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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Frederick MacMonnies' Once-Controversial Sculpture at the Boston Public Library

One of Boston’s most interesting sculptures, Bacchante and Infant Faun, is displayed in the courtyard of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, Back Bay.  The masterpiece was created in 1893 by American-born sculptor Frederick MacMonnies, a disciple of Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

MacMonnies gave the original casting to his friend, architect Charles Follen McKim, whose own masterpiece, the Boston Public Library, was being built.  McKim in turn offered it as a gift to the Library, which installed it.  But an outcry ensued from opponents who objected to the nudity of Bacchante, the Goddess of Wine, and McKim withdrew the gift, giving it instead to the Metropolitan Museum of Artin New York City.

The controversy over the censorship of the artwork gained MacMonnies a certain notoriety, and he made numerous replicas of the work which he sold to museums and bronze statuettes, which he sold wholesale to the general public.

Nearly a century after the banning of the sculpture, an enlightened generation of library officials decided to commission a bronze copy made from a copy of the sculpture at the Museum ofFine Arts in Boston. The work of art was unveiled in the  BPL courtyard in May 1993, after the library completed a multi-million dollar restoration.

The Special Collections Department at the BPL has documents pertaining to the planning, design, and installation of the art work at the McKim Building. Among the subjects: Frederick MacMonnies's (1863-1937) sculpture Bacchante, and the influence Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) had on the building's decorative features. 

Born in Brooklyn Heights on September 20, 1863, MacMonnies was the son of William and Julinana Eudora (West) MacMonnies, whose family came from Dumfries, Scotland.

MacMonnies died in 1937 in New York.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

John Boyle O'Reilly (1844-1890)

Born on June 28, 1844 in Dowth Castle along the River Boyne, O'Reilly was conscripted into the British Army as a young man.  He was later charged with sedition against the British Crown and sentenced to life imprisonment in an Australian penal colony.  O’Reilly made a daring escape aboard a New Bedford whaler, Catalpa, in 1868, a feat that helped shape his legend by the time he landed in America.  

Arriving in Boston in 1870, he 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. 

O'Reilly died on August 10, 1890 from an accidental overdose of medication. He 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

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

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. 

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Yankee Mobs Burn Down Ursuline Convent in Charlestown on August 11, 1834

On August 11, 1834, the Ursuline Convent, a Catholic-run school for girls of all denominations, was set afire by angry workmen who were resentful of an increasing Irish presence in the Town of Charlestown and throughout New England.

The night of terror was led by John Buzzell, a New Hampshire transplant who worked as a bricklayer. The frightened nuns and their young female boarding students rushed from the school as the building went up in flames, with the bloodthirsty mob intent on burning it to the ground. A newspaper later 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 tension in Charlestown had escalated with the arrival of Irish Catholic immigrants to Boston and local towns in the early 19th century. 

Charlestown's growth of Irish Catholics starting in the 1820s was rapid, thanks to the efforts of Boston 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 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 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 seventeenth-century Puritan fears of popery and Jesuit priests that had sparked anti-Catholic hysteria more than a century earlier," according to author Michael Quinlin in his book, Irish Boston.

Read more details at MassMoments, a project of MassHumanities

For more details on Irish history in Boston, visit

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Irish-American Song & Dance Man George M. Cohan Honored in Providence RI

George M. Cohan, famed Broadway song and dance man whose songs helped define the World War I generation, was born in Providence RI on July 3, 1878.  

A  statue honoring Cohan at the corner of Wickendon and Governor Streets in Providence  was created by noted sculptor Robert Shure, who also created  the Irish Famine Memorial in Boston and Providence

Cohan (1878-1942) was the son of Jeremiah Cohan from Boston and Nellie Costigan from Providence.  They met met on the vaudeville circuit and married in 1874.  George and his sister Josephine became part of a successful family troupe, named the Four Cohans, which traveled around the country on the minstrel circuit, performing a cabaret of songs, dances, jokes and comedy routines popular at the time. 

In 1893 George settled in New York City and soon became the toast of Broadway, writing popular tunes like Yankee Doodle Dandy, You're a Grand Old Flag, and Over There, a trio of songs that resonated with Americans and Europeans during World War I.

For  more about the contributions of Irish contributions to American popular culture, see Irish Boston: A Lively  Look at Boston's Colorful Irish Past

For information on year round Irish cultural events in Massachusetts and the New England states, visit  

For more on Boston's Irish-American heritage, visit

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Boston Artist John S. Copley, Son of Irish Immigrants, Born on July 3, 1738

America's first great portrait artist, John Singleton Copley (1737-1815) was born in Boston on July 3, 1738.  He was  the son of Irish immigrants who emigrated to Boston in the 1730s.

Copley Square Park in Boston's Back Bay was named in his honor in 1883. In 2002, the city of Boston unveiled a statue to John Singleton Copley by artist Lewis Cohen, and it is now on the Boston Irish Heritage Trail.

John's parents, Richard Copley and Mary Singleton from County Clare, were married in Limerick before emigrating. His father died in the West Indies just after their son was born, leaving his mother to raise John by working at a shop in Boston that sold tobacco down by the docks. 

In 1747 Mary S. Copley married Peter Pelham, a colonial artist and an original member of the Charitable Irish Society formed in 1737. Pelham helped to nurture his stepson's talent, and by age twenty Copley had already gained a reputation as a promising artist. His first painting, "A Boy and the Flying Squirrel," was sent to the Royal Academy in London and his reputation began to take shape.

Copley is considered America's first great portrait artist, having painted George Washington, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Paul Revere and other leading citizens. Other acclaimed works by Copley include A Boy Rescued from a Shark in the Harbor of Havana, and The Red Cross Knight, from Spencer's poem The Fairy Queen. 

Boston's Museum of Fine Arts has over 50 Copley paintings, including the famous Paul Revere portrait. The Massachusetts Historical Society on Boylston Street has the portraits of John Hancock, Mary Otis Gray and several other prominent 18th century Americans.

During the American Revolution and the British occupation of Boston, Copley moved to Italy in 1774 to study Italian art, then the following year moved his family to London, according to MassMoments.  He always wanted to return to Boston, but never did. He died in London in 1815.  

Learn more about Boston's Irish history at

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Irish-born Augustus Saint-Gaudens, America's Master Sculptor in the 19th Century

Courtesy of Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, NH

Acclaimed as America's greatest sculptor of the 19th century, Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) was born on March 1, 1848 on Charlemount Street in Dublin at the height of the Irish Famine, when millions of Irish were fleeing Ireland to places like Boston, New York, Montreal, St. John and other eastern port cities.  

His father Bernard Saint-Gaudens was a French cobbler who had "a wonderfully complex mixture of a fierce French accent and Irish brogue."  His mother, Mary McGuinness, was born in Bally Mahon, County Longford, to Arthur McGuinness and Mary Daly.

According to his son Homer, when Augustus was six months old, "the famine in Ireland compelled (the family) to go to America."  They landed in Boston in September 1848, where they lived for six weeks until the father found work in New York City and sent for them.  Augustus apprenticed as a cameo cutter, and in 1867 moved to Paris, where he studied at Des Beaux-Arts, then to Rome in 1870.  He met his wife, Augusta Homer, an American art student, while there, who was born and raised in Roxbury, MA.

Saint-Gaudens' first major commission of Civil War leader Admiral David Glasgow Farragut was unveiled at Madison Square Garden in 1881.  In his career he created over 150 sculptures, such as the Adams Memorial in Washington and the General Logan Memorial and Abraham Lincoln statue in Chicago.  He worked closely with his brother Louis and wife Augusta, and had a number of outstanding pupils such as Frederick MacMonnies and John Flanagan.  

Shaw Memorial in Boston

Augustus' most famous work is the Shaw Memorial a homage to the 54th Black Infantry Regiment of Boston. It took Saint-Gaudens fourteen years to complete the memorial, partly because there was an early disagreement among patrons regarding how the piece should look.  Plus, the perfectionist artist approached the project in a painstaking manner, seeking out forty black men in New York to use as models, from which he chose 16 to appear on the final memorial.  The memorial was unveiled in 1897 at a ceremony attended by Booker T. Washington, philosopher William James, and the families of the soldiers.  It is located near the site where Civil War regiments mustered before going off to war.

Saint-Gaudens' other major sculpture of interest is the Charles Stuart Parnell statue on O'Connell Street in Dublin, which was his last major work before he died in 1907.  The Parnell Memorial was unveiled in 1911, finished by his studio, which was led by his brother Louis.

Other Saint-Gaudens sculptures include the Phillips Brooks statue next to Trinity Church in Copley Square; the Puritan in Springfield, MA; the General Sherman Monument in Central Park, New York City; the Marcus Daly statue in Butte, MT; the official seals on the front entrance to the Boston Public Library; the Nevins Monument at Mt. Auburn Cemetery.  

Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site

Saint-Gaudens is buried at his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, which is now a National Historic Site open to the public. 

The Shaw Memorial is part of Boston's Irish Heritage Trail and the Boston Black Heritage Trail. It is located on Beacon Street, facing the Massachusetts State House.MBTA: Red Line to Park Street Station.Read about the Shaw Memorial's restoration in 2019.

Read more about Irish sculptors who came to the US in the 19th century.

Find more about Boston's Irish history at

Saturday, June 29, 2019

de Valera Visited Mission Church, Bunker Hill, Cambridge & Lexington on the Weekend of his Fenway Park Rally in 1919

 Basilica Church in Mission Hill, Roxbury

Prior to his triumphant rally at Fenway Park on Sunday, June 29, 1919, Irish political leader Eamon de Valera spent the morning at the Roman Catholic Mission Church in Roxbury, where his half-brother, Reverend Thomas Wheelwright, was stationed as a priest. 

Known formally as the Boston Basilica and Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the Mission Church opened in 1870 and is ministered by the Redemptorists Priests, whose mission is to serve the poor and the spiritually abandoned.

Dev had arrived at Boston’s South Station on Saturday, June 28 with his secretary Harry J. Boland and was greeted by scores of Irish supporters as he made his way to the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston’s Back Bay.  A marching band led the triumphant procession through the streets of Boston.

That evening, Dev visited the rectory at Mission Church in Roxbury, where his half-brother, Rev. Thomas Wheelwright, C.SS.R. was stationed.  After de Valera’s father died in 1885, Dev was sent back to Ireland where he was raised by his relatives.  His mother Catherine Coll of Bruee, Limerick married Charles Wheelwright, and had two children, Thomas and Ann.

The following morning, on June 29, Dev went to the Mission Church for the 9 a.m. Sunday mass.  “When his automobile approached, a deafening cheer arose, and hundreds tried to push forward and shake his hand, “ according to news stories.  President De Valera knelt on a prie-dieu at the head of the middle aisle, near the sanctuary rail.  The officials who accompanied him included Mayor Edward W. Quinn of Cambridge and President Ford of the Cambridge City Council. 

The  Rev Father Kenna, in greeting De Valera, told the congregation,

“A cordial welcome to our honored guest pours forth from the hearts of our community and all its people on this memorable occasion.  We thank him for honoring this church by selecting it to assist at the Sacrifice of the Mass. I assure him that the congregation of no other church in the united states is more solidly behind him and the cause which he represents than the congregation of the Mission Church.”

The 125-piece Mission Church Field Band marched from the church to Fenway Park with 3,000 parishioners.  In totally, 6000 people from Irish clubs and societies marched in the Irish association division. 

After breakfast at the Mission Church rectory, Dev returned to the Copley Plaza at 12:30 p.m., where he was presented with a floral bouquet and a brief address of welcome from the Irish Counties Association.

At 2:30 p.m. the De Valera party, accompanied by the Irish delegation, headed to Fenway Park by automobile, where 60,000 people eagerly received him and his message of Irish freedom.  He was introduced at Fenway by Massachusetts Governor David I. Walsh, who called de Valera Ireland's Abraham Lincoln.  The rally was covered by the international and domestic media.

 Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

The following day, Monday, June 30, Dev “placed a wreath beneath the historic elm in Cambridge, under which General George Washington took command of the American revolutionary army, and another on the Minuteman monument on the green in Lexington,” wrote the Indianapolis Star.  

Dev also visited local landmarks in Cambridge and stopped at Bunker Hill in Charlestown, where he laid a wreath.   Then he wrote on a piece of paper the date and the words of George Washington when he head the Battle of Bunker Hill had taken place, "The liberties of my country are safe."  He signed it and placed it on the wreath, wrote The New York Times

de Valera in Boston

That evening, de Valera addressed the House of Representatives at the Massachusetts State House.

He raised the question of whether the Irish wanted a Republic. “It is said that the Irish are divided among themselves.  This is not so, in respect to this question.  If we could get a plebiscite, we could carry it four to one.  Ulster is mentioned as an exception, but Ulster is a very small part of the island.

“It is said that this is a religious question,” Dev continued.  “This, too, is not so.  It happens that the majority of the Ulster minority is Protestant and that the majority of the Irish people is Catholic, but that has nothing to do with the present situation.  England has tried to keep alive this claim of religious difference, but it will not be able to do so and the Irish people will be united in support of Irish sovereignty.”

Dev's secretary Boland said that De Valera had hoped to meet with Boston’s William Cardinal O’Connell while in Boston, but the meeting did not take place, according to the Catholic Advance of Witcita, KS.

In addition to visiting Massachusetts, de Valera also stopped in Rhode Island and New Hampshire, where he was met by enthusiastic crowds.  Following that, de Valera traveled across the United States, visiting Irish strongholds like Butte, MT and San Francisco, CA, before returning to New York in the fall.