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  • Writer's pictureTimothée Beaulieu

Gangs of New England – Why so many shamrocks and not fleur-de-lis?

In the late 19th and in parts of the 20th century a version of the movie “Gangs of New York" played out in some of the mill towns of New England.

Instead of “Natives” vs Irish, in this version of the story, it was Irish vs. French-Canadians. Gangs of New York is fantastic by the way, one of Scorsese’s best!

It’s the age-old story that has played out in the United States. One group comes in and cements itself and then they fear the new ones coming in. They have come to take our jobs!

An article by the New England Historical Society digs a bit into the story. If you scroll to the “French vs Irish” section you’ll get a taste for what it was like. Spoiler alert, the Irish were the bad guys. Kind of a shocking thing coming from a modern-day perspective.

When we think of Irish now its all St. Paddy’s, good times, and boiling literally all foods. Ya know fun stuff? But this article illustrates a systematic assault on the French-Canadian immigrants. We're kind of bummed out about it honestly, look at this blogger's name.

“In 1872, when Phillippe was 16, the Lemays moved to Manchester, where the giant Amoskeag mills offered plenty of employment to French-Canadian textile workers. But they fared no better with the Irish. Before the first French church was built in 1873, the French had to walk through the Irish neighborhood to attend Mass. Irish boys threw swill at them, beat them with sticks and threw rocks.”
Swill and rocks at them? - NE Historical Society

Oh, fantastic. At least it wasn’t beer bottles or something right? Spoke too soon…

“One night in 1880, a 23-year-old band member named Jean Blanchette was talking in French with several bandmates near Victory Park in downtown Manchester. Three intoxicated Irishmen came out of a beer parlor and heard the French spoken. They attacked the French-Canadian textile workers, who fought back.
One of the Irishmen fell on a bottle of hard liquor in his pocket, and it broke. He threw the broken bottle at Jean Blanchette, severing his jugular vein. Blanchette died 20 minutes later.” -NE Historical Society

This begs the question, did the Irish assault on the French-Canadians play a role in the shame some in New England feel about their ancestry?

When phone books were a thing you couldn’t pick one up in most New England towns without seeing a ton of French names. We bet you very few really identified with that heritage. They knew about it and their name, but did any of the traditions stay? Did they speak French?

It does seem part of this issue may be tied back to the bullying by the Irish and English speakers in the mill towns.

Put yourself in the shoes of a hypothetical child mill worker for a second (yes kid’s worked). You slog through neighborhoods where they hurl swill at you. People make fun of you for your (in our view) fantastic accent. You are being told to carry on traditions from a place you have only been to a hand full of times. What do you do?

To protect themselves, some turned their backs to all things in their French-Canadian background completely to protect themselves and their family. It’s really hard to judge someone for doing that.

Stories like this are not told much in Quebec, but maybe its time they are told.

The living generations of what are now called “Franco-Americans” did not turn their backs on French or family traditions in some cases they were never handed to them to begin with.

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May 09, 2020

Don’t worry Yann, there are efforts to bring back what we can! Especially in New England


May 08, 2020

It is amazing how the French presence in the USA, but also in great parts of English Canada, was completely erased from memory, save the names (surnames and places). It points to a desire to eradicate, it seems to me. And when we are finally evoked somewhere, it's usually in a demeaning way that bears no resemblance to historical facts, such as in the movie The Revenant. You might be interested in the documentary "Un rêve américain" which tries to understand how, within 1 or 2 generations, all French-speaking communities outside of Quebec were basically beaten into abandoning their language.

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