‘The Irish Experience in Boston’ Discussion

Historian, Chris Daley, presented “The Irish Experience in Boston” at the Charlestown Branch of the Boston Public Library on March 7. Daley’s interest in the topic began when he started examining his genealogy. The recently retired teacher was shocked by what he had learned about Irish struggles and achievements.

“Boston is the perfect place to talk about the Irish because they came in droves,” began Daley. “The Irish came to these shores as servants, prisoners, and as half-dead refugees. They endured ethnic and religious persecution and bigotry. They endured wretched poverty, and back-breaking menial labor; but in the end, they overcame, they surmounted, and they prevailed.”

Daley explained that many Irish arrived in American as indentured servants. Ideally, English landlords would provide funds for passage to America. In exchange, the Irish would sign themselves over to bondage for five to seven years, during which time, they would learn a trade, and move on their ways; however, that was rarely the case.

In the 1650s, over 100,000 Irish children were taken from their Catholic parents and sold as indentured servants to the West Indies, Virginia, and New England, where they were assigned to Puritan masters..

“They arrived to Boston not willingly; probably in chains,” described Daley. “A lot of times, as soon as they were placed, they ran away. Often, the Irish and Africans would help each other and run away in tandem, and hide. The Irish could blend into the population as long as he didn’t start speaking Gaelic. A lot of times, too, they’d be stopped, brought back, and mistreated.”

As punishment, the Irish would be restrained in stocks or pillories to be publically humiliated. Townspeople would taunt the captured, throwing offal from their farms and garbage at offenders.

“If you continued to disobey, you’d be whipped and dragged through the town so everybody could take a whack at you,” Daley depicted.  “Much of this punishment happened in Boston at the old Town House. It was a place for commerce and meetings. Eventually it burned down and was replaced [by the old State House].”

When rumors stirred that a Jesuit priest was holding mass in the woods and in basements, the Anti-Catholic Law of 1647 was issued by the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to prohibit the practice of Catholicism. The penalty for repeat offenders was death.

The Irish began to emerge and celebrated their first service in 1788, in a building that was abandoned by the Huguenots near the corner of School and Washington Streets, Boston. It was the first Catholic mass in all of New England.

“The first Irish migration to America was in the 1820s; and it began as a trickle. It was because, back in Ireland, which was controlled by England, laws were passed by Parliament, stripping away the rights of Irish Catholics,” said Daley. “As an Irish Catholic, you couldn’t run for office, practice your own religion, or work for the government. If you had land, you couldn’t farm it, fish on it, use it to cut timber, or even sell the grass. The one thing you could do was sell it to an Englishman. That’s what a lot of people did. They got out and they came to America.”

The population of Irish in Boston was about 2,000 in 1820; and by 1830, it had increased to an estimated 7,000, with Boston’s total population at 61,392.

An early conflict arose in 1834 at the Ursuline Convent on Mount Saint Benedict, located in what was then Charlestown, and is now Somerville. The Ursuline Convent was a private school with Puritan students, such as Rebecca Reed, who, according to the nuns, was deeply involved in her studies. Reed had shown interest in converting to Catholicism, and even became a novice. A few months after Reed had abruptly left the convent, a manuscript was released detailing accusations that students were chained and being brainwashed by nuns.

“Even though this was an unpublished manuscript, it made the rounds, and people in Charlestown started clucking. People were upset,” described Daley. “All the stories floating around were not true, but gossip continued to build.”

On August 24, 1834, a mob formed and began looting the convent, throwing pianos out the windows, and setting it ablaze. One man stole the host from the tabernacle, and by the end of the night, was waving it around a barroom.

A massive migration of Irish to America occurred during the Potato Famine, which began in 1845, when a fungus diseased the vital crop. At the time, the Irish were tenant farmers working on expansive, English farms. They grew corn and beans for export; but were not allowed to eat them. Whatever they could fit in their cottages was what they were able to keep. 

“The only thing that you could plant in the little space, and survive on was the potato. It grew deep, and you could live for a whole year on the potato. When the blight happened, it ruined the potato crop for several years, and they were bereaved of their sustenance,” exclaimed Daley.  “The Great Hunger could have totally been obverted.”

Soup kitchens and work houses were set in place; but when the conservative government took office, they adopted a laissez faire attitude, and blamed the Irish for the problem. While thousands were dying, Parliament passed a law deeming the landlords responsible for those suffering. Too weak to work, landlords evicted them, and many lived in the woods and roadside, struggling to find food. British newspaper artists depicted Irish families scrounging around the dirt, searching for morsels, and eating shoe leather and bark.

Often, landlords would pay for their tenants’ journey to America, South America, or Canada.

“The ships they were jammed aboard were aptly named, ‘coffin ships.’ They were wretched, leaky, wooden, sail ships,” Daley described. “Many of these people were sick already with typhoid, dysentery, and cholera. They had heard the streets were paved of gold and that there was opportunity in paradise; but what they found was quite unlike what they thought.”

Those who had families in America were dropped off in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston slums. In 1846, 80,000 Irish arrived in Boston and were placed in already crowded neighborhoods along the waterfront, North End, and East Boston.

“The conditions were horrendous,” exposed Daley. “They were stuffed into sheds, barns, stables, basements – wherever they could shove people in the most unsanitary conditions available. In some instances, one sink might serve a whole tenement building. These people came here diseased already, and they continued to die once they got here.”

Daley discovered that the paternal side of his family migrated to America in the 1850s. His great, great, great grandfather, Michael Daly, traveled to Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, and walked to Bangor, Maine. By the end of his life, Michael Daly owned a lumber yard. Two of his sons were bare-fisted boxers. Family lore believes that an “e” was added to “Daly” to make the surname sound more American.

What was available for the Irish to work was limited. Women could serve as maids or washer women, scrubbing the floors of the Brahmins on Beacon Hill. Men had more options, such as waiters, grocers, sweatshop factory workers, ditch diggers, and longshoremen or stevedores, carrying cargo on their backs to load onto ships.

“You could literally say the city was built on the back of Irish labor. You can thank the Irish for the progression of Boston,” said Daley. “A lot of these men worked themselves to death. A lot of them died before they were 50. One thing notable politicians in Boston had in common was their fathers died early and they had to take over and be the man of the house.”

James Michael Curley was one of those prominent Irish, Catholic politicians. At a young age, his father, a ditch digger, died from a brain aneurysm while lifting a bolder. His mother was a scrubber woman washing floors on her hands and knees. He left school in 8th grade to work as a druggist clerk.

Curley served as a councilman, mayor of Boston four times between 1914-1955, governor once, and a congressman twice. One of the first executive orders he made when he took office was to provide scrubber women with mops.

“He had a gift of oratory. He had a booming voice. Every time he ran for office, his constituents knew he was willing to stick his neck out for his people; and it got him elected over and over again. But he was crooked as they day is long, and had a violent streak,” added Daley. “They call him the first, modern politician. I think the title that he cherished the most was ‘the mayor of the poor.’”

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