Irish for a Day

When do they hang up the shamrocks at Chez Vachon?
illustration by peter noonan

Later this month, politicians from mayors to presidential candidates will hope to get one of the most coveted speaking slots in politics: a few moments to address a large St. Patrick’s Day breakfast.

There is the Wild Irish breakfast in Nashua. A Demers Group-sponsored event for legislators and lobbyists in Concord is another. Former Manchester Mayor Bob Baines puts on one in his hometown. Jokes will be told at their expense and others’, and in that environment these candidates can be seen as more human.

While being Irish and wearing green for a day is essential, it is unclear how far that really gets anyone electorally. Gov. Maggie Hassan says her last name is Irish and the same is true for her predecessor, John Lynch. Neither, however, used the ethnicity for electoral advantage and there is a simple reason why: There really isn’t much of an advantage.

All of this is well and good, but in New Hampshire the savvier politician would be the one who wears a button reading “Kiss Me, I’m French Canadian.”

French Canadians are still a proud, distinct population in the state. According to the latest US Census, French Canadians make up 23.3 percent of the state’s population. This translates into something like nearly 310,000 residents. It is the largest ancestry in the state, nudging out the Irish, which had 20 percent. At one point French Canadians made up 40 percent of the population.

"While being Irish and wearing green for a day is essential, it’s unclear how far that gets anyone electorally."

This group moved to the state largely during the Industrial Revolution. They are still geographically clustered in the areas near the Canadian border and in former mill areas like Manchester’s West Side, Somersworth and Nashua. By 1900, 60 percent of all mill workers in New Hampshire were of French Canadian descent. Others worked in the lumber and construction industries.

They have been a quiet force in politics, even though no political party has specifically tried to appeal to them since the 1892 presidential election. Sure, Manchester diner Chez Vachon is a regular stop on the campaign trail, but no one is running television ads in French. But while they haven’t been targeted specifically, this group tends to be more like Reagan Democrats: socially conservative, blue-collar, pro-labor unions.

There have been successful politicians who were French Canadian, including longtime Congressman Norm D’Amours. Still, the closest New Hampshire got to a French Canadian governor was in 2012 when Republican Ovide Lamontagne lost to Hassan.

It is not an insignificant fact that once in office Hassan has tried to increase tourism and Franco-American commerce with a collaboration announced last year among local chambers of commerce, Plymouth State University and the state Department of Travel and Tourism.

These days, however, it is the Hispanic population that is the fastest-growing in the state, largely clustered in Manchester and Nashua, but they have a long way to go to displace Francos from the top spot.

This St. Patrick Day’s, politicians will likely wear green and head to an Irish bar, but if they are smart, the next day they should say “bienvenue” and have some poutine.   

Categories: Politics