Part 2: A Brief History of Irish Americans in Boston

We’re back with more History of Irish Americans in Boston. In case you missed part one, you can read that here. The Revolutionary War had ended and while other conflicts were on the horizon, an independent nation was growing rapidly. 

The Great Irish Influx

Between 1815 and 1855 more than 1 million Irish emigrated to America. We’ve included population statistics for the Boston Metro area to put things into perspective. By 1820 close to 2,000 Irish immigrants called Boston home. In just 27 years that number would increase six fold.

history of irish americans in boston
Stats provided by

“Black 47”

uss Jamestown irish americans in boston

While the Mexican-American War raged on, across the Atlantic Ocean Ireland’s potato crops were failing due to late blight. The Irish referred to 1847 as “An Górta More” (“The Great Hunger”) because more than 1 million Irish died as a result of the nationwide famine. Ireland’s population struggled due to declining birth-rates and substantial emigration rates. 

In an effort to support their Irish comrades and repay an old debt, Massachusetts sent a ship, USS Jamestown, carrying $150,000 of food and supplies to aid the starving Irish. This act of good will would later be known as the Massachusetts Donation of 1847

Famine Ships

famine ships irish americans in boston

While the Passengers Act of 1848 was intended to manage the number of passengers and tonnage on ships, the bill was not properly enforced. In 1849, Boston experienced a massive cholera outbreak. The disease was an uninvited passenger on a ship filled with Irish immigrants. Of the 611 people who succumbed to the cholera bacteria, at least 500 were Irish. Over 100,000 immigrants died on board these “famine ships” due to overcrowding, illness, and insufficient resources. 

Searching for Friends

archives irish immigrants

Irish immigrants created missing person posters in an effort to locate friends and relatives who may have arrived in Boston earlier. Most ads were placed by siblings looking for one another and by wives seeking information on their husbands who were off building canals. These archives are still available for people interested in researching their Irish-American ancestry.

A Growing Irish Population in Boston

barney mcginniskin

While Boston’s North End is characteristically Italian today, half of the neighborhood’s population of 26,000 were Irish-born by 1850. As the Irish flourished in Boston, it made sense to employ an Irish-born police officer. On November 3, 1851 Barney McGinniskin of Galway became the first Irish-born cop in the nation. McGinniskin held the position for three years before political tides changed.

“No Irish Need Apply”

nina boston

Historian Thomas H. O’Connor wrote: “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”. Anti-Irish job discrimination was at an all-time high in Boston. Unable to obtain ‘skilled’ jobs, many Irish immigrants turned to factory work and hard labor. 

back bay land reclamation

Irish laborers worked on some of Boston’s most substantial land reclamation projects. Back Bay was filled in by the Irish. Bridges, tunnels, and highways were built by the Irish. And eventually, our beloved Fenway Park was designed by Irish hands

Stay tuned for Part 3: A Brief History of Irish Americans in Boston!