North End History: The Irish Influx

North End History by Guild Nichols


The Irish have been part of Boston – in small numbers to be sure – from the very outset of the American Revolution. Patrick Carr of Ireland was one of the five men shot by British soldiers on the evening of March 5, 1770 in what has come to be known as the Boston Massacre. And General George Washington even used the password “St. Patrick” as a secret code for his Colonial troops on Evacuation Day, March 17, 1776, when the British Militia “evacuated” Boston.

Yet, the fact remains that over the 40-year period, from 1815 to 1855, over 1 million Irish emigrated to America. Boston was a major destination, the North End neighborhood its poor haven.

In an almost arithmetic progression: 2000 Irish were living in Boston in 1820, 5000 in 1825, 7000 in 1830, and between 1846 and 1855, 37,000 more Irish had fled Ireland for Boston. In 1847 alone 13,235 Irish emigrated to Boston. This was the year known as “Black 47” and was the most deadly year of Ireland’s Great Potato Famine or, as it was called in Gaelic, An Górta Mor or “The Great Hunger.”

Arriving in Boston, many Irish immigrants initially settled in the North End and along its waterfront – impoverished and in despair. Disease became so endemic to the overcrowded neighborhood that by 1845 the neighborhood suffered a communicable disease rate twice that of the rest of Boston. “Children in the Irish district [North End],” wrote Bostonian Lemuel Shattuck, “seemed literally born to die.”

By 1850, the Irish comprised over half of the North End population of 23,000 and five years later 14,000 of the 26,000 North Enders were Irish born. Families were packed together in one-room decrepit apartments and run-down boarding houses – all in a neighborhood comprising less than 70 acres traditionally used for housing (the remaining 30 acres comprised waterfront warehouses and wharves).

Moreover, as Thomas H. O’Connor has written: “Native Bostonians might have been willing to send money and food to aid the starving Irish as long as they remained in Ireland, but they certainly didn’t want them coming to America.” Thus began the long saga of incessant suffering and discrimination.

Unlike the subsequent waves of immigrants that followed over the next half-century – the Portuguese, European Jews and the Italians – the Irish had neither the resources nor the competitive skills to adjust easily. Employment opportunities were limited and anti-Irish job discrimination was rampant: “No Irish Need Apply” signs seemed to be everywhere. The Irish were forced to take only the lowliest, most menial jobs – as domestics, laborers and unskilled factory workers. And most of these jobs were outside the North End. Much of the work force employed for Boston’s land reclamation projects, such as the filling in of the City’s Back Bay, were Irish laborers from the North End. They also helped build Boston’s transit system and the bridges and highways to the suburbs.

It was the American Civil War (1861-65) that provided an opportunity for the Irish to demonstrate their national loyalty and in so doing help Boston’s Brahmins to temper their “Nativist” sentiments. Over 10,000 Irishmen from Massachusetts served in the seven Irish regiments, including Col. Thomas Cass’s “Fighting Ninth” 9th regiment that distinguished itself at the Battle of Malvern Hill.

What is perhaps most telling, however, is how the sheer number of Irish immigrants to Boston came to re-shape electoral politics in the city and hence, over time, the socio-economic conditions of Irish men and women at the dawn of the 20th century. By 1880, more than 70,000 Irish lived in Boston. A decade later, Boston had become the only city in the United States (with populations in excess of 200,000) where the Irish represented more than half of the foreign-born population.

Efforts redoubled to organize these newly-arrived Irish voters as a new and potent force for political change.

In 1882, Patrick Collins became the first Irish-born Congressman from Boston. Two years later Hugh O’Brien was elected the City’s first Irish Catholic Mayor. He was succeeded in turn by Collins in 1902. And, John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, who lived on Moon Street in the North End, became the first American-born Irish Mayor in United States history in 1906. He was also the first Boston mayor without a beard or mustache. His daughter, Rose, who later married Joseph P. Kennedy, was born in 1890 at 4 Garden Court just off North Square.

With the election of David Ignatius Walsh as the first Irish Catholic Governor of Massachusetts in 1914 and James Michael Curley’s mayoral victory in the same year, there began a succession of Irish-American mayors that would span the next three decades to 1993, when Thomas M. Menino would become Boston’s first Italian-American mayor.

Yet despite these political developments, the North End remained relatively isolated and certainly impoverished. The Irish immigrant population that had peaked in the late 1870s began a swift decline as European Jews and Italians moved in. By the turn of the century, the Irish population had dwindled to less than 3,000 (from a high of over 14,000 just two decades earlier). South Boston replaced both the North End as the area of the majority of Irish settlement.