Jamestown Historical Society

Irish immigrants were prolific in the early 20th century

This article was written by Rosemary Enright and Sue Maden for The Jamestown Press on March 16, 2023.
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In 1880, more than 80 percent of the people living in Jamestown were native to Conanicut Island, and only 1 percent came from non-English-speaking countries.

By 1930, the population was much more diverse. Immigrants and their American-born children comprised more than 40 percent of the population. The two largest immigrant groups were from the Portuguese Azores and Ireland.

Among the Irish immigrants was Susan Margaret McMenamin, called by her middle name, perhaps to distinguish her from her mother, also named Susan. Margaret was born in Scotland to Irish parents. Her father, Patrick, worked in the shipyard at Clydebank near Glasgow.

In 1927, Patrick set out for Philadelphia, leaving behind his wife of 30 years and their seven children. During the next five years, presumably as finances permitted, his wife and their children — except John, who was already 17 when his father left Scotland — followed.

Irish immigrants were prolific in the early 20th century
Irish immigrants were prolific in the early 20th century

Twenty-three-year-old Patrick and 20-year-old Annie were the first to arrive in 1928. Margaret came a year later, followed by Mary, the eldest sibling. With more than half of her children in America, Susan brought 13-year-old Elizabeth to the United States in 1930. Only Charles and John remained in Scotland, and Charles joined the rest of the family in 1932.

Most of the family traveled to Philadelphia on the SS Cameronia, a ship that had been launched in 1919 only a few miles from their Scotland home. The 552-foot ocean liner carried 1,149 passengers, 698 of them in third class. Each of the children, except 13-year-old Elizabeth, boarded the ship with $25 or $35 in their pocket. Susan carried $100 for herself and Elizabeth.

Margaret was 15 when she arrived in Philadelphia in 1929. She lived with her father and, following in the footsteps of her older sister, Annie, worked as a domestic. It was during this period when she learned to cook, according to family lore. The cook in the house where she was working left, and she was asked to provide meals. When Margaret said she did not know how to cook, the husband said he’d buy her a cookbook and she should order whatever she needed from the market. At dinner, he would ask her what page it was from.

Margaret’s introduction to Jamestown was accidental in the summer of 1939. The family that Annie worked for was coming to Jamestown and she was unable to come, so Margaret took her place.

While she was here, she met Joe Perry.

Joe was born in Jamestown. His father, Thomas Perry — also known as Thomas Perry George — was born on the Azorean island of Fayal, and the surname Perry probably was a corruption of his Portuguese name. He came to the United States at the age of 18 and moved to Jamestown two years later in the mid-1880s with his wife, Mary Avilla. They farmed the land where the schools are now, and built a house on Washington Street, where they raised their five children.

Margaret and Joe were both in their mid-20s and ready to settle down. They were married in Philadelphia in 1941 and returned to Jamestown to live.

The first years of the marriage coincided with World War II. Joe served in the U. S. Coast Guard, putting the couple’s plans on hold. Returning from service, he worked with Benjamin Watson to create the firm of Perry and Watson Construction Co. In the expansion of the town that followed the war and the building of the new bridge across the West Passage, the firm built many Jamestown homes, including several in the Dumplings and Upper Shoreby Hill.

When Fort Getty was declared surplus after the war, Joe was determined to salvage materials from the 40 temporary World War II structures on the base. He removed the wood and hired a neighborhood boy to hammer out the nails. With the recovered planks, he built his own house on Washington Street across from the one his father had built 50 years earlier. Almost another 50 years later, his grandson, David Brayman, built a third family house on Washington Street.

The family continued to live at West Ferry, where Joe was known for his roosters, which could wake the whole neighborhood with their crowing. Margaret gave birth to three children: Susan, Joseph and Joan. Joe died in 2000 and Margaret in 2010.

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