By Susan Martin
Last year, the Massachusetts Historical Society received a grant to process the records of the Charitable Irish Society of Boston. Thanks to that grant, this popular collection has now been fully arranged and described, and a guide is available online.
The Charitable Irish Society, an organization that still operates today, was founded in 1737 by a group of prominent Irish businessmen in Boston to provide charitable assistance to Irish immigrants in the city. In early years this assistance consisted largely of loans and help finding work. Today the organization also provides information about employment & housing, promotes the study of Irish history, honors the contributions of the Irish, and actively engages in political issues affecting Irish Americans. Though the papers of this organization have been used by many researchers in their partially processed state since they were first given to the MHS over 30 years ago, a more thorough processing of any collection often uncovers hidden gems. The Charitable Irish Society records were no exception.
Some of the interesting discoveries include:
1. Seven years of reports (1910-1917) by immigration agent Julia C. Hayes describing specific cases of Irish immigrants, mostly girls and women, looking for work and/or relatives in the United States. Hayes met them as they disembarked at the Boston docks. Her reports describe the immigrants’ home lives, their difficulties finding work, even some deportations. Here’s an excerpt from Nov. 1914:
While visiting the Immigration Office the agent [that is, Hayes herself] saw an old case in the detention room, a girl who had been followed up for a time about a year ago….The girl had a bad reputation at the factory where she had been employed and had succeeded in getting herself in the newspapers. She was taken from a questionable house some weeks ago and will probably be deported as a young woman of bad character.
The reports are a fascinating slice of social history. For a great description of this port assistance program and the work of Julia C. Hayes, see American Catholic Lay Groups and Transatlantic Social Reform in the Progressive Era, by Deirdre M. Moloney (2002), p. 102-109.
2. A volume of records of the Young Catholics’ Friend Society (1835-1842) containing detailed minutes and reports on the organization’s work running a Sunday School for boys and distributing clothes to the poor. The volume was originally attributed to another organization, the Roman Catholic Youth’s Society, but those records make up only the first few pages.
3. Papers related to the Irish potato famine, including a list of Wrentham, Mass. citizens who contributed money “for the relief of the Starving population of Ireland” (8 Mar. 1847) and a certificate appointing Captain Douglas William Parish Labalmondiere inspector under the Irish Poor Law (2 Mar. 1849), signed by George William Frederick, Earl of Clarendon.
4. Correspondence from many notable people, including Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, Herbert Hoover, Alfred E. Smith, Helen H. Taft, Franklin Roosevelt, and Leverett Saltonstall, who all wrote to the Charitable Irish Society between 1910 and 1939. One of the early record books also contains a copy of a long letter by Theodore Roosevelt (6 Nov. 1908) about the intersection of religion and politics. In it, Roosevelt writes:
I believe that this republic will endure for many centuries. If so, there will doubtless be among its Presidents Protestants and Catholics, and very probably at some time, Jews. I have consistently tried while President to act in relation to my fellow Americans of Catholic faith as I hope that any future President who happens to be a Catholic will act toward his fellow Americans of Protestant faith. Had I followed any other course I should have felt that I was unfit to represent the American people.
5. Some papers and printed matter related to Ireland’s struggle for independence, including a typewritten memorandum by republican leader Eamon de Valera ordering a ceasefire after the Irish Civil War of 1922-1923. The memo, dated Sep. 1923, is written on the letterhead of the Irish Republican Army and reads, in part:
Do not let sorrow overwhelm you. Your efforts and the sacrifices of your dead comrades in this forlorn hope will surely bear fruit….Seven years of intense efforts have exhausted our people….Give them a little time and you will yet see them recover and rally again to the standard. They will then quickly discover who have been selfless and who selfish—who have spoken the truth and who falsehood.