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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

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Irish American Song & Dance Man George M. Cohan Born on July 3, 1878

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 in 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 resonnated 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 1, 2020

Painter John S. Copley Born in Boston, 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.

John's parents, Richard Copley and Mary Singleton from County Clare, were married in County Limerick before emigrating to Boston. Right after their son John was born, Richard Copley traveled to  the West Indies and died shortly thereafter, leaving John’s mother to raise him as a widow.  She worked at a shop in Boston that sold tobacco close to Boston Harbor. 

In 1747 Mary S. Copley married Peter Pelham, a colonial artist and an original member of the Charitable Irish Society formed in 1737. It was Pelham who helped to nurture his stepson John's talent, and by age twenty Copley had 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 seized the opportunity to paint portraits of some of the leading colonists of the 18th century, including  George Washington, John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. 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. 

His half-brother Henry Pelham was also a gifted artist.

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.

A loyalist by persuasion, Copley’s life in Boston was disrupted by the growing unrest between the colonists and the British.  As a result,  Copley moved to Italy in 1774 to study Italian art, then the following year moved his family to London, according to MassMoments

Copley always wanted to return to Boston, but never did. He died in London in 1815.  

His name lives on in Boston. 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.  Also, Copley’s original home on Beacon Street has a plaque in his honor.

Learn more about Boston's Irish history at

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Irish 9th Regiment of Massachusetts Presented Flag to Governor Andrew in June 1861

An estimated 150,000 Irish fought on the Union side in the American Civil War, including two Irish regiments from Massachusetts: the Ninth Regiment of Infantry, Massachusetts Volunteers and the 28th Irish Massachusetts Regiment.

The 9th Regiment's flag was first publicly displayed on June 25, 1861 when Colonel Thomas Cass made a formal visit to Governor Andrew to receive the state flag.  The Ninth Regiment sported an Irish flag made of green silk, with a scroll inscribed in gold that read: "Thy sons by adoption; they firm supporters and defenders from duty, affection and choice."

On June 30, 1861, the 9th arrived in Washington D.C., where they were welcomed by President Abraham Lincoln.

The Ninth Regiment saw extensive battlefield action in Virginia and Pennsylvania.  When Colonel Cass was mortally wounded at the Battle of Malvern Hill in Virginia in 1862, he was replaced by Colonel Patrick R.Guiney of Tipperary, who continued to distinguish the Regiment for its ability and courage.  Guiney himself was wounded in battle but survived.

During the Spanish-American War of 1898 the Ninth Regiment also saw action in Cuba.  The flag for that campaign was presented to the Regiment by the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) of Suffolk County.  It carried that flag during the decisive Battle of San Juan Hill and the siege of Santiago, which the American forces won.  The Ninth Regiment sustained many casualties, not on the battlefield but from malaria and other tropical diseases contracted in the jungle.  Among the members of the 9th regiment were James Brendan Connolly, Olympic medalist and writer (see page__) and Lawrence Logan of Ballygar, Galway, and his son Edward J. Logan (see page)

The 28th Massachusetts Regiment, also composed of Irish troops, was officially mustered into service on New Years Eve, 1861, and carried four Irish flags during its service.  When the Regiment joined forces with the Irish Brigade in December 1862, Brigader General Thomas Meagher presented the regiment with an Irish flag similar to the New York Irish regiments he was commanding. Known as the Faugh au Ballaghs (Irish for 'Clear the Way'), the 28th had several slogans on its flags, including 'They shall never retreat from the charge of lances" and a second, placed in a scroll in an American eagle's mouth that read "Fostered under they wing we will die in they defense."

Today facsimiles of the flags are on display at Memorial Hall, the main rotunda of the State House, part of a 350 flag collection dating from the Revolutionary War to the present.  The actual flags are in an environmentally controlled storage space in the State House, and can be viewed by special appointment.

FInd more information about Boston's history by visiting

Monday, June 29, 2020

President John F. Kennedy Bids Farewell to Ireland, June 29, 1963

A high point of President John F. Kennedy’s time in office was his official visit to Ireland on June 26-29, 1963.

The visit captured the world’s imagination and shone a spotlight on the new Republic of Ireland. The visit was a triumphant, emotionally charged promenade in which the entire population of Ireland seemed to participate. Kennedy’s motorcade passed regally through the streets of Dublin, Cork, and Galway as thousands of proud Irish cheered him with tears of joy in their eyes, and the twin flags of Ireland and the United States waved madly for him.

The President’s eight great-grandparents all migrated to Boston, Massachusetts during the Potato Famine of the late 1840’s, seeking to take advantage of the economic opportunity offered in America. By the end of the century, both of President Kennedy’s grandfathers had become successful Boston politicians. Patrick J. Kennedy was a tavern owner and later a banker who served in both Houses of the Massachusetts Legislature and was the political "boss” of a ward in Boston. John F. ("Honey Fitz") Fitzgerald, a colorful politician who served in the Massachusetts State Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, was also mayor of Boston for three terms.

He visited the modest town of New Ross, Wexford, which twenty-five-year-old Patrick Kennedy had left in 1848 on a ship bound for Boston. 

“When my great grandfather left here to become a cooper in East Boston, he carried nothing with him except two things: a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty. I am glad to say that all of his great-grandchildren have valued that inheritance.”

In Limerick, he said,“This is not the land of my birth, but it is the land for which I hold the greatest affection, and I will certainly come back in the springtime.”

On his final appearance in Galway before departing for home, President Kennedy said, “You send us home covered with gifts, which we can barely carry, but most of all you send us home with the warmest memories of you and your country.”

Learn more about President Kennedy's by visiting the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum

Read more about JFK's Irish ancestry here.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Boston Irish Leader John Boyle O'Reilly Born on June 28, 1844

John Boyle O'Reilly, considered one of Boston’s true leaders in speaking, writing and campaigning for human rights, oppressed people and injustice, was born on June 28, 1844 in County Meath, Ireland. 

Conscripted into the British Army as a young man, O'Reilly was 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.  

When he arrived in Boston in 1870, he was infatuated by the possibilities of democracy and liberty.   He spent the next twenty years of his life, until his death in 1890, speaking out on behalf of Irish, Blacks, Native Americans, Jews, Chinese and other beleaguered groups trying to make their way in America.

As editor and then owner of The Pilot, the leading Irish Catholic paper in America, O’Reilly used 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 Jews and Chinese, insisting that they get the same privileges as 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.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Boston's Irish Famine Memorial Unveiled on June 28, 1998

The Boston Irish Famine Memorial was unveiled on Sunday, June 28, 1998, before 7,000 people, including the governor of Massachusetts, mayor of Boston and government officials from Ireland.  A Vietnamese and Rwandan were among the speakers of the day, an acknowledgment of modern day refugees who continue to seek solace in Boston.

The Memorial by artist Robert Shure juxtaposes an Irish family starving in Ireland with another Irish family striving for success in America.   Eight narrative plaques encircling the statues tell the story of the famine and the Irish triumph in America.

The $1 million memorial park commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Irish Famine (1845-49), during which one million people died of starvation or disease and nearly two million fled Ireland to avoid death.  Over 100,000 Irish refugees arrived in Boston during this time, transforming the city.

Their arrival revealed deep-seeded hostility among some Bostonians, prompting an anti-immigrant nativist movement in the 1850s known as the Know Nothing Party.  "No Irish Need Apply" signs were regularly posted in newspapers and in store windows.  There were reports of Irish families sleeping in the bushes on Boston Common, or dying of typhus in basement apartments along Broad Street.

Unjust political reigns and economic instability in Ireland prompted a steady stream of Irish emigrants to Boston and other parts of North America.  The tribulations of the Famine generation were ultimately vindicated by the success of Irish-Americans, culminating in the election of President John F. Kennedy in 1960, whose eight great grandparents all left Ireland during the Famine years to find a better life in Boston.

Located at the corner of Washington and School Streets in downtown Boston, across from the Old South Meeting House.  The Memorial is along the city's Freedom Trail and is part of Boston's Irish Heritage Trail, a self-guided walk covering over 300 years of Boston Irish history.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

In June 1872, Boston Held the World Peace Jubilee with 22,000 Musicians & Singers

In the summer of 1872, Boston staged the largest concert in history at that time, featuring over 2,000 musicians and 20,000 singers, performing as soloists, in various ensembles and also en masse, to convey the joy, comfort and inspiration that music can bring.

The World Peace Jubilee and International Music Festival ran from June 17 through July 4, 1872, housed in a temporary coliseum that was built in what is now Copley Square in Boston’s Back Bay.  In addition to the 22,000 performers, the stadium held 60,000 spectators, and it was filled to capacity on many of the 18 days in which the Jubilee ran.

The Jubilee was created by Irish immigrant Patrick S. Gilmore, a talented cornet player, band leader and impresario who had become the best known musician in America.  Gilmore had been Band Master for the Union Army during the Civil War and is credited with penning the song, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, a war anthem still played today.  He had staged an earlier National Peace Jubilee in 1869 that featured 10,000 singers and 1,000 musicians. 

Among the highlights of the 1872 Jubilee: 

• Johann Strauss, the Austrian waltz king, made his American debut at the Jubilee, having met Gilmore in Vienna the previous summer. Strauss conducted his famous waltz, the Beautiful Blue Danube, to thunderous applause, and also composed a Jubilee Waltz especially for the occasion, dedicated to Gilmore. 

• The Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group of Black college students from Fisk University in Nashville, performed at the Jubilee, “sending the audience into a rapture of boisterous enthusiasm” for its rendition of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord. President Grant invited them to perform at the White House later that year, helping to launch a singing ensemble that still flourishes today. 

• The unlikely stars of the Jubilee were the 100 Boston firemen, dressed resplendent in red shirts and white suspenders, whose job it was to hammer onto 100 anvils as part of the chorus to Verdi’s Il Trovatore (The Troubadour). As the firemen hammered in unison, cannons outside the coliseum were firing and all of Boston’s church bells were ringing as the orchestra reached a crescendo.

The Irish Music Archives  at Boston College's John J. Burns Library holds the Michael Cummings Collection of P.S. Gilmore Materials, donated by the late Gilmore scholar Michael Cummings

Learn more about Irish heritage in Boston by visiting  Or visit for year round details on Boston's Irish community. 

For more on the history of Boston's Irish community and about P.S. Gilmore, read Irish Boston: A Colorful Look at Boston's Lively Irish Past, published by Globe Pequot Press.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The New England Irish Connections to Bunker Hill

Bunker Hill Day is celebrated each June 17 in Boston, to mark the famous battle of June 17, 1775 between American colonists and British troops.  The Bunker Hill Monument was built to recognize the sacrifice of the colonists fighting against British rule.

The British may have won the Battle of Bunker Hill, but the battle marked the point where "British tyranny ended and American liberty began."  The 140 Americans who died at Bunker Hill included English, Scots, Irish, Native Americans and African Americans, a melting pot of future citizens of the nation. 

Of the New England militiamen who rushed to Charlestown to defend Boston Harbor, 176 were Irish-born, and hundreds more were born of Irish parents.  Historian Michael J. O'Brien notes there were seven Irish officers and dozens of Irish-American officers, including Colonel John Stark of New Hampshire, one of the heroes of the day-long conflict.  Major Andrew McClary of Epson, New Hampshire, whose parents were from Tyrone, was killed at the very end of the battle after fighting bravely throughout the day.  Also fighting that day was Captain Ebenezer Sullivan, whose brothers James would become governor of Massachusetts and John, a general in Washington's Army, would force English troops to evacuate Boston on March 17, 1776. 

In 1794 a small memorial was created, and in 1823 the Bunker Hill Memorial Association was formed to raise funds for a much larger memorial.  On June 17, 1825 Revolutionary War hero Marquis De Lafayette laid the cornerstone, while Daniel Webster gave the oration.  The 221 foot monument, with a 30 foot base, cost $100,000 to build, and was formally unveiled on Saturday, June 17, 1843.  US President Zachary Tyler and his cabinet attended the ceremony, and again Webster gave the formal address.  

On June 17, 1889, the Memorial Tablets were unveiled at nearby Winthrop Square, listing the names of the men who fought at Bunker Hill.    The Honorable John R. Murphy of Charlestown gave the oration that day. 

In the 19th century, Charlestown  became one of Boston's most distinctly Irish neighborhoods, with a strong contingent of families who settled here from Donegal.  In 1832, the Catholic Church opened the Bunker Hill Catholic Cemetery, against the wishes of the town's selectmen, in order to bury two Catholic children who had died. 

On June 30, 1919, Ireland's leader Eamon De Valera visited the Bunker Hill Monument, where he laid a wreath.  Then he wrote on a piece of paper the date and the words of George Washington when he heard the Battle of Bunker Hill had taken place: "The liberties of my country are safe."  DeValera signed it and placed it on the wreath, wrote the New York Times.

Bunker Hill Monument in Monument Square and the Bunker Hill Memorial TabletsWinthrop Square, Charlestown are both located on Boston's Irish Heritage Trail.

Find out more about Bunker Hill Monument at

Monday, June 8, 2020

Mayo Gaelic Football Team Plays Massachusetts All-Stars at Fenway Park, June 6, 1937

The acclaimed Mayo Football Club visited Boston to play against the Massachusetts All Stars at Fenway Park on June 6, 1937.

The Massachusetts team, managed by Mike McKeown, consisted of the best players from the local Boston teams.

On game day, over 6,000 fans were in the stands, to witness Mayo easily defeating the Massachusetts team by a score of 17-8. 

Wrote The Boston Globe’s sports reporter Victor O. Jones, “I’ve looked upon some great athletes and some great teams in my day, but I’ve yet to see a finer body of men than those who wore the Green and Red of Mayo yesterday. 

"Most of them were giants - tall, broad-shouldered, barrel-chested and thick-limbed - but their physical qualifications didn’t stop there.  They were also fast, amazingly so, for such large men, rugged and apparently tireless.  Skillful too, they were nimble with their hands and feet in a game which requires not only power and speed but also fitness."

Jones cited three Mayo players in particular, Paddy McClair, Gerald Courell and Purty Kelly as the stars of the Mayomen, while the Massachusetts players praised included Ned Clancy and Bobby Thompson.  

Celebrity guests at the match included famed wrestlers  Danno O’Mahoney and Steve Casey.

In the days leading up to the match, the team visited the Massachusetts State House, where Lt. Governor Francis Kelly welcomed them, then over to Boston City Hall, where they were well received by Mayor Fred Mansfield.  Afterwards, some of the players went to see the Boston Braves play the Pittsburgh Pirates, while others “visited Suffolk Downs and took a whirl on the ponies,”  according to George Collins of The Boston Globe.  

The night before the match, the team saw “Parnell” at Loew’s State Theatre, then went to Hibernian Hall in Roxbury to meet with the local Mayo Association.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

On June 1, 1847, six year old Irish girl is the first refugee to die at Boston's Deer Island Quarantine Hospital

On June 1, 1847, Mary Nelson became the first Irish immigrant to die at the new quarantine hospital at Deer Island.  She died of typhus fever and was six years old.

A few days earlier, on May 27, city officials had opened the quarantine station on the island to monitor the ships coming from Ireland and Britain filled with refugees who were sick or dying from a variety of diseases, ranging from typhus fever and consumption to cholera and convulsions.  The Irish were fleeing the devastation on successive potato crop failures that triggered poverty and disease, conditions that were exacerbated by the failure of the British overseers of Ireland to address the problems.

The first ship to be placed in quarantine was the Brig John Clifford from Galway.  It arrived in Boston on May 27, and the first patients were taken to the Deer Island Hospital on May 29, 1847, according to Dr. John McColgan, archivist for the City of Boston.  By the end of the week more than 100 patients were hospitalized.

Prior to the opening of the quarantine station that month, sick passengers arriving from Ireland were being allowed to come into Boston, as long as the head tax was being paid by the ship masters.  Many of the passengers became sick within a few days of arriving and ended up at the Alms House in South Boston, which quickly experience an outbreak of death among the patients.  In the last week of May, the total number of patients at the Almshouse was 812, "of whom 94 were admitted during the present week.  There have been 13 deaths during the same period and 53 discharged," according to an item in the Boston Traveler.

Commenting on the new hospital at Deer Island, a local nativist newspaper called American Signal wrote, "Quite a move of our wise city fathers, after they have allowed the city to be filled with pestilence, pauperism and crime.  It is like shutting the barn door after the horse is stolen."

Because of its proximity to sea air and wind, and its distance from the crowded tenements of Boston’s ghettoes, the Deer Island Hospital proved beneficial for the Irish who had contracted typhus, often called ship fever, and other airborne diseases.

The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, in its June 16, 1847 issue, wrote that “bad food, and the huddling together of men, women and children in the hold of a ship for weeks, engender the disease which is brought to our shores….The only efficient remedy, certainly the first source of relief, is a fresh atmospheric exposure.” 

From June 1847 to December 1849, 4,816 people were admitted to the hospital.  Of these, 4,069 were ill upon their arrival and 759 died on the island during this time. 

The idea for an Irish Memorial was first raised in the 1990s when the bones of interred Irish were inadvertently uncovered during construction of the region's wastewater treatment facility.  The Mass Water Resources Authority (MWRA) worked with local Irish-American organizations and Boston historians to find a fitting memorial to the Famine generation, as well as American Indians who were buried here during the King Phillips War in 1676.

In June 1997, a temporary Celtic cross was placed on Deer Island as part of a worldwide commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Irish Famine, and plans were set in motion to place a permanent memorial on the island.

Deer Island Irish Memorial, May 25, 2019

Finally, on May 25, 2019, thanks to the volunteer efforts of local residents and Irish-American leaders along with officials from the MWRA, a permanent Irish memorial was unveiled at Deer Island to the memory of those Irish who died and perished on the island during the Famine years.  The ceremony was attended by city officials, Catholic clergy, and by several hundred local residents and representatives from Irish-American organizations.  

A copy of the Deer Island Death/Burial Registry between 1847 and 1850 is kept at the City of Boston Archives

The Deer Island Irish Memorial is part of Boston's Irish Heritage Trail.  See information about visiting Deer Island here.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Shaw Memorial Unveiled in Boston on May 31, 1897

Boston’s most iconic public monument, the Shaw Memorial, was officially unveiled on May 31, 1897.  The homage to the 54th Black Infantry Regiment of Boston is considered one of America’s most significant Civil War memorials.   It was the first public monument to accurately depict black soldiers in military uniform.

The memorial was created by immigrant Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), considered by many to be America’s greatest sculptor of the 19th century.  The memorial was unveiled on Memorial Day, located near the site where Civil War regiments mustered on Boston Common before going off to war.

Notable guests at the ceremony included acclaimed Black inventor and leader Booker T. Washington, philosopher and writer William James, along with veterans of the 54th Regiment and the families of the soldiers.  

It took Saint-Gaudens fourteen years to complete the memorial, partly because there was an early disagreement within the memorial commission about how the piece should look, but also because  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.  He also spent considerable time wrangling with the commission about the exact wording of the inscriptions.

Of the delay, Saint Gaudens wrote, “My own delay I excuse on the ground that a sculptor’s work endures for so long that it is next to a crime for him to neglect to do everything that lies in his power  to execute a result that will not be a disgrace….A poor picture goes into the garret, books are forgotten, but the bronze remains, to amuse or shame the populace.”

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.

The family emigrated to Boston in September 1848, when Augustus was six months old.  They stayed here for a while and then moved to New York, where Augustus’ brother and fellow-sculptor Louis was born.  

Augustus spent time around Boston, since his wife's family lived in Roxbury and he had numerous commissions here.  He was highly regarded by Boston's cultural leaders like architect H. H. Richardson, who recommended him for the Shaw Memorial, and Charles McKim, the architect who designed the stone monument in which the bronze statue is placed.

Saint Gaudens describes the day of the unveiling in his memoir, Reminiscences, written with his son Homer. 

“At the unveiling there stood before the relief sixty-five of those veterans.  Some of the officers were clad in the uniforms they had worn during the Civil War, and rode on horseback.  But the negro troops…came in their time-worn frock-coats, coats used only on great occasions.  Many of them were bent and crippled, many with white heads, some with bouquets, and, the inevitable humorous touch, one with a carpet-bag.”

When the memorial was unveiled, Augustus recalled that, “the salute boomed from the cannons on the Common, and was answered by others in the harbor, and the head of the procession began to march by.  The impression of those old soldiers, passing the very spot where they left for the war so many years before, thrills me even as I write these words.  They faced and saluted the relief, with the music playing “John Brown’s Body,” a recall of what I had heard and see thirty years before from my cameo-cutter’s window.  They seemed as if returning from the war, the troops of bronze marching in the opposite direction, the direction in which they had left for the front, and the young men there represented now showing these veterans the vigor and hope of youth.  It was a consecration.”

Find more details of the Shaw Memorial unveiling at Mass Moments, published by Mass Humanities

The Shaw Memorial is located along Boston's Black Heritage Trail and Irish Heritage Trail.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Charlestown Selectmen Refuse to Bury Catholic Children in the Town, 1832

Photo by Stephen O'Neill

"On May 19, 1832, Boston's Catholic Bishop, Benedict Fenwick attempted to bury two Boston children, three-year-old Florence Driscoll, who died from teething, and three-month-old James Kinsley, who died from infantile disease, at the recently opened Bunker Hill Catholic Cemetery in the town of Charlestown, Massachusetts, right across the bridge from Boston.

"The obligation to make the request in writing was unusual, but the town selectman had passed a ruling the previous November, in an effort to keep Irish Catholics from being buried in Charlestown. The townsfolk feared that the Irish would bring religious superstitions and disease to their town. In the nineteenth century the entire world was worried about the spread of diseases.

"Fenwick’s request to bury the children was denied the same day it was written by Selectman Nathan Austin, who stated, “The object of the town in adopting the rule was to prevent the bringing of the dead from the surrounding towns and country. . . . We feel constrained from a sense of duty to decline giving the permission you request.”

"Bishop Fenwick decided he would test the validity of the state ruling and went ahead and buried the children without the town’s permission. The matter went to a higher court, and ultimately the church was recognized as having the right to bury its dead on its own property."

- Except from Irish Boston, 2nd edition, 

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Boston Olympians Are Celebrated at Faneuil Hall in May 1896

The Boston athletes who triumphed in the first Modern Olympics in Athens, Greece were feted by an enthusiastic crowd of family, friends and supporters with a reception in their honor at Faneuil Hall, followed by a banquet at the Vendrome Hotel on May 13, 1896.

Local poet Henry O'Meara wrote a special tribute, "To Our Laureled Sons," which was recited and later sung by Irish tenor Joseph White.

The team's manager was John Graham, and the track and field athletes were Thomas E. BurkeEllery H. ClarkThomas P. CurtisW.W. Hoyt  and Arthur Blake, representing the Boston Athletic Association; and James Brendan Connolly, representing the Suffolk Athletic Club in South Boston.  Connolly had remained in Europe after the Olympics and was not at the celebration.

Attending the banquet with other dignitaries were Governor Roger Wolcott and Boston Mayor Josiah Quincy, according to a story in the Boston Globe.

For more information, read Irish Boston: A Lively Look at Boston's Colorful Irish Past.
Posted by Boston Irish Tourism Association.