Mayor Patrick J. McCarthy (1848-1921) was the only immigrant ever to serve as mayor of Providence. Born in County Sligo, Ireland in 1848, his family fled the Potato Famine in 1850 only to be quarantined on Deer Island in Boston Harbor. Both his parents died there. “PJ”, as he liked to be called, got tossed between extended relatives and poor homes. He landed a variety of temporary jobs and managed to obtain a rudimentary education through the generosity of a wealthy Yankee Bostonian. He came to Providence in 1868, involved himself in fraternal and educational societies within the Catholic Church, did readings in law, and earned sufficient funds in real estate to enroll at Harvard University Law School from which he earned a law degree in 1876.
McCarthy employed his legal training as a springboard into local politics, serving on the city council and in the state legislature. His oratorical abilities allowed him to provocatively criticize the reigning Republican Party machine of Charles “Boss” Brayton. He embraced populist positions by attacking the insensitive local trolley monopoly, tax policies, suffrage restrictions, and educational barriers. He also curried the favor of Rhode Island’s burgeoning Irish-Catholic community. With some youthful training in the theatre, McCarthy often finished a political address with an emotional rendition of “The Wearing of the Green,” to the delight of his audiences.
His personal charisma and political skills earned him two annual terms as mayor of Providence in 1907 and 1908. The combative mayor used the bully pulpit and Irish-American constituents to shake-up things in the capital city, sponsoring ordinances and making executive orders to hamper the transit cartel, provide greater schooling opportunities, and disrupt Republican party power, although Providence then had a weak mayor/strong council form of government.
McCarthy, who died in 1921, could not keep still even in death. Buried beneath a giant Irish cross in Pawtucket’s St. Francis Cemetery, a copper plate with tiny lettering adorns the headstone. McCarthy recounted his family’s retreat from Ireland and admonished the reader to never forget the sacrifices of their ancestors: “May their history be written that future generations may learn of the heroic efforts and suffering of Irish Catholics at home and abroad for faith and fatherland.” In 1927, his daughter, Mary Bannon, published a memoir that included many primary source materials relating to McCarthy’s life and exploits.
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