George Washington famously acknowledge the Boston Irish on March 17, 1776, when he ordered new code words to pass through Continental Army lines. The password, “Boston,” was to be answered with “St. Patrick.” Then, of course, the army trained cannons from Dorchester Heights onto the occupying British, and they left in a hurry.
Boston has had an Irish population since the first four shiploads from Ulster arrived in 1718. But it wasn’t until the potato crop began to fail in 1845 that the huge influx of Irish immigrants sailed into Boston Harbor.
It wasn’t just the potato famine that brought the Irish to Massachusetts rather than, say, Virginia or Maine. Hunger and poverty pushed the Irish out of Ireland, but the promise of work pulled them to Boston.
In the new Atlas of Boston History, Robert J. Allison explains that Irish immigrants came for jobs. Jobs in the Merrimack River Valley, the most industrial region in the Western Hemisphere. Jobs in Lowell, the biggest industrial city in the United States. And jobs in Boston, a manufacturing powerhouse that led the nation in distilling and refining.
The Atlas of Boston History isn’t just about the Boston Irish. Edited by historian Nancy Seasholes, it traces the history of Boston from the Ice Age to the present. It includes 57 full-color maps, along with illustrations, graph and text.
Here are seven more facts about the Boston Irish borrowed liberally from the Atlas of Boston History.
1. County Cork
Some Irish immigrants walked a hundred miles to reach Queenstown (now Cobh), their port of departure. Most came from the southwestern counties of Galway, Kerry, Clare and especially Cork. Many arrived so sick and destitute that people said they came in famine ships.
In 1849, a ship from overseas brought cholera to Boston. Crowded, unsanitary housing caused an epidemic of the disease, from which the Irish suffered the most. Of the 611 people who died of cholera, 500 came from Ireland.
The city physician investigated the living conditions, and included his findings in the Report of the Committee of Internal Health on the Asiatic Cholera. He was especially horrified by the Fort Hill neighborhood (now the Financial District), which had the densest Irish population. He called it a “perfect hive of human beings, without comforts and mostly without common necessaries; In many cases, huddled together like brutes… sometimes wife and husband, brothers and sisters, in the same bed.”
Some dwellings had 100 people living in them with one sink and one toilet. Half Moon Place was the worst, walled in by tall buildings, Fort Hill and 14 overflowing privies. Boston had 586 cellars used as dwellings; they had neither light nor ventilation and as many as 15 people living in them. The average age of Irish life in Boston didn’t exceed 14 years, he wrote.
3. Filling In
Back Bay and the South End owe their existence to the Irish, for more than one reason. So many Irish flooded into the city that Boston’s political leaders grew concerned that their taxpaying Yankee political supporters would move to the suburbs. So they built two attractive residential neighborhoods to keep Yankees in the city: Back Bay and the South End. Irish laborers filled in the mud flats in Back Bay so Yankee homes could be built. Irishmen also filled in South Cove (now Chinatown) and expanded the shoreline and docks in Charlestown and East Boston. They also built a new warehouse and docks along Fort Point Channel.
4. Missing Friends
Friends and relatives of Irish immigrants who arrived in Boston placed thousands of “Missing Friends” advertisements in the Boston Pilot, a national Catholic newspaper.
Newcomers to Boston did it to find family who had come over earlier. Sometimes relatives and friends in Ireland placed ads to find immigrants in America they’d lost touch with. Or sometimes they advertised to find another immigrant who moved elsewhere to find work.
The map of Ireland that showed which counties Irish immigrants came from is based on that information.
5. Fourth Place
Irish immigrants made Boston the fourth-biggest city in the country, behind New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Boston went from having a minority of foreign born residents to having a majority between 1845 and 1855. By then, 42.5 percent of the population of Boston was Irish.
Boston Irish offered a vast pool of cheap labor to Yankee businessmen, and they fueled a manufacturing boom. Irish workers churned out steam engines, industrial furnaces, pianos, organs, refined sugar, candy, iron rails and ale and spirits.
Ready-made clothing makers, centered in and near the heavily Irish North End, challenged New York City, the top garment producer in the United States. And Boston shipyards made the clipper ships and steamers that carried to market New England’s products—especially textiles and shoes. Irish dockworkers and teamsters hauled the fruits of Irish labor into warehouses and onto ships that the Irish helped build.
In 1851, Boston hired the first Irish cop in U.S. history, a quiet and respectable 42-year-old laborer named Barney McGinniskin. Boston’s Yankees objected strenuously, and held meetings (including at Faneuil Hall) to protest his appointment. One alderman complained Boston set a dangerous precedent because the ‘Irish commit most of the crime.’
McGinniskin served for three years until the political winds changed. The anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothings elected a Boston mayor and McGinniskin got fired from his job in 1854.
Images: Largest Irish flag By John Hoey from Framingham, MA, United States – World’s Largest Irish Flag (1), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47411665; all maps from The Atlas of Boston History by Nancy Seasholes. This story was updated in 2021.