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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Tom Burke of Boston's West End Breaks the World Record in the 600 Yard Dash

Tom Burke of Boston's West End set a new world record in the 600 yard dash on September 20, 1896 at the prestigious Knickerbocker Athletic Club track & field meet in New York City.

Burke, representing the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), won the race in 1 minute, 11 seconds, beating the old record by 4/10s of a second, held by Lon Myers (1882) and Billy Downs (1890).

The New York Times described Burke as "a slight, graceful, wiry, swift-moving boy from Boston." He can be "described by no other word than marvelous." 

By this time, Thomas Edmund Burke (1875- 1929) was already a household name in track and field and certainly in Boston running circles.  The previous Apri, he became the first athlete in the Modern Olympic Games to win two races, the 100 yard dash and the 440 yard run.  Burke, just 20 years old at the time, was one of six Boston athletes who made the trip to Athens, Greece in April 1896 to participate in the revival of the Olympics. He handily won both races.

Burke's father was an undertaker at St. Joseph's Church, and Burke later attended English High School in Boston.  He competed for the Suffolk Athletic Club in South Boston and the Boston Athletic Association (BAA).  When he won the Olympic medals Burke was a second year law student at Boston University.

Burke had an illustrious life.  In 1897 he was the official starter for the first Boston Marathon started by the Boston Athletic Association and later was track coach at Mercersberg Academy in Pennsylvania.  For a time, he held the world's record in the 600 yard run at one minute 11 seconds. 

After college, Burke became a journalist and wrote for several Boston newspapers, including the Boston Journal and the Boston Post.

In World War I he was commissioned a first lieutenant and at age 43 was the oldest man in the US military to earn his aviator's wings.  He died at age 53, collapsing on a ferry boat from Winthrop to Boston.

For information on Boston Irish history, culture and heritage, visit and

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Charlestown's Ursuline Convent for Girls Burned to the Ground on August 11, 1834

On August 11, 1834, the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, a Catholic-run boarding school for girls of all denominations, was set afire by workmen furious about the growing presence of Catholics in the town. 

About a dozen frightened nuns and some 57 young female boarding students, still in their nightclothes, rushed from their beds onto the school grounds as the building went up in flames, with the bloodthirsty mob intent on burning it to the ground. 

The night of terror was led by John Buzzell, a New Hampshire native who worked as a bricklayer in Boston.  The mob was prompted by an false rumor being spread around town that a girl was being held against her will in the basement of the convent.  

"We remember no parallel to this outrage in the whole course of history," wrote the Boston Atlas.  "Turn to the bloodiest incidents of the French revolution - roll up the curtain that hangs before its most sanguinary scenes - and point us to its equal in unprovoked violence, in brutal outrage, in unthwarted iniquity." 

The tension in Charlestown had escalated with the arrival of Irish Catholic immigrants to Boston and local towns in the early 19th century.

The convent, a boarding school for girls, especially rankled the laboring class, since the young women came mainly from wealthy Catholic and Protestant families in Boston. Fire and Roses author Nancy Lusignan Schultz writes that “these families paid a yearly tuition to the nuns equivalent to a bricklayer’s wages for six months’ labor.”

The Boston Atlas reported that the “pianos and harps, thrown from the windows when the Convent was set on fire, were subsequently burnt, and nothing but an old chair and one or two worthless articles were saved from destruction.”

But the following week, the Boston Morning Post issued a front-page notice by the school's Mother Superior, suggesting that valuable items, especially musical instruments such as "Piano Ports, Harps, Guitars, Silver Cups were stolen at the time of the conflagration," and that the "publication of these items may lead to the detection of the thieves." 

The day after the attack, a group of city officials, business leaders, religious clergy and concerned citizens assembled at Faneuil Hall to decry the violent ambush.  A resolution was quickly approved, stating in part: 

  • Resolved: That in the opinion of the citizens of Boston, the late attack on the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, occupied only by defenceless females, was a base and cowardly act, for which, the perpetrators deserve the contempt and detestation of the community;
  • Resolved: That we, the Protestant citizens of Boston, do pledge ourselves, collectively and individually, to unite with our Catholic brethren in protecting their persons, their property and their civil and religious rights.

Charlestown's growing presence of Irish Catholics began in the 1820s, thanks to the efforts of Boston's Bishop Benedict Fenwick, who built Saint Mary’s Catholic church, opened a Catholic cemetery, and developed the twenty-four-acre Ursuline Convent, all within the space of a decade.

"The workmen, frustrated by economic woes and the growing competition from immigrants for jobs, took on a nativist mentality that put the rights of Americans above the rights of immigrants. It didn’t help that Rev. Beecher and others were preaching about a Catholic conspiracy, rekindling 17th century Puritan fears of popery and Jesuit priests that had sparked anti-Catholic hysteria more than a century earlier," according to the book  Irish Boston: A Lively Look at Boston's Colorful Irish Past.

Read more details of the episode at MassMoments, a project of MassHumanities

For more details on Irish history in Boston, visit

Monday, August 10, 2020

Boston Hero John Boyle O'Reilly Dies on August 10 in Hull, Massachusetts

John Boyle O'Reilly, one of Boston's most accomplished citizens, died on August 10, 1890 in Hull, Massachusetts, from an accidental overdose of medication.  His sudden death marked the end of an amazing life of heroism, advocacy, leadership and literature that helped transform the city and the nation.

Arriving in Boston in 1870, O'Reilly spent the next 20 years reconciling the city's racial and ethnic factions who struggled against one another.  He became editor and then owner of The Pilot, the leading Irish Catholic paper in America, using the paper as a bully pulpit to advance various causes.  He befriended the Yankee establishment while admonishing them for the prejudices.  

O'Reilly defended American Blacks who were still looking for post Civil War equality.  He welcomed new immigrants such as Italians, Jews and Chinese, insisting that they get the same privileges as nativist Americans.  Throughout his life he pursued freedom of Ireland from Britain, advocating for home rule and land reform.

In 1885 he delivered a thunderous speech in defense of the rights of Black citizens at Faneuil Hall before the Massachusetts Colored League.  He said "So long as American citizens and their children are excluded from schools, theaters, hotels, or common conveyances, there ought not to be among those who love justice and liberty any question of race, creed, or color; every heart that beats for humanity beats with the oppressed."

O'Reilly was a popular poet and speaker, often called upon to deliver poems at noteworthy occasions such as the unveiling of the Boston Massacre Monument on Boston Common in 1888. There, he read a poem dedicated to Crispus Attucks,  killed by British soldiers at the Boston Massacre of 1770. Attucks' father was an African slave and his mother an American Indian. 

In August, 1889, O'Reilly wrote and delivered a powerful poem, The Pilgrim Fathers, at the dedication to the monument by the same name in Plymouth, MA. 

After his death in Hull, O'Reilly was taken back to St. Mary's Church in Charlestown for the funeral, one of the largest in Boston's history. "The greatest of Irish-Americans" is dead, proclaimed The Pilot

O'Reilly Monument in the Fens 

A memorial to O'Reilly was commissioned to noted sculptor and friend Daniel Chester French.   Vice President Adlai Stevenson and hundreds of Boston's prominent and ordinary citizens attended the official unveiling on June 20, 1896. The bust of O'Reilly is set against a Celtic design stone, and the back of the memorial has bronze allegorical figures of Erin, flanked by Poetry and Patriotism. The O'ReillyMemorial is located in Boston's Fens at the intersection of Boylston and Fenway Streets, and is part of Boston’s Irish Heritage Trail.

O'Reilly lived at 34 Winthrop Street in Charlestown, where there is a plaque in his honor.  In 1988 the city dedicated a plaque to O'Reilly in Charlestown at Austin and Main Streets.   City Square Park in Charlestown honors O'Reilly with an inscription and bronze medallion.

City Park, Charlestown, MA

His summer home in Hull is today the town's public library.

Hull Public Library, O'Reilly's summer home

In 1895 sculptor John Donoghue created a bust of his friend O'Reilly: a bronze version is in the Fine Arts Reading Room of the Boston Public Library and one at Boston College's Burns Library.

O'Reilly is buried at Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline, Massachusetts. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Calendonian Festival in West Roxbury draws 10,000 People on August 5, 1916

The Boston Caledonian Club's 63rd Annual Scottish Picnic took place at the West Roxbury Grove  on Saturday, August 5, 1916, attracting 10,000+ attendees from the region's Scottish and Irish communities.

According to The Boston Globe, 39 athletic and cultural events ranged from track and field and football (soccer) to Scottish dancing and Bagpipe competitions.

The Caledonian handicap road race of 13 ¼ miles started in front of the State House and finished at the Grove.  “The 16 starters were the crack local marathoners and Mayor James Michael Curley sent them off on their grind at 1:45,” wrote the Globe.

Mayor James M. Curley then traveled to the festival, where he addressed the crowd briefly and enjoyed the activities.  At one point, reported the Globe, Curley “was so pleased with the dance of one of the girls that he gave a personal prize.”

In addition to the sports and cultural competitions, three prizes were also awarded for “Best Dressed Highlander,” which was won by George A. Mitchell.

 According to writer Emily Ann Donaldson in her book, TheScottish Highland Games in America, the Boston Caledonian Club “sponsored Games for more than a century; the last one was held in September 1956 at Brookline Town Field.”

There is a tune called Boston Caledonian Club, which was published in Ryan’s Mammoth Collection in 1883.   

For information on today's Scottish celebrations in the USA, visit the Association of Scottish Games and Festivals.

Find more about Scots-Americans in New England, visit

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Norman Rockwell Museum Features Exhibit on Rose O'Neill, Artist & Suffragette

The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge MA has a new exhibit titled, Rose O'Neill: Artist & Suffragette, on display through September, 2020.

The exhibit is timely since 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of American women formally given the right to vote, a cause to which O'Neill was devoted.

Born in Wilkes Barre, PA, Rose O'Neill (1874-1944) and her family moved to Nebraska when she was young, and grew up in an artistic household where creative expression was encouraged and prized.  A self-taught illustrator, O'Neill moved to New York City at age 19 and soon her work was being published in leading magazines such as Harper's, Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping, as well as Puck Magazine. 

In 1909 O'Neill created the popular characters the Kewpies dolls, elf-like figures that were immediately popular with the general public.  The merchandising of Kewpie dolls made O'Neill a millionaire, according to the exhibition notes.

O'Neill became heavily involved in the women's suffrage movement in 1915, and for the next five years gave speeches, illustrated posters and marched in parades, as the momentum built to give women the right to vote.

After passing through U.S. Congress on June 4, 1919, and receiving the necessary three-fourths approval of the states on August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was officially ratified by the U.S. Secretary of State on August 26, 1920. 

The Amendment states:  "The rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

The Norman Rockwell Museum contains the world's largest collection of illustrations, paintings and art by Norman Rockwell, one of America's beloved artists whose iconic work captured the spirit of the United States in the 20th century.  He lived in Stockbridge for the last 25 years of his life.

Read about Massachusetts Irish-American women, and visit for more about the Irish-American cultural community.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Irish Piper Seamus Ennis Featured at Newport Folk Festival in July 1964

Seamus Ennis, one of Ireland's most inspirational traditional Irish musicians, performed at the 5th Annual Newport Folk Festival  on July 23-26, 1964.  He was 45 years old.

Ennis was a featured artist on opening night on Thursday, July 23, where he performed the uilleann pipes, told stories and sang Irish songs as part of a traditional folk program.  He was joined by Mississippi John Hurt, Muddy Waters, Doc Watson, the Nova Scotia Singers and the Stanley Brothers.

Then on Saturday night, Ennis joined the Blue Ridge Mountain Boys, Judy Collins, Peter Paul and Mary and the Osborne Brothers on the main concert stage.

Other performers during the weekend included Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, the Jug band, the Staple Singers and the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.

Founded in 1959 by jazz pianist and music impresario George Wein, the Newport Folk Festival has become the world's premier festival devoted to folk and traditional music from hundreds of traditions around the world.  This year's Newport Folk Festival is cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but a Newport Folk Revival concert is being streamed on July 31- August 3, 2020.

Find out more about Seamus Ennis by visiting the Seamus Ennis Arts Centre in Naul, Fingal, County Dublin, Ireland.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Cambridge Irish Famine Memorial Unveiled By Ireland's President on July 23, 1997

On Wednesday, July 23, 1997, Ireland's President Mary Robinson officially helped dedicate the Cambridge Irish Famine Memorial in Cambridge Common, a tribute to the 150th anniversary of Ireland's Great Hunger, known as An Gorta Mor.

Nearly 4,000+ people attended the ceremony in the iconic Cambridge Common near Harvard Square, which also includes the Cambridge Civil War Monument designed by Irish immigrant Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1870.

The Cambridge Irish Famine Memorial was created by Maurice Harron of Derry, Northern Ireland, who said the sculpture "is meant to convey the tragedy, two people dying, two people escaping, the fearful guilt of leaving loved ones behind, and the will to carry on."

At the dedication ceremony, President Robinson said, "Part of Looking back and remembering was to link the Irish famine with modern famine and hunger and inequalities in our world.  It reinforced a very strong commitment of the Irish people to developing countries."

The Cambridge Irish Famine Memorial was the idea of John Flaherty, an immigrant from Galway who is active in the greater Boston Irish-American community.   It was funded by local businessman John O'Connor and supported by the city's diverse community of politicians, activists, neighborhood residents and historians, including the Cambridge Historical Society.

Find out more about Irish history in greater Boston by visiting

For details on visiting Cambridge, Massachusetts, go to

to visit by public transit:
Cambridge Irish Famine Memorial
Cambridge Common
Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge
MBTA: Red Line to Harvard Square

Monday, July 20, 2020

Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy born on July 22, 1890 in Boston's North End

Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, mother of President John F. Kennedy, was born on July 22, 1890 at 4 Garden Court in Boston's North End, at a time when the neighborhood was heavily Irish.

Her father, John "Honey" Fitzgerald, was a prominent businessman and newspaper publisher of The Republic and her mother was Mary Josephine Hannon.

When Rose married Joseph P. Kennedy of East Boston on October 7, 1914, it marked the merger of Boston's two most influential Irish political families. The newlyweds bought their first house at 83 Beals Street in Brookline, where they raised four boys and five girls.  The JFK Home in Brookline is managed by the National Park Service and is open to the public.

Their second eldest son, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, became the first Catholic President of the United States in 1960.  Sons Robert and Edward were senators and played key roles in the Kennedy Administration, with Robert serving as the US Attorney General. Their daughters, Jean Kennedy Smith, was U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, and played a role in the peace process between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which resulted in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, while Eunice Kennedy Shriver was the originator of the Special Olympics.  

Through her life, Rose Kennedy captured the American public's imagination because of the suffering she endured and the grace she displayed during the untimely deaths of several of her children.

She was extremely religious and was a daily communicant at St. Joseph's Church in Hyannis.  In 1951 Pope Pius XII named her a Papal Countess, in recognition of her "exemplary motherhood and charitable works."  In 1996, Irish novelist and playwright Mary Manning Adams wrote a play about Rose Kennedy's life entitled "Go Lovely Rose."

Rose died in 1995 at age 105.  Her funeral mass was held at St. Stephen's Church in the North End, where she was baptized and attended mass as a young girl.

The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Garden, built in 1987, is the first stop on Boston's Irish Heritage Trail.

The small enclosed rose garden, encircled by an iron wrought fence, with a granite fountain as the centerpiece. It is part of Christopher Columbus Park, which runs along the waterfront and looks out onto Boston Harbor. The Garden was officially dedicated on July 22, 1987 by Rose’s family, including Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who called his mother “the greatest teacher and most wonderful mother that any child could ever have.”

Today, the Rose Kennedy Garden has 104 rose bushes, one for every year of Rose’s life.

The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway opened in 2008.  The 27 acre swath of Greenway once lay beneath the unsightly and noisy Central Artery, a four lane, mile and a half highway built in the 1950s.  When the highway finally came down, the greenway began to take shape, connecting the city’s waterfront to the rest of downtown. 

Today, the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway is one of the city’s most popular public spaces, drawing office workers, tourists, students, conventioneers and local residents to enjoy its sweeping vistas and friendly amenities.  With a magnificent Carousel, public art, water fountains, concerts, food courts, Wi-Fi access and well-tended gardens, the Greenway serves its mission of being an urban oasis that is free and open to all. 

Read more about the Kennedy family's Irish connections

Thursday, July 16, 2020

July 1750, Irish Servant Girl Escapes from her 'Master' in Salem, Massachusetts

In the 18th century, many of the original Irish in New England were indentured servants who gained passage to America by agreeing to work in servitude for up to seven years.  But after they arrived here, many of them were dissatisfied with their harsh working conditions and poor treatment.  So they absconded from their 'masters' and escaped into the colonies.

In the first half of the 18th century, newspapers such as the Boston Gazette, Boston News-Letter and New England Weekly Journal regularly ran advertisements seeking the return of these runaway servants.

Very often the servants were captured and returned to their masters, as in the case of Edmund Murphy, who ran away from the home of Thomas Craddock in Milton in November 1737.  He was captured and returned to the Craddock household, only to escape again in March 1738.   Murphy's companion in the second escape was Edmond Butler, who was described in the advertisement as "a good scholar who speaks English, Latin, Greek and French, a thin-looking fellow of middle stature."

In 1738, Irish servants Michael Dullowin and Patrick Shangasseys ran away from gingerbread baker Thomas Pearson.  They were joined on the run by fugitive slave George Tilley, American Indian Jo Daniels and Scottish servant William Cobb.

Often when they were captured, the servants were imprisoned at the Bridewell Prison near Beacon Hill.  In 1739, nine prisoners escaped from the Bridwell.  Five of them were Irish servants, led by 25 year old Thomas Dwyer, and the group also included a one-armed Native American named John Baker, a 20 year old Negro slave named Jocco, a woman and an Englishman.  Each of them had a three pound bounty on their heads.

Numerous runaways were women, such as 24 year old Molly Birk, who had a five pound reward on her head for her capture and return.

Read more about Irish and Irish-American women in New England at

For more about Boston's illustrious Irish history from the 17th century to today, read Irish Boston: A Lively Look at Boston's Colorful Irish Past, published by Rowman & Littlefield.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Boston's First Irish Mayor, Hugh O'Brien, Born on July 13, 1827 in County Cork

Hugh O'Brien, Boston's first Irish-born mayor, was born in County Cork, Ireland on July 13, 1827.  He  emigrated with his family to Boston in 1832 when he was five years old.  

O’Brien attended a public school in Boston’s Fort Hill neighborhood, and at age 12 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.  On Monday, January 5, 1885, O'Brien was sworn-in as the city of Boston's first Irish-born Mayor.  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 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."

Read more about O'Brien's historic inauguration on January 5, 1885 at MassMoments.

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.  
In 1887, 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.

During O’Brien’s time in office, the Boston Massacre Memorial was unveiled on Boston Common in November 1888.  Mayor O'Brien said, " I am aware that the monument to Crispus Attucks and his martyr associates has been the subject of more or less adverse criticism, and that by some they are looked upon as rioters, who deserved their fate.  I look upon it from a entirely different standpoint.  The Boston massacre was one of the most important and exciting events that preceded our revolution."

One of O’Brien’s 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 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, which is along Boston's Irish Heritage Trail. 

Here is a list of Boston mayors claiming Irish ancestry from 1885 to the resent.

For information on ongoing cultural activities in Boston and throughout New England, visit