On Monday, January 5, 1885, Hugh O'Brien was sworn-in as the city of Boston's first Irish-born Mayor, launching an era of Irish-American dominance of Boston City Hall that continued through the 20th century.
O'Brien was born in County Cork, Ireland on July 13, 1827, and emigrated with his family to Boston in 1832 when he was five years old. He was educated in a public school in the Fort Hill neighborhood, and when he was 12 he joined the Boston Courier newspaper as an apprentice. By the age of 15 he had become foreman of a printing office, before starting his own publication, the Shipping and Commercial List. He had a successful career as a businessman and gained the respect of city leaders as well as the Irish immigrant community that struggled to gain a foothold in Boston.
O'Brien launched his political career in 1875 on the Board of Alderman, and in 1884 ran against and defeated incumbent Boston Mayor Augustus Martin. At that time, the term of office was one year, so O'Brien ran and won again in 1885, 1886, 1887 and 1888 before narrowly losing in December 1888 to Republican banker Thomas N. Hart.
When he won the election in December, 1884, The Boston Globe reported that O'Brien was hailed by Irish and non-Irish alike. One man interviewed said, "See here boys. The fact that he's Irish made but little difference. it is the first time for a long while when the race issue has been kept in the background. People are beginning to know that we are all American citizens, and that the best best claim to popular favor is a good, clean record."
The Globe continued, "All over the city the Irish felt a natural pride that one of their countrymen should stand so high in the esteem of the people."
While in office, O'Brien presided over the creation of the city's Emerald Necklace park system, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, and he laid the cornerstone for the new Boston Public Library at Copley Square. He was also an advocate for education, and in 1887, a new school named the Hugh O'Brien Schoolhouse was opened at the corner of Dudley and Langdon Streets in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood, one of the city's most Irish neighborhoods at the time,
One of his most cherished causes was helping the city's orphans throughout his life. He died on August 1, 1895, and at his funeral at Holy Cross Cathedral, the Republic Newspaper reported, "The largest and most conspicuous delegation was that from the St. Vincent's Orphan Asylum, 200 little children dressed alike, who sat immediately behind the family."
O'Brien died suddenly on August 1, 1895, and received universal praise and tributes from public officials, clergy, business leaders and ordinary citizens. He is buried at Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline MA.
A bust of Hugh O'Brien, made by sculptor John Donoghue, is on display in the Abbey Room of the Boston Public Library.
For more about Boston's Irish history, visit IrishHeritageTrail.com; for information on ongoing cultural activities, visit IrishBoston.org.
(Information on Hugh O'Brien taken from Irish Boston, 2nd edition, by Michael Quinlin, published in 2013 by Globe Pequot Press.)