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George W. Potter and Alfred M. Williams Memorial Manuscript Collection

Biographical note

Alfred Mason Williams

Williams was born in Taunton, Massachusetts on October 23, 1840. He was the son of Lloyd Hall and Prudence King Williams. He attended the Bristol Academy and entered Brown University in the class of 1860. During the Civil War, he abandoned his studies and was enlisted as a private in the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and wrote letters from the front to various newspapers. After the war, he went to Ireland as a foreign correspondent to report on the Fenian trials for the Boston Post and the New York Herald. He collected Irish broadside ballads which led to his lifelong interest in folklore. He was also interested in Irish poetry and this led to his publication of an anthology of Irish poetry in 1881. In 1875, he was hired as a reporter for the Providence Journal where he wrote editorials. In 1884 he became editor-in-chief of the paper. He started a Sunday edition in 1885 and in it he published poems and articles by Irish writers. He also made the Journal one of the strongest advocates in America for Irish home rule.

After his wife died in 1886, he made a second trip to Ireland and met many young talented Irish writers including Katharine Tynan and William Butler Yeats. Williams published much of their work in the Journal and this gave many Americans weekly access to Irish literature. Williams’s ill health due to malaria he contracted during the Civil War led to his retirement from the Journal in 1891 and he died five years later while on a visit to St. Kitts in the Eastern Caribbean. Having no children, he donated his entire estate, appraised at $250,000, to the Providence Public Library. Today it’s estimated worth is $4,300,000. Thus began a unique collection of Irish history literature and folklore that continued to expand through the 20th Century.

George W. Potter

Providence Journal’s chief editor and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, George W. Potter did extensive research on Irish history and culture and wrote books and articles about it. In 1950, a series of 17 articles written by him in the Journal about people, life and culture in contemporary Ireland was published under the title An Irish Pilgrimage. His other work, To the Golden Door: The Story of Irish in Ireland and America was published in 1960, a year after his death. Potter also wrote a series of articles about Alfred M. Williams and helped the library establish a center for Irish studies called the “Alfred M. Williams Memorial” in 1949. He acquired many rare and valuable documents and books during his trips to Ireland including an original copy of the 1916 broadside proclamation declaring Ireland’s independence. In 1950 the library purchased around 400 pamphlets that had been in the library of Holland House, a Tudor mansion. They date from 1730 to 1885 and relate mainly to the Act of Union, Catholic emancipation, and British policy toward Ireland. It was at this time that the National Library of Ireland gave many duplicate broadside ballads and about a hundred books to the Williams Memorial. Potter was responsible for helping the library amass one of the finest collections outside of Ireland of Irish literature and history. After Potter died in 1959 the library renamed the collection the “George W. Potter and Alfred M. Williams Memorial on Irish Culture.” Over the years many have donated to the collection. The manuscript collection includes many printed materials, manuscripts to and from Potter as well as other librarians and book distributors, and documents.