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Friday, August 10, 2018

John Boyle O'Reilly - Boston's Champion of the Downtrodden

John Boyle O'Reilly, the famous Irish rebel who lived in Boston from 1870 until his death, died suddenly at his home in Hull, Massachusetts on August 10, 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.  He 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-Americas" 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. 

Rockport Music Presents Della Mae in Concert on August 15

Rockport Music presents the Nashville-based string band Della Mae at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport on Wednesday, August 15, 2018.  Tickets are available online

Since forming in Boston in 2009, Della Mae was named IBMA’s Emerging Artists of the Year in 2013, GRAMMY Nominees in 2014 for their debut album on Rounder Records, named among Rolling Stone’s “10 bands to watch for in 2015.” The band has traveled with the US State Department to over 18 countries spreading peace and understanding through music. 

For year round details on Irish, Celtic and folk music in New England, visit

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Naval Hero Jeremiah O'Brien Honored At Massachusetts State House

Plaque to Jeremiah O'Brian at Massachusetts State House

Jeremiah O'Brien (1744-1818) created the "first act of Colonial piracy" in the Revolutionary War, when he, his four brothers and townsmen led an attack on the British cutter Margaretta on June 12, 1775 at Machias, Maine, defeating the ship and taking its munitions as bounty.  Maine was part of the Massachusetts Colony until 1820. 

The town of Machias had apparently put up a Liberty Pole in town after hearing about the battle of Lexington in April 1775.  When the Margaretta sailed into the harbor, the captain warned the townspeople that the pole must come down, or the ship would fire upon the town. The townspeople voted to leave the  pole intact, and to instead capture the Margaretta. Two American ships, the Unity and the Falmouth Packet, were dispatched to fight the battle. 

According to author Charles Lucey, "Fighting was furious," with both sides "determined to conquer or die."  The colonists under O'Brien "used axes and pitchforks" when the battle was joined at close quarters.  

In August 1775 the Massachusetts Provincial Congress declared, "Jeremiah O'Brien is hereby commissioned as commander of the armed schooner Diligent and the sloop Machias Liberty, for the purpose of guarding the sea coast, for the sum of 160 pounds lawful money of this Colony of supplying the men with provision s and ammunition."  Subsequently, the O'Brien brothers engaged in numerous battles with English ships of along the coast from Newburyport to Maine.

The head of the family was Morris O'Brien, who came from Ireland in 1740 and settled in Kittery, Maine, according to the US Congressional Record. He and his wife Mary had six boys, of which Jeremiah was the eldest. The family ran a lumber mill in Machias.

In 1937 a plaque created by John Paramino was placed at the Massachusetts State House commemorating O'Brien's "distinguished services for winning the first navel engagement in the War of the Revolution and of his subsequent exploits in said war as the first regularly commissioned naval officer  and commander of the Revolutionary Navy of Massachusetts."  It is located on the staircase next to the Hall of Flags. 

Five ships in the United States Navy have been named USS O'Brien.  During World War II, the United States liberty ship SS Jeremiah O'Brien was named in his honor.

The Massachusetts State House is one of the 20 stops along Boston's Irish Heritage Trail.

For year round information on Irish activities in New England, visit

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Greater Boston Feis, July 30, 1950, draws 15,000 spectators to Malden Stadium

Over 15,000 spectators attend the Greater Boston Feis at Malden Municipal Stadium in Malden, Massachusetts on Sunday, July 30, 1950.  It was part of a cultural rekindling of Irish traditions taking place in Ireland and Diaspora communities after World War II, and continued annually in greater Boston throughout the 1950s.

The bilingual program book, printed in English and Irish, was organized by the Central Council of Irish County Clubs, Inc, with Richard J. Cardinal Cushing, Archbishop of Boston, listed as the event’s patron.

Over 1,500 contestants participated in 72 different events, ranging from competitions in accordion, violin, harp, piano and Irish war pipes.  Among the winners were Joe Derrane of Roxbury, who won first for senior accordion solo, with Joseph Joyce of Jamaica Plain and Tom Senier of Dorchester tied for second place.  Paul Derrane, Joe’s younger brother, took first place for junior accordion solo and John F. Conroy of Dorchester won second in the intermediate accordion category.

Frank Neylon of Cambridge took first in the senior flute solo, and Veronica Fay took first in senior piano solo.  Joyce Berry of Hingham took first in solo harp playing, and Jane Nash of Springfield took first for Irish war (uilleann) pipe solo.

The team of Mary Murphy, Lorraine Murphy, Jean Costello and Mary Conroy took first in the senior four-hand reel competition.

In addition, there were matches in Gaelic football and Irish hurling, set dancing and step dancing competitions, Gaelic recitations and storytelling and essay contests on the topic of “Commodore John Barry, Fatherof the American Navy.”

The content of the program book was patriotic and nationalistic. The Feis was dedicated to Dr. Douglas Hyde, co-founder of the Gaelic League and President of Ireland, “who awakened a slumbering, almost defeated people to a consciousness of the power and beauty of their language and their ancient culture.  He opened up new vistas of freedom of thought and developed fresh concepts of political freedom.”   A suggested reading list in the program included works by Irish rebels General Tom Barry and Ernie O’Malley.

The competition winners received their trophies and medals at a special ceremony at the Boston Latin School on September 13, 1950.

In 1951, the Greater Boston Feis moved to a larger venue at Suffolk Downs Racetrack in East Boston. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

Mayor Walsh & Community Leaders Announce Restoration of Boston's Shaw Memorial

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh was joined today by the National Park ServiceBoston Parks & Recreation DepartmentFriends of the Public Garden and Museum of African American History officials to formalize a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to collaboratively restore the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial, known as the Shaw Memorial.

Located at the corner of Beacon and Park Streets, across from the Massachusetts State House, the memorial pays tribute to the 54th Black Regiment of soldiers who fought valiantly in the American Civil War.  This work captures the humanity, nobility and unfettered idealism of war in the depiction of the foot soldiers who fought for freedom from slavery.  

Mayor Walsh called the memorial, “one of the most important pieces of art in the United States of America and we are deeply proud to have that piece here in the city of Boston.  It reminds us of what is possible in our city when we live by our highest ideals.”

The sculptor was Augustus Saint Gaudens, who was born in DublinIreland in 1848 to a French father and Irish mother.  At age six months, Augustus fled with his family to escape the Irish Famine and landed at Boston Harbor in October 1848.  The family eventually moved to New York City, and Augustus later moved to Paris where he studied the works of master sculptors.

Considered the premier American sculptor of his generation, Saint Gaudens created the Admiral David Farragut statue in South Boston, hailed as “the beginning of the American renaissance” in sculpture; statues of Abraham Lincoln (standing and sitting) in Chicago; and General William Sherman's stunning memorial at the entrance to New York City’s Central Park. He also created the Charles Stuart Parnell Statue in his native city of Dublin

The Shaw Memorial is on the Black Heritage Trail and on the Irish Heritage Trail

Read more about Irish immigrant sculptors who came to America in the 19th century, and other profiles about Boston's Irish history

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.)