2014-02-14 / Front Page

Book details plight of the Maine Irish

By Tracy Orzel
Contributing Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – While most boys his age were playing soccer and building forts, 8-year-old Matthew Jude Barker enjoyed spending his time in cemeteries, copying gravestone inscriptions of deceased relatives. Decades later, it paid off.

Barker is a professional genealogical and historical researcher at the Maine Irish Heritage Center in Portland and the author of “The Irish of Portland, Maine: A History of Forest City Hibernians” published last month by The History Press.

Barker, who is originally from South Portland, moved to Portland 10 years ago and has been a member of the Maine Historical Society since he was 11 years old.

“I memorized the American presidents,” Barker said. “I just loved American history from the time I can remember and my mother always said, ‘Be proud of your Irish heritage,’ so everything kind of came together.”

As a boy, Barker started researching his Irish heritage by interviewing his grandparents, aunts and uncles and visiting family grave sites.

With the advent of genealogical websites such as www.ancestry.com and www. familysearch.org, which provide family trees and historical records, Barker said what used to take him six months to research can now be achieved in an afternoon. Still, Barker insists a hands-on experience can go a long way.

“Unless you see the original record you can’t be sure of accuracy.”

Barker has been able to trace his own family history as far back as the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe. On his mother’s side, he’s been able to trace his heritage back to the 1780s in Ireland. On his father’s side he can trace his family line back to the first pilgrims who settled in Massachusetts and, from there, back to the 1500s in England, the 1400-1500s in France, and the 1600s when his ancestors settled in Nova Scotia.

Barker, who has traveled all over New England and Ireland in his ancestors’ steps, said, “To go to places and meet long-lost relatives and go to the old cemeteries and churches, there’s nothing like it if you can visit the actual place where your ancestors walked and worked and died and married and lived.”

Barker had already been researching the Irish in Portland for nearly two decades when The History Press contacted him out of the blue in 2012 and asked him if he would be interested in writing a book about the Irish of Maine or another major area. Having already researched the topic for an upcoming book, Barker jumped at the opportunity.

According to the introduction, the book provides an overview of the history of the Irish immigrant in Portland from 1661 to 1901, “especially focusing on the1820s to 1850s and the rise of the Irish Catholic community.”

“In the 1850s there was a lot of discrimination. (People) were anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant and anti-Irish groups formed in the 1840s and 1850s too. They wanted to stop the Irish in their tracks,” Barker said. “They didn’t want them to vote, they didn’t want them to do anything. They tried to keep them down as much as possible.”

Barker said that history has a way of repeating itself.

“You can see people doing that now with Somalians and whoever. The Irish was just the first to have that happen to unfortunately, especially around here. Then there was the French, the Polish and Italians and all the way up.”

Life was hard on the Irish immigrant in the 19th century. Many businesses refused to hire Irish workers and Portland papers fanned discrimination with cartoons and stories perpetuating the stereotype that the Irish are alcoholics.

Although some immigrants came from Ireland with money or were able to save enough to buy property, living conditions and health conditions were poor due to overcrowding. It wasn’t unusual for entire – even multiple – families to share a single room and tuberculosis was rampant.

Working conditions weren’t much better. Many immigrants died in freak work accidents on railroads and construction sites or by drowning.

With the cards stacked against them, Barker said it’s difficult to know exactly how the Irish felt on a given day because there are no diaries and few letters survived, at least locally, from the Irish.

“We know that a lot of them just pushed forward and ignored (the discrimination) the best they could and became successful and educated their children and made sure the next generation wouldn’t have to go through it as much,” Barker said.

Although the Irish found themselves fighting an uphill battle when they arrived in Portland, their collective story is one of inspiration.

“They fought discrimination and eventually they overcame prejudice and discrimination and disease and poverty and social ills,” Barker said. “They overcame it and eventually they were able to do what they did.”

Foundation receives donation

A former college librarian has bequeathed more than a quarter of a million dollars to the Southern Maine Community College Foundation to help students in financial need pay for college.

The foundation last month received $253,000 from the estate of Franklin Talbot, of Portland, who died last June at the age of 89. The donation is among the largest gifts the foundation has ever received.

In his will, Talbot bequeathed money to establish the Franklin Talbot Scholarship Fund. The fund will be used to award one or more annual scholarships to SMCC students from Maine. The scholarships will be awarded based on financial need.

“The generosity of Mr. Talbot will allow students to pursue their dreams and achieve success,” said SMCC President Ron Cantor. “These funds will lessen the financial impact on students in need and reduce the amount of money they have to borrow. Mr. Talbot’s gift also demonstrates the positive impact of philanthropy.”

The independent, nonprofit SMCC Foundation is comprised of business and community leaders committed to advancing the mission of SMCC by raising money for academic programs, classrooms and equipment, and scholarships for deserving students. People can support the foundation by calling the 741-5559 or through its website, www.smccMe.edu/foundation.

Michael Bourque, chairman of the foundation board of directors, called the donation a “remarkable gift” to future students.

“A gift of this magnitude can provide scholarships for several students in perpetuity,” said Bourque, senior vice president for external affairs at Maine Employers’ Mutual Insurance Co. “It’s a wonderful legacy to leave to our community. “

In his will, Talbot left money to many causes related to education, music and organizations devoted to helping youth.

Talbot worked for years as a reference librarian at the University of Southern Maine and had no immediate family in Maine.

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