Overview

The Irish have long been an important presence in Boston. They began arriving in Boston during the 18th century, mostly Presbyterians fleeing the harsh economic realities of the north of Ireland. By the early 19th century descendants of Boston’s Irish Protestants had become an important part of the fabric of the town, even managing to elect one of their own, James Sullivan, as governor of the Commonwealth.

By the end of 1846 news of the severity of the Potato Famine arrived in Boston; the old ties to Ireland—and a deep sense of charity—inspired Bostonians, led by Robert Bennet Forbes, to organize a relief mission to Ireland. Aboard the Jamestown, Forbes and others carried food to a starving Ireland.

Fleeing the famine, thousands of Irish came to Boston. In 1845 the city of Boston had a population of 114,366 people, about 8,000 of whom had been born in Ireland. In the following ten years the city’s Irish-born population soared to 46,237, constituting almost the entire increase in Boston’s population over that decade. Over the next six decades the population and geographic boundaries of Boston continued to grow; however, the Irish remained the dominant immigrant group. By 1885 Irish immigrants and their native born children totaled 154,861, more than the entire population of the city in 1845.

At first despised and discriminated against, these immigrants built a strong community centered on family, church, schools, business, charitable institutions, and political organizations. As the 20th century approached, the tide of immigration slowed, but the impact of generations of Irish had left indelible marks on Boston.

We welcome all interested in the history of the Irish in Massachusetts to visit our exhibition and encourage people who are interested in delving deeper into the story to explore the additional interviews and more in depth timeline available here.  

Upcoming Events

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The First Reconstruction: Black Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War

17May 5:30PM 2021
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It may be difficult to imagine that a consequential black electoral politics evolved in the United States before the Civil War, for as of 1860, the overwhelming majority ...

Online Event; Conversation; Racial Injustice Series

Confronting Racial Injustice: The War on Drugs in Massachusetts: The Racial Impact of the School ...

19May 6:00PM 2021
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In the 1980s, Massachusetts embraced the War on Drugs, enacting harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. It took decades to confront the reality ...

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Of Thee I Sing: The Contested History of American Patriotism

26May 5:30PM 2021
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When we talk about patriotism in America, we tend to mean one form: the version captured in shared celebrations like the national anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance. But ...

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Join us for a program this week! Here is a look at what is going on: - Tuesday, 29 January, 5:15 PM: Better Teaching through Technology, 1945-1969, with Victoria Cain, Northeastern ...

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Like so many good stories here at the Historical Society, it began with a reference question. Jeremy Belknap, hunting through his sources, asked Vice President John Adams for some help. Belknap, the ...

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