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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

On this Day: Boston Volunteer Firemen Attack Irish Funeral Procession in 1837

On June 11, 1837 a brawl erupted in downtown Boston when an Irish funeral procession and a volunteer fire brigade returning to the station reached an intersection at the same time.  In what became known as the Broad Street Riot, the firemen and their supporters chased the Irish along Purchase and Broad streets into their houses, which were then attacked by the enraged mob.  

“The air was full of flying feathers and straw from the beds which had been ripped up and emptied into the streets,” according to historian J.B. Cullen.  Mayor Samuel A. Eliot ordered 800 National Lancers, a military group, to quell the riot and maintain peace.

Excerpt from the book, Irish Boston: A Lively Look at Boston's Colorful Irish Past.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Feis Ceol Agus Seanachas Held in Boston

A Festival of Irish Minstrelsy, Song and History, known in Gaelic as Feis Ceol Agus Seanachas, was held at Hollis Street Theatre in Boston on May 6, 1900.  The festival was organized by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Philo-Celtic Society of Boston and the Gaelic Society.  

Among the highlights: a Gaelic version of “The Star Spangled Banner” by eminent Irish baritone William Ludwig.

The Boston Globe described the festival thus: “the occasion will form a novel innovation, inasmuch as for the first time in Boston the ballads of chivalry, love and war, Gaelic folk songs, gems of Irish opera and other unusual features of Irish national music will be heard, as well as the more familiar harp and bagpipe music of Ireland.”

Professor Fred Robinson, Gaelic scholar at Harvard University was cited as an enthusiast for the city’s Irish language movement.

Ludwig, ‘whose lifework has been given to the interpretation of Irish music and song, was the featured performer.  Also on the stage: Irish harpist Nona L. Coveney and piper Patrick Harney.  In addition, a one-hundred person choir from the Catholic Church choirs of the Archdiocese, performed under the direction of Edward McGoldrick.

“The love songs of Thomas Moore, the stirring war ballads of Thomas Davis, the operas of Michael Balfe and William Vincent Wallace, the humorous songs of Lever” were among the songs being performed.  

Located between Washington and Tremont Street, the Hollis Street Theatre first opened in 1855 with a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado.  Over the decades it featured top artists like Dion Boucicault and Sarah Bernhardt, along with plays such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Sherlock Holmes, and Twelfth Night.

Find more about Boston's Irish history at

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Fidders Scott Skinner and John Wiseman Compete in World's Old Fiddler Contest in Maine

John Wiseman (left) and Scott Skinner 

Two of the top traditional fiddlers from the British Isles, 82 year old James Scott Skinner of Aberdeen, Scotland and 76 year old John Wiseman of Bantry, County Cork, crossed the Atlantic Ocean together to compete in the World's Old Fiddlers Contest, taking place April 5-10, 1926 in Lewiston, Maine.  Both arrived in Boston on the Cunard liner Caronia, and were greeted with enthusiasm by the Irish and Scottish communities, with fiddlers, pipers and dancers lined up to greet the ship as it docked.

The contest was open to fiddlers from around the world aged 60 or older. More than 340 fiddlers competed for the $1,000 prize and Gold Cup.  Joining Skinner and Wiseman were other notable fiddlers, including Mellie Dunham, Chas E. McBride, 80 year old John Wilder of Vermont and uncle of President Calvin Coolidge, and local favorite "Uncle John" McKenney of Lewiston.

The contest was broken out into categories such as Irish Night,  Scottish Night, American Night and Canadian Night, and all six of the New England states had representatives.

Wiseman became ill on the journey over and had to be hospitalized in Boston after he arrived.  Despite medical advice, he journeyed to Maine in a car accompanied by two nurses, one of whom stood next to him on stage as he gamely played tunes.  Right after the contest, Wiseman returned to the hospital in Boston until he recovered.

Skinner, considered one of the most prominent Scottish fiddlers and composers of his generation, told reporters that "I'm going to America to kill jazz" when he left from the Liverpool docks in March.  When he arrived at the competition, he learned that stratsphys were not permitted to be played, and in addition, he had issues with the pianist accompanying him.  He walked off the stage.

The eventual winner was 67 year old John Claffey of Boston, a professional musician who had played for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and was a member of the Boston Union of Musicians.  After the contest, Maine fiddler John McKenney publicly challenged Claffey to a rematch, stating that although the judges "tried to be fair," he would travel to Boston for a rematch and "let the people decide."

Back in his hospital bed, Wiseman sent his congratulations to the winner,  saying, "I'm glad than an Irishman won, even though he lives in Boston."

In the 1920s, Old-Time music and dancing were enthusiastically sponsored by automobile magnate Henry Ford as a way to highlight the traditional culture and values of his rural youth.

Researched and written by Michael Quinlin

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Massachusetts Senate Adopts Resolution for Independent Ireland, March 19, 1918

On March 19, 1918, the Massachusetts Senate adopted resolutions offered by Representative John L. Donovan of Boston:

Resolved. That the General Court of Massachusetts hereby requests that the Congress of the United States, if it shall be deemed expedient, shall recommend that the right of Ireland to be a free and Independent country be considered at any peace conference which may  be held at the termination of the present war; and be it further

Resolved. That copies of these resolutions be sent by the secretary of the Commonwealth to the presiding officers of both branches of Congress and to each Senator and Representative in Congress from This Commonwealth.

The resolution was submitted to the Congressional Record by Congressmen James A. Galvin, Peter F. Tague and George H. Tinkham and by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge on April 3, 1918.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

International Women's Day - Boston's Mary Boyle O’Reilly

Mary Boyle O’Reilly (1873-1939) was a social activist and reformer whose passion was protecting children and young women.  The daughter of Irish leader John Boyle O’Reilly, she was born and raised in Charlestown, and also lived in Jamaica Plain.

In 1901 O’Reilly and others established the Guild of St. Elizabeth, a Catholic settlement home for Children in Boston’s South End.  From 1907-1911 she was Massachusetts Prison Commissioner, and also a trustee of Boston’s  Children’s Institutions.

O’Reilly also used her writing to create change.  In 1910, disguised as a mill worker, she exposed the notorious ‘baby farms’ in New Hampshire.

In 1913 she became a foreign correspondent for the Newspaper Enterprise Association, reporting from Mexico and Russia, and heading up the London Office.  When World War I erupted, she entered Belgium disguised as a peasant to cover the action.  The Germans briefly imprisoned her and three other journalists, and upon her release she returned to Belgium in disguise.

O’Reilly was active in a variety of health and women’s organizations such as the Women's Educational and Industrial Union and the Tuberculosis Society, and she lectured extensively on Ireland and on her father’s work.

Her large collection of books, pamphlets and clippings on war propaganda are housed at the Boston Public Library.

Find out more about Boston's Irish history by visiting

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Boston Massacre Occured on March 5, 1770, Marking Severance of the British Empire

The Boston Massacre Monument
Tremont Street on the Boston Common
Near the Visitors Information Center and Parkman Bandstand
MBTA: Red Line to Park Street Station

Irishman Patrick Carr was one of five people shot to death in front of the Old State House on State Street on March 5, 1870 after a scuffle between colonists and British solders erupted into gunfire.  The Boston Massacre, as it became known, was the flash point for the American Revolution.  Daniel Webster said it marked "the severance of the British Empire" in the minds of the American colonists.

Little is known of Carr, except that he was an Irish sailor and likely a Roman Catholic.  Because he was Irish, he was alleged to have been a "mob expert" by prosecutor Samuel Adams during the trial of the British soldiers who opened fire.  Ironically the soldiers were part of an Irish regiment from Dublin, led by Captain Thomas Preston, an office of the 29th Regiment of Foot.

Carr lingered for over a week and was the last of the five to die.  On his deathbed, Carr admitted that the colonists had instigated the episode, thus preventing vigilante justice from occurring.  Carr was buried on St. Patrick's Day, March 17, at the Old Granary Burying Grounds, where all five victims are buried together.

In the 1880s an effort to build a Boston Massacre Memorial to honor the victims was led by John Boyle O'Reilly, Mayor Hugh O'Brien, Patrick Collins and other Irish Bostonians.  In spite of objections from certain Bostonians who considered the five victims rabble-rousers, the memorial was built and unveiled in November 1888.  O'Reilly recited a poem for the occasion entitled Crispus Attucks, a reference to the Black man who was among the five victims. 

The bronze monument, created by artist Robert Adolf Kraus, features a trampled British crown, chains of bondage, an American flag and an eagle.

Also of Interest:

The actual site of the massacre itself is in front of the Old State House at the corner of State and Washington Streets.  A medallion of cobblestones on the sidewalk marks the spot.  

Sunday, February 18, 2018

City Leaders Meet at Faneuil Hall to Discuss Famine Crisis in Ireland, February 18, 1847

"When the full extent of Ireland's potato crop failure became known in Boston, both the Irish and the Yankee Community spring into action.  On February 7, 1847 Bishop John Fitzpatrick gave an emotionally-charged sermon from the pulpit of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Parish priests followed suit.  By the end of the month the Boston Archdiocese had raised $20,000 for Ireland.  Workmen were sending in $5 bills and school children were giving over their paltry savings for this urgent desperate cause.

"On February 18, 1847, Boston's city officials and business leaders held a meeting at Faneuil Hall to discuss the growing crisis of the famine in Ireland.  Over 4,000 people attended.

"Harvard President Edward Everett and Boston Mayor JosiahQuincy, Jr., along with the city's leading merchants, made a passionate appeal to aid the starving people of Ireland.  They formedd the New England Relief Committee, which raised more than $150,000 in three weeks to purchase supplies. 

"Four days later, Robert Bennett Forbes, a wealthy China trade merchant from Milton petitioned Congress for the loan of a naval ship to bring supplies to the people of Ireland.  Permission was granted and the USS Jamestownthan anchored at the Charlestown Navy Yard,  was designated to Boston while the USS methadone Ian was given over to Captain George Takei for a similar Enterprise in New York."

Find out more about Boston's Irish history by visiting

Friday, January 5, 2018

January 5, 1885, Hugh O'Brien becomes first Irish-born Mayor of Boston

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 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; for information on ongoing cultural activities,

(Information on Hugh O'Brien taken from Irish Boston, 2nd edition, by Michael Quinlin, published in 2013 by Globe Pequot Press.)