This is the first time Memorial Hall has hosted a St. Patrick’s-themed event, and according to Memorial Hall board member Jeanne McDougall, the event is part of the board’s goal of bringing in an eclectic array of events year-round. “We’re a very creative group and we’re always trying to do new things and plan events that will interest folks in all segments of our community.”
While both events are at Memorial Hall, the first is sponsored by the Pettee Memorial Library, and features Feeney telling the story of Irish immigrants and the impact they had on Vermont life in the mid-19th century. While one is more likely to hear about Irish immigrants settling in cities like New York and Chicago, Feeney says the history of Vermont’s Irish immigrants includes a proud role in government, industry, and the Civil War.
Feeney was an adjunct history professor at UVM for nearly 30 years and has written three books about Vermont history. Feeney gives lectures on Vermont history statewide, and says there were many more Irish immigrants in Vermont than many historians have noted. Irish immigrants began to pour into Vermont in the late 1840s, a time when Feeney says the state was undergoing a “mini-industrial revolution.”
“They came into Vermont at a very interesting time,” said Feeney. “The railroads came in the late 1840s, as well as booming slate and marble industries, which initially relied on Irish workers. Most people associate slate with the Welch, and Italians working in the marble industries, but initially it was all Irish up until 1890.”
Feeny also said the Irish dominated politics in Vermont’s urban areas and towns, and by 1910 were championing Democratic policy in a state that remained a Republican stronghold until the 1960s. “The Irish dominated in the politics of Vermont cities like Rutland, St. Albans, and Burlington, and were the ones who encouraged the later immigrant groups to become Democrats,” said Feeney.
Following an hour-long refreshment break, dancers from the McFadden Academy of Irish Dance, Vermont’s only certified and accredited Irish dance school, will take to the stage to reel, jig, and hornpipe. Based in Williston and Middlebury, the academy was started in 2008 by Beth McFadden and has trained dancers for regional, national, and international competitions.
McDougall is a Scottish dancer herself, and thought it would be nice to have a St Patrick’s event in conjunction with the library’s. McDougall says the dance company will be top notch, because, while anyone can open an Irish dance studio, few can say they are authenticated. “Both the Irish and Scots want to be sure the traditions are upheld, so they’re very finicky about who they authorize to teach the various forms of dancing.” The events will be free for all ages, but the board accepts donations, which McDougall says allow the board to hold shows at no charge. “The building is town-owned and we want to promote more use of it.”