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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 IrishHeritageTrail.com.