Irish Heritage in Boston

Written by Brian Enright

Boston Church

Boston is the capital and the largest city of Massachusetts and is one of the nation's oldest cities. Founded in 1630, the city of Boston has deep historical roots that the city celebrates through its preservation of important landmarks across its beautiful landscape. From the charming cobblestones of Beacon Hill to modern high-rise condo towers to the legendary Fenway Park, Boston is a gold mine of all things Americana, but much of what made this city what it is today is the influence of its Irish immigrant population.

Irish Immigration

Soon after the city was founded, Irish immigrants began arriving in the city of Boston in small numbers. As skilled workers, these immigrants found work along railroads and canals, although some also worked as indentured servants. After the American Revolution, immigration all but ceased, in part due to the difficulties of crossing the Atlantic amid the Napoleonic Wars. It wasn't until the mid-1840s that Boston saw a drastic change in Irish immigration, as immigrants escaping famine flooded the city in overwhelming numbers.

  • In Ireland, crops everywhere were showing signs of disease and began decaying just days after harvest. Potatoes were a staple for most Irish families, as they were a cheap, hearty, and nutritious food source that could be grown densely across Ireland, but now, the potato crops became blighted.
  • Once this primary food source was taken away, many families felt the only chance for survival was emigration to a new place, although some were already too weak from hunger to make the journey.
  • Although earlier immigrants were viewed as skilled workers, immigrants arriving during the potato famine were generally poor farmers.

Arriving in Boston

Unlike earlier Irish immigrants in Boston, the wave of immigrants who arrived because of the failing potato crop had no money and no education. New arrivals wore outdated clothing and were harshly judged for their lack of education and low social standing. Natives associated their arrival with an increase in crime, prostitution, and alcoholism within the areas where the poor Irish resided, packed into small living quarters. This negative mentality toward the Irish continued until the beginning of the Civil War.

  • The potato famine, also known as the Great Famine or the Great Hunger, occurred between 1845 and 1849 in Ireland.
  • During this time, a mass exodus of Irish arrived in places such as Canada and America.
  • The increase in unskilled workers willing to work for low wages made it possible for Boston to become more industrial.

After the Civil War

During the Civil War, which lasted from 1861 until 1865, many Irish immigrants joined the military and were applauded for their support of the war effort, allowing the Irish to better integrate into American society. Following the Civil War, Irish laborers once more fulfilled the backbreaking roles needed to support the rapid expansion that allowed for the industrialization of America, including Boston. While the Irish played a large role in economic growth, they played an even larger role in the political climate by voicing their opinions, creating support organizations, and eventually taking on political roles, all of which allowed them to have a more active part in ensuring fair living conditions for all.

  • Irish immigrants could be found at factories, mines, docks, and railroads, making up the backbone of the age of industrialization.
  • These Irish immigrants were among the first to organize trade unions that enabled them to fight for fair wages and hours as well as safer working conditions.
  • In the early 1900s, the Irish were granted the right to vote, which allowed a large number of Irish in Boston to have a political voice, which furthered their ability to shape the city.

Boston Today

Today, the city of Boston is bustling, and everywhere you look, the city's pride in its deeply Irish heritage is proudly displayed. A trip to Boston is truly a trip through American history and culture, and the city's Irish roots are still very visible and greatly celebrated.

  • The Irish International Immigration Center, which was created as a way of representing immigrants' needs and to ensure equal opportunities for all, is still helping immigrants with a long list of services, from protection and information to community involvement and education.
  • A 16-foot stone Celtic cross now stands overlooking Boston Harbor to honor and remember the Irish immigrants who sought a better life in Boston but died upon arriving at Deer Island.

Irish Heritage Landmarks in Boston

With the city's rich Irish history, it is no surprise that the Boston area has several monuments and other landmarks to honor these roots. Whether you are curious about immigration, Irish heritage, or the city's history and national contributions, you are sure to find what you are looking for in Boston.

  • The Irish Famine Memorial, located in Cambridge Common, was dedicated to the president of Ireland on the 150th anniversary of the darkest and hardest year during the Great Famine. The monument depicts how the Great Famine separated families and includes text at the base reading, "Never again should a people starve in a world of plenty."
  • The John Boyle O'Reilly Monument honors the Irish resistance leader who emigrated to Boston after being banished from Britain.
  • Fenway Park, the home of the Boston Red Sox, is not only a famous baseball stadium but one of the best-preserved buildings constructed by contractor and Irish immigrant Charles E. Logue (1858-1919), who worked on several prestigious and well-known buildings across Boston, including churches and universities.

Additional Boston Irish Heritage Resources