From the Mills to Main Street: Irish Families in Norfolk


The nineteenth century saw the great tide of Irish immigration to the United States reach enormous proportions. For centuries the Irish had suffered under anti-Catholic penal laws, confiscation of lands, export embargoes, and deplorable living conditions. Following the 1845 potato blight and devastating famine, the Irish emigrated in droves. It is estimated that as many as 4.5 million Irish arrived in the United States between 1820 and 1930. This exhibition explores the lives of Irish-American families in Norfolk and their work on farms, in factories, in commerce, and in the building and service industries.

The Ryan brothers were the first Irish immigrants to settle in Norfolk. They arrived in the spring of 1836 and opened a woolen mill. J. & E. E. Ryan & Co. soon became the largest industry in town. While pre-famine immigrants were predominately male, such as the Ryan brothers, in the aftermath of the potato blight entire families left Ireland. In the 1850 census records, Irish families begin to appear on farms in north Norfolk. By 1870 there were close to 20 farms in Norfolk operated by Irish-Americans.

Harvest Time in West Norfolk
Harvest Time in West Norfolk

The construction of the railroad in 1870 drew transient Irish workers and provided income for Irish townsfolk who boarded workers. Irish-Americans counted for almost 20% of the Norfolk population at that time. Many stayed and found jobs in factories along the Blackberry River. The majority of workers in the axle factory in 1880 were of Irish descent, as were those in the hosiery and silk mills.

In the early twentieth century Norfolk was in its heyday as a summer resort. The next generation children of Irish immigrants were by then well-established in town. Curtiss, McCarthy, Mulville, O’Connor, and Torrant are a few of the names of the contractors, masons, carpenters, and teamsters who constructed many of the summer residences and buildings at that time. Stores on Main Street were operated by Irish-Americans William O’Connor, James Scott, Patrick and Dennis Holleran, and Joseph Carroll. The Maloney’s and Whalen’s established liveries, and Martin Dodd owned a successful automobile dealership. Jobs in the service industry were plentiful, attracting Irish immigrants―the majority were women at this time―who found work as maids, cooks, laundresses, housekeepers; and the men as butlers, coachmen, gardeners, and chauffeurs.

Maloney's Livery
Maloney’s Livery

The history of Norfolk’s Irish-American families can be documented only in part through the names and numbers found in census, church, and cemetery records. The impact of their lives and work in Norfolk is written largely on the landscape we see today.