bit of the flavor of the Old West”.
Newspaper reporting on Irishtown, especially in the aftermath of a crime, tended to be sensationalistic and unflattering. But Connor said that the thing to be remembered is that the local media was largely controlled by mine owners, many of whom did not think highly of their miners. The miners were subject to stereotyping, he said, adding that “they [the newspapers] editorialized everything that they reported”.
DiGennaro echoed this sentiment. “The drinking may have been blown out of proportion”, DiGennaro said and even if they did have an undue fondness for liquor, there were other balancing forces in the miners’ lives. Irishtown was part of the parish of St. Mary’s Church located in nearby Port Oram (now Wharton). This church was built around 1875, replacing an older church that stood at more or less the same location.
Church-related activities were an important part of the lives of Irishtown residents. They hosted fundraisers for the church and according to DiGennaro, often “picnicked in the grove at St. Mary’s”.
In addition, some residents organized themselves into a group called the Temperance or Total Abstinence Society. An Iron Era report on the formation of such a group in 1872 described the group’s mission in this manner: “These societies, it is hoped will do much good in reclaiming drunkards and dispensing aid to sick and needy members”.
Residents may also have played baseball. In 1860, the game saw a sudden surge in its popularity in the region. Mine Hill had a team that “made pretty good showings against teams from much larger cities”, Connor writes in his book. So there is every reason to believe that Irishtown’s residents were caught up in the fervor and interest surrounding the game.
Children might have attended a school located close to what is now Route 46 across from the Mine Hill Presbyterian Church. But the educational goals of the miners were probably low-key, Burbridge said. A person who finished eighth grade would have been viewed as having received a substantial amount of schooling, she said.
“The Irish liked to have fun”, said Connor who is of Irish descent himself. And that, in essence, seems to sum up the spirit of Irishtown. Despite financial adversity and the perils of working in the mines, residents of this working class neighborhood were just trying to have a little bit of fun in the bargain. In some ways, Irishtown seems to stand for other immigrant communities of the time whose members sought, against all odds, to make better lives for themselves.