ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — In 1817, from Quebec across Lake Ontario, an Irishman and his family traveled to what is now Rochester. That family became the first Irish family to settle in Rochester, kicking off a rich tapestry of history that still influences the city today.
“The Rochestervilles as we called it at the time was only west of the river. East of the river, where now it’s St. Paul, Lowell, and Central, like where Genesee brewery is coincidentally, is where the first known Irishman came and settled James Dowling was his name,” said Dr. Miller.
Patrick Miller is a doctor of Irish History, and a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians who today work to keep Irish culture, traditions, values, and history among other things alive across the globe including here in Rochester.
“When he founded his mill in that area they started calling it Dublin, so it became the Dublin neighborhood even a little bit farther to the east it was Cork,” said Dr. Miller.
The neighborhood of Dublin grew slowly along St. Paul’s Street and Lowell through the 1820s and 1830s as Irish immigrants trickled in. Some found work helping to build the Erie Canal, though not as many as is often thought.
“They would say it was dominated by the Irish. Well it was not,” said Dr. Miller. “25% were German, Irish, and so forth.”
The pace of Irish immigration changed drastically when the great hunger, or as it’s said in Irish the an Gorta Mór began in the 1840s.
“[In] 1846 before the an Gorta Mór the population of Ireland was 7 million, and it still hasn’t recovered its 5.5 million now,” said Dr. Miller.
During the an Gorta Mór, a million Irish died and a million more fled the country many to the United States in the span of a single year called the “Black ’47”. The great hunger ended in 1852 with an estimated 2 million or more having emigrated out of Ireland.
“[In] 1860 14% of Rochester’s population was native Irish that doesn’t take into account their children or their children’s children by that point so we could safely estimate that it was pushing 25-30%,” said Dr. Miller.
As a result of increased Irish immigration, and with expansion projects happening along the Erie Canal through the 1850s and 1860s the balance of who powered local labor forces shifted.
“The Irish became the primary labor force through the 1860s,” said Dr. Miller.
Still the Irish were looked down upon, even as they established themselves in Rochester and across the east coast they in many cases were treated like second-class citizens.
“In the civil war the reputation of the Irish dramatically shifted due to the incredible sacrifices made in the union army,” said Dr. Miller
One of those who served from Rochester included Col. Henry O’Rourke originally from Cavan, and also the first native Irishman to attend West Point who was killed at Gettysburg. He led the 140th New York Infantry Regiment, under his command was a familiar name to Rochester’s early Irish history too. Captain Patrick J. Dowling, the son of James Dowling, commanded Company K in the 140th Infantry Regiment. Bringing this early chapter of Rochester’s history full circle.