In the years since Newport was founded in 1639, people have arrived here on the doorstep of the Atlantic from every corner of the world. First, it was the English dissenters seeking religious freedom. Then came the Quakers and the Jews in the 1650s, whose presence helped transform the town from an agricultural outpost to one of colonial America's five leading seaports. Later, it was America's elite who turned the city into their summertime resort. But just before that, it was the Irish.
Though Irish settlers had arrived in Newport as early as the 1600s and through the 1700s, it was the early 1800s when the city saw a significantly large influx of Irish immigrants, drawn by available work during the construction of Fort Adams, and at the coal mines in neighboring Portsmouth.
While America's elite were settling into their Bellevue Avenue White Elephants - a term coined by author Henry James - on the waterfront, Emerald Isle immigrants settled in the Fifth Ward, historically known as the city's working-class neighborhood. They would work tirelessly during the day as servants and groundskeepers at the mansions, as builders and bricklayers at Fort Adams, and as coalminers in Portsmouth. On their days off, they would congregate at the top of Cliff Walk's 40 Steps to dance and sing songs they brought with them from home.
Today, the Fifth Ward is considered the Hibernian heart of the city, home to the Museum of Newport Irish History and Hibernian Hall, but you'll find evidence of Irish in early Newport all throughout the island. From Fort Adams to St. Mary's, green will always course through the heart of Newport.
Below are our top picks for celebrating and honoring Irish history in and around Newport.
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3 CELTIC SITES TO EXPLORE
1 FORT ADAMS
Once a military stronghold known as "The Rock on Which the Storm Shall Beat," Fort Adams is the largest coastal fortification in the country. It was constructed between 1824 and 1857, and commissioned to defend Narragansett Bay against attack. At the start of construction, hundreds of Irish arrived in Newport to help lift, dig and build the site, which was designed to mount 468 cannons and house 2,400 troops. Construction took 33 years, and in the meantime, the Irish would build their community in the nearby Fifth Ward, just a few minutes from the fort.
Today, you can view the quarters where officers and their families lived, ascend to the scenic overlook for unparalleled views of the bay, travel beneath the walls into the underground tunnels, or even rent the barracks for an overnight stay. It's also the spot where some of Newport's most iconic festivals started and continue to take place, like the Newport Folk Festival and Newport Jazz Festival.
2 St. Joseph's Cemetery
Known by many as Barney Street Cemetery, St. Joseph's Cemetery sits on the plot of land that previously served as the schoolhouse that was remodeled for use as the original St. Mary's Church. The cemetery was established sometime after 1828, and is home to approximately 26 stones marking the final resting place of many of Newport's early Irish immigrants, often displaying the name of the town or county of origin of the deceased.
3 ST. MARY'S CHURCH
The construction at Fort Adams and the origins of St. Mary's Church are closely intertwined. It was the large population of Irish-Catholics working at Fort Adams that prompted Bishop Benedict Joseph Fenwick to assign the newly ordained Father Robert Woodley to Newport to found a congregation. On April 8, 1828, Father Woodley purchased land on Barney Street that included a simple wooden building originally constructed as a schoolhouse, which was later remodeled for use as a church. However, as the catholic community in Newport grew, this building would quickly prove too small. On February 2, 1847, Father James Fitton paid $4,000 for the land on Spring Street, where St. Mary's Church now stands.
The oldest Roman Catholic church in Rhode Island, St. Mary's served as the chapel for the naval academy during the Civil War, and is also the place where John F. Kennedy and Jackie Bouvier said I do on September 12, 1953. Today, you can visit St. Mary's and relive that day while watching vintage film clips from the wedding alongside a live performance of music from their ceremony and reception.
WHERE TO LEARN MORE
MUSEUM OF NEWPORT IRISH HISTORY
Appropriately located in the Fifth Ward, the Museum of Newport Irish History charts the history of Irish immigrants to Newport County from the 1600s to the present day through photographs, videos, artifacts, and maps. Explore interpretive panels that detail the lives of the Irish who arrived here to work, alongside their cultural and political achievements and more.
Celebrate all things Irish with the 45th Annual Newport Irish Heritage Month, a month long celebration of events promoting Irish heritage, culture, and history in Newport, find out more here.
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