When ground was broken for the Shaw’s Supermarket on Main Street on Bangor’s west side in 1995, the new grocery store was to be built on land that once was at the center of a large and thriving Irish immigrant community.
That area, around First and Second streets and stretching as far as Union Street, was known locally as “Paddy Hollow,” and was one of two places in Bangor where the first major wave of Irish immigrants in Maine settled in the city in the 1840s and 1850s.
The other neighborhood was located on Hancock Street on Bangor’s east side, along the Penobscot River.
Together, those two areas were among the first immigrant communities in Maine. Though now it’s hard to see any physical trace of what was once there, many of the descendents of those first Irish families to arrive in the Queen City still live here — and helped mold the Bangor we know today.
By the 1860s, the Irish neighborhood on the west side had begun to fill out with solidly built middle-class homes. But it truly began to thrive in 1873, when St. Mary’s Church was built on Cedar Street.
The church became the center of the community, with more people from Ireland moving into the area who then opened small businesses catering to those families.
The Irish people worked in jobs that were integral to Bangor’s development as a city, from shoveling coal in the busy railyards, to making up many of the first generation of officers in the police department.
They became priests, athletes, journalists, politicians — all part of a tightly knitted working class community centered around a shared ethnic and religious identity.
Though they had left Ireland to escape famine and persecution, the places in the United States the Irish immigrated to in the 19th century were not always welcoming, including Bangor.
That’s nowhere better illustrated than in the story of Father John Bapst, the Catholic priest in Bangor who in 1854 was tarred and feathered by proponents of the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic insurgent political party, the Know-Nothings.
By 1900, that friction had largely abated. The eight-acre lot where Shaw’s stands was the site of several major employers in the area, including Bangor Gas Works, a metal foundry, a stoneware factory, a brickyard and a creamery that processed the milk delivered to Bangor doorsteps daily. All had workforces dominated by Irish people.
By the mid-20th century, many of the original Irish families had moved out of those neighborhoods, and on Hancock Street in particular, the buildings had come to be seen as slums.
When the urban renewal program rearranged Bangor’s streets and took down old buildings in the 1960s and early 1970s, many tenements and old houses were torn down along Hancock Street. They were replaced by things like the Terraces apartment complex, a host of municipal and government buildings and commercial warehouses.
In 1978, the west side area that was once known as Paddy Hollow was dealt a fatal blow when St. Mary’s Church burned down — an act of arson that also destroyed a nearby apartment building, leaving 23 people homeless.
A 14-year-old boy who lived in the neighborhood was arrested for the crime, and in 1982, St. Mary’s opened a new church on Ohio Street. The remaining two church buildings on Cedar and First streets now house Community Health and Counseling Services.
Starting in the 1970s, many of the middle-class homes along First and Second streets were renovated into apartments, many of which fell into various states of disrepair. By the time the Shaw’s lot was cleared and the supermarket was built in 1995, the area bore little resemblance to the thriving Irish neighborhood that was once there.
Many other waves of immigrants would arrive in the Queen City over the decades — from Italians in the latter part of the 19th century, to Greeks, Lebanese and Eastern Europeans in the 1890s, to several decades of Russian Jewish immigration in the early 20th century.
Today, we welcome new Bangorians from all over the world, from countries including Syria, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo among others.
When you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and the history of the Irish people in Maine and the United States, you’re really celebrating the proud history of immigrants to this country from all over the globe — who sought a better life and a new community in their adopted home.
Correction: A previous version of this story unintentionally swapped the east side and the west side of Bangor in several paragraphs.