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Saturday, March 28, 2020

On March 28, 1847, USS Jamestown Leaves Charlestown Navy Yard on Humanitarian Mission to Help Ireland

On March 28, 1847, the USS Jamestown set sail from Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston Harbor on a humanitarian mission to Ireland, carrying 800 tons of supplies for the victims of the Irish Famine.

The mission was led by Captain Robert Bennet Forbes, a wealthy sea merchant living in Milton, MA.  With Forbes on the journey were 38 crew members who had signed on to help.  In February, Forbes had petitioned the US Congress for the loan of a naval ship to bring supplies, and permission to use the USS Jamestown had been granted.

As the boat left the harbor on the morning of March 28, crowds lined the wharf and the shores, cheering as the ship headed out to open seas. The fifteen day voyage faced foul weather and rain, sleet, wind and fog.  The ship landed in Queenstown (now Cobh), County Cork on April 12, 1847.  

Back in Boston, the newspapers enthusiastically reported on the trip, failing to note the cruel irony that became apparent when the provincial rulers greeted the crew with an invitation to a sumptuous dinner of the finest food and beverage.  Forbes and his crew found this banquet most embarrassing, however, since Irish citizens lay dying in the streets nearby.

Forbes was more interested in seeing firsthand the suffering everyone had heard so much about.  He was escorted around Cork by Father Teobald Mathew, the famous temperance priest.  Forbes later described the event:  "It was the valley of death and pestilence itself.  I would gladly forget, if I could, the scenes I witnessed."

Forbes was overwhelmed by the plight of the dying, and when he returned home, arriving in the Charlestown Navy Yard on May 16, 1847, he immediately began organizing a second voyage on the USS Macedonian, another ship that Congress supplied for relief of the Irish Famine victims. 

But the USS Jamestown voyage captured the world's imagination.  Reverend R.C. Waterson later wrote, "I consider the mission of the Jamestown as one of the grandest events in the history of our country.  A ship-of-war changed into an angel of mercy, departing on no errand of death, but with the bread of life to an unfortunate and perishing people."

Saturday, March 21, 2020

In March, 1920, State Senator John J. Walsh Rebukes Ulster Loyalists for Spreading Propaganda about Irish Independence

On March 22, 1920, Massachusetts State Senator John J. Walsh offered up a stinging rebuke to a group of Loyalists from Ulster who were seeking to create a permanent effort in the United States "for the avowed purpose of frustrating the right of the people of Ireland to determine the form of government under which they shall live."

The group, known as the Ulster Delegation Reception Committee, came to the U.S. in winter 1920 to dissuade Americans from contributing funds to an Irish Bond campaign spearheaded by Irish leader Eamon de Valera, in an effort to create an Irish Republic separate from Great Britain.

de Valera's success prompted the Ulstermen, who were loyal to the union with Britain, to launch a propaganda campaign against the quest for Irish independence.

State Senator Walsh's order read:

Senator Walsh was born in Dublin in 1871 and emigrated to Boston with his family in 1876, when he was five years old.  He attended Boston University Law School and worked for a time with Boston Irish leader Patrick Collins.  In 1920, Walsh was the democratic nominee for the Governor of Massachusetts, which he lost in the general election to Republican nominee Channing H. Cox.

The efforts by the Loyalist Coalition may have have the opposite effect, according to the Fall River Globe, which wrote in February 26, 1920:

"The presence of the Ulster delegation of clergymen in this country in opposition to the bond campaign will have the means of making the campaign more successful than it otherwise would have been."

The New Bedford Standard wrote about the Loyalist propagandists:

"But even if it could be demonstrated that British rule in Ireland was advantageous to the Irish, it would be of slight consequences against the fact that the Irish who live under that rule want to substitute their own."

By November, 1920, over $5 million had been pledged in the U.S., mainly in New York and Massachusetts.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Why Boston Celebrate Evacuation Day & St. Patrick’s Day on March 17

One of the biggest holidays in Boston each year occurs on March 17, an historical anniversary that is especially cherished by the Irish-American community here.

On March 17, 1776 American colonists compelled the British to begin evacuating Boston Harbor by aiming cannons on the British fleet from the highest hill in Boston, Dorchester Heights.

The British presence in Boston began in October, 1768, when 4,000 British troops arrived in Boston after local citizens objected to a series of British taxes on the residents.  Their presence led to a number of physical confrontations, starting with the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770, when five Bostonians - including Irishman Patrick Carr -  were shot dead by British soldiers.

The  tension escalated and came to a head in April 1775 during the Battles of Lexington and Concord, followed by the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775.

Major General Henry Knox, whose parents came from Ireland, hatched a plan to force the British out of Boston.  The 25 year old Bostonian suggested to General George Washington that the colonial troops retrieve the cannons that had been captured at Fort Ticonderoga in New York, and  wheel them 300 miles to Boston. 

His plan was to position the cannons atop Dorchester Heights in South Boston and aim them at the British fleet in Boston Harbor.

Knox set off with a group of men and captured 59 cannons in December and dragged them across the frozen landscape of western Massachusetts, finally arriving in Cambridge on January 24 to deliver them to General Washington.   

Dubliner James Boies set up the fortification on Dorchester Heights.  General John Sullivan was appointed by George Washington to be officer of the day.  The password that day was Boston, the countersign St. Patrick. 

The show of force that compelled the evacuation of Boston on March 20 was a turning point in the war.  March 17 is now celebrated as Evacuation Day in Boston and is an official holiday in Suffolk County.  Coincidentally it is the same day as St. Patrick's Day, Ireland's national holiday. 

The Dorchester Heights Memorial at G Street in South Boston was dedicated in 1902 and is managed by the National Park Service.  A Plaque at the entrance reads "As the final act of an eleven month siege, the Continental Army occupied these heights and forced the evacuation of British troops from Boston on March 17, 1776 - General George Washington's first victory in the American Revolution."

Read the full story on Henry Knox in Mass Moments.

Knox’s father and uncles were original members of the Charitable Irish Society, formed in 1737 to help other Irish immigrants settle in Boston.  A bookseller by trade, Knox joined the Society in 1772, when he was 22 years old.  He also became a member of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in Philadelphia.  

Knox died in Thomaston, Maine in 1806, where today the Henry Knox Museum is located.

For more about Boston Irish history, visit

Sunday, March 15, 2020

St. Augustine's, Boston's first Catholic Chapel & Burying Ground, opened in Southie in 1818

St. Augustine's cemetery, at the corner of Dorchester Street and West Sixth Street, became the first Catholic burying ground in New England. 

The cemetery and chapel was erected by Rev. Philip Lariscy, an Augustinian friar, born in County Kilkenny in 1782.  It was named for Saint Augustine of Hippo, founder of the religious order.   Lariscy was said to be the first priest in Boston to hear confessions in Irish.  

As Irish and French Catholics continued to settle in Boston in the early 19th century, the need for a dedicated Catholic cemetery had became apparent.  In November 1818 the Board of Health of the Town of Boston gave "that group of Christians known as Roman Catholics" permission to erect their own cemetery on the South Boston peninsula. 

The following year, in 1819, a mortuary chapel was built and mass was said there for the growing Irish community settling in South Boston. 

In the 1820s Bishop Joseph Benedict Fenwick enlarged the chapel, and in 1868 St. Augustine's Parish was established with plans for a new church under the leadership of Reverend Denis O'Callaghan. 

A majority of Irish buried in the cemetery came from Cork, Tipperary and Kilkenny, followed by Donegal, Longford, Waterford and Wexford, according to a survey by George F. Dwyer cited in Irish Boston.

In 1987, the U.S. Department of the Interior official placed Saint Augustine's Chapel and Cemetery in the National Register of Historic Places.  

The Chapel, now in the care of the Gate of Heaven and St. Brigid Parish Collaborative, is still a very active worship site celebrating funerals, baptisms, weddings and a weekly Saturday vigil Mass. The chapel and cemetery remain as reminders of the pioneers of the church in the early part of the 19th century.

Saint Augustine's is part of Boston's Irish Heritage Trail, which includes 20 sites in Boston and an additional 20 sites in the city's neighborhoods. 

Monday, March 9, 2020

South Boston's St. Patrick's Day Parade is Cancelled in 2020

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh issued the following statement today regarding this year's St. Patrick's Day parade in South Boston, scheduled to take place on Sunday, March 15, 2020:

"In collaboration with Congressman Lynch, Councilors Flaherty and Flynn, Senator Collins, Representative Biele, and David Falvey from the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council, the St. Patrick's Day Parade is being cancelled. This decision is being made out of an abundance of caution to ensure that we are doing what is needed to keep the residents of Boston safe and healthy.

"While the risk in Boston remains low, this situation is changing very quickly and we are closely monitoring any local cases. Our top priority is preventing any new cases, to the best of our ability, and we are paying close attention to guidance from public health officials. We encourage all residents to follow preventive measures to avoid illness, such as washing hands and staying home if you are feeling sick, and we will continue to make public any information as this situation develops in Boston." 

For more information on these preventative measures, please visit the City of Boston coronavirus website.The Boston Irish Tourism Association has a schedule of St. Patrick's Day parades in the New England region.  

Please check back on this blog for updated information about the other parades scheduled to take place through the end of the month.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

The Irish Role in the Boston Massacre

March 5, 2020 Ceremony at the Boston Massacre Grave Site

March 5, 2020, Boston marks the 250th anniversary of the Boston Massacre, a transformative event in history that launched the road to revolution in the American colonies.

The Massacre took place on a wintry Monday night on March 5, 1770, when British troops fired into a crowd of angry Bostonians, killing five men.  

The Boston Gazette summed up the mood of the colonies when it wrote on March 12, “The town of Boston affords a recent and melancholy demonstration of the destructive consequences of quartering troops among citizens in a time of peace, under pretense of supporting the law, and aiding civil authority.”

The Soldiers

The Twenty-ninth Regiment on guard that night was actually a battalion of Irishmen who had been conscripted by the British to fight in the colonies.  The regiment was described this way: “the average man was over 30, medium tall, and Irish.”

Describing the atmosphere that led to the skirmish, the Boston Gazette wrote, “On the evening of Monday, March 5, several soldiers of the 29th regiment were seen parading the streets with their drawn cutlasses and bayonets, abusing and wounding numbers of the inhabitants.”

The 29th was led by Captain Thomas Preston, and included men named Hartigan, McCauley, Kilroy, Warren, Carroll and Montgomery.   It was Preston who ordered his men to present arms to keep the crowd at bay, but the taunting continued until someone panicked and shot into the crowd.  Years later, it was revealed that the person who yelled out the fatal call to fire was Hugh Montgomery.

The Victims

One of the five Bostonians shot and killed was Irishman Patrick Carr.  Described by the Boston Gazette as a leather-breeches-maker, Carr worked as an apprentice for Irishman John Field on Queen Street, just a few blocks from the confrontation.   He and fellow Irishman Charles Connor heard the shouts and moved toward the scene, according to Connor’s testimony. 

The shots rang out just as the two men arrived on the scene, and Carr became the last man to be shot.  He lingered for several days before dying of his wounds.  

Dr. John Jeffries, a surgeon who took care of Carr in his final days, later testified that “Carr was a native of Ireland, that he had frequently seen mobs, and soldiers called upon to quell them. Whenever he mentioned that, he always called himself a fool, that he might have known better, that he had seen soldiers often fire on the people in Ireland but had never seen them bear half so much before they fired in his life.”  

Carr’s testimony was used by the defense team to help exonerate the soldiers.

The Trial

John Adams, who later became the second U.S. president, was pursuaded to defend the soldiers by James Forrest, an Irishman who was a local British loyalist.  

"I was sitting in my office, near the steps of the Town house stairs. Mr. Forrest came in who was then called the Irish infant.  I had some acquaintance with him.  With tears streaming from his eyes he said, 'I am come with a very solemn message from a very unfortunate man, Captain Preston, in prison. He wishes for council and can get none.’"

After a discussion, Forrest offered Adams 'a single guineas as a retaining fee’ which Adams accepted.

As the trial of Preston and his men loomed, an anti-Catholic dimension   emerged.  The Boston Gazette revealed that many of the soldiers were Irish Catholics, while the Providence Gazette suggested that Pope's Day, a virulent anti-Catholic event, should take place on the anniversary of the Boston Massacre so as to include Preston and the others in the effigy burning.

During the nine month trial, Adams himself described the Boston mob as "a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and mulattoes, Irish teaques and outlandish jack tars."

In total, nine  British soldiers were charged during the Boston Massacre trial. Captain Preston and six of his men were acquitted, while two others - Kilroy and Montgomery - were found guilty of manslaughter.  But they invoked a medieval English plea for mercy by reciting Psalm 51, and had their execution commuted.  Instead, they were branded with an M for murder on their thumbs and released back to their regiment.

The Engraving

After the event took place, the famous engraving of the Boston Massacre by Paul Revere was quickly printed and distributed widely in the colonies, helping to fan the flames of rebellion. Revere, famous for the midnight ride to Lexington and Concord in 1775, was a gifted engraver, but he didn’t do the actual drawing.  Instead, he used the work of a 21 year old fledgling artist named Henry Pelham, who was the half-brother of artist John Singleton Copley.  Their mother, Mary Singleton Copley, had emigrated to Boston from County Clare in Ireland in 1736.  Pelham was furious when he learned that his friend Revere had used his illustration without Pelham's permission.

Pelham eventually moved back to Clare, where his mother was born, and worked as a surveyor and land agent.  In 1806, he accidently drowned in the Kenmare River when his boat overturned.

The Monument

In the 1880s an effort to build a Boston Massacre Memorial to honor the victims was led by Irish immigrants John Boyle O'Reilly, Mayor Hugh O'Brien, Patrick Collins and other Bostonians.  They got some resistance from certain Bostonians who considered the five victims rabble-rousers.  

The memorial was built and unveiled in November 1888.  O'Reilly was called upon to write and recite a poem for the occasion.  He entitled it Crispus Attucks, a reference to the Black man who was the first man shot during the Boston Massacre.   

Commemorative Events

Revolution 250, a local organization preparing to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the nation's founding in 2026, is promoting a number of events to commemorate the Boston Massacre this year, according to Suffolk University history professor and author Robert J. Allison.

“The Boston Massacre is the first event on the path to Revolution.  Over the next six years, Revolution 250 is planning more commemorations of the Revolution, to inspire the next generation of scholars and citizens.  It is, as Benjamin Franklin reminded us, a republic, if we can keep it,” Allison says.