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Boston and the Irish, on the Anniversary of the Ursuline Convent Riots

On August 11 and 12, 1834, a riot fueled by anti-Catholic fervor resulted in the burning of an Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in what is now Somerville. In this excerpt from A City So Grand: The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston 1850-1900, Stephen Puleo examines the height of Irish immigration to the city in the years following the riot, and the deeply anti-Catholic and anti-Irish discrimination the new arrivals faced.

The Know-Nothing Party flag.

When Charles Dickens visited Boston in 1842, he might have had the Irish in mind when he told guests at a dinner in his honor: "Virtue shows quite as well in rags and patches as she does in fine linen . . . she goes barefoot as well as shod . . . she dwells rather oftener in alleys and by-ways than she does in courts and palaces." He urged Bostonians to "lay [your] hands upon some of these rejected ones whom the world has too long forgotten" and to understand that "these creatures have the same elements and capacities of goodness as yourselves."

But Dickens's message went unheeded during the height of Irish immigration to Boston.

Thousands of Boston Irish, who had witnessed such devastation in their own country—who saw it transformed from a nation of bucolic splendor to a blight-infested isle of death—arrived in their adopted city to find not succor but prejudice, not welcome but suspicion and contempt. Boston's closed Yankee society, its deep anti-Catholicism, its intellectualism—all of these were completely foreign to, and conspired against, the bedraggled Irish who stepped weakly off the coffin ships and sought refuge among her narrow streets. Beginning in earnest with the ransacking and torching destruction of the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown in 1834, the Athens of America, one of the most progressive and educated locales in the New World (or the Old World, for that matter), rejected the Irish with an unprecedented, unrelenting, white-hot vitriol that rocked the newcomers and left them dispirited and disillusioned.

But not broken.

book cover for A City So Grand Boston's Irish had survived the destruction wrought by the famine, they had survived the deadly Atlantic passage, and they would survive—and eventually thrive—in Boston by virtue of their resilience, faith, family bonds, and perseverance that kept them alive during the darkest of times. They battled poverty, illness, ridicule, humiliation, hatred, and religious and ethnic discrimination in Boston. When seeking jobs, the men read the "Positively No Irish Need Apply" signs at warehouses, workshops, hotels, factory gates, fishing boats, and restaurants; women saw the same restriction in the classified ads seeking domestic help to care for children. A typical example: "WANTED—A good, reliable woman to take the care of a boy two years old, in a small family in Brookline. Good wages and permanent situation given. No washing or ironing will be required, but good recommendations as to character and capacity demanded. Positively no Irish need apply."

Still, desperation begets determination and the Irish took any work they could find: cleaning stables, unloading ships, digging trenches, laying foundations; eventually traveling to Lynn to work in the shoe factories, to Lowell and Lawrence to operate looms in the textile mills and build the dams that powered the factories, or to the western part of the state to man the farms. Some went to New York to dig canals and Pennsylvania to mine coal, but the vast majority remained in Boston and Massachusetts and built the roads and laid the track for the network of railroads that the city celebrated at the 1851 Railroad Jubilee. It was dangerous and exhausting work; many Irish were killed in accidents, crushed by falling embankments that had not been properly braced, buried under cave-ins, or maimed or killed by powder blasts. Historian Carl Wittke recounted the popular saying that there was "an Irishman buried under every tie" along railroad lines. Later, it was mainly the Irish who laid the ties and track that formed Boston's horse-railroad system.

And between 1846 and 1848, it was nearly three thousand Irish laborers who dug the trenches and built the fifteen-mile-long aqueduct that brought Boston its first municipal supply of fresh water, from Long Pond (later renamed Lake Cochituate) in Natick and Framingham. The aqueduct ran to a hilltop reservoir in neighboring Brookline, which held up to 100 million gallons of water, enough to supply the city for two weeks if lake service were ever interrupted. From there, the reservoir fed two smaller reservoirs, and then more than sixty miles of cast-iron pipes that workers, mostly Irish, had laid beneath every inhabited street, according to environmental historian Michael Rawson. Boston became one of the first cities with a municipal freshwater supply—there would be no more need to exclusively draw water from wells or collect rainwater in tanks or cans—and Irish laborers provided the sinew to make it possible. When nearly three hundred thousand people from across the state gathered for a Boston parade in October 1848 to celebrate the achievement, thousands of Irish were in attendance. When a demonstration was held on Boston Common and a column of water "burst forth from the fountain to a height of some seventy-five feet," thousands of Irishmen were among those cheering. The municipal water project had provided the first, steady, long-term income to Irish immigrants who arrived after 1845.

Irish women persevered outside of the home, too, in the mills and the garment industry, and, despite the entrenched bigotry of the larger community, eventually as domestics for wealthy families on Beacon Hill, cooking, maintaining homes, and yes, caring for children.

Slowly, steadily, the Irish made economic progress in Boston. Barney McGinniskin's appointment in 1851 was symbolic of those strides, but progress was not entirely linear; there were setbacks. When the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party took control of the Massachusetts state government in 1854, McGinniskin was fired, and Boston was again without an Irish police officer. But he had paved the way. The continued upward mobility of the Irish, coupled with their bravery on behalf of the Union during the Civil War—more than 10,000 Boston Irish were part of the 144,000 Irish who fought for the North—did finally change things in Boston. By 1871, there were forty-five Irish police officers; by the end of that decade, there were one hundred.

In other ways, too, the Irish were changing Boston. In September of 1867, just two years after the Civil War came to an end, a crowd estimated at between twenty thousand and twenty-five thousand gathered at a building site in Boston's South End to watch Bishop John Joseph Williams lay the cornerstone for a massive new cathedral at the corner of Washington and Malden streets. Williams went first to the place where the church's main altar would be, "sprinkling the ground with holy water and praying over the spot," historian James O'Toole wrote. "It took imagination to see the huge building that would rise on the spot, but Williams had that vision and asked others to see it too." John Francis Maguire wrote in 1868: "The vastness of its dimensions typifies the progress of Catholicity in Massachusetts." It was remarkable that such a structure could rise in Boston, "the stronghold of the Puritan . . . Boston, whose leading citizens, had they met a Catholic in the street, they would have crossed to the other side, such was their horror of, or such their aversion to, one of that detested creed."

When it opened eight years later, the massive Cathedral of the Holy Cross, with its great tower rising three hundred feet, was a testament to the changing religious face of Boston—the rise of Catholicism that had occurred primarily because of the influx and influence of the Irish.


For the remainder of the nineteenth century, the Irish reshaped Boston. By 1880, more than seventy thousand Irish lived in the city, accounting for a full 20 percent of Boston's population. In 1882 Patrick Collins was the first Irish-born person elected to Congress from Boston; and the first Irish-born mayor of Boston, Hugh O'Brien, took the oath of office on January 5, 1885 (Collins would succeed him as mayor in 1902, winning election by the largest majority in the city's history). What Barney McGinniskin had begun in 1851 finally paid dividends for the Irish thirty years afterward.

By the mid-1880s, a clear argument could be made that Boston's conversion was irreversible, if not complete: it was becoming both an Irish and a Catholic city.