When the Irish came to Boston

Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society

What’s Gaelic for “serendipity”?

“The Irish Atlantic: A Story of Famine, Migration, & Opportunity,” which runs at the Massachusetts Historical Society through Sept. 22, includes a section on John Boyle O’Reilly
(1844-1890). Poet, activist, and editor of The Pilot, later the newspaper of the archdiocese of Boston, O’Reilly was one of the city’s most esteemed citizens. A mark of that esteem is the 1896 monument to him executed by Daniel Chester French on the edge of the Fenway. It’s a brief stroll from the society’s building on Boylston Street. Think of the monument as a very impressive satellite of the exhibition.


“The Irish Atlantic,” cosponsored by the Forbes House Museum, in Milton, looks at Irish immigration and its impact on Boston. That’s a vast subject for a small show. Guest curator William M. Fowler Jr. has organized the exhibition around several nodes: Boston’s response to the famine, nativism in Massachusetts in the 1850s, the Civil War, the emergence of the Irish as a political force.

Recurring throughout are statistics and personalities (that’s where O’Reilly comes in). Some numbers remain staggering almost two centuries later. Ireland’s pre-famine population was 6 million. Within a few years, 1 million had died and another million had left the country. Not coincidentally, Boston’s Irish-born population increased nearly sixfold between 1845 and 1855.

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Among the personalities is Robert Bennet Forbes (hence the involvement of the Forbes House Museum), who captained the USS Jamestown when it sailed to Ireland in 1847 with relief supplies from Boston. It was one of two Navy ships sent to Ireland. In a strange foreshadowing of nativism, Congress wouldn’t pay for the supplies or allow Navy sailors to man the ships. Forbes, like the entire crew, was a civilian. One of the show’s most striking displays is the ship’s wheel, a mighty object of oak and teak.

The Native American Party, later renamed the American Party, and commonly known as the Know Nothings, was a response to the large number of immigrants. The party offered a slogan of “Temperance, Liberty and Protestantism.” Talk about dog whistles — this one aimed at Irish setters. Its platform would require 21 years of residence before an immigrant could become a citizen and ban naturalized citizens from elective office. In 1854, the party and its allies took all but four seats on Beacon Hill.

There were many reasons that the Know Nothings quickly faded away. One of the most important was the Civil War. Irish enlistments in the Union army — two Massachusetts regiments, the “Fighting Ninth” and the 28th Infantry, were overwhelmingly Irish — helped earn the immigrants a reputation for patriotism.


The ballot box insured Irish acceptance. In 1884, Hugh O’Brian became the first Irish-born mayor of Boston. Twenty-one years later, John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald became the first American-born Irish mayor. Slightly more than half a century later, his grandson would become the first Catholic president.

That event is beyond the show’s span. It effectively ends in 1912, with a banquet celebrating the 175th anniversary of the Charitable Irish Society, the oldest Irish society in the New World, and still active today. In a sign of how far not just the society but Irish-Americans had come, President William Howard Taft spoke at the banquet. A photograph of Taft marking the occasion is tinged green. The famously rotund chief executive looks like a walrus who’s swallowed a leprechaun.

The show includes multiple video screens, on which we hear from Fowler, historians James O’Toole and Catherine Shannon, Irish consul general Fionnuala Quinlan, former mayor Ray Flynn, and Mayor Martin Walsh, among others.

Walsh notes that 28 percent of Boston’s residents today are foreign born. That figure would horrify any surviving Know Nothings. Actually, that’s another aspect of serendipity with “The Irish Atlantic,” well beyond the proximity of the O’Reilly monument. With the current political climate, the show’s timing could hardly be better — or more unsettling. Of course maybe it’s just me. All my grandparents were Irish immigrants. If someone had built a different sort of wall back then. . .

THE IRISH ATLANTIC: A Story of Famine, Migration, & Opportunity

Massachusetts Historical Society, 1154 Boylston St., through Sept. 22. 617-536-1608,

Mark Feeney can be reached at

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