Saturday, January 26, 2008

"The city where a century ago he came unwanted, he has made his own..."

If any city in the United States could be described as a place with strong Irish heritage today, it would be Boston. But that wasn't always the case. The city provided perhaps the most unpleasant welcome of any American city to the poverty-stricken Irish of the 19th-century. Yet today Boston is known equally for its Irish heritage as for its Puritan and Patriot origins.

After at least a century of discrimination and sometimes actual physical endangerment, the Irish finally found a place of acceptance in the city, and today it would hardly seem imaginable to have Boston without the Irish.

Of all the immigrant groups who made their home in Boston during the 19th-century, the Irish held the most strongly to their identity and culture. This was probably as much because of their mistreatment by other residents of the city as because of their strong traditional ways and beliefs.

As Oscar Handlin explains in his classic 1941 book, Boston's Immigrants, 1790-1880: A Study in Acculturation:

"Every phase of the experience in America [of the Irish who settled in Boston] heightened the disparity between their heritage and that of their neighbors. The physical barriers segregating them from the dominant cultural currents of the day disappeared in the New World; but the spiritual ones crossed the Atlantic in the hold of every immigrant ship. Reaffirmed and strengthened by the difficulties of the new environment, these restraints ruled Irish thoughts as vigorously in Boston as in Cork."

The Irish in Boston were different from other Boston residents. In a predominantly Protestant city, they were Catholic. In a world of intellectuals, well-to-do citizens and a thriving middle-class, they were dirt poor. Even as compared to other immigrant groups in the city (of which they were the largest) the Irish were at the bottom of the ladder economically.

As Kerby Miller writes in his Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America,

"Because of their alien religion and peasant habits, all seemingly repugnant to native institutions and bourgeois ideals, Irish Catholics provided easily identifiable targets for middle-class reformers and beleaguered Protestant workers who joined ranks in a second Great Awakening to purge the United States of everything sinful and foreign."

Miller goes on,

"The sacking of the Charlestown (Boston) convent in 1834 and the great Kensington riots of 1844 - both incidents ranging native and Irish Protestants
against Irish 'papists' - were only the most blatant examples of the religious and ethnic animosities permeating Jacksonian America."

Boston was not a safe place for the Irish in the early 19th-century and conditions did not improve significantly until many years later.

In her book Separatism and Subculture: Boston Catholicism, 1900-1920 Paula Kane quotes Katherine Conway, a new resident who had just moved to Boston in 1880. Katherine observed,

"To a young journalist coming to the capital of New England from Western New York, it was like coming to another world... The whole aspect and outlook were radically different. There was a line of cleavage in Boston that she had not encountered before in the few cities in which she had dwelt. It was a frankly racial and religious line - a little more religious than racial."

Back in 1847, Boston had sent aid to the Irish during their time of need. According to Jim Vrabel's When in Boston: A Time Line & Almanac, on February 18, 1847 an Irish Famine Relief Committee was organized at Faneuil Hall. The committee, which included prominent Catholics and Protestants, responded to Bishop John Fitzpatrick's plea to aid the Irish in "famine and despair". They eventually sent four provision-loaded ships to Ireland.

Sending aid across the ocean was one thing. Receiving the impoverished Irish as immigrants into their own city was another thing altogether for Bostonians. The mid-19th century saw the swelling of the city with waves of immigrants, most of them Irish. What was a strongly Protestant city with a proud connection to their English roots, became the new home of thousands of Irish Catholics looking for escape from famine and mistreatment by English overlords.

As Miller describes in Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America,
"Unskilled workers and servants, especially, encountered the ubiquitous 'No Irish Need Apply' notices when they searched for jobs in Boston, New York, and other major cities... Even well-educated, middle-class Irish Catholics experienced religious barriers to success and respect: 'Although in this country all religions enjoy perfect equality before the law, in society it is far otherwise,' lamented the Young Ireland exile John Blake Dillon."
By 1880, according to When in Boston: A Time Line & Almanac, the city was the fifth largest in the United States and its population had grown to 362,839. This number included 114,796 foreign-born Boston residents, 64,793 from Ireland. The Irish were clearly in Boston to stay.

The year 1885 saw Boston's first Irish mayor: Hugh O'Brien.

Just a little over two decades later, in 1907, the city received a new Catholic archbishop, William Henry O'Connell. He would be elevated to Cardinal (Boston's first) in 1911. According to Paula Kane's book he established a "triumphalist, separatist Catholic subculture...sacred but equal, separate but integrated."

The city's Irish Catholics had received a spokesman, pleading on their behalf before God as well as the residents of Boston.

In 1908 the Boston archdiocese celebrated its centennial. What had begun as two priests and 2,000 parishioners had grown to 1,500 priests and over 1.5 million people. Archbishop O'Connell delivered the centenary sermon at Holy Cross Cathedral declaring:
"The Puritan has passed, the Catholic remains. The city where a century ago, he came unwanted, he has made his own...It is time for Catholic manhood to stand erect, square its shoulders, look the world in the eye and say, 'I am a Roman Catholic citizen; what about it?"
This story has a happy ending for the Irish. Modern Boston wouldn't seem itself without the Boston Irish Heritage Trail, numerous St. Patrick's Day celebrations, the Boston Celtics, even a library honoring a hometown Irish Catholic boy who became President of the United States.

Generations later, peoples who struggled to coexist live side by side and intermarry happily. And descendants of those struggling Irish, like myself, are amazed at what a difference one-hundred years can make.

Boston image thanks to National Geographic Urban Drives Photo Gallery.

Image of Mayor Hugh of O'Brien by John Angel James Wilcox can be found on the website of the Boston Public Library's Digital Image Gallery.

Image of William Cardinal O'Connell courtesy of American Catholic University of America.

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