CAPE ELIZABETH — When Matthew Jude Barker was a child, his mother told him to be proud of his Irish heritage.
“Little did she know how far I’d carry that one,” said Barker, a local author and historian who has dedicated his life’s work to chronicling the sagas of the Irish people and their history in greater Portland.
Barker will lecture on his new book, “The Irish of Portland, Maine: A History of Forest City Hibernians,” on Saturday, April 12, at 1 p.m. at the Church of Latter Day Saints in Cape Elizabeth. The event is part of the annual monthly meeting of the Greater Portland chapter of the Maine Genealogical Society. Admission is free.
“The Irish of Portland, Maine,” published in January by the History Press, offers a social history of Irish in the area from the mid-17th century, when the first ones arrived, through the end of the Spanish-American War, around 1900. It details the famines and landlord troubles that drove them from their homeland and the discrimination, disease and poverty they encountered in the New World.
The book explores the creation of political organizations to keep down the Irish, Germans and other immigrant groups, and the Irish fraternities and social groups that established their own schools, hospitals and orphanages, and eventually produced their own political candidates. Barker recounts the building in the 1820s of Portland’s first Catholic church, which played a huge role in solidifying the influence and foothold of Irish in the area.
Much of what Irish immigrants encountered in Portland is similar to what their countrymen experienced in cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia, according to Barker. But one major difference was the temperance laws, enacted around 1850 by Portland Mayor Neal Dow, who had a particularly contentious relationship with the Irish community.
“He went after the Irish, especially the ones who sold or made – or drank – alcohol. He was always after the Irish and a lot of them hated him,” Barker said. “Many generations of Irish rose up out of poverty by selling booze on the sly. They were bootleggers, and their sons were able to become doctors and lawyers, and they were able to send their daughters and sons to better schools, because of it. Many families in this area, even now, descended from bootleggers.”
Portland had the first prohibition law in the U.S., and prohibition existed there, in some form or another, from 1846 to 1931, when it ended nationally, Barker said. Women’s temperance groups played a role, but the movement largely started with Dow, a two-time mayor who spent decades lecturing on the evils of alcohol.
“There was a rum riot in Monument Square where fishermen got killed by police and the local militia,” Barker said. “Even some Protestants wanted Neal Dow arrested for murder. The stories are endless.”
Barker, 40, graduated from South Portland High School in 1992. A self-taught historian, he has written widely about Irish history, and Portland history more generally. He serves as a resident genealogist and historian at the Maine Irish Heritage Center, in the former St. Dominic’s Church on State Street in Portland. He is currently working on a history of the Irish in Portland during the Civil War and plans to publish a history of the local Irish community that runs from the beginning of the 20th century through present day.
Barker grew up in a largely Irish family and went to church and school in South Portland at Holy Cross, where “there was a sense of Irishness throughout the year, not just St. Patrick’s Day,” he said.
He visited Ireland for the first time on his 20th birthday and met distant relatives with whom he’d corresponded for years.
“I felt like I’d come home,” he said. “It was something spiritual, something metaphysical.”