Patrick Conners – An Irishman’s Journey in America

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 16, 2018.

The Irish began arriving in Exeter in the 1850s. We know little of Patrick Conners’ early life, except that he was born in Ireland in 1835. As a boy he lived in his native country during the time of the Great Famine. By age 24, he’d decided to emigrate to America – like 2.1 million of his fellow countrymen. He arrived in Exeter in 1859. Here he was recorded in the 1860 census as a ‘wool puller’ – a disagreeable job tearing wool from lambskin in cold water. The census taker was not too careful with details of the 183 Irish natives living in town. He got Patrick’s age wrong, listing the 24 year old as 22 and his name without the final “s” – beginning a pattern of misspelling “Conners” that would continue throughout his life. In various places his name would be “Connor,” “Connors,” “Conner,” or “Conners.” By the end of his life “Conners” seems to be the spelling favored. Wool pulling was hard and dirty, but it was work and work was hard to find for most Irish immigrants. In Exeter, they were largely shut out of the big factories or hired as day-laborers only.

He worked in town, boarding with other Irish residents, until the outbreak of the Civil War. The war had been raging for a year when Patrick Conners decided to join up in 1862. Perhaps seeking adventure, he enlisted in the navy, rather than the army. First sent to the receiving ship, Ohio to learn basic seamanship, he became a coal heaver, serving on the steamships Maratanza and Nansemond for three years. His job was basic. The U.S. Naval Institute describes a coal heaver’s job as hauling coal “from a ship’s bunker to the boiler furnaces. A coal heaver could make up to 50 trips a day with a full bucket weighing about 140 pounds. Since it was hot, dirty and dangerous work, the members of the ‘black gang’ received substantially higher pay than other sailors.” When he was discharged near the end of the war in March of 1865, Conners was a 2nd class fireman – essentially the same position. Still, it was necessary work. The ships he served on were part of the blockade that kept the rebellious states from finding markets and supplies from other countries.

He returned to Exeter after his naval service. He found work in the wool shop of Abner Merrill and, at some point that year, met the charming Fannie Cotter – newly arrived from County Cork, Ireland. The two began courting and the future looked reasonably bright.

“Accident,” began the entry in the Exeter News-Letter on July 2nd, 1866, “We learn that Patrick Connor of this town, while taking off a belt, at the work-shop of A. Merrill & sons, last Thursday, injured his arm so badly, that he was obliged to have it amputated. The amputation was performed by Dr. William Perry.” Along with losing his right arm, his leg was injured causing him to have a permanent limp. His recovery was a long one.

One might think that this was nearly the end of Patrick Conners’ story. But somehow, having survived a famine, immigration, war and a disabling accident, Patrick Conners still wasn’t down. Fannie married him, in spite of his new disabilities, in 1868. Together, they found ways to earn a living. He became a retail grocer, a saloon-keeper, and purchased land and a brick house in Exeter’s commercial district on Water Street. Perhaps because of his injuries, the couple never had children, but they took in one of Fannie’s young nephews, Thomas Smith. Smith, who came to Exeter at the age of 16, helped his uncle in his various businesses and branched into his own. Fannie became ill in 1895. In an effort to bring her back to health, Patrick took her on a sea voyage back to Ireland. The fresh air and Irish breezes seemed to do her some good, but on return to Exeter she quickly failed, dying in early 1896.

Patrick, now a widower at age 61, poured his work and affection toward his nephew. Thomas married Mary Lynch, of Newfields, in 1906. Their little daughter Catherine Frances was a delight to Patrick. The brick house on lower Water Street continued to be the family’s home base, adapted for the shoe business that Thomas started.

When Patrick Conners died in 1912 at the age of 77, after several years of near-infirmity, he was a respected member of Exeter’s business community. His obituary described him as “a member of Moses N. Collins post, G.A.R.” (‘Grand Army of the Republic’ - Civil War veterans organization), and a “zealous member of St. Michael’s church.” “A favorite nephew by marriage, Mr. Thomas Smith, has long made his home with Mr. Conners, and from him and Mrs. Smith he ever received the most devoted care.”

He left his entire estate to Thomas, who, abiding by their plan, tore down the old brick house and erected the Smith Block in 1915. Long remembered by most residents as the home of Woolworth’s, today the building is home to George and Phillips. Next time you visit, take a moment to remember Patrick Conners, the Irish immigrant who couldn’t be kept down.

Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Her column appears every other Friday and she may be reached at

Image: (on the left) the Water Street home and business of Patrick Conners. Conners, a Civil War veteran and Irish immigrant, ran a number of businesses in town. His nephew, Thomas Smith, later razed the building to make room for the Smith Block – long the home of Woolworths.


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