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Center Street

Center Street
Jul 05, 2017

Center Street, originally Love Lane (18th century), received the name “Centre” Street in 1812. As early as the 1820s, a few Irish emigrants resided on the street. It has such a rich, long, varied history, especially in connection to the Irish, that only some highlights can be explored here.

Most of the residents of Centre Street in the 1820s and 1830s were members of old Maine Yankee families, such as the Noyes, Frothingham, Bradford, Drinkwater, Deering, Farrington, Foss, Foye, Goddard, Shaw, and Stickney families. By the 1830s, Irish emigrants such as Matthew Burns, Patrick Kavanagh, James Tracy, Thomas Given, Dennis McCarty, William McDoyle, and Barney O’Freil resided on Centre Street. Patrick Kavanagh was a retailer, as was Dennis McCarty (McCarthy). Burns and McCarty were prominent members of the first congregation of St. Dominic’s Church.

By the early to mid-1840s, many of the old Yankee families had moved away and Center Street was becoming increasingly Irish. The brothers Hugh, Patrick, Andrew, and James McGlinchy began buying up property on the street at the time. They would eventually monopolize the legal and illegal sale of alcohol in the area and own considerable property throughout the city. An Edward McCann operated a grocery store at 2 & 4 Centre Street in the early 1840s.

Center Street and vicinity, including Gorham’s Corner, was the scene of many colorful incidents in the lives of the Portland Irish and from the 1840s until well into the 20th Century, the Portland newspapers never tired of reporting them, not always in the best of light. From a random pick of several hundred items, we find:

“PUGNACIOUS—Some of the Irish in the vicinity of Centre and York Streets seemed to be on the rampage Sunday afternoon and evening. A fight took place between a couple of them, in the afternoon, in Dumphy’s Court, which in a few moments drew a crowd of some hundreds. The crowd was quickly dispersed by the Mayor, who chanced to be walking that way at the time, assisted by the Police officers on duty. About 11 in the evening another fight occurred on Centre Street which attracted quite a crowd, and at one time, it bid fair to lead into a “pretty scrimmage.” The interference of the Police officers stopped “the fun,” and the “men of muscle” were taken to their residences by their friends. No arrests were made and the men and women! retired quietly.” (Portland Daily Press, 29 Sept 1863).

“Down in Centre Street, the other night, a stout woman of the Irish persuasion, who had just rolled a barrel of ale into her den, sat down on the head of it to get breath and cool herself after the intense physical exertion incident upon the deposit of the said barrel in the accustomed corner. Though she had ceased working, the ale did not & presently burst out the head of the barrel, hoisting the old lady to the ceiling, demolishing her bottles and drinking utensils and raising the old Nick generally. The old lady picked herself up and after looking for a moment at the ruin, wildly exclaimed, “Ah! Be Jabus, bad luck toth’man that put tarpedy in the bar’l.” (Portland Transcript, 3 Jun 1865).

By the late 1860s, Center Street was becoming a “Little Galway,” as most of the Irish residents of the street were immigrants from that county. About 160 Irish and Irish-American residents are listed as residing on Center Street in 1885, according to the city directory of Portland for that year. And that list does not include wives and children! At 44 Center Street alone, 12 residents are listed: Martin Mulkern, Michael Conley, Michael Connelly, Thomas Curran, Michael McDonough, Matthew Cady, John Flaherty, John Connelly, Patrick Lee, Patrick McNulty, John O’Donnell, and John McDonough.

In 1885, John A. Feeney (father of John Ford), James Gorham, John L. Mills, James Barry, John Sullivan, Daniel Hyde, Thomas J. O’Neil, Patrick H. Flaherty, John McCarthy, Hugh A. Sweeney, John Egan, and John W. Sullivan all operated eating saloons and or grocery stores on Center Street. Many of them, of course, were often arrested for violating liquor laws.

John William Sullivan (1852-1920), a Galway native and a member of the city council (1880-82), opened a saloon at 111 Center Street about 1884, which he operated until the early 1900s. He advertised the establishment as “J. W. Sullivan & Co., Oyster & Eating House.” Center Street was long known for its “oyster houses.” The estate of John Bundy Brown owned 111-115 Center Street, which was located about where the “Asylum” nightclub begins on Center, just down from Congress. In the late 1880s, Sullivan also opened the Thornton House (a hotel) at 115 Center, which he ran for about ten years. John and his wife Margaret Kilday had six children, including Henry Cleaves Sullivan, a prominent attorney, and Superior Court Justice Francis W. Sullivan.

William McAleney (1833-1913), one of the most prominent members of the Irish-American community in Portland, moved his successful harness making business from 26 Preble Street to 111 Center Street about 1900. He retired in 1912 and his partner James Logue kept up the business at 111 Center Street for a few years before moving it to 93 Center. McAleney, who led a faction of the Portland Fenians to St. Albans, Vermont in an abortive invasion of Canada, married fellow Derry native Mary Mullen (1829-1913), a daughter of Lawrence and Catherine Devine Mullen, early prominent communicants of St. Dominic’s. William and Mary had six children, including Mary R., a teacher at the North and Staples Schools, and Dr. James L. McAleney.

In the next three sites, we will explore the history of the only three remaining buildings on Center Street to survive from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

RELATED SITES: Staples School, Brian Boru, Gorham's Corner, Fraternity House, John Ford Monument, Memory Wheel

Author Matt Barker
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